27 May 2013

Starfish, Spiders and CHILDLINE

*Ingrid Srinath

A key dilemma for civil society organisations (as much as for those in the public or private sectors) is the trade-off between scale and customisation. How do we balance the enormous need for our services with responses that address the particular challenges confronting each individual child, family or community? Or the choice between building, owning and managing an expensive, cumbersome delivery system that guarantees uniform standards versus agile, flexible, local decision-making that ensures existing public systems deliver accountably? Between efficiency and empowerment?  Between listening and prescribing?

From its very inception, CHILDLINE has achieved a remarkable balance between these conflicting priorities. Some have labeled the approach 'social franchising' but I think that term does not fully capture the model’s value or its values. In the world of business, franchising most often connotes the bland uniformity of burger and pizza chains with their limited menu choices and streamlined sourcing, production, delivery and marketing channels. Social franchising seeks to organise small, independent providers into larger units, to improve returns to scale for investments like infrastructure and communication. They aim to scale up programmes more rapidly, decrease transaction costs, provide uniform services to a broad market, collectively negotiate financial reimbursement mechanisms, and replicate best practice services among a large group.  

I don’t see that top-down, hierarchical, prescriptive approach at CHILDLINE, which was founded as a direct response to the expressed needs of children and grounded in respect for their rights. 17 years on, it continues to put their needs front and centre. This is evident at every stage. From the social workers at the 24/7 phone lines to the Open Houses that reach out to children to understand their priorities. From networks of NGOs in each city, town and district who ensure those calls for help get the response they are owed to the ICT systems that track quality, ensure accountability and shape policy based on authentic data and evidence.

This week I met a few of the NGOs who are CHILDLINE's local 'franchisees' and heard from them of underpaid staff and volunteers scrambling to cope with spiraling numbers of children in distress - child labourers, abandoned children, those who have run away to escape poverty or abuse, children trafficked into the sex trade, children being forced into early marriages, children suffering physical, emotional and sexual abuse, children made vulnerable by disability and those affected by HIV/AIDS. I heard too of the struggle to overcome the apathy, inertia and bureaucratic wrangling of local authorities. I witnessed the sometimes superhuman effort required to navigate the fragmented, dysfunctional or simply indifferent systems we have charged with our children's protection.

What keeps them going? Is it just the rush of joy that accompanies each successful rescue and rehabilitation? Or a sense of duty that transcends all the daily travails? Passion for the well-being of children and their rights is certainly a contributing factor. As is the over-arching belief that we can and must do all we can to protect as many children as is humanly possible. Integrating that energy, dedication and commitment with state-of-the-art technology into a whole far larger than the sum of its parts are the key ingredients of the CHILDLINE model. Combined with the backing of the Ministry of Women and Children and extensive work with the police, hospitals, shelters, the justice and transport systems, among others, CHILDLINE catalyses a unique network of networks involving public, private and voluntary sectors at district, state and national levels.

In their 2006 book, The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, describe the emergence of decentralised organisations (starfish). These are characterized by distributed leadership and knowledge, open systems, flexibility and shared power in stark contrast to the command-and-control based organisations (spiders) of the past.
As a fan of their work, I am amazed at how closely CHILDLINE, founded a decade before the book was published, fits their description of the hybrid organization - one that lies at the sweet spot between autonomy and accountability.

As anyone who has tried to build and manage partnerships across so many diverse interfaces knows, this isn’t easy. What CHILDLINE has proven over the past 17 years, however, is that it’s an approach that successfully resolves the dilemmas of scale, agility, responsiveness, efficiency and empowerment.

*Ingrid Srinath is the Executive Director of CHILDLINE India Foundation.

21 May 2013

On the frontlines of Child Protection

You’ve seen the grim statistics: Two out of every three children in India are physically abused; 69% suffer some form of physical abuse; 65% of school children face corporal punishment; 53% have suffered some form of sexual abuse; every second child faces emotional abuse.*
You’ve almost come to dread the news. Each day brings more chilling, gruesome tales of violence, neglect, exploitation and worse from every part of the country. Is there no end, we wonder, to the variety of ways in which we choose to torture, maim, violate and inflict cruelty on our children?
Imagine then the effects on those who spend their days and nights responding 24/7 to the calls for help for children in distress. Try, if you will, to put yourself in the shoes of the resilient women and men whose job it is to answer the 11000 daily phone calls seeking to save a threatened child from harm. The relentless flow of pain, anguish, anger and the long, silent calls that leave one speculating what unspeakable trauma lies at the other end of the line. Perhaps most painful of all are the thousands of calls that could not be completed because the phone lines were overwhelmed.
This year, in March alone, CHILDLINE, India’s dedicated helpline for children in distress, received 362000 calls. Children who went missing, abandoned children, runaway children, children subjected to abuse of too many kinds to list, children forced into early marriages, children trapped in illegal and hazardous labour, trafficked children, children in need of urgent medical attention, children whose physical or mental challenges make them particularly vulnerable, children with HIV/AIDS, children enslaved by substance abuse, children who find themselves in conflict with the law, children who simply need a sympathetic ear… the list goes on and on.
Logging this endless litany of injury and torment, then activating, coordinating, and, where necessary, building the capacity to respond from grassroots organisations, the police, hospitals, shelters, the legal system and the like takes a small army of CHILDLINE staff and partners across 291 districts and towns. The joy at each successful rescue, rehabilitation, repatriation or policy advance is too often muted by the instances where it proved impossible to prevent an atrocity or the frustration at an unresponsive system.
In my first week at CHILDLINE I have been struck by the resilience, commitment and sheer courage from these first responders whom we charge with the protection of our children. I’m struck too by the simplicity of CHILDLINE’s model – from the state-of-the-art technology of the contact centre to the myriad partnerships that enable swift, customised, local responses. I’m struck most of all by the thousands of remarkable people who make CHILDLINE possible.
It’s equally clear, however, that the 4 million calls CHILDLINE responded to in 2012-13 are but the tip of a vast, unseen, unrecorded iceberg of children in dire circumstances. And that reaching those children will take substantially increased resources and effort. I believe that India has the capacity and the will to close that gap. We can do this India! Shouldn’t we?
*statistics are from 2007 Study on Child Abuse by Ministry of Women and Child Development.
Ingrid Srinath has recently taken over as the new Executive Director of CHILDLINE India Foundation