The Story Behind Beyond Charity (Oxfam India's 10 Year Journey)

The Story Behind Beyond Charity (Oxfam India's 10 Year Journey)

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  • by Savvy Soumya Misra
  • 10 Jan, 2020

Who will read a book about Oxfam? 

This was a common question that was often thrown at me by colleagues, mostly, during the two years that I worked on my book. I will admit that there were times when I did think, "Maybe they are right. Should I be even writing this book?". But then I would get busy traveling for my next assignment, capture another story, meet some new people, and see what (and if at all) Oxfam meant anything to them after so many years. 

And Thank God for my visits and the people I met.  

For the book I visited some projects that I hadn't been to in the preceding three years as a research coordinator. One of them was the refugee camps set up after the Muzaffarnagar violence in 2013. I met the survivors of the riots. Even after five years they recounted the horrid night of rioting, of escape, of nearly dying, of seeing their child die in their arms, like it had all happened yesterday.

Salma recalls that she escaped with her few month old infant wrapped in a blanket, she ran for quite sometime from the village to the refugee camp and when she got there and unwrapped her blanket, the child was gone. He had slipped out of the blanket on the way. "He would have been five this year." 

What Oxfam did here was what it normally does in an humanitarian situation — provide relief material, set up toilets, private bathing space for women and girls, tarpaulins, bedding, WASH material. But what it did in Muzaffarnagar was different. This was a communal conflict, not something that Oxfam India had responded to - this was tricky. You couldn't be seen siding with any one community. Most NGOs and INGOs stayed away; those that came, distributed and left in a couple of days. 

When Oxfam India decided to go in, it was clear in its mandate, they would respond to everyone in whatever number of camps they decide to go in. That all refugees were Muslims were another matter. So Oxfam India went in, stayed there for over three months, and provided relief along with our partner ASTITVA, which had swung into action before we went in. They used to work on gender issues earlier, a conflict situation was new for them too. But they being the local partner became the face of the response at the camps. So, in 2018 when I visited the survivors very enthusiastically spoke about how ASTITVA set up water pumps and handed them beneficiary cards. And how they listened. And how when no one was there, they came in and stood by us. 

'Stood by us'. It hit me then. In a conflict, while people need relief material, they most importantly need a human touch. Someone to listen to them. Someone to lend them a shoulder to cry. Someone to be there so they know they are cared for. And we did that. And we did that then why shouldnt this story be told. And most importantly why shouldn't the story be heard. And not heard for what Oxfam India did. But heard for what needs to be done by NGOs and INGOs who are in the position to go in and help. To stay away in a communal conflict situation is perhaps the safe thing to do, but it is not the right thing to do. 

Lives are scarred in riots. If we stand in the privilege position of going in and doing something, we shouldn't shy away from it. 

Beyond Charity evolved out of these stories. And many more. These stories needed to be heard and so this book is important. 

I had got my answer. I wasn't selling a product that I needed to keep consumer sentiments in mind. I was writing a book about people whose stories needed to be heard. 

I was going to write the book not for Oxfam India but for Salma.

The book has been authored by Savvy Soumya Misra (Oxfam India) and published by Bloomsbury India. It is available on sale online and in bookstores.

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