Thoughts for a Speech

On November 28 I was invited to speak at the Eurochild Annual Conference (in Bucharest, co-organized with Hope and Homes for Children Romania). Here are a few thoughts that I put down while preparing for the panel ‘Funding Advocacy for Children’s Rights’.

How can civil society contribute to a more effective public spending on children?

There is at least one way that quickly comes to mind: creating independent measures or tools that measure the effectiveness of public programs and publishing the evidence thus collected in a way that shows ineffective spending.

In Romania the government and the European Commission invested millions of EURs per year in the ‘Milk and Bread’ program. The Government, especially around elections times when voters needed to be counted, was very proud to be able to offer this program to all children in school. Including those who had a cow or several cows at home, those who suffered of milk intolerance, those who simply do not want to eat this, because their parents can offer better food. Soon many children started to throw this food away or those in the countryside took it home and gave it to the pigs. At the same time there were also children who badly needed this food and came to school because it was available.

Was this universal program needed? Was this program achieving its stated goal of reducing school drop-out? For many years nobody knew, but many could witness the waste. Recently there have been proposals to replace the program with after-school programs for truly vulnerable children at risk to drop off school. The topic is still debated. A civil society report could have easily shown the waste and would have easily found supporters in the wider society as sure enough the parents of these children were well aware of the waste. A video campaign could have been started to encourage children to document the waste with their mobiles and embarrass the policy-makers. Sometimes solutions are easy, we just have to believe that our collective action can have a collective impact.

Should children’s rights organisations be more closely involved in budgetary government decisions, either at national, regional or local level?

The answer to this question depends on the way you understand democracy. If you believe that democracy is about the freedom to pursue your own interests without help from the government and without any responsibility to the others in your country, then you would probably say that your role is not to tell the government how to spend the taxpayer money, but instead your role is in helping parents to take care of their children and stand on their own. If you think that democracy is about citizens who take care of each other and try, with the help of the state institutions, to find public resources for all citizens to enjoy their human rights and constitutional freedoms, you will probably want to look at how the government spends the taxpayers’ money and you would probably advocate for this money to be allocated to vulnerable groups too.

Personally I am in the second category of people so for me the answer to this question is an obvious ‘yes’.

But it seems to me that child rights organisations working alone will not go very far. Budgetary decisions are obviously very complicated, not only for technical, but also for political reasons.

In countries led by right-wing coalitions, those people who believe that democracy is about furthering personal interest without much meddling from government, there are huge pressures for ‘smaller governments’, meaning fewer social programs for the vulnerable groups. In those countries the people in power believe that social programs are immoral because they make people dependent. They think that taking care of children is the responsibility of their parents and not of the taxpayers.

Many people think that evidence needs to be collected about the importance of public investment in children. They think that if they have good-enough evidence they can convince the right wing to change their minds. But this is actually a waste of time from our side. The truth will set us free as we are all rational beings so if we tell the facts people will reach rational conclusions.

But cognitive science shows us that people simply do not think like that. People think in frames. To be accepted, a fact must fit a person’s cognitive frame. If the facts do not fit the frame, the frame stays and the facts bounce off. This is neuroscience: concepts are not things that change with facts, concepts are materialized in our brain synapses. So when hitting the wrong synapses our facts are considered irrational, crazy or stupid.

Research after research shows that institutionalisation is bad for children and still there are countries where people can not understand why we insist so much on DI. If orphanages worked for decades and they were good in communism and even in the rich West when the rich West was not that rich – why would we change that? To send the kids to the streets? Are you stupid? And actually, let us be honest, we also think that the other side is stupid when they have the bare facts in hand and they still cut social programs or still refuse to close down the damn institutions. We are worlds apart because our mental frames are world apart. All this, to say that we need to go in search for allies, including the unlikely ones. Researching is important, writing a policy brief is important, creating a nice campaign that uncovers the truth is important. But not important enough! We also have to be in the business of changing the political frames. We need to be in the political parties, in the trade unions, in the economic think tanks, in political science faculties and so on. We need to be in the business of discourse change. We should be able to create alternative discourse to ‘children are our future, but spending is now impossible because we are in the middle of a crisis’. And for this we need to be resourced in a totally different way, but this is a different story.

What is the role of children themselves in budgetary decision-making? Could any of the panellists share a good practice on the involvement of children in budgetary decisions or someone from the audience/ one of the young representatives?

Children have to be asked. When throwing the milk away, they were the first to realize that something was wrong with that very expensive government program. They can also say what is wrong with an after-school program, a kindergarden, a playground and so on. Recently I have read an article about the experience of an American teacher who decided to spend a few days as a student. She was appalled by how terrible her experience was: she reported that sitting 8 hours a day is actually exhausting, that children are constantly talked at in a numbing way, that her creativity was never stimulated and so on. The article got millions of views and was considered revolutionary! What a discovery! But I think she could have saved her time, by doing to very simple things:  1. asking kids what they go through and 2. believing them.

