Cover Story – Shoulder to Shoulder

“We are targeting to take complete educational responsibility of nearly one million children across the globe by the end of 2030.”

It is common knowledge by now that several children in India are at a natural disadvantage owing to the circumstances of their birth. After all, lesser fortunate families are part of a social structure fraught with injustice and continued prejudice. Founded in 2001, as an initiative by President Bill Clinton following a suggestion from Prime Minister Vajpayee, AIF has impacted 6.7 million of India’s poor through “high-impact interventions in health, education and livelihoods.” “The American India Foundation’s (AIF) education programs ensure that children in neglected regions and under resourced schools have access to high quality educational opportunities and gain critical life skills alongside 21st century knowledge to prepare them for success in today’s globalised world,” says Mathew Joseph, India Country Director at AIF. The last 15 years have seen the organisation’s ‘Learning and Migration Program’ (LAMP) work with children from migrating communities. The organisation says that 139 million people migrate from villages every year in search of labor, which in turn uproots families for months and places them in hazardous work sites like salt pans, brick kilns, and sugar plantations. “Many migrant children, due to lack of parental education never enter school at all,” says Mathew, “For those who do, migration often results in dropouts.”

AIF’s LAMP module works with such children providing access to education, also strengthening community ownership of education through school governance. “A recent external evaluation found that there was 2.6 times improvement in science scores and 2.8 times improvement in math scores of children studying under the LAMP program. Over half a million children in 2,279 villages across 13 states of India have benefitted from LAMP,” says Mathew.

The organisation has used its Digital Equalizer (DE) program to leverage technology and erase the existing digital divide. “This makes schools dynamic places to teach and learn through collaborative, project-based learning,” says Mathew, “An independent study found 66% increase in students classroom engagement, along with 96% teachers integrating ICT in their lesson plans.” The organisation reports over four million children equipped with STEM learning experiences in 15,000 schools nationwide. With 320 million school children without access to the physical school premises thanks to COVID-19, an entire generation has education on an indefinite pause. The effect has been more devastating for vulnerable children. “In Odisha, LAMP is operating a bicycle mobile library, which means that children in remote villages can continue to access books through the pandemic,” says Mathew, “Across Uttarakhand, DE is using technology to support teachers, parents, and students in government schools.”

AIF works with the public and private sector to create inclusive and sustainable livelihoods with a long-term goal of equalising the informal and formal sectors to provide opportunities for everyone. AIF’s Market Aligned Skills Training (MAST) program provides underprivileged youth with skills training and access to formal employment opportunities. Its Ability Based Livelihoods Empowerment (ABLE) program prepares differently-abled people for the job market.

“Candidates in AIF’s livelihoods programs are given both technical and soft skills training as well as life skills to navigate everyday challenges,” says Mathew, “Through MAST and ABLE, over 140,000 marginalised youth and women have received skills training to be economically productive.” As of today, AIF is working to rebuild lives post-Covid, and ensure the well-being of internal migrant communities in India. “We’re doing this through a multi-stakeholder coordinated mechanism for their inclusion and integration,” says Mathew. While maternal mortality rates in India are high, the mortality rate for children born to these mothers is also a worrisome statistic. “For women in remote, isolated villages, knowing and accessing healthcare can be a matter of survival,” says Mathew. “Designed to reduce maternal and child mortality in rural, impoverished areas, AIF’s Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative (MANSI) utilises a public-private partnership model to provide preventive, promotive and curative care for both mothers and newborns.” MANSI has served 172,000 pregnant women and 134,000 newborns across 3,389 villages.

“For women in remote, isolated villages, knowing and accessing healthcare can be a matter of survival.”

MANSI’s frontline community health workers have been spreading awareness on COVID-19 including mask wearing, hand hygiene and mask-wearing. “The influx of migrant workers returning home from different parts of the country has also added to the quantum of work handled by ASHAs,” says Mathew.

AIF’s radius of impact lies in education, health, and livelihoods — the three basic needs of the poor. “As a secular and apolitical platform, our strategy is to demonstrate proof of concept and work with local governments, authorities and the private sector to scale up,” says Mathew.

AIF has sent 500 candidates on a 10-month-long service-oriented fellowship to work with the most disadvantaged sections of society. This has built a constituency that has become a collection of ambassadors of a strong partnership
between the US and India. With offices in New York and California, twelve chapters across the US, and India operations headquartered in Delhi NCR, AIF’s impact is felt in 26 Indian states. The organisation is now looking to double its impact in the next five years, reaching more than 10 million Indian lives.

“We will continue to focus on education, health and livelihoods in its mission to improve the lives of India’s
underprivileged, with a focus on women, children, and youth,” says Mathew, “However, we also recognise that
COVID-19 has resulted in large-scale livelihood destruction and reverse migration leading to hunger, mass malnutrition, indebtedness, loss of assets, higher morbidity and mortality, prolonged unemployment and poor-quality livelihoods.”

The focus now is to rebuild lives of migrant workers and vulnerable communities based a few objectives:

  • ensure immediate and urgent needs of migrant communities are served
  • ensure that migrant workers, including those who had stayed back in cities and those returning, receive rehabilitation.
  • make reliable data and analysis available for better evidence-based planning for migrant communities
  • maximise impact of government programs to address short, medium and long-term needs of migrant communities through technical assistance to state governments.

It is common knowledge that COVID-19 is unlikely to turn into a one-time battle to win. “As we can see in other countries, there would be one or more cycles of infections going up and down. So, keeping people’s attention to their safety and needs is a long-term challenge,” says Mathew, “Migrants who have moved back to villages, are now  returning to cities without social security. If another lockdown occurs, it will affect them the same manner. Building their resilience to future shocks is very important and is challenging considering the large numbers of migrants.” AIF is aware that funding for COVID-19 is likely to reduce, considering that most donors have already spent a bulk of their funds on emergency relief. “Rebuilding lives will be a long-term initiative and needs sustained financial support for at least two to three years,” says Mathew.

This article was first published in Conversations Today, August 2020. It can be accessed here.

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