While political games and religious debates preoccupy media and coffee talk, civil sector projects persist in providing for the public. But they are subject to suspicion, and often slip under the radar.
“Promotion is hard,” said Zenysha Shaheed Zaki of the NGO Advocating the Rights of Children (ARC). “We keep trying to invite the media to events and get people to attend, but it always seems to collide with a political event.”
Recently, ARC organised an exhibition of children’s artwork from the shelters Education and Training Centre for Children (ETCC) on Maafushi and the Correctional Training Centre for Children (CTCC) on Feydhoofinolhu. In spite of promotions, the religious protests of December 23 and their aftermath coincided with the exhibition and more or less wiped it into the background.
“I practically dragged people in from the street!” said Zaki. “But once they were there, many found that they actually enjoyed the display, and some even came back three, four times with friends who hadn’t seen it yet. So there is a public interest in this, and that’s really what we want to achieve.”
ARC was founded in 2009 to bolster the work of ETCC, CTCC and the shelter at Kudakudhinge Hiya. Although the shelters address different groups of children with different needs, they share the same basic interest – improve children’s lives. However, as Zaki experienced with the media, the shelters were struggling to forge a productive network.
Yet Zaki, who volunteered at the shelters after returning from school in New Zealand, said short staffing and minimal funding made it difficult for the shelters to organised events individually. By creating a separate NGO specifically aimed at connecting the members of the child’s rights sector, she believed the stress on individual shelters could be reduced and progress could be achieved.
“The shelters didn’t have strong communication before,” Zaki said, pointing out that while ETCC and CTCC focus on juvenile delinquents Kudakudhinge Hiya attended to abandoned children below age nine. “Their work was different, but we found that the issues were more or less the same. We wanted to see what we could do to help in a more organised way.”
Deputy Health Minister Fathimath Afiya worked in the civil society sector for 18 years before joining the government. She said that while there is “a good number” of organisations addressing child care matters across the islands, “it’s a huge area of work with many challenges.”
The Ministry of Health and Family works closely with the relevant NGOs, and is trying to build a partnership with the corporate sector. According to Afiya, the ministry has signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with NGO Maldives Red Crescent and corporate group Aima.
“But there still needs to be a mechanism for NGOs and the government to form a partnership. We have to create funding opportunities and better articulate ways to achieve our goals,” she said.
Validating Zaki’s instinct that most groups concerned with child and family matters share similar goals, Afiya said the government relies on NGOs for help jump-starting programs in society.
However, the relationship between the government and the civil sector is still on the drafting table. And it may be drafting a few too many organisations.
At the 2011 UN International Democracy Day ceremony, FJS Consulting Pvt. Ltd. highlighted key operational issues facing the Maldives’ civil sector in a “Comprehensive Study on Maldivian Civil Society”.
Over 1100 Civil Society Organisations (CSO) and NGOs are registered in the Maldives–almost one organisation for every 300 people. CSO’s average employee is age 25, with an education level ranging from grade 6 through 10. Only 0.7 percent of employees are paid due to a funding shortage – donors provide the least amount of funding, and most CSO fundraising efforts only cover about 30 percent of program costs.
Tracking funds and goals accomplished is difficult.
“The government is trying to provide aid but the structure of how to do it is not specified,” said Managing Director Fareeha Shareef at the event, noting that many CSOs don’t actually engage in the activities for which they are named, such as sports.
Speaking today with Minivan News, Shareef agreed that the high number of organisations is not supported by adequate funds and resources, but added that lack of awareness and communication are key problems.
“Most NGOs don’t know what the others are doing, or which other NGOs are working in their sector,” she explained, adding that steps are being taken to create a central communications database for the civil sector. “If the sector can organise and if resources can be better distributed by groups working together, there would be dramatic change.”
Unfortunately, the Maldives ranks highly for corruption and corruption perception. Zaki noted that there is a general public suspicion that NGOs request funding without a clear action plan, and that the money disappears unaccountably. She said this was one reason why ARC did not request funding for the first two years of operation.
“2012 will be the first year for fundraising at ARC,” she said, pointing out that “we didn’t want to request money without being able to prove that it would go to good use.
“Also, we found that things like concept designs for campaigns were incredibly expensive. We decided it was better to use our own resources.”
Working late into the night after her day job at the Foreign Ministry, Zaki called on friends to act in educational videos and help with design and advertising. Although ARC has many members Zaki said it is difficult to find active volunteers. Unable to find a local nutritionist for the HEAL campaign, she coaxed a friend from New Zealand with expertise in the field to take a volunteer work-based vacation in the Maldives.
Pointing to the 0.7 percent of paid NGO employees, Shareef said the high number of youth volunteers in the civil sector is encouraging–but it is also a major concern. “Almost the entire sector is young and working on a voluntary basis. This means that there is a high turnover–young people need to get paid to get by, and so they move into the paid industries,” she said.
Contrary to public assumption, Shareef said, Maldivians volunteer often and form NGOs out of a genuine interest. But unlike politics, work in the public sector is rarely a public priority. “There is not enough dialogue among the NGOs and not enough clear coverage within the media,” she said, contrasting smaller islands “where people what their NGOs are doing” to Male’, where the population is so dense that the civil sector is heavily clouded. “People have only their perceptions, they aren’t being informed of what NGOs do.”
When asked whether ARC was the first in its field, Zaki said she could not say which other NGOs were addressing children’s rights. According to FJS’ findings, children and youth are supported by less than 20 percent of NGOs. Approximately one-fifth of NGOs promote healthy living, empower vulnerable groups, or provide support for education. Over 50 percent focus on sports, music, arts and leisure.
Operating solo in the civil sector, ARC provides direct support to the shelters while also expanding their reach to donors and the larger community.
In 2011, ARC campaigned for Healthy Eating and Lifestyle (HEAL), Internet safety, prevention of child abuse, and road safety. Zaki said the campaigns reached parents as well as children.
“You would be surprised how long the Q&A sessions went on for,” said Zaki. “A lot parents assume that it’s good if a child is at home playing on the computer rather than running around the streets. And they don’t realise how much sugar goes into packet drinks, or how much fat is in a sausage. And the children would sometimes tell their parents that they weren’t supposed to walk in the street, for instance.”
ARC also organised sports activities, including a month-long swimming program with Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF), and childcare trainings with Nurses of Maldives. Volunteers help teach children certain life skills which can benefit them personally and financially. “You teach a child to bake a cake, and that child can also go and work in a bakery,” Zaki explained.
In spite of the difficulties, Zaki said she is pleased with ARC’s progress and is particularly glad to see first hand that donations are being properly invested by the shelters.
“It’s good to have a personal connection,” she explained. “They trust us, and we have a real interest in seeing changes made.”