David Karas
Before joining what is now called Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation, Rupa Mukerji says she 'was looking for a new challenge' and 'wanted to be a manager, but a manager with a difference.'

How this NGO strives to 'make a difference in the lives of the poorest'

Helvetas operates in 32 countries to address rural poverty, reaching some 3.6 million people last year. Its mission is personal to Rupa Mukerji, who works in the organization's Swiss hub.

A nondescript office building just a short walk from the Limmat River – which runs through the picturesque center of Zurich, Switzerland – houses the hub of Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation.

The effect of the nongovernmental organization, however, is anything but ordinary – reaching some 3.6 million around the world last year alone across projects encompassing everything from ensuring rural water supplies to promoting sound governance and peace.

“We work for the poorest,” says Rupa Mukerji, co-head of advisory services for Helvetas and a member of its management board. “We work for the most disadvantaged people.”

Founded in 1955, Helvetas is one of the largest Swiss-based international development NGOs, and a leading institution in Europe. The organization operates in 32 countries to address rural poverty, harnessing a $150 million annual budget and the efforts of some 1,500 staffers, more than 95 percent of whom are local to their projects.

It is perhaps difficult to capture the essence of Helvetas, given that its work ranges from building relatively small bridges to advising governments and global entities. But a common vein among the NGO’s efforts is its desire for a more just world – and its commitment to working toward positive, lasting change.

That mission is personal to Ms. Mukerji, who studied rural management before working with grass-roots NGOs and launching a consultancy to help international research organizations understand social and technical processes in her native India.

“I wanted to be a manager, but a manager with a difference,” she says. “I was looking for a new challenge.”

She discovered that new challenge aboard a flight, when she read about a job opening at Intercooperation. She joined that firm in 2004 as its first country director for India, and she became part of Helvetas after it merged with Intercooperation in 2011.

As a leader of Helvetas's advisory services wing, she heads a team of senior development specialists who advise clients that include the United Nations, the World Bank, governments, and private companies.

Mukerji recently sat down with the Monitor in Helvetas’s Zurich office not long after spending two weeks on a mission in Mali, which she says resulted in a project ready to launch.

“I am supporting a program in Mali where we are investing our own resources to develop a climate change plan,” she explains.

The issue of climate change has been a focal point of her career.

“Many times climate change is seen as an issue of science ... but communities are already feeling the impact,” she says. “Climate change is such a multiplier of all the inequities we deal with at the global scale.”

Her home country of India has been suffering from serious drought – something she sees as showing why her work is so critical.

“When you work at the field level, you see how hard [people] work, how difficult the conditions are. Many things they are facing are completely out of their control,” she says. “My passion lies in really addressing these global challenges, and to make life better for the people in these rural communities.”

Mukerji was appointed by the Indian government to serve as an author for the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

When Helvetas collaborates with the governments of developing societies, it uses conflict-sensitive programming and draws on the experiences of nations like Switzerland to share best practices. Concepts and practices like federalism, she says, can be useful models for other nations to follow.

“They find it very interesting to learn from the Swiss experience,” she says. “There are quite a few things that we have to contribute in governance from the Swiss experience.”

Far from being unwieldy, Mukerji says, Helvetas's expansive portfolio of development work actually strengthens each component of the NGO.

“Our working areas are quite broad because we recognize the intersectionality of development,” she says. “You cannot be very effective working only on one niche.”

Saleemul Huq, director of the Bangladesh-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development, is familiar with Helvetas’s activities in the region, which he says have “had a significant impact on the poor communities in Bangladesh where [the organization works].”

“Helvetas is a well-known international NGO operating in Bangladesh for many years,” says Dr. Huq via email, “mainly in the area of community development of poor and vulnerable communities.”

Gisela Keller, a consultant in the field of international relations, began interacting with Helvetas in 2012.

“It is like a hidden gem in the mountains of Switzerland,” she says. “There is really deep knowledge and a huge commitment to evidence, to research and development, and to real sustainability. Everybody says that, but Helvetas really means it.”

Ms. Keller was recently named managing director of Helvetas USA, a New York-based nonprofit launched last year to strengthen key relationships between the Swiss hub and American partners. She describes her role as akin to “being the bridge between Switzerland and the United States,” which involves collaborations with Mukerji.

“She is an outstanding expert in international development and a savvy management leader,” Keller says of Mukerji. “And she combines all of that with a ton of emotional intelligence and big-picture vision. You can see how people immediately open their hearts to her because they sense her passion and deep commitment for Helvetas's causes.”

For Mukerji, seeing progress result from the work of herself and others is rewarding – and serves as inspiration to do more.

“You can see the change, and that is very important for us – to make a difference in the lives of the poorest,” she says.

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