Tag Archives: Children

Students take a computer class in Ho, Ghana. Photo from EIFL.

Volunteering abroad with children: Some recommendations

This post originally appeared on KickStart Ghana and is re-printed here with permission. It is the second in a two-part series on volunteering with children – see part one here.

By Ruth Taylor

When considering the sometimes disastrous consequences of overseas volunteering with regards the emotional and physical well-being of children, it is all too easy to conclude that all projects involving children should be stopped altogether, preventing the problems from ever even being a possibility. Although a firm critic of many projects abroad involving children, I adamantly believe that, if done correctly, in conjunction with local stakeholders and with the benefit of the child firmly situated at the heart of any decision, projects that bring together Western volunteers and local children can be hugely effective for both parties.

Over the five years I’ve been involved with KickStart Ghana, our attitude and practices regarding volunteering with children have developed dramatically. I find it really encouraging looking back and seeing how, as an organisation, we have become more impactful through our work, due to the decisions we’ve made, especially when considering our child-facing programmes. Child protection and safety, as well as beneficiary impact, are things we regard as being of the highest importance.

The three summer programmes currently running in Ho consist heavily of working with young people. The summer school, reading club and football coaching sessions, delivered alongside our local partners and supported by our dedicated team of UK volunteers, all focus on increasing the educational and sporting abilities and achievements of young people.

So, how do we ensure we are not making the same mistakes as so many other international volunteering organisations with regards to our work with children?

Firstly, we work closely with community stakeholders, determining where we can have the most positive impact, building on and supporting initiatives already taking place in the town. In the same way we would not appreciate foreigners coming into our communities and telling us what our children do or do not need in order to develop, organisations must thoroughly understand the necessity and rightfulness of local stakeholder engagement and involvement. By working alongside local teachers, child care professionals and parents, organisations go some way to ensure their actions are embedded into the context of the local community, leading to more impactful and more sustainable programmes which are supported by local people.

Secondly, all our volunteers pass through a structured recruitment and training programme, ensuring they are well equipped for their designated roles whilst in-country. Our Summer School volunteers provide extra-curricular activities for Year 6 pupils, but as they are not qualified teachers, the national curriculum content is left to Ghanaian teachers to deliver. When questioned on this, our response is simple: would we ever allow a volunteer teacher from Ghana to come to the U.K. and teach a Year 6 maths class, despite the fact they were not actually qualified? Obviously not!

It is important that all international development organisations that work with volunteers know the boundaries they are setting for their programmes by doing so – volunteers, by their very nature, cannot do everything a paid, fully-trained member of staff can. It is the responsibility of each individual organisation to ensure measures are put in place to enable volunteers to work to the best of their ability.

Thirdly, we follow a strict policy when it comes to child protection, ensuring all volunteers are made fully aware of the policy before and during their placement. No cameras are allowed on project, as we wish to encourage our volunteers to focus their attentions on ensuring the programmes are the best they can be, not with their eye continuously objectifying a child through a lens.

Our volunteers are also reminded about their position as mentors, not friends. Although they 100% should develop friendly, trusting relationships with the children, they are not in Ghana to hand out hugs, nor are the children attending the projects to be fussed over, but rather to benefit from the activities provided. By doing this, we hopefully curb any negative side effects for the children when it comes to attachment.

Much research has been done regarding the detrimental effects that short-term volunteering placements can have on children and when properly thought through, the conclusions seem obvious.

Having a constant stream of volunteers arrive in your community, show you love and affection and then, without a backwards glance, get back on a plane can prove very difficult for children, especially if coming from vulnerable backgrounds.

If we think about this from a UK perspective, it’s like volunteers from other parts of the world, coming over and working in our young people’s refuges for 2 weeks at a time, completely unqualified to do so, getting to know the residents, gaining their affection and trust, before travelling around the country for a bit and then hoping back on a plane, never to be seen or heard from again. And then the next group arrive and so on. Although maybe not fulfilling the Western volunteer desire for the much needed profile pic with a cute Ghanaian child, or supplying a never-ending opportunity for cuddles, KickStart Ghana believe these decisions make our programmes more impactful and consequentially, the experience a better one for volunteers and beneficiaries a like.

I am not here to claim that KickStart Ghana are by any means perfect as an organisation when it comes to these issues, but I am pleased to work for a charity that takes this stuff seriously, doesn’t cut corners and instils a respect in our volunteers about these important issues. I’d like to finish this blog with a quick word of advice for anyone currently considering volunteering abroad with children. The below 5 points, I believe, should be understood, appreciated and taken to heart by anyone looking for a placement. Do not consider your actions inconsequential, and make sure you are spending your time and money wisely, so as to be bringing about good instead of harm.

  • Think about what your own strengths are. Good intentions are a fantastic starting point, but unfortunately are not enough to make a difference. If they were, we’d have no problems left in the world. You must consider what skills or strengths you as an individual have to bring to a project. The last thing any developing country needs is more big-hearted but utterly clueless Westerners flying over thinking they can help by simply being there.
  • Look closely at the organisation you are considering volunteering with. What is their track record when it comes to volunteering with children? Do they prioritise the safety and well-being of the child over everything else? Are they more focused on the volunteers’ happiness than the child’s? This should be easily determinable through the way they present themselves online and through their recruitment process. If you can secure your place in 90 seconds, like I mentioned above, move on to someone else.
  • Focus on the impact on the child, not the impact on you. If you truly want to volunteer, your energy should be put into ensuring the programme/s you are involved in are as impactful as they can be. Don’t choose a project solely for its location, duration, proximity to the pub, etc. Although you will inevitably get a lot out of your volunteering experience (arguably more than you will actually give), you should not in any way see your trip as a holiday. If you do, reconsider what you’re doing, and go to Spain for a week instead.
  • Always consider what best practice is in the UK. Would we allow a particular action to occur, or a particular attitude to prevail in our working with children at home? If not, then you need to consider why the situation is any different in the country you are in. If we really believe children are equal and are all deserving of the same high level of care, then are actions and attitudes should mirror this, no matter where in the world we are.
  • Hold people and organisations accountable. If you come across a placement, or are involved in a project, that you think may have put children at risk, speak out about it. Go to the people in charge and raise your concerns. The only way to move forward with these issues is to first highlight that they exist and then speak out against them. Only then will we be in a position to move towards a reality where volunteering your time with children across the world is something to truly boast about, not as some shallow badge of honour, but as a constructive way to aid global child development.

