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Lessons From The Grassroots
Nisha Agrawal (CEO, Oxfam India) talks to Rajlakshmi Saikia Bhimwal about the nuances of demanding rights for poor people and creating opportunities to improve their lives and income levels
DR. Nisha Agrawal, CEO of Oxfam India, shares with us details about her natural instincts of encouraging economic development, particularly through ways that help reduce poverty and ensure more equitable patterns of growth across countries. Upon graduating with Economics, Dr. Agrawal undertook her Masters in Economics from Delhi School of Economics, and then her Ph.D from the USA. A lady of strong character and in-depth experience, she believes that social development is an untapped area which, if explored, could warrant people benefits for all. Although she has been trained in the field of Economics, Dr. Agrawal says that coming from a developing country like India perhaps helped her get the real taste of problems that people face, which in turn inspired her to devise solutions. In her opinion, most countries can easily be revived if the right measures are taken by the people.

Dr. Agrawal began her career as an academician at The University of Melbourne, where she carried out her research on the impact of different policies on poverty and income distribution in Australia at the time. Thereafter, in 1989 she joined The World Bank where she worked on solving poverty and social development issues for 19 years. The first ten years were spent in Washington (working for solutions in Africa and Indonesia), the next five years at Vietnam, and the last four at Cambodia.

Having lived away from her home country for so long, Dr. Agrawal was glad to return to India as the CEO of Oxfam India in 2008. This brought her the chance to work for the development of those Below Poverty Line. Oxfam functions through its partnerships with NGOs, and in India it has provided funds to around 250 NGOs which are working at the grassroots level to fight poverty and injustice. This mission is carried out by working with the poor and empowering them, so that they can demand their rights from the government. Oxfam is a rights-based organisation, that is, it works towards supporting the rights of poor people towards food, jobs and shelter. This is done by providing the right information to people regarding the various governmental services that are available to them, and to organise and empower them so that they, in turn, can demand these services from the government. Oxfam also helps these people develop links to various markets so that the poor are not exploited by the middlemen and are able to earn a better income. For example, organising a fishing community can help fishermen get better prices, by taking their catch directly to the markets. As Dr. Agrawal explains, “Oxfam’s work involves demanding the rights of poor people as well as creating opportunities for them to improve their lives and their incomes.”

Oxfam centres around the world raise funds through country citizens. These funds are then channelised into India and other developing countries for conducting progressive work. With the institution of Oxfam India in 2008, the organisation is working towards raising funds from the Indian middle class and the rich. This initiative strives to inspire middle class supporters to work towards Oxfam’s cause, by changing its attitude towards poverty.

This would make them active citizens, enabling them to fight for a more just and secular society. Dr. Agrawal adds that creating a vibrant civil society is one of the major impacts that Oxfam has made in the past. As an organisation, it does a lot of work on economic justice, that is, helping people fight for their claims in their access to land rights or other natural resources, while also providing them ways to improve their incomes through agriculture. It also works for gender justice, in order to promote equality between men and women with respect to their rights to income, health, education and power. Further, Oxfam’s work strives to ensure that the poor have access to basic services like health and education. The organisation has also ventured into work related to disaster relief and preparing people for disasters.

Oxfam is also working on urban poverty, an area that is not touched by many NGOs, despite the fact that one-third of India’s poor come under this category. It also seeks to work with youngsters to instil the concept of active citizenship by engaging them at an earlier age.

Having worked all around the world, Dr. Agrawal observes that discrimination on the basis of caste, religion and other factors happens only in India and it fragments the society into groups. Oxfam aims to work with groups like the Dalits or the tribals, to highlight equality issues. In fact, her experiences with varied groups have helped her understand how the same work needs to be tackled in different ways while dealing with different people. For example, the middle class in India is starting to become politically active and giving back to the society. Dr. Agrawal mentions how Oxfam can leverage this fact, “I cannot think of something more important than to have people from companies in various sectors, like IT and banking, to be out there marching for these causes; donating time and money.”

Reflecting on her experiences at The World Bank (where she worked mostly with governments) and now with NGOs (which work at the grassroot level), Dr. Agrawal opines that any change will come about best when there is both a caring government at the top and a vibrant civil society that is putting pressure on the government to deliver. This, she says, is true even in the corporate world where the best organisations are the ones which are empowered both at the top and the bottom.
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