Reflections from 'Putting Children First': from surviving to thriving

02 November, 2017

I spent much of last week in Addis Ababa at the ‘Putting Children First’ conference (for my hopes on this, see a blog written the week before). The aim was to bring people together from policy, programming and research backgrounds to think about what is known about child poverty in African countries, and identifying solutions and building networks.

This conference was about research, but it aimed to encourage action, particularly in the policy arena. In a communiqué attendees identified the twin challenge that across the world, children are the most likely population group to be poor, and that African children represent a rising share of all extremely poor children. The communiqué is a shared document formulated as a direct result of conference activity last week and outlines the next steps that must be taken to increase focus and understanding of child poverty, and amplify efforts to support better policy for children.  

Some quick reflections from me on what came up, and where next:

First, the Sustainable Development Goal child poverty challenge is shifting from survival to thriving as argued by Young Lives Director Professor Jo Boyden in her keynote speech. The phrase recognises that while the deaths of many children are preventable, significant gains have been made. The  policy challenge of ‘no one left behind’ needs an engagement with the processes by which wider inequalities, for example in health and learning, develop. These widening gaps appear early on in a child’s life through nutrition and early care and tend to intensify over the life course. Life course analysis is a crucial tool to weigh up the different opportunities to improve life chances as children grow up. That’s the purpose of summative outputs we are working on within Young Lives after the first five rounds of data collection #WatchThisSpace.

The debate about whether social protection is a good thing for human development is over; the question is now how design choices affect impact. Child-sensitive social protection is a way of thinking about how to maximise impacts and minimise harms and attention is increasingly turning to ‘cash plus’. Cash plus describes how cash transfers relate to other interventions, one which is broader than simply conditioning access. The specific point that struck me from Keetie Roelen’s keynote on the subject, was how much evaluation evidence there is now from African countries. This presence of programmes and studies across the continent is excellent news, critical for appropriate transfer of policy learning. The Coalition has produced a child-sensitive social protection briefing paper which has just been published and is available to download here.

Shame, stigma and the psychosocial. There is an increasing tide of interest in economics in the psychosocial, driven by the recognition those competencies are predictive of other outcomes including in the labour market. This is important, but the use of these terms is slippery (note the frequent use of the vague ‘non-cognitive’ descriptor). A key take-away from the conference was the central role given to shame and stigma in the discussion of how children experienced poverty. I worry, sometimes, that terms such as ‘agency’ encourage an individual sense of ‘steel’ which puts too much pressure on the individual as responsible to overcome the challenges they are presented with; ‘shame’ and ‘stigma’ help show how context shapes how children see the world and their opportunities and perhaps some positive steps which might help. A paper from Elaine Chase, Grace Bantebya and Florence Muhanguzi addressed the question of shame-proofing anti-poverty programmes.

There was an excellent and subtle session on understanding how research can affect policy and programming. Alula Pankhurst, Country Director of Young Lives in Ethiopia led with a careful discussion of examples where Young Lives research has contributed to policymaking processes. This topic has been much discussed elsewhere but a key point made was that since many factors lead to change, evaluating research impact in terms of the ‘contribution’ made to a process of change, rather than the language of direct ‘attribution’, is a better reflection of life and policy realities.

Finally (for me) - a gap. There was lots of discussion about the conditions children experience and the effects of services and networks on their lives. But where do the jobs come from for a newly educated population? Demography in Africa is such that job creation, not just education, is a central element in social mobility. Across ‘Putting Children First’ there was a focus around youth transitions but I’d like more on the links between job creation and children’s wellbeing ‘in the one place’. I’ll be going back to the World Bank’s jobs report (WDR) to look for an answer…

For a recap on the presentations and agenda of the conference, do please visit the conference website where you can also find other blogs. And for a quick scan of other participants' reflections on the topics covered in the topic, do explore #PuttingChildrenFirst on Twitter.

Subscribe to the blog

About the author(s)
Paul Dornan
Senior Policy Officer, Young Lives