Interview with Robin Garland

Image: York Union

Image: York Union

Your project MALA is revolving around two principles: The need to eradicate poverty and giving children a better childhood by educating them. What would you personally describe as the major source of inspiration/drive for starting this project?

The starting point for the project was personal experience. I was the owner of the successful company, which was responsible for the production of carpets with some manufacturing facilities located in Indian regions. I got an interview request from Sunday Times and I thought to myself-“Wow, these journalists probably wanted to know more about our work as a company.” However, it turned out that they traced back one of our carpets to the original manufacturing facility in India and claimed that this facility was employing under aged children. [Unlawful activity under Indian law-legally children can work only from the age of 15]. I was unaware of that fact and promised to newspaper to initiate an internal investigation to find out more information and to sort out the issue.  Yet, their reaction was shocking-they were not interested either in internal investigation or our ability to remedy the problem. According to their words, the only reason why they invited me for an interview was the fact that they will publish this material tomorrow and they wanted me to make an official statement on this question/issue as the representative of the company. While they published their investigation, I kept my promise and went to India to make a personal investigation of this case. The actual situation on the ground shocked me; it turned out that situation was even worse. The most immediate feeling after my investigation was a sense of need actually to do something in order to address the problem. We came up with the idea that we need to educate children-”Children can’t be at two places at once; if they are taught, they could not be working.” So, the idea was to make education for children in order to limit the issue of child labour.

What were the biggest challenges to the successful realization of the project and what strategy you develop to address these challenges or at least to mitigate their implications?

The biggest challenge, which continues to have the impact on our work is the financial question-i.e. how to get sufficient funds necessary to finance our facilities/work? Once we’ve started, we applied for funds from so-called big institutions-British government, EC, etc. However, you will soon find out that these institutions offer you money in form of grants once a year, rather than regularly. So, you can apply there one year, the next year and three years if you are very lucky-but after that, please don’t come up again. This allowed us to redesign our financial strategy. We introduced Child Sponsorship Scheme, which allows passionate/compassionate individuals to sponsor a child in India and allow our sponsor to monitor the progress of the child they are sponsoring. In fact, today we are proud of the fact that a high percentage of our funding comes from these Child Sponsorship Schemes, rather than from “big institutions”.



Drawing from your personal knowledge and experience, do you think there is a major shift of the attitudes or people to the problem of child poverty?

I personally don’t think there is a major shift in way people perceive the issue of child poverty comparing it with the attitudes of people 25 years ago. Undoubtedly, due to the media, people have greater knowledge and awareness of the issue of child poverty. However, the problem with the press is that whilst it actually educates people about the issue, it is not interested in actually doing something to address the issue. In fact, while we know more about child poverty today, we are still locked in the same misconceptions about the problem. We approach it from a personal moralistic standpoint-i.e. how the issue of child labour affects me and what reaction should I develop to the problem? However, the most important question is how child labour affects the child personally. For example, I once received a call from a respected customer, which said that she was really concerned with the issue of child labour and asked me to ensure that no child was personally hurt during the production of her carpet. This attitude is not helpful; instead, we should focus on the fact that child labour is unfair personally to the child involved/working in manufacturing facility. Moreover, whilst moral questions are important, it is still unclear what is their connection with more practical aspects of life; should a child be working if his family has nothing to eat, etc.

Could you name three integral components of your project’s success?

Well, it all depends on how you define “success”. We’ve been involved in the charity for 25 years, yet the problems still persist. One of them is that you have a considerable difference between big charities and smaller ones. For example, if you do a simple google search on “sponsoring a child in India”, it would be unlikely that our organization will pop up instantly. While the work of big well-known charities is important, it suffers from two problems. Firstly, it has a huge professional team, responsible only for promotion of the charity through social networks, which means that less people are able to do something to help children. Secondly, it is often unclear how exactly these charities are helping the child-if you do sponsor a child, most well-known charities would not allow you to monitor the progress of that individual child on a regular basis.

What factors explain the persistence of the problem in India?

Poverty is the most important reason of why problem still exists in India.

What strategy/action plan should the international community develop in order to have more effective response and which actors should play a central role in this plan?

In my view, the government of the state should play a central role in any strategy to reduce child labour. Officially, the Indian Constitution, introduced more than 60 years, promised to guarantee every child a free and compulsory education within a time period of 10 years. Yet, today this objective remains unfilled, which reveals serious problems in implementation. Education should be a central part of such strategy. Undoubtedly, it cannot guarantee that any child in future would not be involved in child labour practices. However, it can provide a strong starting point, upon which it would be possible to build our efforts to reduce child labour.

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