Kadak Chai: The science and ethics of intervention programmes

Chaudhary, N. (21st December, 2018). ‘The science and ethics of intervention’. Invited lecture at 28th conference of National Association of Psychology, University of Delhi, 18th – 19th December, 2018.

Article followed by the PPT- NAOP2018-2

The Science and Ethics of Intervention Programmes in Family and Child Welfare: Towards Building an Inclusive Psychology for Social Justice

Nandita Chaudhary

28th Annual Congress of the NAOP titled: Towards Building Inclusive Societies

Ramanujan College, University of Delhi

21st December, 2018


India’s cultural diversity is an illustration of sustainable engagement of people with their environment where cultural practices are in a delicate ecological balance often with meagre resources and harsh conditions. This balance is underestimated when programmes and services seek inspiration and guidance from global trends without adequate attention to local reality. Poverty is treated as a failure of the people (and by the people as a failure of the Government) rather than a consequence of long-standing structural marginalisation. Blaming the victim has been an important theme in evaluating cultural practices of people living with disadvantage. This is a serious error in judgement both on scientific and ethical grounds.

Despite enduring scholarly work that recognises the need for context-sensitive theory and research in the field of psychology, institutional practices have remained largely loyal to global trends. Large-scale intervention programmes in community welfare persist with practices that derive directly from mainstream psychology, especially in the fields of education, family studies and child development. Through the financial and ideological push from international NGOs that prescribe objectives and strategies for intervention, the real problem remains ignored despite claiming impressive outreach. Primarily because of misplaced emphases and misconstrued priorities, intervention initiatives often fail to meet the objectives of social justice and equity. Furthermore, they may even result in distancing people in marginalised communities further, on account of unintended consequences of welfare activity. This can be seen in the large number of youth that hang precariously in between the world that they knew and the one that was implicitly promised to them. In spite of claims about coverage in terms of numbers, providing ecologically valid, cultural relevant and socially just services is restricted to a handful of committed agencies.

This presentation will focus on specific instances of educational and welfare programmes that are advanced without either the knowledge about or respect for local community ideology in the desire to bring about social change for their ‘upliftment’. A special case in point is the persistent inability for the poor to access and participate in good quality education despite their enthusiasm and motivation. By providing an overview of the ideological mismatch between local culture and global policy, I will also provide examples of experiments that have been successful in working towards ethically and scientifically sound welfare initiatives.

Local to global to local: Persistent trends in the transfer of expertise in the human sciences

There are serious shortcomings of “thinking locally and acting globally” (Gergen, Lock, Gulerce & Misra, 1996). More specifically, in the social sciences, the uncritical application of ideas emerging from a particular location to the rest of the world has been proved to have several significant shortcomings. “Typically, because of the greater scientific stakes in documenting the general as opposed to the particular, cultural variations are either de-emphasized or simply bracketed for ‘later study’…….cultural distinctiveness is but an impediment to achieving the broader goal of research.  (p. 496)”. This article in 1996, drew our attention to the importance of horizontal rather than vertical collaborations between countries (Misra, 1994).

More recently, a more focused attack has come from careful analysis of publications, particularly regarding the demographic characteristics of participants. We find that a small percentage of the world’s people: those who live predominantly in service-based economies and who share socio-demographic characteristics such as high levels of education, nuclear family structure with few children, and financial security (that is, people living a Western lifestyle, commonly referred to as Western or Westernized societies) (Arnett, 2008; Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010) predominate.  This comes as no surprise.  Publications in psychological research are dominated by scholars in U.S. academic institutions and in English-speaking countries; and research is focused on select populations in the U.S. and in Europe (Nielsen, Haun, Kärtner, & Legare, 2017); and exaggerates the extent of scientific consensus about favourable conditions for and features of children’s psychological development (Serpell & Nsamenang, 2014).

WEIRD psychology

Let us take a closer look at the allegations. Almost 70 percent of American psychology is derived from studies on American college-going students. A review of research articles prompted Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan (2010) to examine the participants of the studies on which these studies were based. Overwhelmingly, subjects were from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic communities, prompting the authors to label them WEIRD subjects. Here is an overview of their findings:

“Behavioural scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behaviour in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population.…. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioural sciences to best tackle these challenges.” (p. 62)

Psychology, Henrich and his colleagues concluded, is a cultural project, and one that does not apply universally.

International NGOs and their agenda

India’s policy on family and child welfare is steered by international guidelines like the CRC[1], SDGs, CCD[2] that have been prepared by International NGOs like UNICEF. One important goal of these interventions is to “improve parenting practices” and thus children’s developmental achievements, quoting evidence from the field of applied developmental science.

In this presentation, I will argue that, for several important reasons (political, economic, scientific and ethical), globally executed intervention programs rarely attend to ideological, conceptual and methodological assumptions underlying the research studies and interpretations of research findings on which they are based. Selective referencing and exaggerated claims are the mainstay of these policies (Serpell & Nsamenang, 2014). Furthermore, monitoring and evaluations are also funded primarily by these agencies implying a conflict of interests. I believe that as an academic community, we have failed to provide alternative models to our people, in the absence of which, imported ideologies and practices proliferate. Scientists from the country are rarely called upon for advice in this field, and the transformations in University education and research has failed to impact the ways in which individuals, families and children are understood.

Children’s rights and the CRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child)

The modern view of childhood in the West is barely three-four centuries old. Viewing children as frail and innocent with the corresponding breakdown of the extended family and industrial revolution insulated children from economic and social life. The increasing proportion of older people and the lowering of fertility rates accompanied by other social changes have spearheaded transformation in the ways in which childhood is constructed. The shrinking family and social changes led to heightened vulnerability of children and this insecurity is transferred onto the global policy. This is the version of childhood promoted by Western capitalism. In the global south, the child is not viewed as separate from family and society.