Should the networks of child rights NGOS be funded by governments?

Coalitions provide very important services to the government and society. Just think about how difficult it is to harmonize views and unify voices. It requires time, energy and resources to be able to do that effectively so that governments are now swamped with points of view when drafting new legislation. In case they want to consult with the civil society organisations, which in some ChildPact countries is not at all guaranteed. On the contrary, in some countries governments are happy to have weak dialogue partners as this allows them to choose their dialogue partner and in any case point the finger towards the unreliable civil society. But coalitions are victims of a huge misconception, which denies their funding not only from governments, but also from foundations or from citizens.

Networks are seen as 1) bureaucratic structures with un-productive administrative costs that 2) do not offer direct services to children. This reasoning is hugely flawed as ChildPact has showed in a recent Manifesto. First, children need more than direct services: they also need good policies of the kind that child-focused networks fight for. If policy-making is wrong, services that NGOs can offer are mere drops in an ocean for a few lucky children that can be reached. Even worse, such services can create a dangerous perception that children are sought after and protected, allowing the governments to look elsewhere while children continue to suffer.

Second, the administrative or ‘overhead’ costs are a poor measure of a network’s performance. Results instead (along with transparency, governance and leadership) should be the main factor for guiding funding decisions. ChildPact acknolwedges that in the absence of results, the overhead ratio can offer insights for fighting fraud and poor financial management. But many charities, and in particular the networks of charities, are weak because they do not spend enough on overhead. Overhead costs include important investments in training, planning, evaluation, cause visibility, and efforts to raise money so they can operate their programs. These expenses allow a network to sustain itself (the way a company will pay for its utilities) or to improve itself (the way a company invests in R&D or atomatization).

Lacking capacity investment opportunities, NGO networks heavily rely on erratic annual project grants. With funding cycles tied to planned outcomes, networks do not have time to urgently seize political influencing opportunities because grant timelines and implementation plans need to come first. This, along with the overhead funding misconception allows coalitions to continue to be weak. But if donors and governments prefer to keep the networks weak: then what is their legitimacy of claiming that they work for ‘systemic change’? How can do they create systemic change, if they do have THE ‘systemic change’ partner?  At ChildPact we have a new thought: we think that each coalition should works towards acquiring an endowment, a pot of money that is kept in a bank to produce interest rate or invested in low-risk and ethic operations that can produce what is necessary for the basic functions of networks to be ensured no matter what other source of funding can be secured.

What about the responsibility of external funds and foundations?

I would like to call on donors to experiment with the idea of trust funds or endowments for coalitions / networks. Endowments are not very popular in Europe, but in the United States many charities have endowments of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars. One million euros, if managed in a careful, ethical way, can produce a return that allows for basic functions of a coalition to be covered. I would like to launch a call to donors who look after systemic change and system-level impact to make an experiment and if that experiment is successful scale that to global level. That would probably be a 100 million operation, but with this amount the sustainability problem of all child rights coalitions in the world could be solved.

How would governments or external funders evaluate the impact of funding NGO networks?

We can think of quantitative and qualitative indicators. In the quantitative group: the ratio of active child rights NGOs that are members to the coalition. Of course we can go into a conversation about what in an ‘active’ NGO, but whatever the definition is, it would be interesting to see how many active NGOs become members of the network and if they do not do it why it is they refrain. In the qualitative indicators group I would like to propose trust as a measure of coalition effectiveness. Trust among members, trust towards the network secretariat, trust towards the network board, trust at all levels. If the majority of the members demonstrate a high level of trust in the other members, the secretariat, the board and so on, it means that the network is doing good things, even if there is a minority of people who are not that enthusiastic. There are other indicators that can be considered as well: number of policy proposals, number and outcomes of working groups, number and outcomes of board meetings, number and outcomes of stake-holder meetings, visibility of the network measured by social media metrics for example, and so on.

Does government funding or from a particular funder/foundation prevent organisations from being critical against government policies and/or funders?

Very often the donor or the government does not need to prevent us from being critical. We are very skillful in self-censorship and at finding excuses for doing this. I see it happening all the time. I do not think this problem can be avoided so this is why I think it is crucial that we find ways to ensure the basic functions of the coalitions beyond hand-to-mouth, year-to-year, grant funding. Grant funding is keeping us busy with grant implementation and grant reporting and with chasing the next grant. Those who are really concerned about network sustainability and those concerned with systemic change should create a task force to look into how we can use, perhaps market instruments or anything else, to help us be truly independent without sacrificing… our very existence. Nowadays if you do not go after government, EU and donor money you are doomed to non-existence. This has to change and this is why ChildPact launched a Manifesto that calls on donors to create a trust fund for child rights networks.

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