Free The Children emphasizes mobilizing youth to help youth. What is the motivation behind this, and how does it make your impact unique?
The greatest challenge facing our world is that we’re raising a generation of passive bystanders. And what we’re trying to do is engage young people to free the children in both senses of the word: freeing them from slavery and exploitation, and freeing them from the idea that they’re too young to bring about change. For a young girl in a tiny village in rural Africa, education, clean water, and health care provide her with the power to transform her community. For a young boy in the United States, engagement gives him the power to change his global community. In both cases, this empowers children. Instead of seeing children as problems to be solved, we see them as problem solvers. I think that’s the greatest investment you can make: to shift a generation here at home from thinking of charity as something you do at a later stage in life to seeing it as a lifelong commitment.
Is the goal to encourage youth to go into nonprofit development work?
We don’t expect most people to want to go into development work, but the goal of our engagement in North America is trying to convince young people to be aware of the world, to engage the world, and to continue to make an impact through philanthropy and community service. A third party research group called Mission Measurement tracked the alumni of our organization who are now in the workforce and post-secondary education. They found that 80 percent of our alums continue to volunteer every year, 83 percent continue to support a charitable cause, and 79 percent voted in the last election. I think that there’s a spectrum of ways that people can be involved, from dedicating their lives to non-profit work, to a hybrid model, to a for-profit model where they support a charitable cause.
Could you speak more about the hybrid model?
I think you’ll see the non-profit sector booming more into social enterprise, particularly with the need for innovation in how to raise funds and how to maintain responsible administration rates and high-impact projects. I think that social enterprise will serve as a way to recruit and retain a new generation of engaged young people.
The “voluntourism” phenomenon has been criticized for indulging volunteers more than helping communities in need. How would you respond to that?
I think that volunteering overseas absolutely does help the person doing the trip more than the community. The reason that you go overseas is to change your own life. That has to be first and foremost. But if done well, a volunteer going overseas can help create employment and provide funding for the projects that run all year round. Me to We organizes its volunteer trips in a way that seeks to be as respectful as possible of the community. We always speak from the perspective that the trip is only one part of a bigger journey—that you have to carry back to your home communities what you learn about international development. It helps shift the perspective of the world from this idea that people are expecting somehow to be rescued to sharing stories about people that you’ve connected with.
Why address multiple facets of development rather than focusing on one in particular?
Many organizations will just do one thing, and there’s an advantage to just doing one thing well. But development often can’t be delivered in a sustainable way in a piecemeal fashion. When Free The Children started, we initially literally kicked down doors to free children. And we found that the children would often end up back in the same situation because they had no alternatives. So we started building schools, and we found that our schools wouldn’t achieve gender parity, often because of something as simple as lack of clean water. Girls had to walk to the wells during daylight hours. Then you look at water projects, but water projects have a very high failure rate if communities can’t afford repairs. So then you look at microcredit and job creation, and the cycle goes on and on. You find that a single solution often isn’t sustainable, that everything is interconnected.
Given the variety of social services that Free The Children provides, how would you characterize the relationship between government and NGOs in developing countries?
It runs an incredible gamut. In the coral region of Sierra Leone, where the government has very little footprint in the communities where we work, it’s very much NGO-led and community-led. The other extreme is rural China, where the government is very involved in every step of our programs. Ideally, you want a government partner because nonprofits should never replace the role of government. If you want a project to be sustainable, then both government and the community should be involved. For example, in Kenya, we have a standing agreement that for every school that we build, the government will provide the teachers.
Do you think our time is better spent trying to improve government policy and capacity in these countries or trying to act independent of it?
There is a natural concern regarding corruption and efficacy that leads NGOs to bypass governments, but this can impact the ability of governments to provide social services, and we see that happening in Haiti especially right now. Anyone who works in the field will say that when the government is a ready and willing partner, that must be embraced. But some governments are ineffective in delivering basic social services, and nonprofits have an obligation to meet humanitarian needs. And when you have educated, empowered communities with increased earnings, those communities are more likely to ensure in the long-term that they will get a stable government in place.
What is something that you think is often missed in children’s rights advocacy?
Our work is based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. That’s the backbone of everything that we do. And within that convention, there’s a great deal of discussion about providing education for children, providing shelter and food for children—providing for children. But a right often overlooked is the right of children to have a voice in the implementation of their rights. And this is a right that I almost never hear governments around the world voicing.
From your experiences with nonprofit educational initiatives, what are lessons that could be drawn for formal education policy?
I would love to see a change in how we approach education policy in both developing and developed countries. We need to not see children as just passive recipients. For example, in the schools that we run around the world, children have a voice in what they’re learning, so they create educational clubs or health clubs or agricultural clubs where teachers will work with them on improving crop yields – they are involved in shaping their education. I think that is something that is constantly overlooked in developing countries, but also in the developed world. Policies in Canada and the United States need to see young people as active global citizens, and teach students about their rights and responsibilities. Imagine the day when education isn’t just about reading, writing and arithmetic, but also about teaching students about compassion, community, and the courage to become involved in the issues that they care about. No one raises a voice on the right of children to have a voice in issues. I think that is a shame, and that is one of the great challenges facing education today.
Is there a final message on which you would like to end?
One thing that I think too often is taught is that students should wait until they’re older. We started Free The Children when we were 12-years-old, and people didn’t think that children had a role to play in this complex issue. There’s the expectation that you’ve got to wait until you start a career and reach a level of influence, and then you can change things in the world. And the simple message that I’d like to put out there for those who are reading this is not to wait, that the world needs them today.