Every day, on her way to school, the young Farah Karimi passed by the homes of people who had come to Tehran in hopes of finding work. Their poor living conditions angered her. “I can do something about this,” she thought. “I can make a change.” This optimism in the face of despair has guided her throughout her life. Now, as executive director of Oxfam Novib in the Netherlands, Karimi brings this same energy and optimism to the challenges she faces every day.
A discussion with Farah Karimi
We talked to Farah Karimi about her work at her office in The Hague. The conversation ranged from a discussion of her earliest awareness of the need for social justice, to making changes in large organizations, to her time as a member of parliament in the Netherlands.
Turning anger to action
Witnessing injustice first hand fueled Karimi’s work from the time she was a teenager in Iran until today. Karimi states:
“You want to do something about injustice, because if you think ok, I am angry, or I am disappointed, or people are bad and that is never going to change, then that anger and disappointment can translate itself into frustration and even into hypocrisy. But I try to translate my anger into positive action. I think, what can I do about it? What can I change?”
As executive director for Oxfam Novib in the Netherlands, Karimi travels the world, witnessing both wrongs committed against people and positive efforts for change. She recognizes similar power struggles all over the world. Describing a trip to war-torn Sudan, she describes the extreme violence of neighbor against neighbor and tribal faction against tribal faction:
“They are doing awful things to each other, but in the end it is always about the power relationship. The crisis and violence is about who has access and controls the oil revenues. That has always been the same. In Iran, when we started the revolution it was also about who was controlling the oil revenues, and who was benefiting from those resources. I see the same scenario playing out again and again in many, many places. It is always about power, wealth, and who has access to it… What makes me angry is seeing people who don’t want to share it, don’t want to serve the people, and who want to use the wealth for their own personal benefit…”
Changing an Organization
When she started her work as Executive Director at Oxfam Novib, Karimi was faced with a changing political landscape in the Netherlands. It was clear that the days of blanket funding from the Dutch government were coming to an end. Even while trying to convince government officials to protect the organization’s funding, a team at Oxfam Novib was preparing for massive cuts. Having less money didn’t mean doing less. It meant rethinking how the work was done throughout the organization. The work had changed. The civil society landscape had changed. Governments had changed. Oxfam Novib found itself in the position of redefining its own model and role in the world. “In order to make the changes, we had to understand what’s going on in the rest of the world,” Karimi tells us. She adds:
“You can’t just keep on doing the same thing that you have been doing during the last four or five decades, because the world had changed and you have to change as well. This sounds very logical. Everybody understands that, but you have to translate it into reality…”
For the large and international organization, change meant understanding that they were not a grant-making agency anymore. Karimi explains,
“We had to realize that we were an actor in change – we were part of civil society, we were not only supporting civil society.”
What does a leader do?
Research shows that the best leaders are also the best followers. What is a leader without followers, after all? What is a leader without the sensitivity to also follow? The best followers are positive and energetic and eager to make things work, as well as critical enough to know when to oppose the leader. The best leaders are similar. They know how to accept and learn from opposition. Karimi states:
“As a leader you have to be the first who stands there and articulates the direction you have to go in. You need followers, without followers you are not a leader. You have to convince them in such a way that they themselves believe in the change that you need to take. It’s not possible to get 100% agreement. It’s not going to be the same for everybody, but you need critical mass.”
Getting critical mass, Karimi explains, means having people who lead. They believe in the message. They believe in the action. As a result, they are willing to make difficult changes themselves, as well as to help others understand and accept new actions.
Learning from politics
Farah Karimi was a member of the Parliament in the Netherlands from 1998-2005. She learned there that respect for the democratic process, with all of its policies and regulations, was more important than political affiliation. Karimi states:
“As a political activist in Iran, I believed that what I was fighting for was right and everybody else was wrong. Then you come here to the Netherlands, which is really a consensus country, and that means that you have to build consensus. There is not one truth, there a many ways of achieving your goal also. You have to be pragmatic and not ‘this is my idea and it’s the only way we are going to do it.’”
When she first began her career, she wasn’t entirely familiar with all the political procedures. She tried and failed to get an item on the agenda for discussion in the Foreign Affairs Committee. After her failure to get the item on the agenda, a colleague from an opposing party helped her understand the procedures better. Karimi recalls that,
“Afterwards he came to me and said, ‘Farah, in content I don’t agree with you but you can do it another way. You can take another route and via another procedure you can bring it up. Again, I would be against it but you have that opportunity.’ And my God, I realized he is totally opposed to the content, but he appreciates the parliamentary work, the democratic process itself. So you have different ideas, clashes, talks, dialogues, and in the end you come to something. The colleague supported me even though he disagreed with me and my party. He said, ‘I am experienced. I know how the game is played, and I will also support you to play the game, to understand how it is played, but again in content we’re opposed.’”
This was not an isolated incident. Respect for procedures and democratic processes meant learning how to influence decision-making even as a minority voice. Karimi explains:
“You don’t have to hate each other. You don’t need to be enemies of each other. You can have different political ideas, but you have an arena where you can discuss them…This was very important for me when I was in the Parliament. I learned about trying to reach consensus by giving and taking. If you are in the opposition, and you don’t have power, you have …to learn how to maneuver. That’s not only by saying what you think and having everybody follow you.”
Learning to compromise
For many, compromise is a dirty word. It implies losing, giving in, and selling out. In many cases, however, the opposite is true. Compromise can be key to having influence and making lasting change. Karimi ends our conversation by lamenting the lack of compromise in many communities and among many activists. Many people believe that “there’s only one way of doing things and that’s the confrontational way…” Without compromise, she said, results cannot be achieved. Karimi adds:
“I am not always very compromising, however. Sometimes you need confrontation. Sometimes you need a different strategy.”
This post is also available in: Persian