Why Asha?

Asha for education - An action group for basic education in India

After an extensive review, Charity Navigator, America's premier independent charity evaluating organization, recently awarded Asha the highest rating among humanitarian aid organizations in USA in the area of International Relief and Development. There are innumerable humanitarian aid organizations out there; what makes Asha for Education , stand out? Why Asha?

Maybe the answer lies in efficiency. While other organizations spend between 5-10% of their funds on administrative overheads and another 5-15% on fundraising expenses, Asha has zero overhead expenses and functions with less than 2% of all funds raised as operational expenses, all of which are borne by contributions from volunteers or bank interest. That means 100% of all the funds donated to Asha are utilized directly by project partners in India.

Or maybe one should judge an organization by the volunteers it keeps. Asha has highly dedicated and motivated volunteers whose spirit and enthusiasm is magically contagious! Involvement with Asha has produced awareness about developmental issues and has inspired a whole range of volunteers to get involved. Thus Asha is preparing a group of individuals who are more socially aware and responsible.

Another unique aspect of Asha is its flat structure and non-hierarchical organization. This encourages every volunteer to focus on his or her area of interest with support from within. There is a great deal of flexibility, vibrancy and diversity of activities.wherein lies our core strength. Moreover, there is no formal membership requirement. Each Asha volunteer is a leader in his or her own right. his/her contribution, however small, goes a long way in helping us make the change we want to see in the world.

What about the project management process? Project selection, evaluation and monitoring are probably the toughest areas in the working of Asha. Asha strives not to be recognized as just a fundraising agency. Each chapter identifies, researches and raises financial support for project partners; and more importantly tries to develop a long-term personal relationship with the project and the local community via multiple site visits and regular communication. The Asha projects in India are referred to as "project partners"(and not as "projects") whence the NGO, grass-roots volunteers and Asha are "partners" of the same project.

Asha volunteers endeavor to understand the root issues being faced by our project partners in India, and consider themselves "facilitators" and not just "givers". Asha volunteers acknowledge the basic fact that to help someone, you should have respect for the other and more importantly strive to find out what exactly they need. The "needs" of a member of the urban elite is very different from what is important for those in rural areas. in fact, the needs of different communities may vary completely and efforts have to be made to ensure that we realize, understand and respect this more than anything else. We cannot force the people to follow what we think is best for them. With funds and information at our disposal, our task in this partnership is to make opportunities for the other partner.to facilitate the process of the "trickling down of resources".

What are our thoughts on accountability to our patrons? While Asha creates a relationship, built on trust and shared ideals, with its project partners, Asha has a parallel and equally important role of accountability towards its donors. In the capacity as a trustee of donor funds, Asha has a responsibility to monitor the use of funds by regular monitoring of the projects. The patrons of Asha have over the years, trusted our judgment and reposed faith in our ability to partner with and disburse funds to deserving projects. This faith is based on the implicit assumption that the use of funds will be monitored in a very stringent but fair manner on a case-to-case basis.

We try to strike a fine balance between supporting well-deserving groups and simultaneously remaining objective about judging their work, and their usage of the funds allocated. The transparency in the workings of Asha is reflected in publicly available site visit reports, audit and financial budget reports; these practices along with regular progress updates and newsletters have continued to engender trust amongst our patrons. Volunteers physically visit a project site before funding will ensue, and thereafter, a steward regularly communicates with local directors as well as the target population to provide support, advice, critique and most importantly, act as reliable spokespersons for the incredible work they are doing everyday. Thus, Asha's role in the whole process of project selection, evaluation and relationship building with project partners and donors, goes above and beyond the usual nature of partnerships. Our long-term goal is to trigger a self-sustaining change and finally exit, at least monetarily, when the project is proceeding in a stable way to self-reliance and Asha's help is no longer necessary.

What do we exactly mean by self-sustenance? While we do believe that education is a critical requisite for socio-economic change, we are also aware that conventional textbook education may not solve the larger problem. In the long run, what becomes more important is the empowerment of the people and an attempt to ensure that today's children have more opportunities than their parents. Better choices through education, where education is a means but not an end to the solution of the larger problem. Community-based interventions by an empowered local population could work wonders in Asha's recent efforts in very difficult waters.improving the effectiveness of government schools in India. While ninety percent of the Indian population is within one mile of a government school, the ineffectiveness of the government schooling system is a matter of great concern. Instead of trying to build a parallel system to the already existing one, Asha's strategy is to try to work in hand with the government infrastructure. The idea is to identify the problems that each individual school is facing; it may vary from poor infrastructure to poor quality of teaching, insufficient teacher-student ratio to diminishing community involvement. Asha's involvement would include providing funds for improving infrastructure, developing resources for better teaching, and lobbying for improvement in policies and proper utilization of allocated funds. Inspiring local accountability and citizen participation may however, be the essence for change. Consequently, attempts are being made to make the teachers more sensitive to village problems and build their enthusiasm through workshops and training and by engaging them in a dialog. Teacher groups are being formed to lobby with the government for changes in the system. After all when accountability becomes more local, reform can be just a walk away.

We are increasingly learning that working with local government officials is not as hard as we thought. Some of our better-established partners have grown to become important resources even for the government. The The Bharathi Trust, which works towards the empowerment of the Irula tribal communities in Tamil Nadu, ensures Irula participation during the planning and implementation of all projects. The state government is impressed by the trust and has extended support in running their education centers. The Karnataka government recognizes the expertise of Odanadi Seva Samsthe, a Mysore-based organization that aims to rescue, rehabilitate and empower women sex workers and their children. The government and local officials contact Odanadi for issues ranging from awareness campaigns to helping rehabilitate rescued individuals.

What about innovation? Beyond funding education projects, Asha is involved in numerous activities that include curriculum development and using technology in remote locations. The Learning Network Initiative was recently formed for crossbreeding of ideas, philosophies and methods that can eventually become a resource for various project partners interested in improving the quality of education. The recently formed Asha-sanctuary focus group specifically focuses on children of sex workers as well as sexually abused children; the Asha-special focus group concentrates on children with handicap. These are attempts by Asha volunteers to address the issues at a scale larger than that of a project or a chapter.

Most importantly, we are dynamic and are always open to new ideas, better methods and avenues that will allow us to be more effective. Mistakes have been made and over the years, we have learnt from them. When asked " Why Asha?" it is important to highlight the above-mentioned uniqueness of Asha as an organization. What we need to reiterate is that "We are different" and we believe in "action".

Well, you've read my ramblings on why we think that Asha is different. Let me end with a thought about what you can do to help. During fundraising our approach to our donors has often been like a beggar with a begging bowl. Instead of asking for money directly, let us ask for increasing commitment. Then, people who do not donate are asked to donate, people who donate are asked to volunteer, people who volunteer are asked to take up greater responsibilities and give better ideas to solve real problems. Thus we will be giving the message that the task is never complete. No matter how much one does, there is more to be done. That is after all the ultimate nature of the problem. We do need financial assistance but we are also on the constant quest for dynamic thinkers with novel ideas of participation and involvement. Today there are many Asha volunteers who have actually given up their careers to work at the grassroots, but there are millions who are making a difference from a distance. The spirit of Asha lies in its volunteers, aptly summarized in a comment by Netika Raval, the Asha-wide coordinator at the conclusion of a recent Asha-wide event: "What makes you come alive?"

Work An Hour popularly known as "WAH", is Asha's annual worldwide fundraising event, which runs from July 4th to September 5th 2005: The concept behind WAH is to symbolically donate an hour's worth of your salary or more. Eighteen projects across India have been selected to benefit from the efforts of WAH 2005.

The views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.

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