Abha Mishra (centre) undertook an impact assessment in the Balasore district in 2002, while serving as a UN Volunteer with UNDP.
Abha Mishra (centre) undertook an impact assessment in the Balasore district in 2002, while serving as a UN Volunteer with UNDP.

"Volunteering propelled my career from UN Volunteer to Head of UNDP office"

Abha Mishra joined the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in India in 1999. She was one of 10 UN Volunteers supporting the emergency response to the Super Cyclone that ravaged the state of Odisha and was based in Balasore for over one year. Fast forward to 2017: Abha returned to Odisha to head the UNDP office. She reminisces about the most enjoyable experiences of her journey from a UN Volunteer to this senior position.

A young postgraduate in Development Anthropology, I started my journey as a developmental professional with a provisional non-governmental organization in 1991, working as Coordinator for a Course on Ecology and Environment in a remote tribal district of Kandhamal in the state of Odisha, India.

Over the next 8-9 years, I worked with many provisional non-governmental organizations and international universities on issues of forestry, environment, tribes and livelihoods.

It is the dream of every development professional to work in the United Nations, not just because it is a worldwide multi-lateral government body, but because of its visions to ensure international peace and work collectively on social, economic and humanitarian issues. Also as a UN Volunteer. --Abha Mishra, Head of the UNDP office in Odisha, India

On a fateful day, 29 October 1999, the Super Cyclone devastated the state of Odisha, India, leaving more than 10,000 dead. This also coincided with the start of my volunteering journey as a United Nations Volunteer.

In the aftermath of the event, I was already volunteering with a group of non-governmental organizations who had formed the Odisha Disaster Mitigation and Management Alliance, bringing together nearly 190 state-level, district-level level and community-based organizations. I was their coordination and documentation focal point.

One fine day, the Head of the UNICEF office in Odisha announced in an inter-agency group meeting that 10 UN Volunteers would be posted by UNDP in the most affected 10 districts of the state to support the government in their relief and rehabilitation work.

I was encouraged by my seniors to apply, as they felt that this would be a learning experience. The knowledge from across the world would be imparted to UN Volunteers as disaster management was relatively a very new subject to India and particularly to Odisha.

My general feeling was that it would not only help me in my career growth, but indirectly support collective learning for the organizations they represent. I was fortunate to be chosen and posted in Balasore district and being a volunteer in this difficult time ensured that there were no boundaries to where you could contribute if you had the capability and willingness to learn.

My journey as a UN Volunteer for over one year was indeed a learning experience and one of my most enjoyable journeys. --Abha Mishra

The acceptance of young professionals with zeal and commitment led government staff members not only to teach, but also to learn from me. While government officials taught me how the government functions, they in turn learnt about disaster management and documentation skills from me.

Furthermore, local non-governmental organizations now had a person they could trust to talk about grassroots problems during the meetings. The trust-building and working together gained momentum as the coordination meetings between government and non-governmental organizations were anchored in the United Nations Volunteers programme and held regularly.

The rewards were many in my journey: the joy of being entrusted to monitor the programmes and projects of all UN agencies (distribution of relief, deworming, community-based disaster management activities etc.); the responsibility of implementing the pilot Total Sanitation Programme lead by UNICEF; imparting computer training to at least one section officer from every key department; and ensuring that all efforts were well monitored, analyzed for course correction and documented for sharing outside the district were among the key highlights.

As a UN Volunteer, I also worked to create awareness amongst the community on disaster management and supported community-based disaster management planning, training and capacity building and response activities during the floods of 2000. UN Volunteers developed skills that could be offered to governments where disaster struck and we spearheaded activities to support those most affected in different states (Assam, Bihar, Kerela) and countries (Sri Lanka).

It is no exaggeration to say that as volunteers, we added value to any endeavour in which we ever engaged. We not only gained significant experience in disaster preparedness, but also in many other relevant thematic areas where other volunteers were working.

I honed my skills in coordinating and collaborating with multiple stakeholders and dealing with difficult situations. Being a UN Volunteer gave me the opportunity for hands-on learning, while at the same time carrying out appropriate research on the effectiveness of each initiative, and integrating effective feedback from the user community, the rural poor. My assignment also helped me offer my skills and knowledge to develop analogous programmes for different hazards and thematic areas. --Abha Mishra

While serving as a UN Volunteer, I got an opportunity to work on the formulation of the Industrial Policy of Odisha by UNDP as a Junior Consultant. I was reposted as a UND- consultant, but as I was still based in the district, many local staff felt comfortable to seek my support as they were accustomed to for the disaster management activities.

As the years passed, I worked in different positions as a UNDP Programme Associate, Project/Programme Coordinator, moving out of the state of Odisha and leading UNDP’s work on disaster management in other states and from the country office. I was selected in 2017 to lead UNDP’s work in the state of Odisha.

Today, in this position I am supporting UNDP’s work in the state through technical and project management support for projects on resilience, tribal development, livelihoods and acceleration of the Sustainable Development Goals, to name a few.

Being a UN Volunteer provided me not only the grassroots level experience after a disaster, but also helped improve my understanding to advocate for appropriate policies to achieve lasting social change. --Abha Mishra

Abha Mishra (second from right), former UN Volunteer;  UNDP's Head of office in Odisha.
Abha Mishra (second from right) speaks at the Flo Dhwani event in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. A former UN Volunteer, she currently heads the office of the UN Development Programme in Odisha. ©️UNDP, 2023