Amitabh Behar is the Chief Executive Officer of Oxfam India. Formerly, he was Executive Director of National Foundation for India. He is well-known for his work on governance accountability, social and economic equality, and citizen participation. He chairs organisational boards of Amnesty International India, Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) and Navsarjan. He is the vice board chair of CIVICUS and also on the board of organisations like Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), Mobile Crèches, VANI, Global Fund for Community Foundation (GFCF).
We caught up with Amitabh recently to ask him about his journey with YUVA, since he first began associating with the organisation twenty years ago. Excerpts from the interview are published with permission below.
Looking back on your initial associations with YUVA, what do you feel drew you to the organisation?
I have been interacting with YUVA for the last twenty years or so. My exposure to YUVA happened at the Asia Social Forum held in Ahmedabad. Soon after that, I spent time with the YUVA team (in office and on-field) to understand the work better. I visited many bastis (informal settlements) and was fascinated by the work. YUVA’s focus on organising people on social justice issues and facilitating the formation of collectives was deeply inspirational. The people were so motivated; it was a powerful experience for me.
I had also met Minar Pimple around this time, a powerhouse in his own capacity. YUVA’s work in civil society alliance building to protest unjust practices and the attempt to impact urban spaces really appealed to me. Gradually, I came to know more about the Anubhav Shiksha Kendra (youth experiential learning programme) and was exposed to the work in Nagpur. I was interested in connecting the work on urban issues to the policy level through my own interventions at that time.
Our grassroots work has been at the core of interventions from the start and we have also engaged in advocacy efforts over the years. Going forward, how do you feel we can continue to strengthen our grassroots work while developing our position of influence?
First, I would make a strong distinction between regular grassroots work and YUVA’s grassroots work. Very often, the framework in the former is that of development and services (whether providing or facilitating access). However, in the case of YUVA it was always about people’s rights and dignity, and that is what made YUVA develop a distinct identity from the start.
Going forward, I feel YUVA needs to further strengthen grassroots-level work. In the last 20 years, given the nature of the changing world, grassroots efforts have tended to weaken whereas policy influence has maintained its hold. Over the last couple of years, I have also been globally and locally advocating that our job is to reclaim that space. When grassroots work is strengthened, the ability to do policy advocacy is much stronger.
In fact, the entire non-profit world has moved away from the primary principle that it is people’s power which enables us to do good advocacy. Now we value solid knowledge, sleek presentations, good social media presence, which we feel will help us do advocacy. I am not juxtaposing the two. It is important for us to develop a professional presence and sound means of reporting. However, we need to keep reinvesting in local groups and re-strengthen them to the best extent possible.
Your observations lead us to the next question. You have commented in the past about non-profits increasingly adopting a techno-managerial approach to change versus an integrated social transformation approach. How do you feel that YUVA can be mindful of this shift yet continue to retain its focus on inclusive social transformation?
I don’t see YUVA getting trapped in a siloed techno-managerial approach. One can display tendencies towards it, and given the shifts in the funding landscape and the way in which influence is measured these days, the former approach has been gaining hold. However, the DNA of YUVA has never been about an isolated approach to change.
Having said that, it’s good to be conscious of changing trends. Ultimately, however, as long as the process of empowerment is at the centre of conversations, the work can continue unhindered. I am anxious when non-profits say they are responsible for outcomes, because we are aids to the process. When we start designing the futures of the people that does not work. We live in a real world where politics often drives decisions. We can never decide on behalf of the people. We need to respect that, just as YUVA has done in the past. We have to constantly stand on the side of justice, investing in the process of collective empowerment. We need to always ask ourselves: what is it that will keep the people’s movement going? Else we will start making compromises and changes in our work and distort spaces we work in, and the movement will move away from core concerns.
What are some key areas you feel we should focus on as we move ahead?
In the long term, the urban space is a very important growth area in the country. It is largely dictated by market forces that are concentrated in this area, and the people’s voice is gradually getting very feeble here. Already, urban local bodies (ULBs) are constrained in their functioning and civil society organising has been lesser in urban areas in recent times. We need to keep asking ourselves, how do we maintain roles of influence, to continue challenging unjust social conditions and work towards sustainable change efforts.
Could you comment on YUVA’s leadership diversity and structure and how it has been able to steer the organisation across the decades?
The idea that YUVA has strongly demonstrated from the start is that leadership does not come from an elite location which gives one legitimacy. In fact, the organisation has systematically deconstructed this notion and ensured that leadership is with the community and the people. That has been among YUVA’s biggest strengths even though it has, at times, led to challenges. This model is one that should be celebrated. The Board also converges around this idea.
During its long history YUVA has been through ups and downs. When a charismatic founder as Minar chose to move on, there were some challenges, but it was also the resilience of this institution and the leadership culture which steered the ship.
What is your message for YUVA?
YUVA has had an amazing history of over 30 years where it has led people’s struggles, particularly in urban areas, for social justice and human rights. I think that’s the path that should be taken while moving ahead too. The organisation should not lose its core values. Yes, there’s a huge challenge in terms of shrinking democratic spaces and authoritarian regimes at play. However, I think that in future entities like YUVA need to hold on to these core values of democracy, justice, rights, and I am very confident that the alternative narrative to majoritarian politics and neoliberalism is going to come from people’s politics, particularly the politics of cities. I think YUVA is placed perfectly well to channelise these energies of the people and work with them in ensuring a democratic and just society.