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Interview with Rita Bhatia

Personnel profile by Fiona O'Reilly

Rita in action - Ethiopia 1989

Most people working in the food and nutrition sector of emergencies have met, or know of, Rita Bhatia. As senior nutritionist in UNHCR HQ for the past years, Rita has been involved in most major emergencies during the 90s and either instigated or been involved in some of the most important developments in the emergency food and nutrition sector during this period. Her departure leaves a hard act to follow for her successor and friend Zarah Mirghani.

Rita completed her MSc in Nutrition in the Lady Irwin College, India, in the late seventies. Her professor, a radical thinker for the time, argued that nutrition was more about people and politics than science. His ideas left their mark on Rita who opted for community / applied nutrition rather than a more specialist scientific area of the subject. As she explained 'working with people and communities' has always been her primary professional motivation.

Rita did some teaching after qualifying but disliked 'the classroom dynamic' and moved quickly onto community nutrition and extension programmes. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) an NGO in India later employed Rita in a combined food aid & MCH programme. Rita enjoyed both working for an NGO and involvement at community level. She learned about inter-sectoral approaches to nutrition and in particular the role of primary health care systems as a vehicle for improving nutrition. She travelled extensively in India working with various communities trying to improve their nutrition situation. The nutritional situation in certain areas was appalling and even though this was her own country, Rita was shocked by some of the sights. Her first overseas experience came as a result of obtaining a scholarship to study 'Management' at Swansea University in the UK. Her MSc thesis examined the linkage between problems of malnutrition and Government of India policies. Inevitably, this proved to be quite controversial back home in India, which made things difficult for Rita when she went home to work, "I felt like a mis-fit" Rita said "amongst every thing else the bureaucracy was too much."

Rita took up with CRS again this time working in her first emergency programme. Rita's home for the next few years became the Thai / Cambodian border. CRS was providing health and nutrition support for the Cambodian Refugees. Some of the programmes Rita ran at the time were the then 'fashionable' soup kitchens and blanket feeding for all children under 3years and pregnant and lactating women. Rations consisted of rice, green beans and dried fish. "Those were the days when the Scandinavians donated fish en masse" Rita explained, "we dubbed the tinned fish 'combat fish' because it was a real fight to chew it."

Nutritionists in Ethiopia 1989, All SCF-UK

During these years Rita learned about emergency nutrition interventions. Much of this learning took place without the support of fellow nutrition professionals so that she really appreciated the few whom she did meet during the course of her work. "Nutrition then was more involved on the curative side and I learned a lot about curative health care" Rita explained. Rita's early experiences in India proved invaluable and she was responsible for initiating supplementary feeding programmes integrated into MCH activities.

Rita had to learn how to deal with the politics of food aid and came to realise that her professor back in Lady Irwin college had indeed known what he was talking about when he said that Nutrition was political.

Rita was encouraged to take up a position as Nutritionist for UNBRO (United Nations Border Relief Operation). Now in the UN system, Rita was often asked to go to Africa for UNHCR. However this was a secondment rather than a change of organisation and it meant that over the next few years Rita was toing and froing between Asia and Africa.

Working with governments was enormously challenging while establishing new programmes at the beginning of an emergency was always arduous. But the one thing that Rita never got used to was watching children dying because an intervention was too late or inadequate. This was something Rita saw frequently in Sudan where she first worked for UNHCR in 1983. In 1986 Rita took up an HCR nutritionist post in Ethiopia. The Somali refugee programme in Ethiopia posed many challenges and proved highly controversial for UNHCR At the same time Rita had never seen so many Nutritionists in the one place and thoroughly enjoyed working with, and learning from, fellow professionals.

In 1991 Rita became HQ nutritionist for HCR. She was the second person to fill this position. In her time at Geneva HQ she visited and provided technical support for many emergency programmes, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Ghana, Tanzania, Rwanda, DR, Burundi, Kosho, Iraq, West Timor, Yugoslavia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Indonesia and many other sites.

Rita has many poignant memories from a career that has already spanned over twenty years.

Rita in Bruxelles 2000

She remembers being caught in cross-fire on the Thai-Cambodian border in 1984 and being chaperoned by her refugee staff (who risked their own lives to save hers) to a safe under-ground bunker. Another frightening incident occurred in West Timor where she, along with many nationals and other aid workers were held hostage for three hours by a group of militia in one of the refugee sites. Rita also recalls moments of enormous admiration for the generosity and selfrespect of people who had suffered so much. In Kosovo, shop keepers refused to charge her for fruit and vegetables because 'she had saved their lives', while in rural areas people would give her their best food often sacrificing a meal in the process. She also recalls an elderly man giving her his hat and being told that it was an insult to refuse it. Sad memories included an 'Old Age' home in Pristina, Kosovo, where elderly Albanians and Serbs co-existed in the most miserable physical and mental conditions. Rita used to hold their hands to comfort them shedding her own tears of rage and despair over their predicament. There were of course happy moments when Rita felt that humanitarian work could make a difference. In Nepal she recalls an Oxfam adult literacy class for women where women stood up very proudly and said "Now I can write my name I don't have to use a thumbprint when I collect food. I feel very proud."

Over the years Rita has witnessed numerous developments and changes. She feels that there are now more groups networking, greater consensus on issues and more informed policies. There is also a greater emphasis on food security, which places general ration programmes more in the domain of nutritionists whereas before it was strictly seen as 'logistics'. When asked what inhibits development and progress Rita explains that in her opinion "people make or break everything, if the right person is in the position progress will be natural, conversely the wrong person will inhibit development". Most of the ineffective co-ordination that Rita has seen in the field has been because the wrong person was doing the job.

Rita has always overcome problems of interagency friction by concentrating on the technical aspects of her work. She was instrumental in the formation of the Inter Agency Group and the Emergency Nutrition Network. Rita is known by her colleagues for her ability to contribute and collaborate with others. She is diplomatic and energetic and her desire to work for people and communities continues to motivate her just as it did 25 years ago. The ENN wish Rita Bhatia the very best for the future.

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Reference this page

Fiona O’Reilly (2000). Interview with Rita Bhatia. Field Exchange 9, March 2000. p20. www.ennonline.net/fex/9/interview