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'Donors are stuck in sympathy mode': Ingrid Srinath

By Lisa Batiwalla

CRY, which has just changed its nomenclature from Child Relief and You to Child Rights and You, is trying to bring about an attitudinal change to children's issues, from charity-focused to issue-based support. It has also changed its approach to middle class citizens -- from merely asking them to write out a cheque to getting them to volunteer to advocate the cause of child rights, says Ingrid Srinath, CEO of CRY

 "I'd rather accept a cheque for $20,000 than have a donor write out a cheque for $40,000 because of the sympathy factor," declares Child Rights and You Chief Executive Officer Ingrid Srinath. Her statement is a reflection of how important the rights-based approach is to the organisation. It is also ready acceptance of what the three-decades-old CSO stands to lose in terms of funding as it seeks to supplement (not substitute, as Srinath is at pains to clarify) its stupendously successful relief-based strategy with a rights-based approach to children's issues in India. An interview with the MBA and former advertising executive, who says she chucked up a cushy job as an accounts executive because she was convinced she could do things other than boosting some shareholder's bottom line

What were the key issues that CRY was engaged with three decades ago? What are they now?

In 1979, CRY was very education-focused. Education was the great big hope for us then. But there were a dozen other things that were keeping kids out of school. We had to address those issues by interfacing with local government, through policy implementation. To make a significant dent in the problem, we had to start looking at national policy and we were only going to be able to do that if we created alliances, first at the state level with partners we were already working with.

What's changed today is that education is not the end - now we see education as more an outcome, not an input. We're trying to get communities to see the linkages between education and what they see are the other important issues for them - livelihoods, migration etc - and get them to see that education is a way out of these problems. Today we are committed to ensuring the quality of education available to children, to ensuring that the government system works.

Earlier we would run balwadis, substitute wherever the government was lacking, whereas now the approach is to make sure that the government is accountable, that the system works. In fact the balwadi often lets the government off the hook. We need to ask the government, when you say education is a fundamental right, what is the minimum quality of education that you will deliver?

What is the most pressing children's issue at the moment?

The child's right to survival is a key concern - maternal health is a key determinant of infant health, female foeticide and infanticide, malnutrition, and the availability and quality of healthcare services. There has actually been a decline in government services offered in everything from the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) to the primary healthcare centres (PHCs). For example, women in Thane (self-help groups) are being expected to fund the ICDS programme. On the one hand you advocate community participation but on the other hand that has become an excuse for the government to completely absolve itself of the responsibility of running these services.

Why has CRY chosen to take the rights-based approach now? To what extent will the change in nomenclature impact the care and delivery aspect of CRY's work?

The national campaign for the right to education was the template for our future strategy. Right from 1979 we have had state-level alliances and grant-making relationships with other organisations and groups. But in 1997-98, when the nationwide campaign for the right to education began, we realised there was strength in numbers.... the government took us that much more seriously because there were so many of us coming together. The education campaign was the template.

Donors are stuck in sympathy mode. CRY has never done sympathy. However, now we are looking to bring about an attitudinal change to the whole business of children's issues, from charity-focused to issue-based support. If this approach means getting less donor support, that's a risk I'm willing to take, in the interests of bringing about long-term changes in donors' mindsets.

Even today, only 14% of donors are institutional donors, the rest are individuals. And all they ask is that we make it convenient for them to donate and be accountable, using their money honestly and effectively. CRY has been successful because we have been able to do that.

Will CRY's focus on rights advocacy affect its care and delivery services?

No. You need direct action in the here and now in the form of balwadis, you need the community mobilisation component, but you also need the advocacy. What has changed is how we approach the middle classes, in terms of what we're asking them to do. Until now in many ways it hasn't really been about volunteerism, it's primarily been about them giving up money. For example, we set up these community action groups in five cities - Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore -- where we've got a range of people, educated urban middle class, slumdwellers, professionals, the entire microcosm of that community coming together to see what are our issues and how are we going to deal with them collectively, not as adversaries, as urban middle class vs slumdwellers' associations. Some of these groups are working on identifying how many children in their neighbourhoods are in school or out, why, what their conditions are, how they can improve them, using the right to information to get better services from the government.

The response you or I would get if we started asking questions in a government school is very different from the answer a parent of one of these students would get. It's about getting them to see that any solution that gives priority to one group's concerns over the others' is inherently unsustainable.

What are the strategies and methods that CRY will employ to advocate child rights?

We have been fairly successful in getting local, tribal communities to mobilise their resources within their specified area. Over the years we've discovered that community participation works. One of our most successful community participation initiatives was in Uttar Pradesh in an area called Ghorawal where we ran a joint programme with a group called Child Welfare Services. This was a district where zero children were in school -- a carpet-weaving hub with a mostly adivasi population. Drought was common. Most children were employed in the carpet factories. Instead of haranguing people to get their kids into school, we began with evening classes, then campaigned for minimum wages so that adults could earn a decent wage, and the movement spread like wildfire, to 26 villages within months. The locals then reclaimed 250 acres of land that had been expropriated and used it for community farming of medicinal herbs. Eventually, 98% of the children were in school and from two primary schools the area now has 17.

The thing is, how do you scale that up, how do you build a coalition of communities everywhere -- of the marginalised, the middle class, media, bureaucrats, the administration, judges, the corporate sector and so on -- who can be persuaded to actually work together .We think child rights should be a national priority. Millions of children are dying every year before they reach their fifth birthday: that's a national calamity on a scale much bigger than the tsunami and everything else put together

The methods will be largely the same - advertising, direct mailing, events, the Internet. It will be the same media-type advocacy, but focusing all these methods into a rights-based message rather than a relief message.

What about the Charter of Child Rights that CRY recently presented to the President of India?

Most important is a uniform definition of a child as defined by the United Nations. A child is simply everyone 0-18. Currently the definition varies depending on what you're talking about -- if it's the Child Labour Act it is 14 years, for some other laws it is 12 or maybe 15 years.

Other key demands are: make available at least 10% of GDP for education and make the fundamental right to education available to all children 0-18; ban child labour in all sectors, not just for hazardous industries but for all sectors including agriculture; make child labour illegal; expand coverage of the mid-day meal scheme to all children, regardless of whether they are in school or not. The right to survival is universal, why should it be restricted to just the children who are in school? That's just wrong. You can do it through the ICDS programme that covers children 0-6, you can technically use the PHCs, there is existing infrastructure that can be deployed to deliver these services.

We need a better definition of the poverty line -- for example, we are told that 27% are below poverty line but 51% of children are malnourished .Evidently, there are families above the poverty line who are unable to feed their children adequately. What kind of measurement is that? Originally, the poverty line was a calorific count, based on how many calories a person consumed a day. Then the government went and changed it to the number of goods a person owned etc and the whole thing got skewed. All sorts of people got excluded from the list. We would like a return to the earlier definition.

InfoChange News & Features, May 2006

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