Ruth is currently International Development Manager for Student Hubs, leading the Impact International programme, which aims to promote global citizenship amongst students in the U.K., by acting as a platform for them to learn more about international development, human rights and international volunteering. Alongside her day job, she is a trustee for KickStart Ghana, a charity working to enhance sporting and educational opportunities for communities in Eastern Ghana, and she sits on the Steering Committee for YTFN, a youth organisation promoting effective philanthropy. She is interested in youth development engagement, campaigning and the complexities of international volunteering.

Featured image is students taking a computer class in Ho, Ghana. Photo from EIFL.

A classroom in Kenya. Photo by Deepa Srikantaiah.

Volunteering abroad with children: A game of double standards?

This post originally appeared on KickStart Ghana and is re-printed here with permission. It is the first in a two-part series on volunteering with children, so check back next week for part two!

By Ruth Taylor

Let me ask you. How many times have you logged onto Facebook and been greeted with a newly-updated profile picture of one of your friends, volunteer-smile intact, affectionately cuddling a small, rather grubby-looking child, from an unknown African nation? Once? Twice? Too many times to recall?

If you haven’t experienced it personally, you’ll probably be aware of the growing phenomenon sweeping schools, colleges and universities across the Western world. In search of adventure and a desire to break normalcy, our young people, during their gap years or summer holidays, are jetting off to volunteer (more often than not, with children) in countries across the Global South… It’s become a craze. Like over-reliance on Apple products and an addiction to Starbucks, voluntourism is becoming something by which this generation is being defined. It’s almost come to be seen as a rite of passage (albeit for the relatively well-off) – something you do before, during or after university. Something that will “set you apart” and help you land your £40k-starting-salary graduate job.

Let me ask you another question. How would you react if the craze was reversed? Would you allow your children, your younger brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, to appear as the photo fodder within a Kenyan’s profile picture? An Ethiopian’s? A Cambodian’s? Would you be okay with letting the young people close to you feature in the strange online societal competition of foreigners, where you wear your profile picture with a small child of a different skin colour as a badge of honour, boasting about the fact that you – you noble and benevolent being – have volunteered abroad?

I have a feeling we might be slightly less agreeable than others across the world and so starts my second blog for the summer – the complexity of volunteering with children and the complicated way we, in the West, appear to have different ideas and ideals about what’s acceptable with regards to working with young people, depending on where in the world they live.

As I mentioned in my previous post for KickStart, the world of international volunteering is a murky one, although all too often, volunteers and potential volunteers view it through rose-tinted glasses. When we consider volunteering abroad specifically with children, the situation becomes murkier still, what with child protection and welfare, the complexity of cross-cultural teaching and learning and a whole host of other ethical issues regarding the suitability of (usually) unqualified volunteers working with (largely) vulnerable young people. It is a topic that is receiving far too little attention.

The image of the happy, white Westerner surrounded by the beaming faces of black children has become the snapshot associated with what it means to volunteer abroad (put it into Google and tell me I’m wrong!). Accompanied by the emotive language of voluntourism websites, it is not a surprise that volunteering your time on child-specific projects is the most popular form of volunteering abroad today.

I’m as fond of children as the next person, and if given the opportunity to play with kids from any nation for a couple of weeks, I’d have a hard time turning it down. But arguably as the most vulnerable individuals within any society, surely these children deserve a little bit more structured thinking? How exactly is the best way to support their development and learning? Who exactly is the right person to do this for the upmost benefit of the child? What potential damage could be being done to these kids if the project was to go wrong or just be plain neglectful?

By sending out our well-intentioned but unqualified and inexperienced 18 year olds, are we actually actively harming the very children we are so carelessly flaunting on our profile pages?

A recent experiment saw me take to the Internet and the websites of five of the biggest voluntourism companies to see how long it would take for me, a 23 year old white female graduate, with a smidgen of teaching experience, to sign up and volunteer with children abroad. The average was under 90 seconds. 90 seconds, with not a single question about who I am and why I’d be a good person to work with kids. I could be anyone, anyone, with any sort of horrific motivation for wanting to spend unsupervised time with children.

Obviously, in the vast majority of cases, volunteers wishing to work with children are simply young people with a desire to improve the situations of other young people living lives very different to their own. However, there are incidences of people with far darker intentions having the opportunity to volunteer with children abroad, where they are unlikely to undergo any criminal records checks, be supervised whilst on project or ultimately be traced if an indecency is suspected. Would this iewer even be a possibility in the U.K.? The answer is a resounding no! To volunteer with children at home, you first have to wade through thousands of proverbial miles of red tape – why do we think children in other countries should have anything but the same level of security?

Through my research, I also found that the majority of voluntourism organisations do not require volunteers to have any level of experience, let alone qualifications to volunteer with children, whether in a school or a residential care institution. Can you ever imagine this being the norm in the U.K.? How many times have you seen a plane full of well-intentioned but unqualified, 18-year-old Nepalese young people flood U.K. schools or residential care homes to “teach” our children? My guess would be not that often!

This begs the question of why we feel people have to be trained and educated to a fairly high standard to work with English children, but the same does not apply when considering children growing up across the Global South. What kinds of assumptions, whether conscious or subconscious, are we making and thus basing our actions upon? Do we really believe, as our actions seem to depict, that as Westerners, even if uneducated, we are somehow more innately qualified to care for children and know what is best for them, than their own teachers, nursery nurses, even parents? Or, worse still, do we think that the children of Africa, Asia and South America are somehow deserving of a lesser standard of care? If, like most people, you balk at both of these ideas, then maybe it is about time our actions changed to mirror what we claim to believe.

In part two, Ruth details best practices for volunteer organisations and gives some tips on choosing a volunteer position.

Ruth is currently International Development Manager for Student Hubs, leading the Impact International programme, which aims to promote global citizenship amongst students in the U.K., by acting as a platform for them to learn more about international development, human rights and international volunteering. Alongside her day job, she is a trustee for KickStart Ghana, a charity working to enhance sporting and educational opportunities for communities in Eastern Ghana, and she sits on the Steering Committee for YTFN, a youth organisation promoting effective philanthropy. She is interested in youth development engagement, campaigning and the complexities of international volunteering.

