An interview with Global Programme Director, Oxfam International
Franc Hindersin Cortada leads and manages Oxfam’s Programming and field teams across seven regions. He has over fifteen years of experience in the field of Long-Term Development and Humanitarian Action, in a range of countries and environments, and is committed to working with others to overcome poverty and injustice. Franc has successfully led large scale change and strategic planning to foster organisational effectiveness and program quality. Today, he is Global Program Director at Oxfam International.
On his recent visit to Pakistan, BR Research was able to sit down with him for a conversation and discuss a range of issues facing the social sector. Below are the edited excerpts:
BR Research: What brings you to Pakistan?
Franc Cortada: As the Global Program Director for Oxfam International, I am responsible for overseeing and managing Oxfam operations in 70 countries across the globe. Periodic visit of country offices is part of our regular monitoring of local chapters to see what impact Oxfam is having here and engage with the local staff to understand the challenges and struggles they are facing.
BRR: Given the recent developments, would you agree that the operating environment in Pakistan is becoming progressively difficult for NGO sector in Pakistan, and INGOs specifically?
FC: Objectively speaking, yes. We are very clear that every government has the right to regulate the international NGO sector and should put the necessary accountability mechanisms in place to this end. No NGO can be against this. Rather, as international organisations, we all feel a strong duty to be accountable to our host governments and make sure that we are accountable operationally and financially.
The struggle that the sector is facing is mainly with how the process of accountability is being handled, and I believe there is a recognition from the government as well that the process needs to improve in terms of consistency and transparency.
Having said that, out of 150 INGOs that operated in Pakistan previously, 70 have already left and the remaining are waiting to see how the process turns out. No new INGO is setting up offices here either and that is due to the shrinking boundaries of what these organisations can do and achieve. What I am seeing beyond this is that the environment is becoming more difficult in general, not just for INGOs but for civil society, media, as well as political parties. It seems as if the overall environment in Pakistan is becoming less receptive, and the ability of stakeholders to speak is shrinking.
BRR: Has Oxfam’s experience in Pakistan been similar to other INGOs that have left the country recently? Is this part of a trend where space for INGOs is becoming restrictive globally, or is Pakistan going through a peculiar time period?
FC: Globally, INGOs are being held accountable for their added-value and legitimacy, and I believe quite rightly so. As INGOs, we need to demonstrate both where our value-added and, where our legitimacy is coming from. For example, INGOs such as Oxfam challenge governments and IFIs such as World Bank to put equality on the agenda. In order to do that we need to have a demonstrable legitimacy. In our case, we have over 3,500 partners and millions of supporters across the globe. And that gives us the confidence to speak for millions worldwide.
Regarding the global trend, the Civicus annual report from last year has already talked about shrinking space for civil society in over 100 countries. Every year, we see more countries where situation is regressing w.r.t rights and ability of people to speak truth to power.
In the case of Oxfam’s experience in Pakistan, I will reserve my comment because I was not part of the process or know how the process went. I feel confident of what we do here, because we have the legitimacy and credibility. I have been to several communities as part of this visit and talked to union and district council leaders, senators, donors and various stakeholders. The response I have received going from the beneficiary to government level is that people feel we are doing a good job here and that Oxfam is having a positive impact in the country. It is seen as a respected and trusted ally, which is changing people’s lives for the better.
BRR: We have heard academic voices complain that the donor model does not deliver in Pakistan. Do you agree?
FC: When we speak of donor money, its recipients usually are contractors, not INGOs or NGOs. So, if we are talking about effectiveness of aid, then we need to look at the models of service delivery, and not INGOs.
I am always troubled by metrics placed on effectiveness of aid; here at Oxfam, we work in some of the hardest environments that no one else works in on many occasions. One can question the effectiveness of work that we do in terms of value for money spent. Maybe it is expensive to operate in certain conditions because you need security and logistics, for example; and you may only be helping a community of 3,000 people. Giving people access to food and sanitation may be expensive sometimes, and I am uncomfortable using metrics of value for money spent in all situations.
Having said that, I am not complacent. There is room for improvement in our programs both globally as well as in Pakistan. At the same time, if I compare our program today with programs 10 or 20 years ago, we have evolved since. I am proud of the things that Oxfam Pakistan is doing, at the same time; I have also noticed areas where things could improve.
BRR: What has been your impression of Oxfam Pakistan’s program? Does the local chapter have a smaller footprint due to limited scale of activities?
FC: One thing I liked very much about the Pakistani program that the emphasis placed on women empowerment. Just about everything that we do here involves asking how it is contributing to improving women’s rights and needs. I have seen the government trying to deliver for women, but there is so much more that needs to be done.
If you look at issues of gender disparity in education, sexual harassment, early marriages, and so many other domains you will notice that Oxfam is putting women at the center. This is reflected in our programs where we support women’s access to positions in public space; our work with judiciary in supporting women’s access to justice; programs on violence against women; and, empowering them economically. I find all of this very rewarding and believe it is aligned with the core philosophy of Oxfam International.
