Ravina Khela, the incoming Chair of the ASAP Students-Birmingham Chapter, speaks to Sophia Ireland about her role as Midlands Youth & Schools Coordinator, Oxfam. Ireland shares insights on Oxfam’s approach to poverty alleviation and offers some tips for students who may want to apply for an Oxfam internship or pursue a career in development more generally.
Oxfam is well known to most people, but could you give a brief introduction of the organisation, and what makes it different from other NGOs?
The main aims and objectives are outlined in Oxfam’s Mission Statement, but it basically comes down to overcoming poverty and suffering — so, really big issues! There are a few ways we go about that, all are equally important. The first is humanitarian emergency relief. For example, in the wake of natural or manmade disasters such as earthquakes and wars or conflicts Oxfam is a leader in providing clean water. Oxfam is also often one of the first organisations on the ground to provide clean water, hygiene kits and other things you need to stay healthy. When you have a lot of people in close proximity in a camp it’s really important to have access to things like clean water to prevent disease spreading.
The second way Oxfam goes about reducing poverty is in terms of Development. We are involved with long-term programmes in which we work with communities for 5-10 years to embed practices such as work and education schemes, and try to ensure the sustainability of the work we start there. At the moment the majority — and the aim is for eventually all — of our projects to have someone from Oxfam, a representative from partner organisations and members of local government and the local community on the organising committees. This is particularly important so that when we move out the work we started has been embedded within the local government and community. When we stop delivering a project the work is then able to continue, for example livelihood projects could be continued by ensuring proper infrastructure in terms of adequate transport and government support.
The third way we work in is Campaigning, putting pressure on governments all around the world. We work with pressure groups and support people in order to have an impact in their local communities. One aspect of what we do at Oxfam is getting involved with high level research, so that what we say and what we ask for is well backed up and substantiated. A lot of our activity involved working in partnerships, for example on of our current projects involves helping women who grow onion plants to get realistic and sensible money and adequate support.
A lot of the work we do crosses over all of these three areas. In our UK based work we do a lot of policy and research, and advocacy work with the private sector and government to ensure development policies are appropriate. Our public campaigns try to make sure that the general public understand issues relating to aid, climate change, food security and other poverty related issues. These campaigns try to ensure people are taking action and really shouting about issues that matter to them and that they can speak with credibility about them.
What is your role at Oxfam?
My role really consists of ‘two hats’. My main role is as the Youth and Schools Coordinator in the Midlands. My job involves working with schools and youth organisations to develop global learning and campaigning. I work with volunteer speakers who deliver workshops, assemblies and lessons on topics spanning healthcare, climate change and food justice.
I support teachers to understand issues and how they can pass them on to their students. We use a participatory learning methodology: Learn, Think, Act. It’s about students using their own critical thinking and really developing that and getting them to engage with issues, thinking about how to take appropriate social action and how to deal with controversial issues, and ultimately acting – being an active global citizen.
My remit is to make sure that there is good strong learning that underpins the social action that young people take. The workshops we deliver meet the national curriculum so can fit into a regular school timetable and be delivered in class time.
How would you define poverty?
A lack of power, choice and agency. We can look at it as not having much money, but more than this it is also not having enough money to feed your family, or to get an education for yourself or your family, not enough money to see a doctor or enough money to ensure your home is watertight. It’s really about the lack of power to change things in your life, that’s poverty. If you are a farmer and are experiencing drought but you have poor education then there may be very few ways for you to work your way out of poverty, or a farmer whose land has been grabbed by a company, the ability to engage with a legal process.
How do you think the issue of poverty alleviation can be best addressed, on an individual level and also at the national and international level?
I have recently been involved with some really interesting work on poverty and shame, with the University of Oxford. Some of the reasons people aren’t able to move out of poverty are partly to do with shame and the sense of not being able to come forward and admit it or feel stigmatised by the community around them.
Often other people in a community will look at people in poverty and make a judgement, in the UK for example there’s this ‘chav language’ and a lot of looking down on people who are not working, who can often be labelled ‘benefit cheats’ or the deserving and undeserving poor. We need to overcome this stigmatisation and rhetoric; this is what will be so important in overcoming poverty.
I did a workshop a few years ago with some young people about youth participation in governance and their view was the young people need information in a language that is accessible to them. This is not just the case for young people – information needs to be accessible to all. To the average person if a document is in very technical language they will most likely become disengaged or not understand elements of a piece. Furthermore, this kind of information needs to be in a location that is easy to access. You really need to think about how to get information out to people, don’t just assume that everyone who may be interested in what you have to say will have Twitter or Facebook, although these are often great places to start.
It’s really about education, and developing education for all people so that there is the possibility of choice. Education really opens up opportunities and for people who are, for example, struggling with a traditional way of making a living, it can allow them to change their livelihood, or adapt their work to be able to provide for themselves and their family. Referring back to the Poverty and Shame work with the University of Oxford that I mentioned before, educating the general public is so important in reducing the ‘shame’ surrounding poverty to open up honest debate and more tolerance.