Featured image is a classroom in Kenya. Photo by Deepa Srikantaiah.

Women breastfeed their babies in Cambodia. World Breastfeeding Week is from August 1 to 7. Photo by: Charles Pieters

Breastfeeding needs more aid

Dr. Arun Gupta is co-founder and central coordinator of the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India, an affiliate of the International Baby Food Action Network for Asia. A member of the prime minister’s Council for India’s Nutrition Challenges, Gupta gave up his private practice to promote breastfeeding and bring this issue to the forefront of social and political discussions in India and abroad. 

Breastfeeding stands out as the single most effective intervention to save children’s lives, improve nutrition, by reducing diarrhea, pneumonia and newborn infections. Among the growing benefits are enhanced IQ, reduction in obesity and non-communicable diseases, which include diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Yet the rate of exclusive breastfeeding among children younger than six months is a dismal 37 percent globally, which means 92 million out of 136 million babies are not able to practice WHO-recommended exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. And these indicators have been almost stagnant for two decades, despite World Health Organization plans to increase exclusive breastfeeding by 50 percent by 2025.

Women breastfeed their babies in Cambodia. World Breastfeeding Week is from August 1 to 7. Photo by: Charles Pieters
Women breastfeed their babies in Cambodia. World Breastfeeding Week is from August 1 to 7. Photo by: Charles Pieters

According to data from a new study carried out in 51 countries by the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative, exclusive breastfeeding rate averages about 46 percent in 15 countries and initiation of breastfeeding within one hour of birth is about 51 percent. East Asia and the Pacific has shown a decline in breastfeeding mothers from 45 percent in 2006 to 29 percent in 2012, while the baby food market is set to grow by 31 percent over the next three years.

What most people perceive about breastfeeding is that women do it anyway. However, women need to be supported with several strategies, including protection from baby food companies, support at the workplace, support at the time of delivery and accurate information about optimal feeding practices. In spite of proven benefits and repeated emphasis, there has been very slow progress in developing specific programs. Governments, donors and international aid organizations have been focused on “promotion of breastfeeding,” which means nothing or different things to different people. When it comes to funding, it is hardly there for any of the three strategies mentioned above. International funding, for example has been largely driven by food aid for therapeutic food or micronutrient supplements. This is because of market-driven policies and programs.

So where should the donor money go?

First, to protecting breastfeeding from pernicious commercial influences, which is critical. WHO’s recent report on implementation of the 1981 International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes shows that only 37 out of 199 countries have enacted a law that fully adheres to it. Does that send any message to our aid agencies or governments? Ending all inappropriate promotion of food for infants and young children needs more attention. If you invest in this strategy and promise to deliver on this standard by 2015 in all 199 countries, the world would be much kinder to women and children. Ambitious, yes, but it can be done, and requires both courage and cash.

Next is promotion. The most common reason for women to adopt artificial feeding is perceived insufficiency of their breastmilk for the baby. Breastfeeding is not like “food in” and “food out” — it’s all controlled by two hormones. These hormones depend on sucking by the baby and the state of mind of the mother. It’s all about building her confidence to increase her milk supply. Evidence shows that increasing exclusive breastfeeding rates is possible through individual or group counseling by an adequately trained worker. This again requires technical assistance and human resources. Only seven countries out of 51 have such a provision, and the gap is too large.

Third is support. Breastfeeding can’t succeed if mother and baby are away from each other. Improving maternity benefits and encouraging breastfeeding at work must be encouraged. Yet none of the 51 countries where we studied policies could score a perfect ten in this area. Asia is no exception, as very few countries provide a six-month maternity leave. To equally support women, innovative thinking is required. Wage compensation for women in the informal sector should be a top priority — at least $2 a day. The ILO convention could be revised to include a mandatory six-month leave for all women, working at home or not.

According to a recent study, the United States could save up to $13 billion in health care costs if 90 percent of women were able to breastfeed. You get your money back along with a range of public health benefits.

Finally, it should be viewed as women’s right. Breastfeeding is a public health priority requiring social, political, legal and financial interventions. Somehow, breastfeeding, though admittedly of great benefit, is always left out when it comes to resource allocations.

All countries, donors and development agencies should allocate at least ten percent of the child budget to strategies for increasing breastfeeding. Otherwise, the global community and the world at large will fail in supporting women. To spend this fund, countries could design a minimum essential programme of services within a legal framework according to the guidelines set by WHO’s Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding, and coordinated by a high level body within the government, like in Brazil, where this policy dramatically increased the country’s breastfeeding rates.

You have the power to invest in children. The choice is yours.

This post originally appeared on Devex.

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Best in show? WhyDev wants you to vote for us

In the almost three years WhyDev has existed, the 1500 comments and nearly 100 contributors to the blog demonstrates we’ve been successful in promoting discussion around topics related to aid and development.

And the accolades keep pouring in! By which we mean that last year we were runners up for an ABBA from A View From The Cave.

But that has not been our only nomination for a random blogging award. Oh yes, there’s more.

Last month we were nominated in the Best Australian Blogs 2013 Competition. We’ve been nominated for an award in the Commentary category, and we’re also up for a People’s Choice Award.

To win the People’s Choice Award, we need people to vote for us. People just like you.image

Take thirty seconds of your time to go to page five of this site and vote for us.

A vote for us is a vote of acknowledgement that our contributors are awesome. It’s a vote for sunshine and puppies. It’s a vote for Madonna to get back to the music she was making in the ’80s and away from development.

Not convinced we’re worth your vote? Let us convince you by highlighting some of our favourite posts since the last time we boasted about the quality of our posts.

Brendan:

How services, not “innovation,” can change lives” by Weh Yeoh

This is a challenging post that has broad implications in an environment that is increasingly searching for The Answer to End Poverty. Where does this leave service provision and the needs of people, particularly people with disabilities? Who is deciding what those needs are? Are we listening? Weh challenges us to not get distracted by shiny things and bring it back to the people.

Where are the children? Orphanage voluntourism in Ghana” by Hanna Voekl

Finally, some evidence-based research about the efficacy and effects of orphanage voluntourism! There is a lot of chatter and general misgivings about: a) orphanages in general; b) how voluntourism is a negative practice particularly in orphanages. But, these misgivings are anecdotal. Hanna’s research is not.

