Dar­ing TO DREAM BIG

Nee­lam Makhi­jani is putting her head and heart into Child­fund In­dia to make In­dia a bet­ter place for un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren

Society - - DARING DREAM BIG - | By RAHUL PAUL|

A Delhi girl at heart, Nee­lam Makhi­jani started off as a jour­nal­ist in New York writ­ing on South Asian po­lit­i­cal is­sues for eight years, only to come back and work with HelpAge Asia. “They were look­ing for a com­mu­ni­ca­tion di­rec­tor and I ap­plied as be­ing a jour­nal­ist it comes nat­u­rally to me. I didn’t get the job as I was re­turn­ing to In­dia af­ter a long time and had not worked here as a jour­nal­ist. In­stead, they of­fered me the job of fundrais­ing which was very new to me. But, I took it, as I liked the work the or­gan­i­sa­tion was do­ing,” she re­mem­bers.

Within a pe­riod of few months, Nee­lam was do­ing both the jobs—fund rais­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The bosses were happy and she was even­tu­ally pro­moted to re­gional di­rec­tor in just a year. “I loved that work, and at once knew I couldn’t work for any other sec­tor,” she as­serts. Nee­l­ima was trans­ferred to HelpAge UK in 2000 where she worked for many other or­gan­i­sa­tions for 15 years. When she re­turned in 2014, ow­ing to her mother’s ill­ness, she fell into the laps of Child­fund In­dia and that changed both their des­tinies. Child­fund In­dia is a non-govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion that works for the de­vel­op­ment of un­priv­i­leged chil­dren by im­prov­ing the en­vi­ron­ment around them in terms of ed­u­ca­tion, safety, clean­li­ness and fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity, among oth­ers. Child­fund In­dia has many flag­ship pro­grammes like Build­ing Ba­sic Skills, un­der which par­ents, com­mu­ni­ties and teach­ers par­tic­i­pate in the child’s learn­ing, and the Com­mu­nity Based Learn­ing Cen­tre (CBLC), un­der which chil­dren’s com­mu­nity mem­bers ed­u­cate and learn through train­ing pro­grammes. Now un­der the dy­namic lead­er­ship of Nee­lam, Child­fund is go­ing through its most suc­cess­ful phase and grow­ing rapidly. When asked about the change she has brought to Child­fund, she hes­i­tates to take credit and calls it a col­lec­tive ded­i­ca­tion of many peo­ple. Though Nee­lam does

re­luc­tantly agree to have brought a very west­ern-Indo way of work­ing through her ex­pe­ri­ence in UK in terms of strate­gic plan­ning, col­lab­o­ra­tions and fundrais­ing. “We are now dream­ing even more along with our chil­dren. Now, the whole team is very am­bi­tious—the or­gan­i­sa­tion, man­age­ment and the vol­un­teers,” she says. There are many or­gan­i­sa­tions that of­fer child spon­sor­ship. Is Child­fund like one of them? “I’ll say, Child­fund is a child de­vel­op­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion. We do have child spon­sor­ing, but it is just the means through which peo­ple sup­port the or­gan­i­sa­tion fi­nan­cially. We be­lieve that the best child de­vel­op­ment hap­pens within the com­mu­ni­ties the child lives in, so in­stead of just work­ing for the spon­sored chil­dren, we work on ev­ery­body in their vicin­ity. We look at it as holis­tic in­ter­ven­tion. Our sup­port­ers also agree with that and that’s why they sup­port us,” she ex­plains.

Talk­ing about the col­lab­o­ra­tions that Child­fund has with other NGOs, Nee­lam says, “We work in half of the coun­try and sup­port around 50 lo­cal part­ners. Hav­ing a grass root NGO is very ben­e­fi­cial as we work in many tribal and Naxal ar­eas. We need some­one who can help us reach them and know their lan­guage, the so­cio-fab­ric and cul­tural is­sues. It’s a very big ad­van­tage and since we are a deeply learn­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion, we learn so much from them and use that in the im­ple­men­ta­tion of our own pro­grammes. Though it’s not al­ways a happy ride, some­times we come across part­ners who need a lot of train­ing and ca­pac­ity build­ing.” Col­lab­o­ra­tion is one of the most im­por­tant as­pects of an NGO’s func­tion­ing. We wit­nessed the as­so­ci­a­tion of Child­fund with another grass root NGO, Pride In­dia, in the lat­ter’s Ma­had cen­tre in Ma­ha­rash­tra. A train­ing and re­source cen­tre is set up in be­tween the small town which looks ex­actly like a com­mu­nity cen­tre.

In­side, there are cen­tres for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, start­ing from a game de­sign­ing room, where a ded­i­cated team sits for the for­ma­tion of in­ter­ac­tive games for pre-school chil­dren. There are two tech­ni­cal skills de­vel­op­ing cen­tres, which are a part of their project called Daksh; there’s a beauty cen­tre for teach­ing makeup skills to girls, ow­ing to which they mint a good amount of money at the lo­cal wed­dings, and a com­puter cen­tre with high-end sys­tems and pro­fes­sional teach­ers help­ing chil­dren learn the Tally soft­ware for ac­count­ing. Here too, most of the ben­e­fiters are girls. Another es­tab­lish­ment holds the ac­count­ing and fi­nan­cial record rooms along with a med­i­cal cen­tre and a project de­vel­op­ment room. We got a look at the files of the chil­dren and how they have been in­ter­act­ing with their spon­sors.

