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What do children need most: saving, rights or solidarity?

All the major critiques of ‘child-saving’ fall short of the mark. We must reconceptualise our solidarity with the poor if we really want to help protect the world’s children.

A father and son run a butcher's shop in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Vipez/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Development organisations from NGOs like Save the Children and Plan International to government departments like the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) all place youth and child well-being at the centre of their campaigns and interventions in developing countries. Likewise, measures to improve the health and well-being of children constitute core components of policy development. Indeed, several of the Millennium Development Goals directly target children and young people. These interventions and policies rely on the conception of children as especially vulnerable and deserving of rescue that has circulated in popular culture, news and policy since at least the early nineteenth century. At the same time these organisations frame their actions within international law, particularly the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to give legitimacy to their right to act on behalf of (other people’s) children.

More recently, children (especially the ‘girl-child’) have been tasked with no less a project than the economic development of Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as the eradication of world poverty. This can be seen, for example, in Nike’s ‘The Girl Effect’ campaign and Plan International’s ‘Weapons of Mass Construction’. So, what might be wrong with saving children, tasking girls with eradicating world poverty, and implementing rights for children?

Why not ‘save’ the children?

Critics often employ three main arguments. Firstly, that children’s well-being is being used by the world’s major powers as a way of legitimating their interventions in the governing of other countries and the governing of the poor in their own countries. Secondly, that developing countries do not have the resources to protect children from work and independent migration and that therefore it is wrong for anyone, particularly wealthier countries, to demand that they do so. I call this pragmatic relativism. The third argument, cultural relativism, is that different cultures have different ways of raising children. These differences maybe incommensurable but they do not mean that one kind of childhood (say, one in which children go to school) is better than another (say, one in which children go to work).

There can be no doubt that child well-being is used as a Trojan horse for external intervention. I could cite any number of instances of this but perhaps one will suffice: when the US government sought to legitimate its attack on Afghanistan, Laura Bush said “Fighting brutality against women and children is not the expression of a specific culture; it is an acceptance of our common humanity” (cited in Cynthia Weber’s book Imagining America at War). This is straightforward enough to counter: bombs for regime change in the name of child welfare is clearly a cynical ploy for masking real politick. However, other types of development-related interventions, for example getting children to go to school rather than work or mass vaccinations to eradicate infectious diseases, are more complicated in their effects. On the one hand, they do save the lives of individual children and they may well improve the life chances of individuals. On the other, they are also mechanisms through which new (liberal) ideas about the person and their relationship to society are embedded in non/pre-capitalist societies, ideas that are compatible with capitalist economics. The governance that is made possible through the actions of development agents is one that tries to obscure the inequalities inevitably inscribed in global capitalism by mitigating its impacts on the most vulnerable: children. At the same time it engages children, through education and participation, in ways of being in the world that are congruent with liberal capitalism: freedom, autonomy and individualism.

This complicated use of interventions in the name of child welfare and the tendency to stop thinking and simply ‘do something’ when child protection is evoked means that we must always ask: who thinks this particular action is in the best interests of which children and why? We must further ask who stands to benefit from this action, other than the children in whose name it is putatively taking place. So, for instance if a mining company in West Africa opposes ‘child’ labour, further investigation may show that the mining company is using child protection to prevent local youths from working in alluvial mining.

The second critique of intervention, what I have called ‘pragmatic relativism’, has no place in a left critique of development. It is one thing to argue that children in developing countries need to work or to migrate alone in order to support themselves or their families. It is something else entirely to argue that governments should not take responsibility for children’s well-being because they cannot afford to do so, and that international agencies should not intervene because children in Africa, Asia and Latin America have different needs to children in Europe and North America. Indeed this argument comes dangerously close to saying that ‘our’ (white) children have different needs, capacities and competencies than ‘their’ (black and brown) children.

The third critique, ‘cultural relativism’, argues that the model of childhood accepted by development agents is only valued over other ways of being in the world because it has the support of the global powers. That is irrefutable. There are many ways of practicing childhood and their incommensurability does not necessarily mean that one way is better for children than another. By the same token, if going to work is not necessarily worse for a child than going to school; going to school is not necessarily worse for a child than going to work.

Solidarity politics

I argue that none of the reasons usually offered for why child-saving or child rights are ‘wrong’ is entirely sufficient. Furthermore, some of them are distinctly against the spirit of international solidarity. I want to propose instead that children’s vulnerabilities do make a moral claim on adults. Governments and organisations can respond to this claim without resorting to a nineteenth-century moral philanthropy, without embracing the liberal model of childhood (and with it liberal ways of being in the world), and without retreating into localism. I want to propose that we rethink our responsibilities towards children by developing modes of solidarity with the poor (adults and children).

The liberal model of childhood is tied to the globalisation of capitalism and its neoliberal subjects. To refute the claim that the globalisation of liberal capitalism is good for children, we must first be clear that children face multiple insecurities because global capitalism creates constant crises in social reproduction. These crises displace and unsettle children and their families. The problem of children’s insecurities lies not with individual children and their families, but with the structural inequalities that mark their lives.

The liberal model of childhood needs to be treated sceptically. Critiques must not merely reference cultural specificity, modernity, and the limits of its possible production, as most have done to date. They must openly discuss the implications of the liberal model for how to be human, and the deep congruity between this particular way of being human and late capitalism. This is where the potential for a radical politics of childhood lies. We must insist on the importance of modes of childhood that resist, challenge, or subvert liberalism. We must furthermore build modes of solidarity with the poor that do not refute the importance of child survival or child well-being, but insist that so long as production is tied to profit, neither survival or well-being can ever be assured.

About the author

Karen Wells is Assistant Dean for the Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. She is also Reader in International Development and Childhood Studies. She is the author of Childhood in a Global Perspective and has published widely on the visual representation and the impacts of global structures and flows on children and childhood. 


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