Where you sit determines what you see. As chief executive of the Global Fund for Children, it is best for me to sit on the ground. GFC transforms the lives and futures of some of the world’s most vulnerable children. And while doing this work, it is good to remember that the world looks different when you are small. From a child’s height, chaos and complexity can tower over you and threaten to make you invisible.
This is true everywhere but it is magnified in cities. People are pouring into urban areas, drawn by the promise of opportunity and resources. Instead of progress, many find extreme marginalisation, living in slums, with whole families doing whatever they can to generate something to sell, or something to eat, and without access to adequate education, health, water – or dignity.
Among them are 1bn children. Their view of the world can be grim, seen from atop a waste dump or from the streets where they hustle to take care of themselves.
Yet if you look closely, there are reasons for optimism. Consider the train platform school.
In Bhubaneswar, India, at a train station where children lived, worked and slept, Inderjit Khurana founded Ruchika Social Service Organisation. She recognised that a pathway had to be carved out if these children were to have a different future. Inderjit sat down on the platform at the station, chalked out the circle that would become her classroom, and began to teach. Since we first funded this programme in the 1990s, thousands of children’s lives have been transformed.
From that first investment, GFC has partnered with 500 groups. Such organisations take a small amount of capital, technical assistance and access, and make huge changes. In our experience, four things set their work apart.
First, they go to where the work is needed. The leaders at Ruchika put it this way: “If you can’t bring the child to school, bring the school to the child.” In Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, Community Sanitation and Recycling Organisation has 18 kerbside classrooms for child wastepickers, providing them with education plus nutrition, medical check-ups, vitamins and first aid.
Second, they are locally led by the right people. Knowing the local context, building community support and enabling community leadership are key to grassroots success. Schemes such as Kliptown Youth Program in the South African township of Soweto are often started by young people after their own childhood experience, growing up without what they knew they deserved: resources, education and acceptance for their talents, rather than being shunned for their poverty.
Third, necessity drives invention and innovation. When there is no reliable electricity for school or homework, we see local solutions built around solar energy. We have worked with global brands, such as sportswear manufacturer Nike and software producer Adobe, to arm vulnerable children, especially girls, with video equipment and storytelling tools to give voice to their stories.
Fourth, they are replicable and sustainable. Our work has reached 8m children. By lifting up these ideas and innovations, connecting them to others, we help their power to grow.
Within 12 years, the world’s population will hit 8bn. Many of those children will be born in cities. We owe them choices that include school rather than work, safety rather than fear. Cities are at the epicentre of huge change, in the economic and political landscape, in globalisation and in civil society. We will all rise or fall together.
Kristin R. Lindsey is chief executive of the Global Fund for Children, the FT’s chosen charity for its 2012 appeal