After completing an internship in Jamaica working in the field with a government development agency, Reni came back to the UK with the desire to learn more about how development works in an international context. She came across StreetInvest, a small international NGO focusing on street children. Little did she know that StreetInvest is about much more than bringing street children back to school or home, the approaches that she had encountered in my field work.
StreetInvest supports “the sustained employment of street workers through direct investments and the development and sharing of best practice of street work”. Street workers are responsible, trustworthy, trained, local people who work on the streets with and for street children. They combine capability, compassion and in-depth knowledge of the local context, and can reach even the most socially excluded children. Street workers build a relationship of trust “by bringing all their care and feelings, and above all, commitment that will not waiver when the first child tells him to go away”. The process of establishing such a relationship is long and arduous, but once the child starts believing in an adult, new possibilities can be explored, wishes, wants and needs listened to and solutions found. The approach of this small UK-based NGO and its partners is a long-term one – instead of trying to bring street children back to school or the home as it is commonly accepted, they work with children to uncover opportunities and assist with day-to-day struggles, at the same time working towards changing negative perceptions of street children within the community and providing a framework for child protection.
StreetInvest depends on a network of local partner organisations to implement activities and, during the past decade, has expanded its reach over 4 continents. This combination of localised context-specific activities owned by members of the community, and capacity building and financial support provided by StreetInvest, allows the NGO to have a real impact in the lives of disadvantaged children.
StreetInvest has been working with street youths for nearly a decade and has helped numerous young people through street work. The NGO not only makes a difference in the lives of street children, but also uses its strong street presence to collect reliable data on marginalised youths thus providing a much more nuanced view of their complicated reality. Recently, the importance of StreetInvest’s work has been recognised in international policy through the publication of General Comment 21 on Children in Street Situations by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. For the first time ever, street children are the focus of authoritative UN guidance to states on how to uphold the rights of children. The General Comment acknowledges the role of “trustworthy adult street workers” in ensuring that children are able to fully enjoy their rights and are accepted by the communities they live in. This is the result of the work of the network of organisations united in the Consortium for Street Children (CSC) but also of Duncan Ross’s tireless lobbying in New York, Brussels and Geneva, and Kate Bretherton’s, StreetInvest Co-CEO and Development Director, role in the drafting of the general comment.
There are many challenges that face StreetInvest and, according to co-CEO Duncan Ross, the biggest one is changing people’s perception of street children often seen either as helpless victims or troublemakers. “These young people possess immense capability, responsiveness, creativity and capacity but, at the same time, experience extreme discrimination”, remarks Duncan. It takes the effort of the entire community to change people’s view and make a step towards helping these children, which in turn helps ensure the sustainability of StreetInvest’s work.
A further challenge for the NGO is funding. StreetInvest raises all funds from its UK office as most of its partners do not have the capacity to fundraise themselves. However, as Duncan said, “we don’t do something normal, so it’s very hard to explain why we do what we do.” Even if people intuitively understand the mission, most donors want a short-term scalable solution that fits within their policies and rarely understand why “outcomes” cannot be prescribed to a street child. “The constant need for resources is something we struggle with every day”, shared Duncan.
Lack of collaboration between organisations is another challenge for StreetInvest that also presents an impediment to street work everywhere. Enhanced partnership would not only help meet funding requirements, but would also enable the sharing of knowledge and best practices, coordinated data collection and research, and aligned advocacy. StreetInvest is not unique in its localised and context-specific approach. There are a number of NGOs that prefer such a method for the implementation of their projects because, although outcomes take longer to manifest, the approach is sustainable and, one can argue, represents the essence of the widely accepted participatory development. Such initiatives are of great importance for the communities they affect because they allow people to take responsibility of their development thus paving the way towards positive social change.
This post is part of a series profiling the work of small independent NGOs and charities in the UK
Feature Image: A Coin for the Homeless | Alex Proimos
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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