Child rights as an idea is firmly embedded in globalisation. The failure of the SAPs (Structural Adjustment Programmes) through loans to poor countries failed to make a difference and the movement from SAP to welfare programmes is well documented. Whereas earlier efforts are poverty alleviation, related the primary cause of poverty to structural inequalities (historical policy in colonialism for instance), we have moved towards more psychological explanations. In the year 1990, the United Nations declared the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), under the umbrella of human rights, within which children have been identified as requiring special care and attention. Accepting the importance of family and community values, the Convention identifies that all children must be “protected and cared for” as is necessary for their well-being, for which member countries need to ensure legislative and administrative commitment. A total of 190 other member countries, are signatories to this document. However, some countries have refrained from adopting the document as binding, these include Somalia, South Sudan, and the US. The CRC has not yet received a majority vote from the US Senate that is required for its ratification, although it was symbolically accepted during the Clinton regime. The main reason for this restraint by the US government relates to the assumed sovereignty of the nation and its people, and the unwillingness to concede authority to an external body. This would imply a threat to parental rights of American citizens, it is believed (Attiah, 2014). Global human rights standards were challenged at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna (1993) when a number of countries (China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Iran, others) objected to the idea of universal rights. There are unresolved tensions between universalistic and relativistic approaches in the establishment of standards and strategies designed to prevent or overcome the abuse of children’s capacity to work. By deduction therefore, the signatories of the CRC would have, in fact, allowed the entry of these ‘universal’ guidelines as superior to local practice. As a consequence, there is a notional separation of an individual child from its social setting, and the separation of development from the cultural context and a subordination of the local to the global.

As Burman (1996) argues:

Drawing on analyses of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, conceptual limitations of a shift from generalization to naturalization are identified. These culminate in a globalization of childhood that is particularly evident in models of psychological development. The article outlines how assumptions about the separation of individual and society, and development from culture, play a key role in this process. At the level of practice, therefore, the article argues for the need to maintain a critical vigilance on the adequacy of the conceptual resources that inform policy and programmes for children (p. 45).

Fundamental problems in the CRC: Assumptions of globally inspired welfare programmes

In the 80s and 90s, the concern about childhood became consolidated and the CRC is a focussed expression of that concern. The discourse about children’s rights is in fact based on what childhood is believed to be like, and that is a matter of culture, not uniform across the world. As mentioned above, social and demographic changes in Western society have spearheaded some of these changes. In India, which harbours some of the largest numbers of children living in poverty, the CRC has been accepted and adopted as is, in the absence of a robust debates, and there are very few, if any, attempts to examine the CRC critically, in light of Indian family and society (Raman, 2000).

Does modern science really show that the current practices of middle-class, cosmopolitan Western families are (a) superior in effectiveness to the traditional practices of rural African communities, and (b) transposable into low-income African communities without disturbing the prevailing sociocultural system, threatening the psychological wellbeing of parents and undermining their confidence in their own parenting skills? (Serpell & Nsamenang, 2014, p. 20).

The child is an individual and needs to be protected and nurtured. This model is being offered to the world as the ideal model for childhood, having emerged in Western capitalism. Yet, the child is also a member of a group and nested within community and family. In fact one of the primary reasons why US has not signed the CRC is because it dilutes the importance of the family.

Another important feature is that whereas 18 years is seen as the age of transition into adulthood, in Asian and African countries it would be well before that. At 18, they would be considered young adults and would be assigned and expected to take on adult roles. In fact, children are expected to contribute to the household or family occupation from a very early age. Article 32 of the CRC states that children should be free from child labour. Yet, what is considered harmful and what is exploitative is different across cultures. Various types of children’s work has been known to be beneficial to the family and social economy and also provides children with a sense of importance and self-esteem, provided it is not hazardous.  Many scholars now favour a more conditional wisdom founded on a greater sense of social, historical and cultural contextualisation of child development, of children’s lived experience, and beliefs and theories of those who care for them (Woodhead, 1999). The parameters of welfare are relative, and there is no space for dialogue in the CRC. For instance, in the case of the care of younger siblings, there is a clear difference on the meanings attributed to sibling care, in some places it is considered inappropriate, exploitative whereas in others it is an expectation (Weisner & Gallimore, 1977).

Based on the assumption of proximal causes, most intervention work for children’s welfare is transacted with the fundamental purpose of changing the way people live, think and go about their lives. Let us examine, for instance, the Care for Child Development (CCD) initiated in 23 sites in 19 countries by UNICEF and WHO, that derives from Attachment Theory (Lucas, 2016). In order to justify the world-wide call for intervention among the poor, it is argued that caregivers who respond frequently in fact facilitate “…….secure attachment, which serves as a foundation for how the child builds a capacity for human relationships and lifelong learning. Highly responsive caregivers contribute, for example, to the child’s vocabulary, problem-solving abilities, and complex social interactions…..They build the fundamental architecture of the infant’s rapidly growing brain, and help infants to develop emotional control – all pieces of a strong start to learning the skills needed for life” (p. 64). Research studies demonstrate that CCD interventions have shown great advances in making caregivers more sensitive and responsive (Lucas, 2016). How this has changed their lives in other ways is, however, left to the imagination.

Specific conflicts between local views and global positions

Let me provide some concrete examples from my experiences, about how intervention initiatives, if not caringly planned, can be at odds with local practice, cultural beliefs and dignity and respect of beneficiaries. These are features common to most communities in India and they transcend religious, ethnic and linguistic boundaries. One could say these are threads that run through the people of the subcontinent.

Multiple caregiving: Although the mother is central and a key figure, there are many other women, men and children involved in the care of children. People experience other children well before they have their own, these informal encounters are considered important for both men and women as well as for children, for whom it is considered an important social lesson to learn to get along with others. Traditionally, a child in the Indian family grows up among many people. There are several advantages that large families have for work. Anthropologists have remarked that one of the important reasons why human females continue to survive beyond the age of fertility seems to be linked to the cooperation that they can offer to young mothers (Lancy, 2017). Mothers are encouraged to ‘share’ the care of their children with others, especially elders in the family, both male and female, often leaving them some time to themselves and for other work. Among rural families, the care of children is seen as less stressful in comparison with other tasks, and often the older women of the family are present as young children of different ages play around them. This loosely structured care of many children by many adults provides an adaptive arrangements leaving the individual mother quite free for other tasks, and provides active participation for older members of the family to be actively involved in the household. Children learn a lot from each other, and also learn to fend for themselves in a somewhat competitive setting. In villages, groups of young children with even younger ones who they may be caring for are seen moving about in groups exploring the streets, playing with animals, or simply waking about. In big cities, temporary shifts and visits provide the ideal of the joint family structure to sustain and filial relationships take precedence over conjugality.

