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‘Bricifying’ international NGOs is hard work: the challenges facing Oxfam India

November 5, 2012
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I spent last week trying to understand an intriguing experiment. About five years ago, Oxfam GB’s ‘white men in shorts’ left India, alongOxfam India logowith all the other Oxfam affiliates, and a new, completely Indian-run Oxfam India took over. All part of ‘Bricification’ within the Oxfam family (there’s an Oxfam Brazil in the pipeline too).

So what’s changed? After a period of reflection Oxfam India has opted for a strategy combining programming with increased levels of advocacy in areas such as smallholder agriculture & climate change, natural resource management, right to education and health, violence against women and women’s empowerment, along with a hefty dose of emergencies work and disaster risk reduction. Its two ‘emerging themes’ are urban poverty and ‘India and the World’ – for example the impact of Indian investment in Africa, or India’s role in the G20.

But it hasn’t been easy. The apparently unanswerable political logic of ‘Indianizing Oxfam’ has faced some pretty steep challenges, as I found out in a consultation with partners from Indian civil society. These come in two broad areas: political and financial.

Financially, Oxfam is struggling to crack how to fundraise from India’s rising middle class. Many Indians prefer to give via their religious affiliation, or to more old school NGO activities such as child sponsorship, which we avoid.

Politically, there is real concern that Oxfam India will take up space from other organizations, especially grassroots ones. Does its dual role of funder and activist give it undue influence? Is it importing a foreign model of advocacy (eg an individualist online campaigning

ocfam_india_annual_report_2012-1_0

model, dominated by paid activists, project cycles that abandon communities after 3 years, private sector models such as independent boards – as one activist half-joked ‘if Gandhiji had had a board, we’d probably still be waiting for independence’). Is the rise of professional NGOs leading to a ‘Gatesization’ that is alien to Indian traditions?

And what does Oxfam add, given the enormous size, experience and sophistication of Indian CSOs? International links are as often a liability as an asset in India, allowing you to be caricatured as a foreign meddler in internal affairs.

On a more mundane level, will the indianisation of INGOs distort the domestic scene via a brain drain and pressure on salary structures? Oxfam isn’t the only one doing this, by the way: other INGOs including Plan, Care and ActionAid are all trying to position themselves in India, seeking different locations on the service delivery-to-grassroots campaigning spectrum.

Now I think a pinch of salt is warranted here. Most of the large networks in the room already have their boards, most of them follow project cycles, they hire staff who do activism, maybe on lesser salaries, but hire nonetheless. And many of them are far ahead of Oxfam in doing online individual campaigning via Facebook and e petitions. Their anxiety may be less about Oxfam India somehow changing the rules than ‘we have struggled for years to become ‘professionals’ like you and now you want to muscle in and become Indian to take that space’.

It’s also worth noting that this was very much the national conversation in Delhi – at state level in Uttar Pradesh, things seemed less problematic, with Oxfam more confident of its role and partners less concerned.

What to do? I know even less about fundraising than I do about everything else, but I did wonder if we are falling into the trap of trying to import Western approaches, rather than exploring how these things work in India. Rather than sponsored walks and standing orders, why not start from where Indians are at? If they give money to temples or mosques, we could either campaign to make sure that money is well-used (code of conduct, transparency, best and worst practices, league tables and the rest), or even work with religious institutions to help improve the effectiveness of their charitable work (although that would need to be sensitively managed in a religiously polarised context like India).

On the political side, it all comes down to what Oxfam India can add to the country’s vibrant civil society sector. Several suggestions, most of them tricky:

  • Bringing in campaigns and programming expertise on ‘new issues’ such as climate change
  • I suspect we might have something to add on research for advocacy, eg in terms of communications, killer facts and the rest, or in including India in cross-country research programmes like our food volatility workIndia trailwalker
  • Given the level of hostility among Indian CSOs to working with other sectors, we could specialize in convening ‘vertical alliances’ of unusual suspects – progressive fractions of the middle class, religious institutions, private sector etc, although that might well further complicate our relationships with CSOs who ‘don’t talk to the enemy’.
  • Be a critical friend of Indian CSOs, raising issues of eg their own levels of internal representation of minorities such as tribals and dalits (again, not likely to win us many friends)
  • The India in the world area is only going to get bigger, definitely an ideal place for Oxfam to engage.

Any other suggestions?

It will be interesting to see how many of these conversations are replicated in Brazil or Mexico (where Oxfam has also gone local).

11 comments

  1. Interesting post Duncan. Just a few observations.

    It will be great if Oxfam India can raise money within India for all its advocacy work. I personally, am not a big fan of foreign funding for advocacy; however noble the cause may be. This is especially true for India which actually has a sufficiently wealthy section of the population who can (should?) be contributing. You have spoken about issues of Indians not ‘giving’ – I agree totally. However, some of that blame lies with local NGOs as well. They often do not (cannot?) speak of, with evidence, the lasting change they have brought about. Many are also not keen on raising local resources – more time needed, more accountability expected; much easier to write a proposal for foreign funds.