Weh:

Making the world better does not make you better” by J.

I’m generally not a fan of opinion pieces that border on rants, but there is something about the way that J. writes and thinks that is so compelling. This piece is a great example and taps into something really important about the distinction between what aid/development workers do, and how we are more broadly as human beings.

9 development phrases we hate (and suggestions for a new lexicon)” by WhyDev Team

“MT @Vanalli: In Laos “gender mainstreaming” translated as “man & woman together in the middle of the river”. Shows how silly NGO-speak is.” WhyDev Twitter account, 10th April, 2013. As tongue in cheek as this post is (creating an entire litany of useless buzzwords simply because you don’t like the previous lot), it does highlight the importance of saying what you mean. All the time.

Allison:

Stop branding aid” by Josie Stewart

I come from a communications background where a central assumption is that branding is good. Josie strongly challenges this assumption, and argues that branding aid undermines aid effectiveness.

Teaching children journalism to strengthen democracy” by Jessica Carter

Children are so much brighter and more critical than we often realise. This piece powerfully demonstrates how kids in Bangladesh involved in a youth-centred development project are reporting on and critically assessing news in their country.

Did we convince you? Then vote for us. Voting closes Tuesday, April 30.

 

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Good intentions are enough – to ‘nearly kill’ a local kid

By Anonymous

Given the nature of today’s anonymous post, WhyDev is unable to verify the details of the story below, but we believe it is valuable to publish given the ethical questions it raises. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

What does ’saving‘ a child really mean? Ask 10 people and you’re liable to get 20 different answers.

Here’s a situation where this question was implicitly asked but I’ll let you decide whether or not anyone was ’saved.’ As extremely discomfiting as this situation is for me, I’m putting it out to the wider development community with hopes of starting a conversation about how we can stop similar occurrences in the future.

I am currently affiliated with an NGO that works on health systems strengthening in East Africa. Pretty standard stuff – malnutrition, maternal mortality, village outreach, and the like. Recently, the founder turned the formerly-secular NGO into an explicitly-evangelical one, and with the shift came missionaries dedicated to ‘soul harvesting’ and ‘crusading.’

But ultimately, this is a story about an 11-year-old boy, Micah (not his real name). He was found by the side of the road one evening and was brought to the nearby health centre, where one of the missionaries happened to be working. We don’t know exactly how he ended up there, though the working hypothesis was that his mother tried to poison him and left him for dead. We’d later learn that this is almost certainly not true.

Whatever string of events led Micah to the side of the road, he was in rough shape and alone at the hospital. The missionary wanted to help, made phone calls to community members, and became involved in his case.

Micah required a higher level of care, so the missionary insisted that he go to a better-run private hospital, all expenses paid by the NGO. The missionary then had the police hastily write up a note giving our organisation the right to take the child, so he went into surgery and came out with one less appendix and one additional eight-inch incision on his abdomen.

As he recuperated, the conversation shifted to what was going to happen to him after he was discharged; a group of at least six members of the organisation, along with one community member, tasked themselves with deciding Micah’s next home – with no single person responsible for the decision or for his care. Relatives were unreachable and the paucity of available information meant that no good option seemed to exist; orphanages were discussed, but shot down for not being ‘right’ and for taking too long to accept him.

And so the missionaries decided that, while they attempted to sort out proper placement, he would stay with us. They wanted to save a child. Please do not misunderstand me – all of them are extremely kind, caring people who only had the absolute best of intentions.

But, that’s exactly the point – as we all know, and as this story will show, extraordinarily good intentions can be extraordinarily dangerous.

Before continuing, it’s instructive to note a few things. First, a police report was never filed in a case of what was assumed to be attempted filicide; while we now know that it wasn’t, at the time that was the working assumption. In some areas, it would be commonplace to forego police action; here it is not. The missionaries did receive a handwritten letter giving them the authority to take the child to the private hospital, but that was the extent of police involvement. A suitable post-discharge plan was discussed but not seriously considered by the group of seven; many orphanages were available, but never truly considered as an option.

So, Micah was taken from his community into an NGO home that is teeming with foreigners and bereft of other children. He was placed in the care of people who neither share his language nor his culture. While it’s a little facetious to say that he was ’kidnapped‘ (technically, the police did give consent; whether it was theirs to give is a separate, but important, question to ask), it is fair to ask whether this was truly in his best interest or if it was appropriate to do.

If this was the end of the story, it could probably serve as the start of a good discussion on the promise and the peril of good intentions and whether these actions are ethical or advisable.

But it’s not the end of the story.

Micah arrived in the late afternoon and walked into a room full of foreigners. For the next hour or so, a member of a nearby church translated as the missionaries explained what was going on and asked a number of questions about what had happened to him. It was clear that he was extremely uncomfortable, and understandably so.

Micah became the ’house boy,’ and as no one was specifically accountable for his health and wellbeing, no one was responsible for him. None of us are able to speak more than a few words of his language, so we got by with a few hand signals. He warmed up to us, watched television, and ate.

But not in that order. By the time someone noticed how much food he was eating – including things he probably had never digested before, like burgers and chips – it was clear something was wrong with him. Micah’s a skinny kid, but he looked six months pregnant; he was eating too much and it was all staying in his now-distended stomach. With no one accountable for his care, this was allowed to slip by for far too long.

A day later, Micah was in extreme pain, so the missionaries took him to the hospital – the same one he had been discharged from days earlier. The doctor put an emergency nasogastric tube through his nose to reduce the distension; after the tube was in, the doctor said that his stomach ’deflated like a balloon.’

He later said that Micah’s stomach was dangerously near rupture, and that he was, unequivocally and without exaggeration, ’near death’ and ‘nearly killed;’ his stomach could have perforated or his abdominal distension could have put too much pressure on his lungs.

Micah spent the week writhing in discomfort, as the nasogastric tube kept him from distending. After myriad tests and consultations, the surgeon said that the valve between the stomach and intestines was not opening; this could require surgery to fix. But ’could‘ does a lot of work there – the condition could also work itself out in time.

