Investigating the Yellow
By Safieh and Moyukh
Big things are always hounded by packs of rumours, but when the rumours get very loud and very plausible, it becomes someone's job to ask some proper questions. With the big yellow day, UCD 2012, having come and gone, Dhaka is again divided into JAAGO-fans and JAAGO-haters. Rather than stand back and watch the battle rage, Rising Stars decided, this year, put those questions to the man himself, founder of JAAGO, Korvi Rakshand.
When asked, at the beginning of the interview, Korvi admitted that there is “a lot of controversy” about JAAGO. There's no denying it. Talk of Audis, apartments and iPhones attached to high-up jobs, gossip about volunteers running off to spend donations on sheesha; JAAGO's very name comes with a complementary package of scandals. These rumours lack value without any proof, but they give birth to a few valid queries about accountability. Is there any way for the public to ensure that their money really is going to the cause they have donated to? And when taking donations amounting to 25 lakhs from the public, isn't an organisation morally obligated to make every detail of this information available to them?
Last year, Korvi Rakshand told RS that KPMG, one of the largest professional auditing firms in the world, had offered to do an audit (inspection of accounts) for JAAGO for free, and this would be published on the website by January. However, by the time of this interview, in November 2012, this audit is nowhere to be seen. When asked to explain, Korvi said that KPMG, after examining JAAGO's state of affairs, said that they couldn't do a professional audit until JAAGO could present certain official structures, such as a Human Resources (HR) and a Procurement Policy, and had sorted out the backlash of years of messy financial affairs (when JAAGO started off as Korvi's hobby, he said, half of the expenditure came out of his pocket, and wasn't noted down in the official accounts). He says that at present, KPMG is helping them to sort out these affairs. He adds that JAAGO, being a relatively small organisation, can't really afford to pay the fees required for a firm to develop an HR policy for them. If they make the decision to take one lakh or so out of their funds to pay one of these firms, they'll be attacked with another barrage of complaints about the misuse of donations which were intended for the children's education. “Where do I give priority?” Korvi says, “To a piece of paper, or to buying rice or books for the kids?”
But the fact remains that there is a lack of transparency in this situation. Although Korvi tells us their accounts are open to anyone who drops by their office, how many members of the public are capable of looking at a list of figures and smelling a rat? Regardless of whether or not this metaphorical rat is present, it is JAAGO's duty to show every donator exactly where his money is going and exactly how it is fulfilling the purpose it was intended to. It's evident that without this kind of assurance, more and more people are becoming dissatisfied, and many of the public are losing conviction in JAAGO's cause. And as JAAGO continues to expand, it will of course become increasingly difficult to ensure honesty on all levels without a proper monitoring system. Corruption infiltrates everything. And corruption infiltrates Bangladeshi things with a vengeance. Perhaps it is necessary to spend that one lakh and put up with the complaints, if JAAGO wants to disprove the rumours once and for all.
Now, these donations we've been referring to are all in reference to the event JAAGO hosts every year for Universal Children's Day (UCD). Originally, this event was an attempt to establish the idea of a day for children, and the celebration of their rights - to education, to nutrition, to the basic fundamentals of civilised life - a UN idea which Korvi wanted to bring to Bangladesh. By letting loose a flood of yellow-garbed volunteers onto the streets, instructed to knock on windows and hand out leaflets and spread awareness, he thought he could spread the message much more effectively than by harping on about children's rights to society at large. The fund-raising aspect of the event was added simply to present a challenge to the easily-bored youth of the cities, Korvi says.
The concept of the event seems to have been distorted somewhat over time, however - JAAGO's UCD event is generally considered to be primarily for fund-raising rather than for raising awareness. The majority of volunteers spend more time asking for donations than actually informing people about children's rights. So is the event achieving its goal in the first place? When offered this opinion, Korvi disagreed. He says that, although the total number of volunteers rises every year, the average amount raised by each volunteer has fallen. Now, whether this is due to an increase in awareness-raising or because of a lack of enthusiasm is a point for dispute, but the main question this statement raises is that, if funds raised in this campaign are incidental, don't they go unused? Doesn't the “Sponsor a Child” program provide adequate finance for JAAGO's activities? No, Korvi says. JAAGO never has an excess of funds; all money raised during UCD goes towards the construction of new schools, and the development of infrastructure in the existing ones. He says that JAAGO will most likely not hold this event next year, because they believe they have already managed to establish UCD in Bangladesh. So, he says, he will have to approach corporations to build the infrastructure. “For example, SCB (Standard Chartered Bank) recently financed the building of a classroom.”