Models of care: Linked to the above point, the structure of the household is most commonly one of many adults and many children rather than one adult and one child. Children experience other children siblings, cousins and children in the neighborhood well before entry to school. Thus preschool is not the first time children encounter other children, unlike in the developed countries (Keller & Chaudhary, 2017).

Care of children by children: Children’s care of their siblings and cousins has recently come under a lot of criticism on account of the fact that parents were keeping children (mostly girls, but not always) out of school to look after younger siblings. However, there is another side to this story that needs highlighting. The role of a sibling in a child’s life is very precious, and caring for or being cared for both provide a child with experiences that are irreplaceable. Along with accepting that all children should find their way to school, there is a need to find ways of sustaining sibling support. Child to child learning has received world-wide acceptance, and yet, the informal learning at home is something we are increasingly trying to separate in the name of individual rights. These are some of the cherished aspects of our cultural settings, quite independent of ethnicity, religion and language. While examining our practices and moving towards the future, perhaps some of these need to be highlighted for discussion when we talk about children being forced to care for siblings who tend to keep them out of school. This does not mean all sibling care is wrong and anti-children’s rights.

Adult-child relationships: are characterized by continuity (no separation in time or space). Children will attend movies, go to parties, stay awake late till the adults sleep and by and large, the separation of children and adults is not common. This can be seen as a nuisance by modern standards, but this was an extremely protective unit with constant and loose supervision of growing children. Similar findings have been discussed by Corsaro (1997). Another corollary of large families is the ubiquitous presence of children and the lack of separation of children from adults, whether it is at the cinema or social gathering. This acceptance of children as a part and parcel of family and social life is again something that is a strength in our community. Usually, children are not left behind at home unless they have a known caregiver. Since children are not separated, although some may find this inclusiveness a nuisance, it permits the mixing of age-groups as well a much larger gamut of experiences for the child in comparison with contexts where children are separated and protected. Some may argue that such patterns expose children to potential abuse by others, but based on my research findings, the loose format of distributed care, especially where there are mixed ages, in fact provides the child with a wider range of skills and experiences and also provides children with better supervision. Children are never alone, they are always with other children and adults, which perhaps leaves them less vulnerable to being abused in solitary situations.

Conversation: Many languages simultaneously and conversational styles characterized by multilogues. Conversations range between those addressed to everyone in general to no one in particular. Dyadic conversations typical of western nuclear families are not very common. Greater focus on comprehension rather than articulation. (Chaudhary, 2004, 2012; Rich, 2010).

Family life and family structure: Centered on adult-child relations rather than husband-wife (Filial as opposed to conjugal, Uberoi, 2003). Furthermore, structure and functioning of family life is still conducted with the joint family as a template despite changes in mobility and residence. Families have been known to clump together after having children, and also itinerant grandparents testify to the fact that the nurturance according to cultural themes is still quite popular.

Value of children: Children are highly valued and married couples are expected to have children. Why else would we have fertility clinics in an overpopulated country!

Work: Children as household helpers. Children in rural, tribal and urban poor are expected to work for the family. In middle and upper class homes, maybe they are not expected to work, since a great deal of importance is placed on studies, but helping younger siblings and caring for them is a family expectation.

Social events: Importance of family and community festivities and celebrations. Sometimes, even at the cost of school attendance.

Morality: Importance of moral and religious guidance from family. Presence of older people, community relations, festivals and rituals is intensely important for children. Of course the ways in which these practices are conducted differs from community to community. The collective events of Maharashtra and Gujarat, and the community festivities of tribal groups are a case in point. In the north, in small towns it is the neighbours, whereas in upper class neighbourhoods, one can see this has shrunk.

Health: Faith in indigenous healing methods, child care and herbal cures for minor illnesses

Food: Preference to feed children extending till later years, value for home-cooked food, despite movement towards eating out in urban areas.

Beliefs about play: Adults are not expected to be playmates for children. Mostly children play with other children.

Other conversational practices, answering of questions: Questions are asked only if you don’t know the answer. If you are unschooled, and not aware about questions asked for confirmation whether a person knows something, the person becomes suspicious of the other’s intent. Information questions about how many kids you have etc. are not suspect. This is more for beliefs about children and child care. For instance, we would often get the response: “You have studied far, and you look like you know a lot, why don’t you fill in the answer, why are you asking me”?

Another encounter I have had in my work relates to: “How will she know if I don’t teach her”. We were doing a short, longitudinal study and this was the first of our 6 visits to a toddler’s home, and we performed the rouge test for self-recognition. The grandmother was present. As we were leaving, we requested her (as procedure demanded) not to tutor the child to do this with a mirror. The grandmother sharply retorted: “How will she learn if I don’t teach her”. We, as adults, are eager for their children to be seen in a good light, as bright and intelligent, so I am assuming she did practice before the next session.

The global epidemic of sameness

From undescribed microbes to undocumented tongues, life is characterised by diversity. The belief that there is one good way of living family life or bringing up children is based on cultural imperialism. Globalisation is a force that visualises sameness as an ideal, but that is based on the assumption of a level playing field. Yet, countries, and within these, communities and inside that individuals are diverse and uneven. Although diversity and equality may seem at odds, difference does not imply the absence of equity. Rather, ignoring diversity can perpetuate hidden inequalities that are far more sinister and damaging to local cultures. We have to replace the equality in human rights campaigns to the more favourable notion of equity, which allows for the inclusion of difference.

