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A personal journey through the developing world

In 2006, I took my first steps into the world of international development.

Having spent almost a decade at the helm of the Association of Children’s Welfare Agencies in Australia, following postgraduate studies and a long career in social work, I had a strong desire to continue working for an organisation focused on improving the lives of vulnerable children. To do this at a global, rather than national, level was an exciting opportunity.

The complexities of protecting children

My experience thus far had taught me that myriad factors can result in increased vulnerability for children. Nor are these influences confined to national borders. Children suffering from a lack of proper parental care, inadequate food, shelter or clothing, poor health care and low family incomes can be found in each corner of the globe.

However, during my early days with ChildFund, I was quick to discover how extreme deprivation and poverty adds so many additional layers of complexity to the issue of child protection in countries where there is no social safety net in place.

In the communities where ChildFund works, the majority of parents are dedicated to giving their children a better future and are determined to provide access to those opportunities unavailable during their own childhoods. Most importantly, parents are desperate to ensure that their children survive to adulthood.

Yet natural disasters, civil upheaval or a chronic lack of basic services are sadly not within their control. It is devastating for any parent to discover that, despite their most concerted efforts, they are not able to provide their children with the protection they rightly deserve. Many parents in developing countries live constantly with this fear.

This is where I believe ChildFund best fulfils its mission: by providing support to families and communities where all other possible options have been exhausted. We have the ability and know-how to fill the missing gaps — provide help, guidance and support with no strings attached — and work alongside communities to ensure that the best possible outcomes are achieved for children.

Along this 75-year journey, ChildFund’s approach to helping children has changed and evolved, moving from a focus on orphanages for destitute children, to family support and then to community partnerships that deliver effective development programs. Our child focus has strengthened, and children are actively consulted and encouraged to voice their opinions on plans for their communities. Taking the time to learn from mistakes has also been integral to our development.

We can be proud of what we have achieved so far. According to the World Health Organisation, the likelihood of a child dying before reaching the age of 5 is now approximately 7 percent, compared to 25 percent in 1950. This is a remarkable global achievement.

There is an oft-quoted phrase in our sector: “It takes a village to raise a child.” I would like to think that ChildFund is a member of that village.

A shelter from the storm

Nigel meets children at a Child-Centred Space established by ChildFund in Fatumeta IDP camp, Dili, 2006

On one of my first trips for ChildFund, I visited newly independent Timor-Leste. It was 2006, and I arrived at the tail end of the unsuccessful coup and resulting military and civil violence.

As many as 150,000 people living in and around the capital of Dili had been displaced, with families fleeing the conflict by taking shelter in public buildings, churches and schools before the government was forced to establish internally displaced people, or IDP, camps to cope with the mass migration.

I arrived to see ChildFund at work in a crisis establishing Child Centred Spaces in the IDP camps to provide children with a safe haven and some sense of normality during the turmoil. The centres impressed me greatly €” with no school to attend, these hastily established environments gave children a place to go where they could draw, paint or simply play with their peers.

For parents, the spaces provided supervised care while they searched for other family members, or visited homes to assess the damage. In addition, ChildFund staff could monitor children for signs of extreme distress caused by the recent events. Many had been witness to acts of extreme violence.

This visit, my first to a country in conflict, highlighted for me the fragility of life for so many people in the world. Just weeks before, these Timorese families had been at home working, attending school, caring for children, beginning life anew after years of occupation.

Now, possessions and belongings gone, homes damaged and trapped in a city which had descended into violence and chaos, these same families were living in crowded, makeshift camps, with no jobs to go to and no government services ready to replace what had been lost.

Eventually, it would be time for them to start again all over again. Fortunately, ChildFund and similar organisations would be there to help pick up the pieces, but this would clearly take time, money and planning. It would not happen overnight.

Seven years later, I am pleased to see how far this young country has come. The mood in the country as it celebrated its first decade of independence last year was full of hope for the future. There are many challenges still ahead, but I hope that political stability and the sheer indomitable will of its people will see this tiny nation emerge from the shadows of its past.

The Difference a Decade Makes

Nigel spends some time talking with children living in rural Papua New Guinea, 2013.

A similar story has unfolded in a Vietnam community. Ten years ago, ChildFund Australia began working in Bac Kan, a remote and mountainous province in Vietnam’s north.

In 1999, families here were able to grow only one rice crop each year, resulting in food scarcity and poor child nutrition. School buildings were in disrepair and enrolment rates low, as many parents could not afford school fees and were discouraged by the very low standard of education. Poor hygiene and a lack of nearby health services meant children were often ill, and child mortality was high.

Over the past decade of working in partnership with ChildFund, a transformation has taken place in this community. Today, construction of gravity-fed water systems and new irrigation canals mean farmers produce four rice harvests annually. Water for household use is easy to access and safe from disease.

A new preschool and primary school, as well as trained teachers and learning materials, have encouraged more children to attend school. Available health care, particularly immunisation programs, has reduced the number of parents losing their children to preventable disease.

It is the collaborative effort of a range of committed individuals who make this possible: community members, donors and child sponsors, as well as ChildFund staff and volunteers. Ending the cycle of poverty can seem an impossible task, but the changes in Bac Kan demonstrate that positive change can happen one child, one family and one community at a time.

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