On Thursday, September 22nd, from 5:30pm to 7:00pm, Maya Ajmera, author of Invisible Children: Reimagining International Development at the Grassroots (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and founder of The Global Fund for Children (GFC), will be speaking at an event sponsored by the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative, CASE, and the Center for International Development at the Sanford School of Public Policy. The event will take place at the Fuqua School of Business, Sauer Classroom. Please RSVP here.
While completing her Master of Public Policy from Duke’s Sanford School in 1993, Ajmera founded GFC, a Washington DC-based non-profit that provides capital to innovative, community-based organizations serving the most vulnerable children across the globe. As she details on her website, www.mayaajmera.com, while traveling in India in 1990, she stepped onto a train platform and saw a group of children listening to a teacher. She discovered that the children lived, worked, played, and begged on that platform. Two teachers, operating on $400 per year, provided 40 children free education, clothing and food as a way out of poverty.
Ajmera used this model as her inspiration for GFC, which invests small amounts of capital to innovative, community-based organizations based on the belief that it can make a lasting impact in the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children. To date, GFC has provided nearly $40 million to support over 10 million children in 80 countries. She stepped down from her position as president of GFC in 2011, and Invisible Children was her opportunity to reflect on what she has learned.
It’s a pleasure to speak with you Maya. Your book Invisible Children reimagines how society can support the world’s most vulnerable children. What inspired you to write this book?
Invisible Children is really a culmination of my life’s work. When I left GFC in 2011, I needed time to reflect. I was fortunate to be invited to be a visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins as well as becoming the inaugural social entrepreneur in residence at Duke. I was able to reflect on GFC and why this model was so unique.
The other piece was when I was teaching my first course in children and international development – I did not see an important book that addressed the complexity around reaching the most vulnerable children. I thought I wanted to write a book and so I did.
You touch on many areas that are important for change – including government, corporations and universities.
These are all enabling and important players to support innovative, community-based organizations. You need technology to be an enabler for social change. You need your government, for-profit companies, foundations and the law to help you enable change.
In my book, I talk about one interesting NGO in Liberia, Last Mile Health. They train and employ health workers to reach the hardest-to-reach families and children. One way they communicate is cell phones – well, there wasn’t a cell tower in some of these remote parts. They partnered with a cell phone company, Cellcomm, received a subsidy and were able to start cell phone coverage in that area.
You spent two chapters on CBOs – is that where you think change will happen for supporting vulnerable children?
If you’re going to reach the most vulnerable children in the world, who are in the deepest, darkest corners of society, I’m not sure government or large NGOs will be able to do that work. I believe that local leaders can find those children and create the spaces for organizations to provide the services. However, in war-torn communities and ungoverned spaces, the ability for anyone to provide services is extremely difficult as we are seeing in Aleppo, South Sudan, or the Boko Haram territory.
Who did you write this book for?
For undergraduate and graduate students, policymakers and philanthropists. It is a learning and teaching tool to have a better understanding of vulnerable children and to understand that they play an important role in changing the circumstances of these children. My highest hope is that the book influences officials in government ministries and public policy makers.
I am not knocking the big international NGOs but international development is very disruptive right now. You see the local actors taking risks and who are taking control of real change in their communities. We are witnessing that everywhere.
Final thoughts on your book?
Half a billion children live in absolute poverty – that’s a big number. To reach them, we must look to community-based organizations even though they have been undervalued and undercapitalized for so long. I want my book to draw attention to the important work these innovative groups are doing to serve children.
Interview by Jennifer Ganapathy, Duke MPP