In the present times, it is possible to discern a global epidemic of sameness that carries away entire human languages, destroys domesticated food-crops, and kills off entire species. The havoc caused by this view of the human-environment interface is the cause for our balance with nature to become tenuous. The fallout isn’t merely an assault to our aesthetic or even ethical values: As cultures and languages vanish, along with them go vast and ancient storehouses of accumulated knowledge. And as species disappear, along with them go not just valuable genetic resources, but critical links in complex ecological webs. (Montenegro & Glavin, 2015, p. 1). In fact, the authors of the above piece argue that the threat to diversity in biological and cultural spheres results from the same syndrome. Social and natural systems interact in several ways, the destruction of languages as well as microbes may in fact result from the very same desires. “Our collective failure to recognize and impede this rampant winnowing of diversity can in part be blamed on the sheer rapidity with which it has advanced (Montenegro & Gavin, 2015, p. 2). The disappearance of ethnic diversity is closely linked with the disappearance of biodiversity (Maffi & Woodley, 2012). This curtailment and intolerance of ‘other’ ways of living is a manifestation of ethnocentrism, and has far reaching consequences, some of which are not possible to imagine at the outset. When social change is attempted, whether within migrating populations, international aid or even educational institutions, the intended impact is couched in a discourse of ‘development’. The intricate interlinkages that exist between people and their environments are in fact not a frequent consideration when we recommend a shift in beliefs, attitudes and practices.

Regarding childhood as well, there seems to be an increasing demand and desire for being like everyone else. The desire to fit in is a tendency sometimes attributed to the age of adolescence. However, young children are not an exception to this and global trends are increasingly defining what children should look like and behave. In order to achieve these ‘global standards’ defined usually by the wealthy, care practices are also becoming narrowly defined, and there may soon be the emergence of the ‘right way to bring up children’ as we have seen in recent cases of immigrant parents in Scandinavian countries. The particular instances of removing children from parents on account of suspicion or abuse are on the increase. These services are called in when there are some misgivings about a child’s safety. Although this is a State service for child protection, a decrease in the tolerance of variation seems to have become evident in more recent times. Norway and the U.S. have increasing number of instances of removing children from their homes and parents and placed in foster care. Mostly, it is when the personnel visit homes and find the family following practices at odds with the local ideology of care like feeding children with the hand(interpreted as force feeding)  or co-sleeping (interpreted as abuse). Quite unknowingly, families have become ensnared in a battle of custody for their children. In Norway, this supervision applies even to people who are travelling to the country as tourists. In complete contrast, India has permitted expatriates from different countries to persist with not only their own care arrangements, there is even permission for each nationality to set up educational institutions so that their children would not have to attend ‘Indian schools’.

Clearly there is the politics of affluence that comes into play here. Cultural practices of care are adapted to the social, geographic and ecological context in which a child is growing up. Additionally, there are certain pathways of development that are priorities for different social groups, their inalienable right. I am arguing here that preserving this variation is not simply an issue of human rights and cultural difference, it is a matter of survival. Increasingly, we have evidence from the natural sciences that we are more likely to survive if variation is sustained.

In defence of difference and the danger of the single story

As a young girl growing up in Nigeria, Chimamanda Adichie was steeped in English literature with fair-skinned children with blond hair and blue eyes. Her imagination was captured by those stories. In her TED talk and in fact, in all her writing, Adichie warns of the collapse of our imagination into a single story.

What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify.” This is the danger of the single story, it colonises your imagination to a point where you cannot think outside of the images you feed on. Unless of course, there is an awakening to the fact. You are not successful unless you have attained the next thing, until you have reached the West, because that is the world that has filled your imagination. The poor? They were to be pitied because they had lesser lives. It was only later that she realised how dangerous this story was for her, her identity and nationality, for her country (Adichie, 2009).

We have to be warned about single stories and power structures, whether these are attempts at saving people from darkness through religious conversion or political domination. Humanity thrives on diversity.

The science of scarcity and ethical considerations

Another important issue is who is marked as poor or disadvantaged and how they are viewed. This has great impact on how welfare programmes are positioned in the community, for example, are the members seen as wasteful, useless, incapable of learning, unwise and ignorant? Or are they believed to be hardworking, dignified individuals who are doing the best they can under the circumstances?

Who is defined as poor is fraught with ambiguity. On account of the immense diversity of the world’s people, it is not possible to simply draw a line and mark a section of people as poor (Sen, 1992). The discourse on poverty has to change in order to engage with people effectively. When we work with the poor, there is a tendency to believe there is something “wrong with them” (Feinberg, 2015, p. 41). In this manner, we land up with a double load on the poor, the first and most important load is placed on them by their situation, and the second, by blaming them for their situation (Chaudhary, 2017)!

Furthermore, the scientific study of poverty has been recently debated by behavioural economists Mullainathan and Shafir (2013) where they argue that on the basis of their research that behaviours that are commonly associated with the poor: poor attention at school, unwise financial decisions, or impulsive conduct, are in fact likely to be the products of scarcity rather than its cause. If poverty, hunger and scarcity persist, a person’s behaviour is seriously impacted negatively. These findings in fact overturns our assumptions that the poor are poor because they have bad attitudes. In fact they make poor decisions because they live with scarcity. By examining several research studies, Mullainathan and Shafir (2013) prove that because of chronic scarcity, people make poor decisions.

What concerns us as social scientists is how such interventions have been initiated in the absence of sufficient scientific evidence. How has the cultural sovereignty of people been compromised so effortlessly? Does such an intervention not dilute the rights of the family and reach beyond the agenda of poverty alleviation? How can welfare agencies provide a guarantee that their interventions and the subsequent changes that they claim to have made, do not in fact compromise the adaptive mechanisms that people develop in particular contexts in order to survive. After all, the context of poverty or disadvantage is not going to change as quickly as behaviour might. Changing practices can in fact, predispose families and children towards unanticipated vulnerabilities. There is no doubt here that the confidence of the counsellors, the change agents derives from a background of relative affluence and the corresponding poverty of the people they work with. It seems quite clear that the poor also lose their rights to privacy and self-determination on account of being poor.

