The final years of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century have seen unparalleled concern globally about the well-being of children, with an attendant rise in the volume of measures and experts dealing with diverse aspects of children’s lives. This activity reflects efforts in research and policy as well as practice to enhance children’s situations, motivated by mounting consensus that young people today are confronting unprecedented levels of risk and uncertainty and that there are some fairly obvious universal solutions to their problems.
The growing sense of urgency around these issues seems to legitimise widespread state intervention into children’s lives; indeed, intervention has become a moral imperative. So, two parallel courses of action have been set in motion. The first provides broad support to all children and involves diverse services such as health and education, sometimes backed by social protection programmes. The second, intended to shield the young from specific risks, entails a range of specialist protective measures centering on social work practice and the law.
The moral authority behind these interventions derives from their framing in terms of progress and children’s rights, as well as their alignment with the latest scientific evidence on child development that seemingly shows how children’s well-being can be best supported. The thinking underpinning developmental science is compelling and has been taken up by the international community through means like the human capital framework and the age grade system in school. Yet, the vast bulk of this evidence draws on research with children in the industrialised world, and hence is both limited and biased; in this way, ‘irrefutable’ science applied in the name of progress globally has generated deep moral norms that go largely unquestioned in measures to promote and protect.
Although few in number, studies with boys and girls in developing countries make it clear that young people growing up in these regions are indeed gaining significantly from the spread of modern values and services, fuelled by macro-economic growth. The first wave of measures, in health, nutrition, water and sanitation, were successful in reducing infant and child mortality. The second, focused on education, considerably increased pre-school and primary enrolment, dramatically changing children’s aspirations.
Nevertheless, these studies are also uncovering the things boys and girls are losing, as well as some of the unintended adverse consequences of interventions. Education gains mask significant inequalities in access and quality; poor children, rural children, the children of poorly educated parents (mothers), ethnic minority children, girls and other marginalised groups get an especially raw deal. At the same time, human capital models which focus on formal learning of a narrow range of academic skills don’t take into account the relevance of these skills for local labour markets or the financial and social costs of keeping children in school and isolating them from everyday activities in their households and communities. Nor do they recognise the many benefits children get from the contribution they make to family and community. And the third wave of measures, aimed at eliminating social risks like workplace exploitation or trafficking, are deeply ideological and have had a very bumpy ride indeed, often producing as many problems as they solve.
We have to recognise that with all its benefits, modernity affects children’s lives in complex ways, leading to competing ideologies of childhood and competing demands on children’s time. Given all of this, can we really be so sure that developmental science and modernity automatically serve children well, for example in their education and protection? Are we sufficiently attentive to the dangers involved and prepared to countenance closer scrutiny of our efforts? It is important to consider what children and families stand to lose through change and who is designating what is good and what bad for children. Above all, we should be wary of standardised policies and programmes that pay insufficient attention to children’s own concerns, to the socio-cultural and economic context they live in, and to children’s roles and relationships within their families and communities.
Jo Boyden is the Director of Young Lives, University of Oxford