We then moved to a nearby vil­lage, Varan­doli, which is adopted by Pride In­dia and is one of the ‘ideal vil­lages’ un­der the project. There, we met the women of the vil­lage in their com­mu­nity hall and heard sto­ries of how they got a grant of two lakh ru­pees from the govern­ment un­der the Nir­mal Gram Yo­jana. The lady from the vil­lage, who went to Delhi to get the award, re­cited the whole story about win­ning the grant through strug­gles and with guid­ance from the NGOs with ut­ter­most pride and hap­pi­ness. She even took us to the Gram Pan­chayat of­fice and made sure we saw all the awards. Their thoughts were so pro­gres­sive that for a mo­ment it felt like there was no dif­fer­ence be­tween ru­ral and ur­ban In­dia. We then moved to a pri­mary school in the ad­join­ing vil­lage and were wel­comed with a cul­tural per­for­mance by the stu­dents. They took turns to tell us about their school, vil­lage and the ral­lies and drives that were con­ducted. Even their am­bi­tions and con­fi­dence lev­els were not hin­dered by their ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion and they dreamed big. They even made

a Gana­p­ati statue with wool thread and beads to give us as ac­knowl­edg­ment. Af­ter this ful­fill­ing stop, we vis­ited a sculp­tor’s shop. In­ter­est­ingly, the owner of the shop was a spon­sored child through­out his school and col­lege and when he passed out, was sup­ported by the duo NGOs with a grant of Rs 25,000 to start the idol mak­ing busi­ness. There­after, we re­turned to Pride In­dia’s cen­tre to meet the Youth Club of the or­gan­i­sa­tion which con­sisted of some very young and ded­i­cated mem­bers. The mem­bers dic­tated their chores and meet­ing sched­ules, with some of them even learn­ing new skills of video shoot­ing and edit­ing. Most of the spon­sors of Child­fund are from the US and Europe and very few are from In­dia. Why is that? “In­dia was never tar­geted be­fore, at least not in the way we are start­ing now. Since we have sta­bilised our­selves and have fully ef­fi­cient and tested pro­grammes and part­ner NGOs, we will be start­ing our cam­paign for spon­sors in In­dia,” says Nee­lam. Apart from the NGOs, Child­fund has tied up with many cor­po­rate part­ners too. Talk­ing about the ef­fec­tive­ness of CSR, Nee­lam be­lieves, “I was fundrais­ing in In­dia be­fore and I think cor­po­rates were do­ing enough then too and the new CSR bill has not made much of a dif­fer­ence. I am not a very big fan of it be­cause it has ac­tu­ally made it dif­fi­cult for cor­po­rates to de­cide what they can and can­not do. Al­though we have very good cor­po­rates sup­port­ing us, like Ba­jaj and ONGC, but a lot of time goes into de­cid­ing what ini­tia­tive will pass un­der the bill and what won’t. Then, there are other cor­po­rates, who don’t want to help, so they start their own foun­da­tion and mint money.”

Any part­ner­ship has to be mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial, so what is it that Nee­lam has got back from Child­fund? “A lot! On a per­sonal level, it gives me an amaz­ing amount of ful­fil­ment and hap­pi­ness when I go to visit the project fields and see the work we have done with the chil­dren and their par­ents. There are young girls and boys earn­ing their liv­ing through jobs and en­tre­pre­neur­ial projects, and the chil­dren in the school with their sto­ry­books, which they didn’t have be­fore, read­ing it out to you. I be­lieve in bless­ings, so I have got­ten so much that I can­not even be­gin to talk about it. Pro­fes­sion­ally, it has added a lot to my ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause I haven’t worked with many im­ple­ment­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions in In­dia. I have worked for older peo­ple in HelpAge and now I am back work­ing with chil­dren, so it’s a whole trans­for­ma­tion. Also, work­ing in UK is one thing but work­ing in In­dia in such a dy­namic en­vi­ron­ment is a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence al­to­gether,” Nee­lam says. Child­fund is grow­ing along with all its chil­dren and this child has some big dreams. Nee­lam agrees, “Our new pro­gramme mod­els are very ex­cit­ing. We are work­ing on smart classes and smart schools to bring our chil­dren into a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion and sus­tain­able liveli­hood struc­ture. Also, our new part­ner­ships—we are talk­ing to UNICEF, the state gov­ern­ments and the Na­tional Com­mis­sion for Pro­tec­tion of Child Rights (NCPCR). Our align­ment with govern­ment poli­cies is get­ting stronger through RTE. We now try to iden­tify strate­gic part­ners who bring tech­ni­cal skills to the ground and we have been con­scious and pur­pose­ful in iden­ti­fy­ing them. Our think­ing has evolved now and we have un­der­stood the fact that we need dif­fer­ent kinds of part­ners, not only NGOs, but other ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tutes and tech­ni­cal part­ners and govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions too, to fully de­velop our­selves.” You can also con­trib­ute in build­ing a bet­ter gen­er­a­tion by sup­port­ing Child­fund at in­diaof­fice@child­fund.org or of­fice@child­fundin­dia.org

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