Western ideology and the popularity of Attachment Theory and practice are considered ‘best practice’, without attention either to the veracity of these claims or the cultural specificity of the ideological assumptions. As Burman (1996) argues, we need to maintain “critical vigilance” on these programmes and practices to ensure that the changes that are being initiated are in fact favourable for the community and not driven by exaggerated claims of weak scientific evidence (Nsamenang & Serpell, 2014).

Call for change: Working with poverty

In a recent article related to the well-known Word Gap controversy that claims that the discrepancy in the number of words children hear creates a pattern where 30 million word difference based on social class, authors Sperry, Miller and Sperry (2018) argue that there is an urgent need to re-examine how development is defined and studies since consequences of such assertions has consequences on patterns of language use and may even result in the erasure of entire languages other than English in the US where interventions are already being planned, but also in other parts of the world where programmes have been initiated (Weber, et al. 2017). Besides, their new study, with more appropriate methods, failed to find the kind of gap that has been reported thus far[3]. This amounts to conversion. When philosophical ideas are translated into practice, there is a ‘price of passage (Lemieux, 2012) and we need to ensure that the price is not too high!

Engaging with people living with poverty needs careful examination. Singh (2015) selects a bleak landscape of tribal Rajasthan to illustrate the lives of the Shariya community, the poorest among the poor. Through his compelling exposition on power and ethics, Singh succeeds in providing an alternative position on poverty, after having lived among the tribals for an extended period of time. His narrative transcends the dichotomies of religion-secularism and material-cultural frames. The perseverance of people to survive, as resources are depleted, is taken as evidence of vitality and strength. Poverty is neither romanticised nor dismissed, it is described and discussed from the perspective of the people who live their lives in the shadows. One is not moved to pity or anger about why people should live with so little, but with a sense of respect for humankind that survives even under very difficult circumstances. Through his insightful examination, Singh finds that his subjects resist being reduced to categories.

Calls to change the status quo span decades (e.g., LeVine & Norman, 2001) with more recent appeals pointedly demonstrating the potential harm of this bias (Arnett, 2008; Henrich et al., 2010; Nielsen et al., 2017). Bhatia (2018) argues that Euro-American psychological science has adopted a dominant and imperial position to the extent that it speaks for and represents the majority of humanity. It also subordinates other psychological perspectives (like religion, for instance) thereby creating a power structure that leaves no space for other views. When we consider social justice and psychology, there is a need to be aware of and theorise about inequity and lay open the injustice while connecting ‘here’ with ‘there’ (Bhatia, 2018). When we work with the poor, it is essential to go beyond the material-cultural dichotomy that swings between the discourse of deprivation and relativism, beyond pity and anger, and recognize the perseverance of the people in the face of depleting resources and to treat that as evidence of vitality and the will to survive under difficult circumstances. Welfare and aid should be provided as basic services and not hand-outs.

Although teaching and research in psychology have been increasingly impacted, the consequences of social science research on practice has received little attention. In fact, family and child welfare programmes, especially those funded by international NGOs campaign for intervention for social change based on Euro-American ideals of community living, family dynamics, and children’s development drawing from traditional perspectives in developmental psychology and child development, with little or no attention to culture and ecology. In fact, whenever culture is considered, it is focused on “how to get the message across” and not “What messages are meaningful” (Chaudhary, 2018). These policies have profound impact on the ways in which services are presented to people ranging from school experiences, youth programmes, care of children and health and family welfare. Fortunately, India has a robust range of local players in this field who keep their objectives grounded in local reality. However, their impact is usually restricted to the communities that they work among, whereas National and State policy is hugely impacted by the presence of International players.

Why so many interventions have failed

Globally inspired attempts at poverty alleviation have not worked on account of several reasons, in fact, it has even been argued that the political overtones and economic consequences of welfare do in fact have unanticipated consequences for people that can cause an imbalance. Given that the poor (rural, tribal, islanders) live in such a delicate balance with their ecology, interventions can lead to other consequences. Structures of oppression are perpetuated with welfare programmes that derive from a sense of superiority and claims to having the answers to people’s problems, and in fact, even creating problems where there are none. When we push for activities that promote play with manufactured toys, reading out at bed-time to your child, have face to face conversation and promote independent eating, as activities that are essential for healthy development (measured through adapted scales like VSMS), we often do not realise how seriously it underestimates cultural practices like play with other children, explorations of local ecology, knowledge of local flora and fauna, verbal narration, cultural discourse patterns and so on. One kind of approach is presented as if it is the only way in which intelligent, mature and successful children can be brought up, and this is unethical and unscientific!

The beliefs and practices of local people are either opaque to Western-trained researchers and practitioners or marginalized by them because of the (assumed) risk that these beliefs and practices have on children’s healthy and successful developmental trajectories.  These researchers’ well-intentioned efforts to improve the health and wellbeing or intelligence and language of children disregard and often interfere with communities’ ways of living with others’ that are ecologically and culturally grounded (Keller & Kärtner, 2013); and they neglect the real-world consequences of their recommendations. 

The example of school

Feeling personally responsible for the state of education in India today, the eminent Professor G. N. Devy (2017) writes that “Unfortunately, after Independence, none of the greater visions suitable for sustaining the inner strengths of Indian society were organically integrated with education” (p. 14), we remain stunted under the pressure of information gathering for successful futures. And schools have created a distance between how lives are lived and what is learnt. One of the outcomes of partial and inappropriate schooling has been the number of unemployed, educated youth who have been displaced from their family occupations by being partly educated, and have not yet found a destination that would accept them. The outcome has been a generation of youth who will not accept what they have and will not be accepted where they wish in terms of work. This is an issue of concern especially when delinquency and crime are concerned. This is another reason why schools must be adapted to and working within the practical context of the community in which they live. Unless the local knowledge is integrated, the displacement between the people and their community will continue to grow and youth will become strangers in their own land, not being able to get anywhere, and not being able to stay.

