From Embassy to Education: A Journey into the Social Sector

Muhammed Afzal, who attended the first batch of ILSS, writes about his foray into the social sector.

After working in the Dutch embassy in Delhi for 16 years, I made a shift to the social sector last year, with help from the India Leaders for Social Sector (ILSS) programme. At the embassy, I was the Programme Manager of an educational and development focused portfolio. My role as the manager of the Netherlands Fellowship Programme, aimed at training mid-career people, and as the coordinator of the Netherlands Alumni in India on behalf of the embassy, had also given me some insight into India’s developmental needs, nudging me to work in the social sector. I attended the ILSS programme to understand the fast-changing social sector landscape.  Where there used to be clear divides between ‘nonprofit’ charities, ‘profit-for-purpose’ social enterprise and the ‘for-profit’ commercial sector, we are seeing the blurring of lines between these entities. I wanted to understand how to navigate these new roads, where outdated modes of funding and working methods will no longer be valid in the coming years. At the ILSS, I was fortunate to meet with the right people who are committed to giving leadership in the social sector in India and feel lucky to be a part of the ILSS family.

Soon after graduating from the first batch of the ILSS, I started working to organize a training workshop in the critical area of early childhood intervention to prevent developmental delays among children. I believe that this is an area where expertise is hardly available in India.  My aim was to create a trained early intervention team at the Iqraa hospital in Kozhikode, Kerala, an institution providing health care to the needy.  I got in touch with the Brooklyn College of the City University in New York, one of the best training centres in the United States in this field.

Early childhood is defined as the period from conception through eight years of ageThe earliest years of a child’s life are critical. These years determine a child’s survival and lay the foundations for her/ his learning and holistic development. It is during the early years that children develop the cognitive, physical, social and emotional skills that they need to succeed in life.

An early intervention team includes the case manager, child development specialist, clinical psychologists, speech and language, occupational and physical therapists and other professionals, depending on the needs of the child and the family.

Developmental delays take many forms and it becomes a challenge, if not detected early, for the individual, the family and the governments to manage the consequences.  The environment surrounding a young child matters and working with families is essential in offering quality early intervention services since most young children spend their time in a home setting. The Brooklyn College Early Intervention program trains interventionists to work with children and families in naturalistic settings allowing the work with their child to occur through the day.

The Brooklyn College’s Early Childhood Education Programme, along with the New York City Department of Health and Bureau of Early Intervention, has been at the forefront of developing training programs and materials for training Early Intervention professionals. I served as a matchmaker for the Brooklyn College and the Iqraa Hospital and was also the project manager for the training programme. As I played this match maker’s role, my experience in running the Dutch development programmes in India, wherein I matched international experts and knowledge institutions from developed countries to capacity development needs in an institution in India, proved valuable to me.

The three-day workshop was organised from March 31 to April 2 at Kozhikode. The workshop saw the department head Dr. Jacqueline Shannon and her colleagues Dr. Mary de Bay and Dr. Shaheen Usmani work enthusiastically with doctors, nurses, therapists and students, showing the way early intervention is done in the US and the impact it makes on communities, highlighting how an institutional capacity can be developed in India.  At the workshop, the Kerala Pediatrics Association, the District Collector and the District administration understood the criticality of this expertise. I am now working to set up a training for trainers in the field, in a format that will help create a large pool of trained early intervention professionals on a sustainable basis.

Muhammed Afzal is a development, culture and public diplomacy specialist and worked with the Dutch Embassy in New Delhi for more than 15 years, where he ran the Netherlands Fellowship Program. Before this, he worked as an Indian Information Service Officer for almost 10 years. He studied at Calicut University, Utrecht University and Kerala Press Academy. Having had varied experiences working with diplomats, government officials, corporate executives, students and activists, he wants to take up leadership roles in the social sector and offer public service in a different setting.

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