Among children who live in poverty, those who live on the streets are often worst off.

A fortunate few might find themselves in the hands of programmes that offer education or vocational training only to find that these opportunities seldom lead to jobs and do not equip them with the skills they need to survive – critically, the ability to manage their own finances. This is a shame and a waste, because children who live on the street are very resourceful – as I quickly learned when I began working with them in New Delhi, India, in 1989.

The children I encountered found ways to make money – picking scraps, selling wares on the street, running errands, washing dishes or clearing tables at roadside restaurants; some even had their own tea vending carts. But, by the end of each day all the money was spent. They had dreams for the future, but circumstances forced them to live from one moment to the next. So my colleagues and I set up the Butterflies savings plan, but we discovered that this alone was not enough, as the children needed to learn how to manage their money, to set priorities, and to save or spend money in ways that would help them achieve their goals.

“The ultimate goal is to promote an exit from the vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy.”

Back then, microfinance projects were all the buzz. Like so many other interventions, microfinance did not necessarily involve children, much less build on their knowledge and experiences. We needed some kind of venture in which children could be the core decision makers and owners. And so we came up with Children’s Development Khazana (CDK), a life skills education programme with a cooperative bank at its heart that enables children to take collective responsibility for their own ‘khazana’ – the Persian word for treasure.

Any child aged 9–18 can become a member of CDK. The members come from poor and marginalized urban, rural and tribal communities. To open an account in India, a child needs just one basic unit of currency – a rupee. A volunteer child manager is chosen or elected by the members and holds this position for six months. Child managers are trained by the Butterflies finance team, along with their more experienced peers, in basic communication skills and how to maintain ledger, cash and pass books.

Members have two accounts: a current account, from which they can withdraw money frequently, and a savings account. Members can take a welfare advance to pay for books, school fees, clothes, shoes, play materials, medicines, medical treatment or any other needs. A development advance can be taken by 16-year-olds and above to start a business enterprise. An advance committee of seven members, four of whom are up to 14 years of age and three of whom are older, receive and assess the applications, ask for clarification and, if convinced, approve the advances. Children on the advance committee, who are nominated by the members, undergo training in assessing business plans.

All members form the general body and they meet every month to discuss issues related to CDK, including the behaviour of managers! On average, about three quarters of children participate in the meetings. There have been many instances when general body members have supported a member to go back to school. Every six months, review and training workshops are held for all child managers and members of CDK as well as adult focal persons. The CDK money is put in a mainstream bank and not into the account of the organizations that implement the programme. The seed money is kept in fixed deposits, while the money to be given out as advances or withdrawals is kept in short-term fixed deposits; both of these offer higher interest rates than simple savings. Members receive 10 per cent interest on their savings deposit. As mentioned earlier, children have ownership of the capital.

Today CDK is operational in six countries: Afghanistan, Ghana, India, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Local grassroots organizations implement the programme as associate members of CDK and receive capital of $3,333. Recently, schools have shown interest in the programme. Today CDK has 12,410 members (53 per cent of them boys and 46.2 per cent girls), 149 branches and 185 child volunteer managers. As of 2013, members’ savings amounted to $28,501.70, and 206 advances had been made, totalling $3,826. Most of these advances have been for school, tuition and examination fees, winter clothes, medicines, a family member’s medical treatment, citizenship cards, house repairs and starting a business.

CDK’s ultimate goal is to promote an exit from the vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy. Education and vocational training are critical tools, as is a grounding in financial management and business ethics. CDK conducts life skills education that emphasizes honesty and fairness – for example, members should not sell substandard products or mark up their products too high. Children involved in CDK are of the opinion that business is about making a profit – but not by cheating. All children associated with CDK continue their formal education. They focus on becoming entrepreneurs, learning professional skills and exiting from their situation of poverty and insecurity. Once a member has turned 18, we support her or him to open an account in a mainstream bank.

CDK has helped children realize their professional and entrepreneurial goals. Some members have had culinary training and have become chefs in fine dining restaurants. One member is pursuing his apprenticeship with a chartered accountancy firm. Daughters of commercial sex workers have been able to obtain an education, gain skills and start businesses.

We take pride in our work, but the opportunities enjoyed by children and adolescents living in poverty seem to be shrinking in this rapidly changing world. CDK is a lifeline for some of these children. Countless more remain to be reached.