Helping Orphans to Stay the Course

Cecily’s Fund provides funding and support for the schooling of Zambia’s AIDS orphans

Africa Developing World Education Foreign Aid Health

In Zambia’s towns, as many as one in four adults is HIV-positive. The problem is plain to see, and hundreds of millions of dollars in aid have been poured in by foreign governments and charities. Their money is mostly spent on the hugely expensive, high-tech task of providing medical care to the infected.

But despite this influx of aid, HIV prevalence in Zambia has barely decreased. There is also a less obvious set of victims for whom little is done. These are the one million children, out of a total population of only 11 million, who have lost one or both parents.

Cecily’s Fund was set up to change this. It is named after Cecily Eastwood, who died in a road accident in 1997, aged 19, while in Zambia working as a volunteer for Aids orphans. Instead of flowers at the funeral, her parents, Basil and Alison Eastwood, asked for donations to her cause.

Visiting Zambia six months later, they saw how many children had benefited from the £6,000 raised, and felt they had no choice but to continue with the work. In 1998, they founded Cecily’s Fund. Its aim is simple: to help children made vulnerable by HIV to finish school. It pays for their school fees, uniforms and books, which altogether costs £50 per child per year.

This is cheap, straightforward and has a big impact. Not only are the lives of individual children transformed, but intervention breaks a peculiarly vicious cycle. Children of Aids sufferers often drop out of school to care for younger siblings or sick parents. They are likely to live in poverty, or to be involved in drugs or prostitution, and so to get infected with HIV themselves. And, as Mr Eastwood points out, “Education itself is increasingly seen as the best defence against Aids.” Children who finish school are more likely to know how to avoid infection, and have a lifestyle in which they can. The enormous task of caring for the infected, however important, does little to help children who have already lost their parents.

Cecily’s Fund’s aims and strategy are narrow and low-tech. It works in only two places in Zambia, in the towns of Kitwe and Lusaka. Last year, it helped 7,228 children to stay in education, as well as supporting a smaller number through teacher-training college and funding a primary school.

In the past decade it has helped more than 10,000 children to finish school, most of whom would otherwise be in a desperate situation.

It uses well-established local organisations to carry out its projects, and builds on structures that are already in place. It prides itself on accountability: its representatives visit Zambia several times a year to go through the books of its partner organisations and get feedback from the children it helps.

As well as changing orphans’ lives, this could have broader effects. Mr Eastwood argues that “good governance in a country must come from the bottom up, rather than being imposed from the top down”.

Organisations with high standards of accountability can change business practices from the grass-roots, setting a standard of transparency, rather than waiting for government to do it.

Cecily’s Fund is committed to supporting all its children until they finish school. This means it has obligations stretching ten years into the future. Mr Eastwood says that Cecily’s Fund will keep doing what it’s doing as long as there are children who need it. He, however, has decided to step down as chairman this year.

Until 2003, the charity consisted only of himself, his wife and its trustees, but now there are three full-time and three part-time members of staff. He is leaving to let it develop further, from a small, family-run charity, to something that will last and grow.