Beyond child participation in the occupied Palestinian territories: the case for 'protective solidarity'.

Author:Steffen, Bridget

    Children's voices are systematically excluded from the world in which we live. Adults shape their and children's realities, with a mindset constructed solely from an adult's perspective (Punch, 2002). The gulf between adults' understanding of children and children's own reality is often vast, affecting the social fabric of communities across the globe (Newman, 2005). Brocklehurst argues that 'children have been typically defined from the standpoint of adults and therefore perceived as their opposite, a conception that both privileges adults' qualities and separates children from them' (Brocklehurst, 2005:122). However, in contexts of humanitarian crisis, many children take on responsibilities and roles normally considered the domain of adults--becoming primary breadwinners, heads of households, carers of young or sick family members, and even combatants. In such situations, children's ability to make decisions and to voice concerns may be crucial for their survival and protection against further risks, where the usual protective environment within their community has broken down.

    There is a growing body of literature highlighting the importance of understanding children's realities from their own perspectives (Alderson, 1999; O'Kane, 1999), and in humanitarian responses there is a growing appreciation of the value of children's participation within and beyond their own decision-making structures (Newman, 2005). Much of the literature highlights the importance of including child participation in NGo programming for children's empowerment.


    The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) established the legal imperative for the involvement of children in decision-making. it defines children as all persons under the age of 18 ( Twenty years since its adoption in 1989, the CRC has been universally ratified with the exception of the United States and Somalia (Laraque, 2009). The CRC recognises children as 'subjects of rights rather than merely recipients of adult protection' (Lansdown, 2001: 1). Article 12 is the central pillar in a raft of 'participation rights' within the convention, on which child-focused NGOs such as Save the Children and Plan international base their programmes (figure 1).

    Figure 1: Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1. State Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child. 2. For this purpose the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law. Source: Article 12 places the obligation on adults to promote and support children' s contributions to issues affecting them (Lansdown, 2001). Whilst the article encourages children to become the agents of their own change, Hart (2002) argues that any profound, radical changes put forward by children are unlikely to find support from most international agencies. Arguably, this highlights the contradiction between many NGO's visions of empowerment and transformation, while their field-level strategies are remarkably un-radical (Cooke, 2004).

    Save the Children Alliance has created a Child Rights Programming Handbook(Save the Children Sweden, 2005), a child-focused version of the Rights-Based Approach, which attempts to turn the rights enshrined in the CRC into practical field-level strategies and is now the guiding framework for Save the Children's work. Child Rights Programming 'indicates key standards that SC needs to meet in order to fulfil its obligations as a rights-based agency, e.g. involving children and their communities in its work.... it reflects ... a framework firmly founded in shared human values and international law' (ibid, p55). However, it is still unclear whether Child Rights Programming has the capacity to build process-driven lasting change to children's lives, or whether it will simply serve to strengthen the concept of child participation as an NGO management tool. Furthermore, questions still remain regarding a universal understanding of what the right to child participation actually means, which links into wider debates regarding community participation and the recent discourse that has challenged its worth in humanitarian action today (Hickey & Mohan, 2004).


    Paolo Freire (1972) and Chambers (1997) are the most well-known advocators of grassroots community participation. In order to 'put the last first', Chambers argues that external actors must shed their top-down approaches and become facilitators in an exchange of learning, ideas, and cooperative support for local initiatives (ibid). However there is still little consensus among NGOs as to how one should 'do' participation (Hart et al, 2004). Roger Hart's definition--used by UN agencies in the past and characterised by a 'ladder' of increasing levels of participation--defines it as 'the process of sharing decisions which affect one's life and the life of the community in which one lives' (Hart, 1992: 5). According to Save the Children 'the principle of participation makes it necessary to let go of our adult perspective and take on the challenge to open a dialogue with children in their languages, and from their perspective' (Save the Children Sweden, 2005: 32).

    Some development workers take the concept further, describing it as 'a mindset, an ideology, a value, a life philosophy that applies to everything you do' (cited in Hart et al, 2004:59). Left to the interpretation of individuals, the concept of child participation runs the risk of losing any meaning whatsoever (Chambers, 2004). Hart argues that defining a 'common language' and understanding one's own 'definition' is essential when working for the meaningful participation of children (Save the Children Sweden, 2005; Hart J, 2007).

    Arguments against the use of participatory approaches link to deeper questions about development. Hickey and Mohan (2004) have argued that the NGO sector often treats what should be a process of long-term transformation as a series of time-bound activities, depoliticising a means of social and political change into a technical tool. Cooke and Kothari's book Participation: the New Tyranny? has brought development thinking to a crossroads with a scathing attack on participation as 'a hegemonic device to secure compliance to, and control by, existing power structures' (Cooke & Kothari 2001:136-7). Not surprisingly, the authors--who advocate for 'shutting down' the practice of participatory development--do not include participant's own voices. However, they expose the role that international agencies play in constricting, manipulating, co-opting, or disempowering local people's abilities to affect their own change.

    The participation defenders view this critique as a new point of departure for participation's rebirth. Hickey and Mohan (2004) advocate for 're-politicising' participatory practice through greater emphasis on citizenship and a Rights-Based Approach. They argue that this will force agencies to switch from using moral obligation as their basis for involving local communities, to one of political rights: 'the significance of a rights-based approach for NGOs lies in its capacity to locate NGO challenges to exclusion and poverty within a political response, which therefore holds the promise of empowerment' (Hickey & Mohan, 2004:164).

    This argument recognises that NGOs do not operate within a political and social vacuum and need to engage with international legal frameworks to build their own legitimacy as well as the civil and political rights of affected populations in order to hold political structures to account. However, some operational organisations such as Medecins sans Frontieres would argue that using a human rights framework for participatory practice and humanitarian action in general can create a conflict of interest and can lead to being confused with human rights organisations and legal bodies, which can in fact hamper access to affected populations (Dachy, 2004).

    When placed within the wider debates about community participation, child participation discourses add an extra layer of complexity to an already-contentious debate. Hart (2007) argues that child participation initiatives organised by NGOs frequently succeed in involving children in specific projects (child participation as an end in itself) but the impact of the child's involvement very rarely extends beyond the 'virtual box' of that project and into the lives and community processes of the child. Thus, agency initiatives seldom manage to involve children as a means to achieving far-reaching changes in children's lives (Hart & Tyrer, 2006).

    NGOs frequently argue that taking this...

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