A FRONT LINE INSIGHT WITH NAMRATA SARAOGI
edication, compassion, and humility are certain stand-out qualities that set the tone for our insightful tête-à-tête with UNICEF policymaker, Namrata Saraogi. Impacting real change with a steely focus on the grass-roots implementation of policies, Namrata is a force to be reckoned with. Namrata serves as the Programme Specialist at UNICEF India and is also leading efforts for the organization's COVID-19 emergency response.
We found ourselves dazzled by her quiet confidence and deep sense of purpose in the work she does, as we caught up with her on-call recently, one rainy afternoon. Read on for the outstanding, first-hand excerpts from our conversation.
You've had an impressive career record to date - World Bank, Harvard University, UNICEF. Tell us more about your journey.
"Policy-making is a product of intensive research, knowledge generation, and policy advocacy by different groups."
My first stint was in my early 20s at NITI Aayog, which was then the Planning Commission of India. This is where I first got to see high-level policymaking in a country as vast as ours and its implications on different sections of the population, particularly the marginalized.
Policy-making is a product of intensive research, knowledge generation, and policy advocacy by different groups. I wanted to be a part of this process and understand how these different elements inform policy design and implementation.
In the last 8 years, I worked with policy think tanks & research institutions where I got a solid understanding of how research & evidence is produced. I also worked in bilateral & international organizations - like the World Bank and UNICEF - where I got the opportunity to work closely with governments on designing policies & strategies across different human development areas.
Upon graduation, you chose to work at UNICEF, Patna over the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle. What drove you to take this - what some might say ‘unconventional’ - career decision?
"...vital to also have a granular understanding of how the evidence translated into action on-ground"
During my 5-year stint at the World Bank, I primarily worked at the regional & national level which gave me a bird's-eye view of policy design & strategy development. For a career in development, I considered it vital to also have a granular understanding of how the evidences translated into action on-ground . Otherwise, the 'technically best' solution that you may have devised might not even reach the intended group.
Thus, when I had to choose between the two offers, UNICEF Patna was the obvious choice. I wanted to see how the work I was doing manifested at the grass-root level in Patna, a city with high poverty & low institutional capacity. Working here has taught me a lot about how we can design policies that can actually work. It has also helped me see more meaning in the work I do.
World Bank Headquarters, Washington D.C.
How do you find purpose in your work?
"…working towards a world where when a child is asked what they want to do or be when they grow up, it's no longer just a dream for them, but a viable reality that they can work towards."
My sense of purpose comes from my personal journey. I come from Kanpur, and the only major difference that I see between myself and any other woman from Kanpur, or any town or village in India for that matter, is the access to quality education. My education has been the primary driver in my life. I find the deepest motivation in my work when I can work towards providing the same opportunities to those who may not have the socioeconomic means to be able to realize their dreams.
What drives my purpose is working towards a world where when a child is asked what they want to do or be when they grow up, it's no longer just a dream for them, but a viable reality that they can work towards.
What does your current job at UNICEF entail? How has your role evolved since the pandemic?
UNICEF Office, Patna
"Realities are changing every minute and we have had to be swift to adapt to the rising changes. We've developed strategies in under 2 days."
I oversee UNICEF's strategy design, development, and implementation. Since February, we moved into an emergency response mode when the COVID-19 crisis hit. I've been working very closely with UNICEF's response to the pandemic, and on different strategies in the areas of communication, community engagement, health, nutrition, social protection, child protection, and education.
Realities are changing every minute and we have had to be swift to adapt to the rising changes. We've developed strategies in under 2 days. The learning curve has been extremely steep. We realise that we do not have answers to a lot of the questions & issues that present themselves. And hence, our day-to-day mostly revolves around trying to find the answers and in getting things done.
In addition to the current challenges, the pandemic has also had heavy implications in all the developmental work done in the last 50 years. We might have just gone back by a great many years. So, it really requires us to relook and rethink how we can restore all the great work that has been done so far.
What does it feel like to be summoned as an expert in a moment like this, when the world wants answers that may not exist?
"I think that being called an 'expert' is a term we use to make us feel relevant in the job we do, especially in today's world."
I think that being called an 'expert' is a term we use to make us feel relevant in the job we do, especially in today's world. When it comes to being called upon to deal with such unpredictable challenges, it is more about accepting the role we play and knowing what needs to be delivered. So long as we don't internalize and start believing that we are 'experts' in all that we do , we develop an understanding that not all answers are always known.
Rather, when we stay aware that one is a cog in the wheel of progress, we can work together towards finding possible solutions, while also being humble about the possibility that one may not always be right all the time.
What is your biggest worry and your greatest hope in these times?
"It's a point in time for us to really reflect on ways to ensure that we build a better life for us all."
My greatest worry is that I do not know when this pandemic is coming to an end. We're all hanging onto the hope that at some point we would know the root-cause of the crisis and be able to fix it. Unfortunately, we're in extremely uncertain waters and the longer it goes on, the more pressure it puts on people who don't have adequate access to resources. I worry that as a country, no matter how much we've grown, we will go back a 100 years in terms of development.
To come to terms with this worry, I hold on to my greatest hope, which is the learnings that come with a major, global pandemic. I am hopeful that this crisis also teaches us to take a pause from how we've live our lives so far, and how we can align ourselves better with the planet while being cognizant of everyone else around us. It's a point in time for us to really reflect on ways to ensure that we build a better life for us all.
How have you been dealing with the crisis personally? Is there anything you would recommend or suggest to help our readers come to terms with the new normal?
"The dark tunnel of uncertainties becomes easier to navigate if we are able to contribute & be a part of the process, in whichever way possible."
Work has kept me busy; so I reflect and channel all my energy into the work that I do. I think everyone has different coping mechanisms, and people should do whatever makes them happy.
The first thing to understand is that it is okay and normal to be stressed and worried. We're dealing with a pandemic; we all are collectively dealing with a lot on every level. And although there is a new push for always being 'productive' in a WFH culture, it is equally alright to not be productive and take a pause for yourself. It's more about keeping yourself sane and doing what makes you feel lighter - meditate, do light exercises, and talk to friends and loved ones. At this time, it is pivotal that we also think about others. And ensure everyone around us feels safe.
What advice would you give younger girls who aim for careers that make a real difference to the world we live in?
"It is important to remember that your journey is your own and you are on your own unique path."
Work hard and dream big. I believe that there is zero substitute for hard work. It helps to keep your long-term vision in mind, especially when you have to make a tough choice between short-term goals.
Also, one needs to accept that change is slow and it requires a lot of patience and perseverance. Often, the environment can become hostile and things may not work out as intended. You may even feel like you are giving in a lot more than you are getting back. If you feel like you want to work in a career like development & policy, be around people who motivate and inspire you. It really helps to talk to like-minded people about your worries, your vision, and your challenges.
Neha Sane is TBD’s resident foodie, a literature lover & an advocate for inclusivity in fashion & media. Fuelling a drive to work with meaning & purpose, she is her happiest when interacting with new faces from our inspiring community.