In your work, in what ways and in which areas are you able to see the crossover between academia and practical action?
Academia has a really important role to play in good quality, long term research. It gives us the ability to look at comparative studies, to undertake the deep research that is needed to understand the deep underlying causes of poverty. I studied Anthropology and am interested in how poverty alleviation programmes look at what people need in specific locales, what are the causes and how can these be overcome, and ultimately what is the impact on the people involved.
Also in terms of advocacy, academic research is essential for advising government and policy development. It can also really help when advising private sector companies on their actions, and for looking at the ways in which the impact they are having is positive and negative and how opportunities can be created for developing good practice.
We definitely need rigorous research, but a lot of academic books and reports, are often complex and not very accessible. We need to look at communicating this research to the general population. It’s about making it easy for ‘Joe Bloggs’ on the street to think that they can really learn something and engage with the theories. One way this can be achieved is to simplify the language but not the message.
What kind of voluntary experience have you had and what made you decide to work within a development organisation?
I had worked in schools and theatres as a drama and creative education practitioner and delivered community theatre projects across England and in Thailand, Sri Lanka and India before I decided to make the move into a development organisation. I spent some time researching education departments in development agencies and was successful in gaining an internship with Plan UK whilst I studied for my masters in anthropology (development and rights) in the development education department. This gave me the chance to use my existing skill set and learn more about development/global education and global youth work, the area I had decided I was most interested in. I was then successful in gaining part time work with Plan whilst I completed my MA as their youth coordinator, which gave more opportunities to develop a solid base of experience in the field. However it is important to remember that completing an internship is not a guarantee of a job at the end of your placement.
What do you think is the most important or useful thing to know about poverty alleviation as a student?
For anyone, it is such a complex and difficult area. I don’t think that alleviating poverty is really about raising GDP. Overcoming poverty is about power and freedom and the ability to have a better life.
For students I would say, think about what area you are interested in and what work you are interested in. You don’t have to be in Malawi building toilets in order to make a difference! At Oxfam, for instance, we have working for us lawyers, auditors, stock-takers, campaigners, academic researchers and policy advisors. It’s about having an efficient organisation. Think about the impact you want to have. You don’t have to live in another country to do development work. It’s about thinking about the impact of your choices and actions, for example in making the choice to buy really cheap clothes what message are we sending to the manufacturer whose workers may be in appalling conditions. You could pressure those companies to have better working conditions, for example the War on Want Campaign pressuring Adidas.
Keep an eye out for jobs, not necessarily with a mind to apply for but to give ideas for areas you may want to apply to. A great site for that is bond.org.uk, it has loads of jobs listings from a good range of organisations here and overseas. Most development organisations will advertise internship roles here, and all Oxfam internships are advertised on Oxfam’s website – there are new opportunities posted regularly so check back to find something suited to your interests.
Could you give a brief outline of the internships and volunteering opportunities available with Oxfam?
Oxfam recruits a large number of volunteers across the UK so there is lots of opportunity for people to gain more experience in the NGO sector. Applications will vary from post to post and are either based on an application form or covering later and CV. We get large amounts of applications so check carefully how you need to apply, in order to be asked to interview.
Internships are created to support specific areas of work and as such we are looking for people with interests and skills that match, for example, I primarily work with schools and young people so am looking for people with experience of working with young people and an interest in the British education system as well as understanding of development issues. When you are looking at internship adverts please do think carefully if this is an area of development that you are really interested in, ‘I just want to work for Oxfam’ is not all that we are looking for.
What advice could you give to prospective applicants?
When completing your application do answer very clearly how you meet all the competencies we are asking for, paying specific attention to the essential criteria. Within excess of 30 applications for each post you need to communicate clearly how well you fit, and how committed you are. These are generally voluntary positions but we also want to know you are reliable, enthusiastic and will stick the course of the internship. In return you’ll normally get a great development opportunity with the chance to take a lead on new ideas and projects, some form of training process, a reference for future jobs, support in your future jobs and ‘a foot in the door’.
Do: Your research – on the organisation and role. Narrow your area of development interest… programmes, campaigns, policy, fundraising, marketing… Pay close attention to the person specification and competencies required. Be adaptable and ready to try new things.
Don’t: ‘Just want to do development’ – focus. Don’t write a very brief covering letter… or an essay! Think they should be happy to have me work for free… it is a competitive process and most staff have done an internship or two themselves. We do value all interns but you have to meet expectations.
Final thoughts: If you want to have a positive impact on global issues you don’t just have to work in development. Teachers, for example, have such an important and valuable role. You can go into business or social enterprise and have an emphasis on ethical practices. You can be part of this movement to overcome poverty by being part of a local campaigning group and getting involved with raising awareness.