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'Bricifying' International NGOs is Hard Work: The Challenges Facing Oxfam India

Duncan Green's picture

I spent last week trying to understand an intriguing experiment. About five years ago, Oxfam GB’s 'white men in shorts' left India, along with 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 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 work.
  • 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?

This post was originally published on From Poverty to Power

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