Girish Menon began his new role as ActionAid UK’s new Chief Executive this week, in what he describes as a 'homecoming', having worked in the development sector since 1985, including a 10-year stint at ActionAid India.
We asked Girish to share his thoughts on ActionAid’s achievements and the challenges that lie ahead.
What makes ActionAid stand out from other organisations?
What are you most excited about in the months ahead?
ActionAid has been part of the journey leading up to the Sustainable Development Goals, but now there is a real opportunity to hold governments to account, to work with communities, to work with civil society, to work across the spectrum of development actors, and that to me is the most exciting part of ActionAid’s work going forward.
In particular, I’m excited to be joining ActionAid at the launch of the Fearless campaign tackling violence against women and girls. The fact that one in three women will face violence in their lifetime is a fact that has to change. Fast. And the UN General Assembly this month is a prime opportunity to influence decision makers to help this happen.
What inspired you to become involved in the fight against poverty?
I worked as a community organiser for three years in an area that was devastated by repeated droughts which meant that people’s livelihoods were severely eroded year after year, pushing them into the depths of poverty and exploitation. My experiences there convinced me that we do have a role as NGOs and civil society to address issues of poverty - not just by applying sticking plasters but by understanding the root causes of poverty, challenging the status quo, challenging the way governments frame policies and implement them, and identifying lasting solutions to poverty and inequality.
What are the big challenges in the fight against poverty?
There are several, but climate change is increasingly a matter of huge concern in many of the countries where ActionAid works. There isn’t much of a recognition of the urgency of climate change issues or its impact on local communities and we all know that the people worst affected by climate change are the poorest, most marginalised and excluded.
It is getting more severe year on year. I have witnessed the human impact of climate change, a couple of years ago when I went to Bangladesh. I was in the Kulnar region, which had been severely affected by Cyclone Viyaru.
The story of one of the women really stuck with me. She said: “I was sleeping as usual on my bed and in the morning when I woke up I suddenly felt that there was water all around me and to my shock I realised that my house was completely flooded. My first thought was about my children and whether they had been swept away. Fortunately they were still in the house but I’d lost a lot of my possessions, all the chickens, the hens, the goats, everything had been washed away. I was fortunate that my kids were alive, that I was alive, that my husband was alive, but we lost pretty much everything.”
I asked her why she thought that their community had faced this kind of massive disaster, she was very clear, she said, “Yes, it’s down to climate change.” I asked her, did she have a message for global leaders, she told me: “Governments need to realise that climate change is something that we can do something about, but at the same time there has to be recognition that it’s people like us who are living in remote rural areas who face the worst consequences of climate change and that goes completely unrecognised.”
What are you most looking forward to in your role?
What will you bring to ActionAid UK?
What I hope to bring to ActionAid UK is a bit of the history and the perspective of the countries that we support that I’ve gained from working on the other end of the spectrum with ActionAid India for 10 years: the knowledge I gained, the experiences and the lessons that I learned and the perspective of the local people we support. In a country like the UK where we are focussed on engaging with the government, supporters and volunteers, I think having that balanced perspective is very important.
Since then, I have also worked with Plan, the Department for International Development (DfID) and WaterAid, which has been a fascinating journey in these intervening 17 years, so I hope to use my knowledge from working for other organisations and from working on the ground to see how I can really leverage the huge good will that we have in this country with the British public and with our supporters who have stayed with us for so long.
Girish is a Twitter enthusiast so to keep up to date with him and all things ActionAid, you can follow him on Twitter @GirishMenonAAUK