Going back to the accountability of volunteers once they have got the money, we ask how JAAGO ensures their integrity - having heard of instances of misplaced and unaccounted money. Korvi agrees and tells us about the measure they took to ensure the money is accounted for - the practice of giving a receipt to everyone who donates - and having talked to a volunteer this year, it seems, the receipts are efficient. The volunteers all had to visit the school before the program, Korvi says, as this would clearly show them what they were working for, and he believes this is necessary to ensure honesty on part of the volunteers. Speaking of volunteers, Korvi brings up the massive controversy created by Facebook photos and comments bordering on the explicit after last year's UCD. “We were screening the volunteers this year and we dismissed 400.” Based on account privacy, controversial photos and their attitude towards the program, this screening was done - but this judgment from just the Facebook profile of a person seems very subjective. But it does seem the same controversy was successfully avoided this year.
Moving on from the accountability, with some questions answered and some we still have to wait for till the audit is published, we move on to another debate about JAAGO - the education system they follow. Their website says the children are provided an 'international standard' education. When asked to clarify we learn it's Edexcel they follow. This raises the question, if these children - never having studied before and having limited resources - are capable of coping with an English-based syllabus and whether the teachers, some of whom are volunteers, are qualified. With regard to the teachers, Korvi says, most of them are recruited after they have at least finished high school. These are the paid teachers, who are trained beforehand; volunteer teachers are there as a helping hand to the full time teachers, aiding the weaker students or helping in maintaining discipline. He breaks down for us the structure of the schools from the Education Co-ordinators - who are there to ensure the teachers are doing what needs to be done - to the Project Officers, running the administration.
Moving on to the point that spans most of our discussion, we ask Korvi if it isn't wiser to provide the students a syllabus more familiar to them. He explains that their recruitment starts from the age of 3 or 4, and the class gradually moves up, so that they get to learn the language from the first. They are taught science subjects in English; wouldn't it be easier for them to understand in Bangla? “Maybe their pronunciation won't be so good, but they can communicate well enough”. From what we heard from a colleague and once a JAAGO volunteer who had talked to these kids, this point seems true enough. This recruitment, which has raised questions too, is need-based. But when it comes to individual admission in the higher classes, then its merit based “to ensure for one kid, the whole class doesn't fall behind.”
Based on the figures from the past years, Korvi says the dropout rate is about 5%. Korvi believes by Class 12 they will lose 75% of the kids; a quarter at classes 5, 10 and 12 respectively, but he has hopes that the quarter left will move on to higher education.
JAAGO's focus is on teaching the children adequate English, so that they have the basic capability of communication. He explains that it's no harder teaching English to a child of 3 than it is to teach them Bangla - and demonstrates some methods used to ensure it's easier for the kids to learn.
Talking about crossover - another point which has been raised by people, asking whether the students at the school are attending other schools from other programs simultaneously - Korvi says there was one or two from the first batch. But from the later batches, the community officer checks beforehand. Besides they have a network with the other schools in the area, so they have a pact to make sure crossovers don't occur.
The class which he started with the school has now graduated to Class 3 by now. It is left to be seen under which system they give their exams and how well they do.
About the expenses and availability of funds, Korvi says there is always a scarcity. They approach companies to provide the material they need, Qubee provided the two computers they have at the gates of the school in Rayer Bazaar for any kid to use. “Grameen Phone offered us some computers, which are slow for their work, but good enough for our use.” The salaries of the school staff come from the dedicated Tk. 1500 per head from their Sponsor a Child program. To clarify he adds, UCD only pays for the infrastructure and sometimes, when needed, for shoes, bags and hygiene products. “We make sure the funds from the UCD do not go into salaries; that comes only from the 1500.”
Questions about the accountability still remain and cannot be really met until the audit is made available. For now, some questions have been answered. When it comes to organisations this big and growing, these questions have to be there, and it is the moral obligation for them to show where the public money is being used. Korvi pledges that all these will be answered when the audit is published; for now, he says anyone with concerns can drop by and check their accounts.