On the other extreme are activities that benefit entire communities. I was taken to Badin district of Sindh to visit an Oxfam project of building an embankment. It’s a very humble undertaking that shouldn’t have been transformative. It cost us just £10,000 to be build that small piece of infrastructure. Yet, as I interacted with the locals, I realised that embankment had transformed this small community of four thousand people by preventing seawater intrusion, resulting in reclamation of agricultural land. People who had migrated away from the community began returning as they noticed they could once again earn their livelihoods. Sometimes you don’t need to think very hard to make a difference in people’s lives.
BRR: Reducing gender disparity in Pakistan certainly has a long way to go. In this respect, we have seen mushrooming of microfinance credit programs aimed specially at women in rural communities. Is Oxfam a part of, or plans to be a part of any such initiative?
FC: Not to my knowledge. But I can tell you from my experience in other countries that this is a very powerful tool. Oxfam, in coalition with other stakeholders, has initiated several women financial empowerment programs in other regions, which were then taken to scale by the respective governments.
Microcredit programs aimed at women are often very successful in terms of recovery rate, always on the higher side of 90 percent. Often, we have seen these women migrating to regular banking sector as well.
But before we initiate any such program here, the local chapter needs to ask relevant questions. Are there any strong players already doing this, and whether we can bring any value-add compared to them? More significantly, from our experience of working on microfinance in other regions, we have noticed that there is an increased rate of household violence against women as their access to credit improves. As women become empowered economically and have control over assets, some husbands struggle to deal with it, and you unconsciously end up causing an increase in household violence.
Microfinance is definitely a very powerful development tool, and the local chapter should assess whether we have a value-add in this area compared to other actors, and whether we can create a greater difference by trading-off some other engagement in favour of microfinance. Because at the end of the day, we have limited resources. The country office is in the process of reviewing its country strategy as part of a periodic review, so you might as well see a change in this direction in coming years.
BRR: Is it part of Oxfam’s MO to focus on advocacy for legislation against domestic violence?
FC: As I said before, our work on violence against women and girls is one of the things we feel most committed to. I don’t believe there can be any real development if violence against women is still rampant in any society. In Pakistan, we work with policymakers and support government in preparing legislation and devise rules.
The country already has many laws protecting women such as Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2010. As part of our involvement in the process we have identified many gaps and inconsistencies. Thus, it is just as much about adjusting and amending existing legislation, so it becomes more easily implementable. Based on our discussions with women protection centers and district council leaders, we have also discovered that budget and resources are missing.
We are trying to work on raising awareness in changing beliefs, cultural attitudes and behaviour that contribute to domestic violence against women. Specifically, we are working on how women perceive violence against themselves so that they do not become enablers. That they should be able to ask for and should have access to justice if they are victims of harassment or violence.
BRR: You discussed Oxfam’s program aimed at discouraging early marriages. Given that legislation to this end already exists, what does the program hope to achieve?
FC: We have a specific program that deals with early marriage and have engaged provincial governments of Sindh and Punjab to this end. The program is primarily focused at creating awareness. It is not just ordinary people who need to be made aware of their legal rights and responsibilities, but also session judges and magistrates, for example, who execute these contracts. Asking for women’s proof of age, for example, is a legal requirement, and yet those in charge are not aware of this.
BRR: Based on your interactions with the representatives of the government during this visit, what is your opinion of the new government’s commitment to social sector reforms? Given that two major provinces of Punjab and Sindh are run by different parties, would you be able to comment on their respective reform agenda?
FC: From a global perspective, we know that Pakistan has a strong commitment on big issues such as SDGs. We have also seen fruitful outcomes in controversial areas such as transgender people’s bill during the previous government’s tenure. My interactions have primarily been with provincial governments, and I can tell you that I have seen quite impressive steps being taken with regards to women rights. Having said that, it is probably too early to judge the government’s performance or commitment, considering it has only been three months since the new governments took control.
But stepping back for a moment, we need to remember that this country faces national level issues. It remains the second-worst rated country in gender equality across the globe. Less than ten percent of the cases of violence against women are reported. And female literacy in rural areas is less than 46 percent. So yes, provinces need to demonstrate commitment, and have the authority and resources to effect change.
At the same time, I remain of the view that a strong commitment is needed to deal with these challenges; not just a commitment on government level but also based on commitment from private sector such as civil society and corporate sector.
BRR: What is your judgment of the commitment of the private, specifically corporate sector to social reform? In recent years, we have seen the private sector in India leading the change from the front. Would you be able to draw a regional-level comparison?
FC: There are certain similarities in two countries in terms of the structure of corporate social responsibility. I have not interacted with private sector of Pakistan enough to comment on their engagement with social sector reform, especially on a policy level. I would love to see proactive private sector engagement on agendas such as employment for women; for example, chambers of commerce taking initiatives to provide enabling spaces for women. The filmmaking and media can help us and civil societies in breaking stereotypes by making sitcoms that talk about rampant problems, because I believe they are an effective way of changing societies.