• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 23rd July, 2008

Where the children of the South are empowered - there's hope

Most of us feel we could do more to help disadvantaged children in what we now call the "South". We're bombarded with adverts and pledge days on television, all giving the distinct impression that we know how to help - we just need the resources to solve the problem.Here in the North we know what to do. The problems are in the South - and we can solve them. Really?In reality of course, we don't know how to solve our own problems, never mind other people's. In spite of all our investments in research there are still very few proven models and not one capable of tackling all ills in all places. We're still learning about risks to children's health and development and how to make even small inroads. We've little idea about how to apply learning on a large scale. So why do we imagine we can do in the South what are singularly unable to do in the North?My experience is to the contrary. Our understanding about what works is variable but there isn't much dispute that the efforts of the international aid community to improve the well-being of children in poor countries are failing. Research on progress towards the UN Millenium Goals to improve the children's health and education makes depressing reading[See Infant deaths down to ten million - or don't we really know? ]. We can always point to a few islands of exceptional effectiveness but they are surrounded by rough seas of poor practice and governance, in part sustained by international donors.

So what's missing?

A key ingredient is more respectful partnership. While the years between 1970 and 1990 were characterized by North-South solidarity across civil society, often against injustice, in the last 15 years development agencies in the North seem to be going it alone.And as European colonialism recedes, so Euro-American arrogance seems to be having a resurgence. Rather than assuming development workers in the South will lead the way, responding to the interests and needs of their constituencies, innovating and mobilizing communities to deal with problems, there is an increasing tendency in the North to forget where the prime responsibility for children lies.Governments, civil society and families in the South have a duty to protect, care for and listen to their children. When Northern "experts" get into the business of telling a Southern "them" what to do, or take undeserved credit for what the South has done with Northern resources, or, worse still, they bypass civil society and government altogether, we are being blind to the consequences of what amounts to more colonialism merely re-branded.What leaders of change in the South find baffling is the pervasive idea that there may be a single solution to common problems. Taking the single problem of street children, there is a myriad of promising interventions with widely differing theoretical approaches and modes of engagement with children.Much the same could be said about a common Northern problem such as children's use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. The South finds the Northerner's search for logic and predictability - in the form of planning methodologies, for example - equally unhelpful. If a program aims to reconcile children to their families but ends up doing something different - for example by removing the stigma of all children born out of marriage - they question whether such variance be should deemed a failure?

So how can we make progress?

First, Northern agencies should recognize the limits to their responsibility. They should focus on contributing to Southern organizations' determined efforts to develop national and local capacity rather than wading in themselves.Secondly - forget those "best practice" blueprints and planning models and frameworks - we should allow people near to the problems the time, space and resources to innovate, learn and manage change effectively. And, by the way, when I say “people” I include children.Thirdly, how about investing in helping people in the South to learn from each other? And, while we are doing that, why don't we acknowledge what we are learning from them and share the benefit more widely? For example, efforts to keep children in their home communities are often significantly more sophisticated in the South than the North. By assuming that we have all the answers, we are missing a trick.We have the money, and therefore power, but not necessarily the most useful knowledge. It is an abuse of that power if we get in the way of people finding effective solutions, locally born and owned, and shared with others.• Emma Crewe expands on these themes in “Towards Better Outcomes for Children Globally: Alternative perspectives on international development”, Journal of Children's Services, 2, 4, pp 59-70, 2007

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