Imagine ignoring a young mother’s pleas for help in raising an income, because you came to build a school, not to offer other kinds of help. The school is built but the most needy cannot afford to attend. I have seen this.

Imagine not bothering to talk to communities about their problems because you build wells and that is all you do. Why bother talking if you only have one product? I have seen this many times too.

No doubt some might praise such approaches for being focused. But this is what you might call the dark side of ‘focus’. Doing one thing and doing it well sounds good in principle but faces problems in practice. People trapped within poverty do not lead ‘a la carte’ lives. Their problems are complex and interconnected. However, there are effective ways to provide help without losing focus.

Children in Crisis’ focus is on children living in environments that most find too uncomfortable or unsafe to work in. Our aim is to protect children from abuse, exploitation and discrimination, to support them to read, write, think, pursue their life goals and to contribute positively to their communities. Our focus is on the outcome – we must always ask “are we achieving change in these children’s lives?” We should never focus solely on the instruments that we use.

 

We must always ask ourselves "are we achieving change in these children's lives?" We should never focus solely on the instruments we use

What is the best starting point?

Education is an excellent entry point. For Children in Crisis it is the tool that we frequently use to bring lasting, positive change to children’s lives, but it is not the only way in. There may be other more appropriate ways to start helping, which will result in actual useful and meaningful improvements. For example, we have been consulting and project-planning with Batwa communities in Burundi. The Batwa suffer terrible ostracisation and discrimination. As a result they have few livelihood opportunities, live in wretched shelters and are desperately poor. There is little income to pay school fees and anyway, the cost of sending children to school who could otherwise be earning money is – in the short term – simply too high for these families. The entry point for changing children’s lives in this case must be changing discriminatory attitudes, improving homes and helping parents to earn a decent income. There is little point focussing on the school until these things change.

Adult education, which builds parental confidence, ability to oversee homework and raises awareness on health issues may be just what children need

After discussion with a community, it may well be that a new school and improving teacher quality is the priority, but there are still many barriers to overcome. You still have to ask are all children benefiting? Who is not in school and why? Will the school be maintained and continually improved by the community, and what local government exists to support the school? What is to be done if children are hungry, tired, sick or not supported by their parents? Adult education, which builds parental confidence, ability to oversee homework and raises awareness on health issues may be just what children need; or a system of starter grants and shared contributions for the community to collectively build a new school classroom. What of the older children who have missed out on schooling because of war? Vocational learning may be more appropriate.

Children will succeed if they are progressively cared for and supported by one another, parents, the family, the community, and the state through good policies and good spending. Such approaches can be seen across all of our work in Africa and Asia.

The only focus that matters

To focus on the desired outcome is a holistic approach. At first glance, this may not look as neat as the flawless models presented by some organisations, because the many and varied barriers to children’s lives thrown up by war and its consequences are not neat and not amenable to single solutions and single entry points. Our approach will be tailored to the situations in which we find children – vulnerable and struggling – ensuring that we focus on bringing the best possible change to their lives, the only focus that matters.

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Thought & opinion
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