    ‘Vertical’ alliances happen in India but are far and few in-between. May be Oxfam India can experiment and *demonstrate* the value added?

    There was a time when Oxfam in India was at the forefront of supporting Dalit and Tribal movements. Sadly, there has been a steady movement away from these issues that Oxfam once found important.

    On the suggestion front: well as you said, India has a vibrant civil society and does not really need one more agency to add to the clutter.

    To make a difference, Oxfam India will have to take on a different role. A role that helps it disrupt the civil society structure. This would be necessarily path breaking and may be demonstrate new ways of working;

    1. being flexible
    2. innovations (genuine out-of-the-box and not incremental improvement)
    3. evidencing change

    Oxfam India has to choose what it wants to be – and work for it. It is possible you know.

  2. I hope Oxfam India does choose a radical approach. My knowledge of India is limited (based on novels and a few visits), but it seems to me that despite the country’s space programme and the number of Indian million and billionaires, they are failing to successfully tackle the appalling poverty in their country.

    Presumably the CSOs are successful in their areas, but isn’t there a need for a seismic change to tackle the persistent problems? Not being radical purely out of fear of upsetting anyone sounds like failure to me.

    As for anything any more specific – sorry, I’ve no idea, but I would love to be able to visit an India free of absolute poverty in my lifetime.

  3. To be honest, I think lots of UK donors would prefer to give to “old school NGO activities like child sponsorship” too. If Oxfam India crack how to make advocacy work appealing to donors ,they should definately share it around

  4. I believe that bringing nationals in board will be more beneficial in country like India.

    Wealthy Indians, even the poor prefer to contribute more (in cash/kind) at Religious Institutions (RI). I think RI can (should) play strong role to reduce/remove factors contributing in poverty. Working with RI might disclose some factors which still not been properly addressed in India.

  5. This issues/questions outlined here are as relevant in countries like Japan, where Oxfam and other INGOs with western origins do have affiliate presence (i.e. with HQ and fundraising activities), and in those countries in the south where we actually work in (i.e. political questions of clouding out the civil society space need to be sensitively addressed in those contexts too), as in any BRIC country.

    Perhaps some mutual learning process between those non-western offices/organisations of INGOs could help in some ways, rather than treating this as a first-time experiment?

  6. Also to add to the comments I just gave, I think that, in addition to the questions you raise of how INGOs can adapt to the local context, we should also be asking what the values added are of having an Indian or BRIC member organisations in the thinking and ways of working of the international confederation itself. If India is so different from western countries politically, socially, economically, culturally, historically and philosophically, and if we all agree, as we do, that countries like India will be increasingly more influential in the global context, then INGOs will struggle trying to stay relevant if we do not question our models of working that have been constructed through western experiences.

    I mean, we cannot pretend that all we have to do in a multi-polar world is to have our agency in the new power centres in order to represent our “global” narrative (when the “global” is often Anglosaxon/European-shaped with largely Anglophone African contexts in mind). We must be ready to redefine what the “global” actually means and how it should be shaped by whom.

    It should be a two-way process.

  7. Hi Takumo – yes it should be a two-way process but it won’t be until the financial problem that Duncan discusses is solved. While the majority of funding for development at least via NGO’s comes from an Anglosaxon / European base , it’s going to come with this bias.

  8. Having lived in India as a Dutch expat, I’ve been around. Having worked as a program manager in a local NGO in Tamil Nadu and post-that being involved in helping local and overseas volunteers to work with NGOs that indicate needing their help, has certainly added to the perspective of an indeed vibrant but also hopelessly divivided civic society along religious and political lines. Most of thet NGOs I work with, see overseas volunteers as a means of bridging the gap between what the Indian government (if at all) is willing to grant them (the procedure is indeed very tedious) and what they need to implement their projects, most of which have been funded earlier by donors who have subsequently retreated, leaving their Indian counterpart ‘lost for words’. Most of the NGOs say they want to work together with other Indian NGOs, to form federations or share themselves under a mother- or umbrella NGO, but in practise almost none walk this talk; on the contrary, there is a deeply rooted distrust in each other, not in the last place for the fear that one’s NGO ‘partner’ might simply run with the money that a donor has given to the federation. Local political, caste and religious resentment does contribute to this deep rift that seems to withold civic society to act more like a fist than separate fingers. If Oxfam has the wish to become a ‘friend’ of these organizations, let alone Indian civic society which feels more like an academic abstraction in its entirety, it must be prepared to listen carefully to the undertones of its ‘friends’ and find ways to gauge the real interest that is sometimes hidden behind cultural correctness that forbids an NGO to go against the wishes of its ‘guests’.

  9. November 11th, 2012 at 8:29 am

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    3. Skill development Fashion Designing training to the economically disadvantaged women (45 women are getting skills training and livelihood opportunities)

    4. Running an Children’s Orphanage (40 children age group – 4 to 14yrs are getting shelter, food, education)

    5. Distribution of Educational Material, Uniforms to the Economically disadvantaged poor students in the Govt. High Schools

    6. Sponsorship of School fee to the brilliant students belongs to poor families.

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    Student Intern/Volunteer

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