By Neil Howard
Today is International Children’s Day, when the world’s child protection institutions both remind us that children are the future and urge us to better care for them in the present. But how well are they doing their own job?
By some metrics, they’re doing great. Children’s rights and well-being have been placed at the heart of almost every Sustainable Development Goal. Governments claim legitimacy by the yardstick of policies to protect their children. And multilateral and philanthropic efforts to promote child rights are thriving, with the United Nations Children’s Fund alone reporting an annual income of over $5 billion.
But the development agencies who work on child protection also face major critique. Scholars such as myself, colleagues at Bath, and those further afield, unite around at least two major points. The first is that many of the interventions and policies promoted in the name of child rights are non-participatory and top-down, with target groups or ‘victims’ excluded from the design process in ways that limit effectiveness and even cause harm. The second is that policies and interventions often avoid addressing the structural root causes of the phenomena they’re supposed to tackle, in part because doing so is politically challenging for their architects.
For the past 50 years, the grandfather of participatory development, Robert Chambers, has been spreading the simple but powerful message that we need to ask those we seek to help how best to do so. Although intuitive, most international child protection (and indeed development) work doesn’t really happen this way. Typically, laws, policies and projects will be drafted in distant capitals far from the places they’re applied. And while these instruments may be signed off by representatives of elected governments, the clear relationship between power and money (alongside manifold other political failings), is such that often those individuals do not fully represent all their constituents.
The consequences of this can be tragic. “Collateral damage” is the term that many of my colleagues use, and all of us have stories of studying interventions gone wrong as a result of the distance between their architects and targets. For instance, child labourers ‘rescued’ from factory work by well-meaning donor officials who put pressure on Southern governments, only for those same children to be found later in worse, more dangerous and far more exploitative work further beneath the radar.
Participation is therefore as fundamental as it is in short supply. The participation of those affected by those facing any life challenge is essential for effective interventions to support them. No matter how well-intentioned we may be, as practitioners or researchers, we are unlikely to understand the nuances of another’s reality sufficiently well to be able build appropriate interventions without them. It is also essential for sustainability, since we know from psychological research that people are more likely to be satisfied and take ownership of decisions that affect them if they are included in the process of making them. Finally, participation matters ethically, and it marks the difference between charity and solidarity. In the inimitable words of the Aboriginal activist, Lilla Watson, “If you have come to help me then you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together”.
This brings me to the second major critique of the child protection establishment – it is constitutionally a-political. Solidarity requires us to get political. Although much mainstream discourse around the problems children face in the Global South position those as the simple consequence of abstract concepts such as poverty, the reality is that all are ultimately man-made and result in the end from political decisions over the distribution of rights and resources.
To again take child labour as an example, research from all over the world shows that people – including the young – routinely choose to submit to exploitative labour relations because doing so is their best option. Changing this reality means changing the rules of the global economy to ensure that everyone everywhere possesses the necessary minimum to resist exploitation and as a human right.
Plenty of our practitioner colleagues know this. The problem however is that political and funding constraints often prevent them from speaking out about it. In the words of Nina, a senior UN employee I interviewed in 2011: “Stories about…political-economic injustice simply don't sell. It's suffering that sells….You have to be sexy to raise money’, and of course stories of innocent children suffering at the hands of unscrupulous baddies are sexy. This results in political narratives simplifying complex patterns of causality and avoiding the inconvenient truths about power and its concentration. Until international child protection actors begin actively tackling these, little of substance will be achieved.
Neil Howard is Prize Fellow in International Development at the University of Bath.
Parts of this post appeared previously on the Delta 8.7 Platform, available here.
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