In other words, a decision had to be made, but the medical officer of the NGO was out of the country, and we could not get a hold of him. He’s from the country but not the region, and had not been involved in Micah’s case in any meaningful way. Ultimately, the surgeon had to leave for the airport, so Micah didn’t have surgery that day.

This was a remarkable stroke of good luck, as the doctors were able to take the nasogastric tube out, and Micah began to eat. Bit by bit, his strength – and his smile – returned, and he was discharged days later, no surgery necessary.

He is back in our home once more, but this time one person is responsible for his health. I’ve had more than a few conversations with that person about the need to find him a suitable home as soon as possible, and it seems to have had an effect. I’m hoping he gets better, and finds a new home, soon.

So, uncharitably, it could be said that a NGO – with the best of intentions – took a child from a hospital and was the proximate cause of his immediate readmission and ’near death‘ experience. But even the charitable version leaves much to be desired: an outside group took ownership of a local child, failed to understand the risks of doing so, failed to take care of him, and – most importantly – failed to keep him safe.

There’s no question that his life was in a precarious situation before the missionaries intervened; he was a sick child who desperately needed help. But did he need help from his own community, or from outsiders who felt they were doing the right thing by removing him from it?

It’s possible that Micah’s community would have allowed him to overeat, or would otherwise failed to provide him the appropriate atmosphere conducive to convalescing. With a pyloric valve issue, it’s possible that, eventually, he would have returned to the hospital.

But would he have nearly died? Would major decisions about his health have been made by outsiders?

Are such situations simply unlucky or avoidable? Is this a one-time, isolated case of hubris, or is it proof positive for the broader claim that outsiders – even with the absolute best of intentions – are fated to cause more harm than good?

What if the child would have recovered as normal – how does that change conceptions of right and wrong? What if my organisation would have done a better job of taking care of Micah – then would it have been OK?

I don’t have answers to those questions, and am grappling with them myself. I only know a few things: this situation leaves me deeply uncomfortable, deeply furious, and deeply ambivalent about my tangential relationship to it, and it seems to me that no child was saved.

In this case, good intentions were enough – to nearly kill a local kid.

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Where are the children? Orphanage voluntourism in Ghana

By Hanna Tabea Voelkl 

As part of her Masters research on “Children, Youth, and International Development” at Brunel University, Hanna Tabea Voelkl conducted a qualitative case study in Ghana that focused specifically on the experiences of orphanage children with international volunteer tourists. Post-studies, she consciously decided not to work in development, but rather to work hands-on where she could “make a difference” without causing potential harm — back in her own country, Germany. She currently works as a social worker in a temporary institutional home for vulnerable and traumatised children. Contact her via e-mail: hanna.voelkl89@gmail.com.

Many development workers and blogs, including this one here and here, have discussed volunteer tourism and its possible negative implications, especially on host communities. In these debates, there seems to be a consensus that good intentions are not sufficient to “do good.”

While voluntourists who visit the children in orphanages genuinely want to make a difference to the children they engage with and more broadly the local communities they visit, where are the children’s voices in these often highly emotional discussions? When I sought the answer to this question I quickly realized that the perspective of the most affected group of the local community, children, has not been considered.

Considering children’s perspectives

So, let’s consider their perspective. The words “youth participation” and “empowerment,” are based on Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), and bring to mind the concept of children as active social agents.

This treaty implies that children are the hope of the future as they build up the new generations that aspire to develop themselves, and their own country. If we agree with the norms and values embodied in the UNCRC, shouldn’t children be considered the primary stakeholders of volunteer projects in orphanages, child day care centres or on the street?

Following this logic, I decided to find out whether these values operated in practice. I went to Ghana and asked children living in an orphanage used as a volunteer tourism site about their experiences. What I learned intensified my concern about the unsustainable nature of voluntourism and confirmed fears about the harm volunteers can have on children’s emotional development.

You would probably think that no matter what, children enjoy the presence of volunteers – they are after all poor orphans. Indeed, they become very excited when new volunteers arrive. Who would not be excited when knowing that sweets, stationery items for school, shoes, clothing, colouring pens, fruit, photographs and temporary playmates are on their way? Being besieged with presents and having constant entertainment through the continuous flow of volunteers sure sounds like fun… or does it?

The negative impact of voluntourism on children

The act of giving and receiving is what children associate the most with volunteers. Significantly, the children develop certain expectations and strategies to convince volunteers to give them something or take them on a trip. Sadly, this relationship reflects the widening gap between wealthy “help-givers” and “needy” beneficiaries and reduces support to individual acts of charity.

From the children’s point of view, volunteers are white, mostly young, female students who enter their lives in order to distribute things and spend time with them. From the volunteers’ perspective the children are poor, but happy due to “lotto-logic” — in life some people get lucky, some simply don’t, and their engagement with children does not contribute to them gaining an understanding of the structural causes of poverty.

In theory, the children learn about other countries through engaging with volunteers, which ultimately widens their horizons. The children develop an extremely positive image of the volunteers and the “oh-so-wonderful ‘Western world’.” Children in the orphanage frequently drew flags of the volunteers’ countries portraying nice places with good-hearted people, cars and airplanes.

Further, they developed aspirations to travel to Europe in order to learn a “proper” profession. It was great to see them dreaming big, but raised the issue of “brain drain” when I realized that their dreams involved leaving their own country. With a country’s future resting on its future generations, wouldn’t it be better if children aspired to develop their own community and country and were proud to be beautiful and intelligent Africans with the potential to do great things?

Many advocates for voluntourism argue that intercultural exchange is promoted by volunteer tourism, but is it really? My research found that it predominantly produced stereotypical, overly positive images of the Western world in the children’s minds, which ultimately expanded the gap between the home communities of the host and of the volunteer.

What remains after volunteers leave?

For the volunteers, it was an experience between school and university, a way to explore another country and to develop themselves. For them, the experience was successful and has come to an end. But what about the children they leave behind?

The comings and goings of different cohorts of voluntourists results in the children experiencing constant instability and inconsistency in their emotional care. They are also left with empty promises, as many volunteers promise to return, but the majority do not keep in contact and are soon replaced by the next cohort of volunteers.

Volunteer tourism might create opportunities for temporary social interaction, but it does not broaden the social networks of the children or make information more accessible for them. Further, it does not appear to create sustainable bridges between the two communities. And finally, it does not provide the children with the emotional care and support they need in order to develop into healthy individuals with a bright future.