“The rarefied, idealistic abstractions that proliferate in UN declarations concerning the universal brotherhood of mankind’ are increasingly unreal, and we have to ensure that the intersecting realities find a voice” (Serpell, 1993, p. xi). When there is a discrepancy between the cultural meaning systems of the host community, the economic agenda takes over and as a result, there is a systematic devaluation of the child’s family, home and community. As they stand today, schools in India have failed a large proportion of the very children who are likely to benefit from it the most. Schools systematically persist in physical punishment in the name of ‘improving’ children and teaching without any practical exposure is the norm. There is very little scope for the sort of classroom that Badheka[4] (1990) had visualised in Divaswapna. With the exception of a handful of innovative programmes, schools and even preschools follow the format of a disciplined, formal set-up where teachers speak and children write. There is very little scope for any discussion, and even less for practical demonstration.

Why we need to urgently rethink this phenomenon

The goals of welfare programmes, educational services and other such interventions have some basic objectives that are repeatedly adopted. Let me analyse some of the key terms:

  • Sustainability: Able to be maintained, upheld (yet one rarely asks sustainability of what, for whom and from whose perspective)
  • Quality: Degree of excellence (Mostly lip-service because quality is clearly proportional to the social capital or purchasing power of a community, family or individual. Look at the state of African Americans incarcerated in American prisons)
  • Equality: The state of being equal, the same versus Equity: The quality of being fair or impartial
  • Neglected children: Neglected by whom? These children are neglected by the State and not necessarily their families!
  • Right to human dignity: Promoting favourable attitudes at all government services (Govt. servants are not masters, but in service of the people)
  • Diversities (MacNaughton, 2006): Diversity is of several kinds, and all need to be considered, Cultural and racial, Developmental, Gender, Socio-economic
  • Enjoyment and exercise of human rights (What if these conflict with community or family interests? The case of the recent encounter in the Andaman Islands)

Let me take a specific extract from CCD package, I quote:

Globally over 200 million children do not reach their developmental potential in the first 5 years of life because they live in poverty, and have poor health services, nutrition and psycho-social care. These disadvantaged children do poorly in school and subsequently have low incomes, high fertility, high criminality, and provide poor care for their own children. The health sector in countries has the capacity to play a unique role in the field of early child development because the most important window of opportunity for ensuring optimal development….The Care for Child Development intervention provides information and recommendations for cognitive stimulation and social support to young children, through sensitive and responsive caregiver-child interactions[5]

My objections

The solutions that the West have provided haven’t always worked well. We have learnt much, but we have also lost a lot. It is time to look at some of the areas in which progress has not been proved successful or sustainable. Some examples are:

  1. The automatic link between poverty and poor psycho-social care is unethical and unscientific
  2. The assumption that children do poorly in school is an automatic assumption. In fact, children are very keen to go to school, but there aren’t enough schools! And for the ones that there are, entry for the children of the poor is arduous and they are quickly removed for the smallest of reasons.
  3. Modern medicine is coming under attack from several sources, and the uncritical promotion of medical practice AS A REPLACEMENT of folk remedies is unwarranted. Ayurvedic practice works on immunity that is the latest mantra in Western medical practice as well.
  4. Recent work on gerontology has highlighted how ineffective the Western model of care of the elderly has become, and how longevity has not resulted in a better quality of life (Gawande, 2014). It is cost intensive and the psychological impact on the elderly is actually very poor.
  5. Commercial products? Going organic, going vegetarian. These trends seem to have come back full-circle to the benefit of local foods and sustainability. Research in epigenetics is indicating that the body adapts to its ecology and our physical capacities are in a delicate balance with the available natural resources.
  6. Why assess children?Somehow, I have always felt that the children of the poor are treated in such studies (as I have described above) as objects ‘out there’ not to be confused with ‘our own children’, the children of the wealthy, educated communities. How can something like this be acceptable to the sovereignty and dignity of a country that boasts of equal rights for all? How can we continue to accept such unequal conditions for research? In order to pass any test for use with participants in a study, I think it is an essential step to ask oneself as a researcher: “Would we be willing to permit such a study on ourselves, and our own children?”
  7. How children learn: Tabula Rasa part 2. Anyone who says children are incapable of learning has never engaged with children, yet, every day, thousands of children enter school believing (because they’ve been told) that they know nothing, worse still, what they know is of no use to the classroom. Very few schools are respectful of the cognitive processes that are in place. Small wonder then, that these children are soon kicked out. Admissions are withdrawn at the smallest of pretexts. Seasonal migration is one example where schools are constantly complaining about children’s movement. Why can’t children be guaranteed admissions? Well, just because school admission (even in government schools) is at a premium. If all children want to go to school there aren’t enough schools! Once they are there, their learning is seen as dependent on the teacher’s coverage of the syllabus. Why have we not been able to use a system that draws from local educationists into the mainstream? Somehow, we have come to believe that children learn only in school, and that they come to school blank, this is Tabula Rasa reincarnated!
  8. Remember, once, homosexuality was declared a mental illness according to science!

What we need to do

Any expenditure by Governments that are already under financial constraints can only be justified if the local populations benefit from the interventions. A serious audit of welfare programmes across the developing world is an urgent need (Burman, 1996). Presently, welfare does not seem to have had the sort of world-wide impact that was predicted and aid agencies have clearly exaggerated success stories (Rajan & Subramanian, 2007; Serpell & Nsamenang, 2014), but that does not mean that welfare services are not needed, a renewal in policy, planning an delivery is an urgent need if the continued expenditure and the presence of international and national aid agencies is to be justified.

Since variation is a primary quality of life and its survival, it could be argued that sameness is a risk we should not take as a species. The more similar we are, the more vulnerable the species. Like buildings, art and craft, child care practices and community activities need a heritage tag, we should not allow them to be transformed. Globalisation has enhanced the need for preserving and studying diversity even more. We need to fully utilise the recent openness between cultures for a better understanding of human phenomena. “The new era of global openness for contacts between human beings across borders of national, social or religious kind sets up a new opportunity for the social sciences to expand their understanding to include the varieties of cultural histories into their scientific cores” (Valsiner, 2017).