As a result of the usage of their orphanage as a volunteer tourism site, the children I spoke with are spoiled but poor. Is this the best outcome for the children and is it the best way to use the energy, motivation and good intentions of volunteers?

If you want to make a difference, think again before volunteering with children abroad. An extra hand of a motivated volunteer can make all the difference right on your own doorstep at home. There are soup kitchens, vulnerable and traumatised children, homeless shelters, summer camps and much more in our “oh-so-wonderful” Western world as well.

And if you want to “head out there” without causing harm and emotional damage, you can always go backpacking.

Do you think the negative effects of voluntourism on children in orphanages outweigh the benefits?

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Teaching children journalism to strengthen democracy and development

“A boy named Rana lived in a slum with his mother. When he was two years old his father had passed away and his mother earned very little working in a wealthy man’s estate. It was just enough to keep them alive. When Rana saw that his other friends went to school he wondered if he could do the same. He asked his mother but he knew that she could not afford to send him.”

Online edition of Angikaar

These are the words of Bithi and Lelin, two Bangladeshi children from the same district – Rayer Bazar in Dhaka – as their friend Rana. This story was published in Angikaar, a school newspaper that finds its way into the hands of hundreds of Bangladeshis every two months.

Angikaar (read online here), which means ‘commitment’ in Bengali, is the product of hard work and small voices. Founded in September last year by a group of entrepreneurial young Bangladeshis, it features stories written by the children of the JAAGO Foundation’s school in Rayer Bazar.

In Bangladesh, where education is barely a right and more of a privilege, a school in the middle of a slum is a rare sight. But in Dhaka’s sprawling Rayer Bazar, where life leaks onto the muddy alleyways in techni-coloured patterns, the JAAGO school provides free education for nearly 200 students, helping children to break the cycle of poverty through learning.

Bithi, Lelin and Rana are three of the students who attend the JAAGO school. They are also budding journalists who are able to write their stories for Angikaar to share with a society that often ignores them.

On my first day helping out with Angikaar, I was greeted by the news that a fire had swept through a large portion of homes in Rayer Bazar. Surrounded by a bunch of over-excited children, I was struck by the significance of their story and the fact that this was the first I’d heard of it, despite living in a neighbouring suburb. The next day, a hundred words in Bangladesh’s English newspaper, The Daily Star, announced the fire with unsettling objectivity and little detail. For me, this moment captured the reason behind Angikaar and the potential behind sharing those children’s stories. It was an idea that resonated with the newspaper’s tagline that we would later go on to create: “Rising voices, building a better Bangladesh.”

Strengthening democracy and development

The fourth-estate role of the media is taken for granted in much of the world. Resting on the notions of free speech and democracy, it expects journalists to hold the government to account through their reporting. Although Bangladesh is a democracy, its media are hardly free or able to play a genuine watchdog role – the Bangladeshi media are ranked at 136th out of 178 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, with first being most free.

To add to the political limitations on media freedom, only slightly more than half (56%, according to UNICEF) of Bangladeshis are literate, and those who are non-literate are unlikely to have access to the electricity needed to watch a television or listen to a radio.

The result is local media that lack the resources, skills and platforms to report effectively on the many challenges faced by the nation and the people of Bangladesh – corruption, poverty, poor governance, and degrading or non-existent infrastructure, to name but a few. And when these issues do successfully make the headlines, they lack the voices and stories of everyday people.

Journalists and volunteers for the newspaper. Image credit: http://angikaar.com/home/inner-page/reporters.php

From this starting point, the benefits of giving more people the skills to tell their own stories seem obvious – more stories are told, people become better informed, voters make better decisions, accountable politicians do a better job. Of course, the reality is much messier, but this is the ideal driving a growing number of media development projects across the developing world, Angikaar included.

Empowering individuals

From my own observations over ten months of working with Angikaar, the greatest benefit was not simply that more people heard the children’s stories. Certainly, their words were read and appreciated. But, in a country of 150 million, a team of 15 student writers and 15 volunteer youth editors will need a lot more time to make their voices heard. Instead, the greatest achievement was what the children learnt about the complexity of news and the art of telling a story. In other words, it has increased their media literacy.

By increasing their exposure to different types of news sources and stories, the Angikaar team gradually became more confident in their ability to judge news and understand it. In a country where the quality of media is poor, being able to explain why and at least acknowledge that it could be better is invaluable.

In practice, this meant that the students could look at a news story and immediately ask how and why it was considered “newsworthy.” When Angikaar student journalist Siam read a story about underage marriage statistics, he decided to tell the story of a woman he knew who had been married at 15 and whose family had sold their land to pay for her dowry.

Importantly, Siam didn’t just tell her story, he finished by asking why it happened: “Why didn’t Amena receive any justice? Is it because she was poor, her family was poor, and there is no profit in helping other people?” To 12-year-old Siam, including this question for his readers was important, because he felt it was something rarely asked elsewhere – and there’s no doubt that the answer alludes to an even bigger story of injustice.

Consistency and stability

One of the key lessons I learnt was that consistency and stability are fundamental to the success of youth-centred media development projects. Whenever there was more than a week between our workshops, re-connecting with the students was difficult. Furthermore, the newspaper was bilingual – in Bangla and English – a feature which demanded that we work very frequently with students so that language issues wouldn’t become a barrier to their story.

Around the six-month mark, the Angikaar project started floundering a little. The team’s grand hope, that they would revolutionise views in Dhaka towards people from the Rayer Bazar slum, seemed impossible to attain. They’d dreamed that within a few busy months, the newspaper would create tangible change. Convincing them (and the school) that they could and should commit to a long-term vision for Angikaar was the biggest challenge faced, but ultimately it is what will make the difference between Angikaar being a short-term activity and a meaningful project.

I believe there is huge potential for the media and development fields to work hand-in-hand to strengthen civil society and communicate messages that bring about positive social change. For youth-centred media development projects to move from being introductions to media literacy, to projects with the genuine potential to produce young citizens with skills in producing media and accessing audiences, time is crucial.

It’s certainly not what anybody wants to hear as it would be much easier if a few capacity-building sessions could deliver the expertise and leave communities to create successful media projects immediately. The fruits of media development projects need patience as people acquire skills and audiences. Just like the traditional media brands needed time to forge a reputation, so do small-scale community media projects.

You can follow the Angikaar news team on Facebook here and read their online editions here.

 

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A Rising Tide: The Invisible Grassroots “Movement” for Children in Africa

The author, with her great grandmother, in the U.S. state of Nebraska in 1977.

Growing up, my family life was not easy. My father drank and it weighed heavily on my mother, who did her best to maintain as much normalcy for me and my brothers as possible. Looking back, our home’s “culture of silence” was often the most difficult part for me to bear, more than the yelling or the financial stresses or the unpredictability of my father’s behaviour. As a child I had so many overwhelming feelings inside of me that simply had no place to go.

Since the 1990s, the crisis of millions of children infected and affected by HIV in sub-Saharan Africa became well documented. It was during this period that I traveled abroad to Zimbabwe at the age of 19, hoping to get as far away from home as possible. I then went on to become an aid worker, and it is no wonder that I was drawn to children’s programming in sub-Saharan Africa. Even though I was from middle America, from another culture and upbringing, I knew what it was to feel that loneliness, shame, burden, and vulnerability.

Both scholarly literature and policy papers told us at the time that the extended family – the traditional source of support for African children without parental care – was the primary safety net of care for children infected and affected by HIV. It was understood, at least by some observers, that most children were getting by not because of sweeping national-level policy protections or major international programs. Rather, those who survived and thrived did so because of the local efforts of people who organised their communities to keep children in school, mobilise and assist foster parents, and provide psychosocial support for children grieving or caring for ill parents.

Building on Tradition

Assistance to children and families affected by AIDS and poverty within their immediate communities builds on long-standing African traditions of community-level sharing of agricultural labour, assistance in times of drought and other calamities, and shared child care, much like the rural, farming area where I grew up. In fact, across Africa, the poorest and most vulnerable people set up indigenous, resilient, and often informal coping mechanisms such as self-help groups, church groups, burial associations, grain loan schemes, and rotating credit and loan clubs. Most of these community initiatives grow out of the concern of a few motivated individuals who work together to support vulnerable children. They spring from a sense of people’s obligation and desire to care for those in need.

I know intimately that it is this sense of obligation that can give children the care they need to become healthy and happy adults. My own family did not exist in isolation either. The proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” was no cliché, but my lived experience. Even when things were hard, I now realise how much that love, care and protection existed around me and strengthened me.

Communities ARE “Turning the Tide”

According to a 2004 survey by the University of Kwazulu-Natal, there are at least 50,000 community-based organisations (CBOs) in the South African non-profit sector alone, which contradicts the dominant image in the aid and philanthropic sectors that services are mainly provided by formal and professionally-run NGOs. In Malawi, a CBO mapping exercise identified over 1,800 CBOs focused on orphans and child protection. A Ugandan study for the Joint Learning Initiative on Children in AIDS in 2007 revealed that the prevalence of community-level initiatives for children affected by HIV was one per 1,300 people. Most were independent groups or linked to local churches, schools, or clinics. While these figures may vary in other countries, there is evidence that many CBOs are assisting children needing protection by extending emotional support and social services into areas and communities that are often not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies.

Today with the support and love of family members, friends, and trained professionals, my family has done a lot of healing and I am so grateful for it. In its ten years since its founding, REPSSI has worked with over 100 non-profit organisations and government agencies in almost 2,000 projects across southern and east Africa so that every child has this same chance. There are 5 million children and their families and communities who I know are also grateful.

REPSSI (The Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative) will be celebrating its 10th anniversary throughout Africa this year and at the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. on July 21st.  The theme this year is “Turning the Tide Together.”  To enhance the social and emotional well-being of children in southern and eastern Africa, REPSSI develops easy-to-use and culturally appropriate capacity training, tools, and technical advice, including a distance-learning Certificate Course in Community-Based Work with Children and Youth©. An African-initiated and -led organisation, REPSSI works to place psychosocial support firmly on national and international social development agendas.

This is a cross-post here with REPSSI’s blog.

 

Literacy in Development: the flaws with using literacy rates to inform development policy (part 3)

Parts one and two recap: Literacy is not a universal skill gained through schooling with culture and home practices as irrelevant, especially in a minority language community. Nor is literacy an automatic catalyst for economic development. But a lot of development policy assumes so. This is a particularly complicated (but interesting) concern in China.

This week, the world’s first World Literacy Summit is being held at Oxford, and making a convincing economic argument for investment in literacy is high on the agenda. However, what may not be on is how we measure literacy and design appropriate interventions. Literacy rates are one such measurement, but do they tell us what we think they tell us?

Do literacy rates measure what we think they do?

Literacy measures often use school attendance as a proxy, i.e. they measure things like how many community members completed primary school. This is because reading and writing at a grade 6 level (for example) is seen as “being literate”. This misses what sociolinguists call “subaltern literacies”, which are those ways of engaging with text that happen outside the classroom. These often go very much under the radar because the people involved are the poorest of the poor and the most excluded. In particular, these “illiterates” are excluded from Culture with a capital “C”: they don’t glow with learning and literature and refinement. They speak dialects, they do manual work, they are adults without much education. So what these people do with text isn’t valuable to those deciding on the standards and collecting the data. In fact, schooling measurements don’t acknowledge that these Others engage with text at all.

Nevertheless, in many countries, many people like this are actually more literate than their “betters” assume. They are the “literate poor”, but if they are not visible in measurements, development policies are unlikely to be directed to them.

Schooling-centred monitoring also fails to explain the shared practices between literate and illiterate community members which determine when literacy skills will be made available to others. Such monitoring is therefore deficient as a basis for designing programs to harness literacy’s instrumentality, because the data doesn’t clearly reveal all those for whom literacy is an instrument. And such monitoring fails to tap into home and community practices and attitudes which might stymie children’s acquisition of schooled literacy: does everyone completing primary school have the same literacy? And why are some communities’ children less likely than others to even get to that point?

How can you maximise the use of literacy for development if you don’t actually understand how it is used by people together?

There is discussion amongst scholars – some of whom are also practitioners – about how improving the understanding and measuring of literacy could improve economists’ policies for development. It’s an interesting strand within broader debates about the quantification of development. (I know many whydev readers have an interest in those debates; please share your thoughts below.)