While examining the politics of the collective and the infinite diversity of the individual, our recent discoveries should inform our ideology of the cultural lives of people and their classification. It is an ethical responsibility for academics to incorporate the centrality of diversity in human forms and function into the ideology of the social sciences. The scientific search for the truth needs move away from efforts for unravelling a fundamental unity and/or irreconcilable diversity. We need to incorporate the principle that diversity is a universal and life-sustaining feature of life, in biology as well as in culture and the humanities offer us many insights.

Recent research in biology has revealed that even the genome adapts actively to the environment. In a nutshell, if variation is a primary property of life, our treatment of the ‘norm’ (and in fact the very idea of the norm) as ideal must be replaced.


To wrap up, what are some of the lessons from this presentation? I argue that we urgently need an audit of all welfare programmes to ensure scientific and ethical standards, favourable to the community are being maintained.

Models for culturally situated interventions

We need to evolve our own models that are adapted to the cultural context in which the children have grown so that rather than attempting to ‘remedial action’, educational efforts can supplement and support the ongoing learning. Someone wealthier populations seem to believe that they need to ‘change’ people in order to change their economic status when in fact their strategies may be adapted to their circumstances and thus also key to their survival.

There is need to develop greater dialogues between local people and welfare agencies, mediated by social scientists who are grounded in matters of cultural difference. There should also be checks and balances on which aspects of family life are interfered with. Being poor does not mean having fewer rights as human beings. In order to proceed with health care, nutritional supplementation, sanitation and survival, wherever cultural practices need to be addressed, the local meaning system must be known to the personnel in the programme in order to better understand the significance of certain ways of doing things. Intervention programmes must be built around these local knowledge systems, some of which are very precious to people in their ecological settings, and may even better sustain the person-environment relationship. Intervention workers do not have the right to make changes beyond those that have gone through the rigour of academic validation. As Burman (1996) writes about the promotion of children’s welfare, there is no option but to take the difficult path “between the globalisations of cultural imperialism and the cultural relativism of localised conceptions” (p. 45).

Initiatives in rural areas of the developing world should therefore build on “strengths of indigenous cultures by respecting their meaning-systems and adapting their demonstrably beneficial practices. For instance, in an era of falling academic standards and the promotion of consumerism, school curricula would benefit from promoting values of reciprocal accountability and cooperation evident in African family traditions” (Serpell & Nsamenang, 2014, p. 8).

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child[6]

In the adoption of Universal conventions, the African charter shows us a way forward in how to take a culturally favourable stance while accepting global standards to provide for the best interests of children. Goonsekere (1997) argues that while African and Asian countries were involved in the drafting of the CRC, the West dominated in the ways in which the model was promoted and that initiated an independent charter for African countries in 1990. (The African Charter on the Welfare and Rights of the Child). One of the key features of this charter is that although it recognizes in letter and spirit the UNCRC, there are distinctive aspects of African society that have been inserted in the preamble. For instance, by inserting clauses related to the “performance of duties on the part of others”, keeping a focus on “the unique factors of their socio-economic, cultural, traditional and developmental circumstances” as well as the child’s unique position in African society, the charter acknowledges the cultural situatedness of childhood. Such measures are important in the adoption of universal guidelines since they recognize and work with local cultural belief systems. How far these become implemented is the responsibility of the partners, local, national and global, but it definitely provides a framework for considering cultural knowledge systems and the social situation of children, which all cultures value.

Familism instead of children versus adults

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was declared in the year 1990, and has received international agreement and ratification from all countries with the exception of two countries (USA has signed but not ratified the CRC). The right to live free, with peace and dignity is accorded to all children of the world through this provision. Despite the political negotiations regarding signatures and ratifications by different countries, this document makes the notion of the child as a separate entity, and individual in his or her own right, an accepted fact. Although the Convention brings into focus the importance of viewing the child as an individual, with rights that can be considered separately from the family, the issue of universal rights and cultural difference remains a contentious issue as a rarefied, idealistic abstraction, devoid of practical details.

Apprenticeship, and the co-existence of multiple ages is an important way of organizing communities. This form of organic organizations that was typical of rural societies, permitted the supervision of children of all ages including youth, and was an important phenomenon in the containment of delinquency and crime.

Poverty cannot be romanticised and we have a huge task ahead of us. However, unless we find our own sustainable solutions, treat our own people with respect, we will not find our way. In a recent audit, Rajan and Subhramaniam (2007) find that welfare hasn’t worked, despite all the millions of dollars of revenue spent, the world’s poverty still stands. This does not mean that welfare should be abandoned, but it certainly points to the fact that the present transactions are not working. We have to find workable solutions, it is our responsibility. And unless the social sciences are involved, this will continue to be a lot cause.

Handling diversity, not by making it more homogenous, but by permitting people the capability to learn from and educate themselves without feeling that they have to “leave their lives” in order to progress. How many parents send their children to school saying that “taki who mere jaise na rahen”. Why? If there is no pride in hard work, who is responsible for making them feel that way? Why has poverty always meant the lack of dignity? I think we are collectively responsible. The pockets of poverty in India are not poor on account of their habits, they are poor because of the chance of birth!

Looking inwards for patterns and principles. Epistemology in Indian philosophies presents a far more experientially grounded range of experiences for accessing and gaining knowledge. The ways in which has seen many shifts. No other civilisation developed the use of memory (oral) as a central tool of gathering information. Knowledge is defined in Indian schools of thought both a verb and a noun (Devy, 2017), perspectives that we have almost lost in the confrontation with Western thought. As per one school of thought, the processes are:

  • Sensation – Pratyaksh
  • Presumption (using prior knowledge) – Anuman
  • Analogy (comparisons) – Upaman
  • Absence – or awareness of ABSENCE – Anuplabdhi
  • Superimposition (of things we already know ONTO something new) through CONTRADICTION (that’s HOW it is different from number 2) – Arthapatti
  • Words or texts – Shabd

Why is it that rather than memory, perception and sensation, we have not looked at this system for understanding epistemology? The concept of Anuplabdhi alone, is so complex and refined that it takes an intense amount of scholarly interest to understand it, yet, learning about something through realising its absence is something we all use (Prof. Dharam Bhawuk, email conversation).