Here’s the difficulty: how can we get the quantitative data development agencies want if we accept that we have to start looking outside the neat boundaries of formal schooling to harness important literacy practices? Bryan Maddox, of the University of East Anglia, suggests moving to a statistical methodology using a transparent, multiple thresholds in a “set of valued literacy functionings”, which would  index the varied literacies in a person’s life to his or her development.  This thresholds approach sits more comfortably with Sen’s influential Capabilities Approach to development, which

“argues that illiteracy is a ‘focal feature’ of capability deprivation and human insecurity. Illiteracy is viewed as a pervasive feature of capability deprivation and inequality, and literacy (particularly women’s literacy) as a source of agency, autonomy and socio-economic mobility” (Bryan Maddox and Lucio Esposito)

That is, it provides a more nuanced measure of the range of deprivation but also agency one person can have in different parts of their life.

However, for the moment, the bulk of monitoring still treads lead-footed through governments’ literacy/illiteracy rates, themselves built upon the outdated ideas of autonomous skills and school attendance. One example of this is UNESCO’s monitoring of whether we reach the Millennium Development Goal of halving adult illiteracy by 2015. This happens because evaluating situated literacy is more complicated, but this approach loses a lot by prioritising simplicity.

Literacy t-shirt
And does anyone care if your parent can?

Anna Robinson-Pant, also of the University of East Anglia, suggests this approach to monitoring leads to perceptions that literacy and schooling are the same, and therefore that adult literacy should be about acquiring the formal literacy missed through lack of childhood school opportunities, without giving weight to many other important literacy practices in adults’ lives. She suggests this results in smaller development grants for adult literacy programs. To me, that brings home a problematic, real-world outcome of the datedness of the literacy thinking which informs development policy.

More nuanced views on literacy, and more nuanced data, require effort.  Monitoring methodology can be seen as the dull, back-office side of development work. But the room for methodological improvement is real, just as real as the changes such improvements could precipitate in the world beyond the stats.

Education still a long way off for children with disabilities in poverty

It’s a great idea for a movie. A political drama. George Clooney or Matt Damon as male lead, and there’s a young, feisty, female journalist who gets caught up in it all. The opening scene spans a meeting room high up in skyscraper land, with a marble round table, iced water jugs and leaders of a big global development Bank.

Disability is not the only battle for kids like this. © 2011 CBM Australia, Photo: Christoph Ziegenhardt.

“Gentlemen, you should be proud,” says the silver fox, “This policy forges the path to education for the poorest of the poor.”

Clapping and shaking hands all around.

Cut to the brilliant green and brown of a remote village high up in Indonesia’s mountains. Children, gorgeous and laughing, walk kilometers of terrain to a tiny, one-teacher school. The camera pans back to the village, where a little girl stares wistfully after them. The shot widens to show that she has clubfoot; her feet twisted inwards. As opening credits scroll on, we know there is no way she could walk to school…

I haven’t worked out the complete script yet, but there are plenty of true stories to draw from. One billion people in the world have disabilities, and around 80% of them live in developing countries like Indonesia. In fact, in the world’s poorest places over one in five people have disabilities.  These people live with much more than just physical or mental impairments. As my “little Indonesian girl” character would portray, people with disabilities experience huge barriers in participating in education, employment and community life.

Barriers exist for people with disabilities in all societies, but are steepest in poorer communities where access to these activities is often limited anyway. A child born with clubfoot in Australia will generally get treatment at birth to straighten and strengthen her legs, and still go to school, socialise and work with her peers. The little Indonesian girl, however, presents the reality in many developing countries.

In these places, children born with clubfoot will never receive treatment for this. Walking, if possible, will always be painful, and she could never travel far. In many communities her impairment would also be seen as a curse. She would likely face a lifetime of stigma and exclusion from her community, who assume that because she has a disability, she has no potential.

If there was a movie, this little girl’s story would show us how poverty and disability create a vicious cycle: being poor generally limits access to health care, good nutrition and safe conditions – which increases the likelihood of acquiring a disability.  And having a disability generally limits access to education, employment and community – which increases the likelihood of being trapped in poverty.

Clearly this movie is a drama. It’s a dramatic fact that children with disabilities make up one-third of all children in developing countries who should be in school but are not. What isn’t so clear is how this dire situation can be developed into a Hollywood ending.

Cue for us to cut to the silver fox in the skyscraper.

Some of the big players in development are coming to recognise that people with disabilities are extremely vulnerable and excluded from their projects. How this recognition gets the little girl with clubfoot to school is more complicated. RESULTS International (Australia) recently released a report examining how the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and AusAID include girls and children with disabilities in education programs they fund in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and the Philippines. The report finds that while all three agencies consider disability in their high-level development policies, “on the ground” many children with disabilities are still not getting to school.  Some progress has been made—particularly by AusAID–but children with disabilities continue to be profoundly excluded from education. And so the scene is set for the tale of the silver fox and the little village girl.

To be honest, I don’t think I’d like the movie. It would have a twee love plot and some expendable character I fancied would die. Then there would be the inevitable contrast between the skyscraper and village, reinforcing unhelpful paradigms of “us” and “them”, “benefactor” and “beneficiary”, “problem” and “solution”.

But I would still probably go to see it. Because when millions of the world’s children are facing such extreme discrimination and exclusion, you need to take what you can to get the message out there.

Which is why I’m asking you to think about this: Would you have gone to see the film? Would you get teary at the injustice that the little girl endures? Would you spend the trip home ranting about the laudable development banks writing toothless policies from their air-conditioned skyscrapers? Would you Google some combination of “disability poverty Indonesia education” when procrastinating at work the next day?

Or, even if you think the movie sounds like the worst thing since the Titanic, are you horrified by the fact that 70% of children with disabilities in Indonesia do not go to school?

If so, don’t let this storyline just be an overlooked opportunity for Matt Damon to get an Oscar. Movie or not, there are still millions of children in the world being denied their rights because they have a disability. So get teary, rant, Google, find out more about ending the cycle of poverty and disability.

Their stories may not make it to the big screen, but these children still deserve the chance to write their own happy ending.

 

This article first appeared in the Angry Cripple column of The Punch.

To find out more about the cycle of poverty and disability and what you can do about this, visit End the Cycle.