A se anaar: The Hindi Alphabet as a template Elegantly arranged according to phonetics and physiology, the Hindi alphabet (Sanskrit is even more elaborate on the conjunctive alphabets) provides a far more logical sequence of understanding and learning sounds and script. The hunger for learning the English language need not be seen as a replacement of the local languages. Children’s minds are fluid and flexible and capable of learning many languages simultaneously. This needs more concerted action (Devy, 2017).

Beyond carpenters and gardeners: In the year, 2016, eminent Berkeley professor of Psychology Alison Gopnik wrote The Gardener and the carpenter: What the new science of child development tells us about the relationships between parents and children, where she argued that we are doing “too much for our children” and we need to leave them alone s they can learn. Surely there is some advice that we can take from the eloquence of Gopnik. But my point here is that for a Berkeley professor with a brother in the New York Times, the words flow from a very comfortable position of a grandmother watching the natural tendencies of her little granddaughter. For the young child in Korba district of Chhhatisgarh, would this advice have any meaning? Surely this is evidence of the pendulum swinging that science periodically takes us through. Sometimes fat is bad for you and we must have fat free diets till that crated a crisis, and now it is sugar that has become the enemy. Yet few people will advise you that you can eat anything you choose, but in moderation because that does not fit the advertising boom of miracle foods and their sales. Advice based on science has led to several crises in the health sector.

Using local art, crafts and literature for making learning more sustainable and respectful of local culture. All institutions must be compelled to use local ways of crafting objects, fabrics, buildings, both for sustainability and conservation.

The dreamers: Incorporating India’s emerging youth – In Snigdha Poonam’s recently released volume, we find dramatic accounts of young entrepreneurs forging ahead with establishing ventures for the quick and easy delivery of English lessons or creating algorithms to attract international audiences to strands of “news” on the internet. These kids of ventures have made millions and are thriving industries because they fill the imagination of a population that sees its tradition as empty and haven’t yet consolidated an image of where they want to be, because they cannot reach the place which feeds their imagination, the West! So, speedily taught English lessons and ticking numbers of people reached on a superficial (or fake) news item or health solution, is hardly likely to sustain long-term interest. Yet the commercial success has got these youngsters somewhere. However, their interview sessions reported by the author demonstrate a sense of emptiness and absence of meaning. Is this the outcome of providing an image of an unattainable ideal life? Have all our narratives (schools, media, work, market) become dominated by second-hand images of family, home, life and livelihood? Is it possible that these people are chasing a dream that was not theirs? A dream that was shown to them through glossy magazines and photoshopped images, to show them how they should live? Perhaps we need a renaissance of the past, a past that is actively present (Thapar, 2014) in some private spaces. We still retain enduring fragments of ancient wisdom ad are in the risk of losing those. But for this we need not blind recursion, but a considered and balanced approach, because the former will be rudely rejected by youth. Old ideas have to be heavily screened and adapted to fit with modernity and global trends, and psychologists have an important role to play in this campaign precisely because social scientists inhabit the intersection of personal space and collective identity that can make such a dialogue possible.

Summing up

Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Changing cultural practices can endanger the delicate balance that child-care practices provide between the household and the ecology. Surely, the direction in which the Western world is headed is not a direction we need to take. We need to forge our own direction in the soft, intimate spaces that children and families inhabit with confidence and pride, and not a sense of lacking something. Food, family life and cultural practices are still the aspects of intimate life that carry some resonance with the past. There is a new India that has left many things behind and has not reached somewhere, we need to act before it’s too late, and one of the important ways in which this can be achieved is through supporting services that address people with dignity and respect, rather than contempt. We need an urgent audit of programmes aimed at changing cultural practices by giving these a heritage tag just like we do for art, craft and buildings! The role of associations like the NAOP is critical in this campaign since it is a community of experts…….Can we, as Bhatia (urges us, “imagine a different Psychology? A psychology that goes beyond the mechanistic, universalizing, essentialising and ethnocentric dimensions that make up the hegemony of Euro-American psychological science” (Bhatia, 2018, p. xx).

I will end with a story from A. K. Ramanujan to illustrate my point further:

“In a South Indian folktale, also told elsewhere, one dark night, an old woman was searching intently for something in the street. A passer-by asked her “Have you lost something?”

She answered, “Yes, I have lost my keys. I’ve been looking for them all evening.”

“Where did you lose them?” the passer-by asked.

“I don’t know, maybe inside the house?”

“Then why are you looking for them here?”

“Because it’s dark in there, I don’t have any oil in my lamps. I can see much better here under the streetlights.”

Until recently, many studies of Indian civilisation have been conducted on that principle. Look for it under the light…..in well-lit public spaces….that we already know. There we have, of course, found previous things,……we need to move indoors into the expressive culture of the household to look for our keys. As often happens, we may not even find what we are looking for, but we will find all sorts of other things that we may not even know we had lost or even had.” (Ramanujan, 1991, Introduction).


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[1] https://www.unicef.org/crc/

[2] https://www.unicef.org/earlychildhood/index_68195.html

[3] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2018/06/12/its-time-to-move-beyond-the-word-gap/

[4] http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/divaswapna.htm

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  1. This is so amazing and I have only read about half of it so far. I agree with her assertion that forcing homogeneity in parenting or any aspect of how one should live their life is ridiculous. Different cultures and Nations need to form their own opinion. They can look to others for policy input but it has to be adopted to local psychology and demographics. This is very important work and I am really glad you are so passionate about it.


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