Campaigns, claims and consequences
With Gabriel Scheidecker
On our Kadak Chai posts that address more serious stuff, we bring you a joint essay, co-authored with Gabriel Scheidecker that addresses some ethical and scientific concerns about Volunteerism and Humanitarian Aid campaigns, with specific examples from the Global South.
About Gabriel: “I am a Social Anthropologist based at the Free University of Berlin, Germany. In my research I am focussing on child-rearing practices and emotions and the question how they vary across diverse cultural settings. For my Phd I have conducted 15 months of ethnographic research in a rural community in Madagascar. Currently I am doing research with Vietnamese immigrant families in Berlin.” Gabriel can be reached at Gabriel.Scheidecker@fu-berlin.de and here are some links to his work:
I first met Gabriel at an Ernst Strüngmann Forum meeting held at the Frankfurt Institute of Advanced Studies in 2015. The meeting was very productive and we all contributed to a publication that has been very well received internationally. When we had a chance to meet at the recently completed IACCP Regional Conference in Costa Rica, we had a chance to reconnect and continue some of the discussions that had been initiated in 2015. This blog post is an outcome of those conversations. We both look forward to your comments and questions in the hope that we may have raised some important questions here, and would love to share more thoughts with you if you are interested.
Here is a link to the publication:
Recently, a report on National Public Radio in the US, covered the story of a young, enthusiastic philanthropist, who was so touched by her experiences in Uganda that she moved there to establish a Centre for families with young children in the year 2010. For over five years, Renee Bach worked in a hospital she ran, except, she was not a doctor. There have been 105 fatalities under her care, and now, she is being taken to court by the Ugandan Government for negligence. How did Bach reach Uganda? How could a 20-year-old American woman contemplate taking on critical care responsibilities with no medical training? Briefly, this is her story.
Volunteerism was at its peak during the period Bach visited Uganda and the city of Jinja where she moved had become a hub, with numerous missions and volunteers, among which Bach found her calling. The article reads thus:
“A sprawling city of tens of thousands of people on the shores of Lake Victoria, Jinja is surrounded by rural villages of considerable poverty. U.S. missionaries had set up a host of charities there. And soon American teens raised in mostly evangelical churches were streaming in to volunteer at them. Bach was one of these teens. On her first trip, in 2007, she worked at a missionary-run orphanage — staying on for nine months. Once back home in Virginia, Bach — now 19 years old — came to a life-changing conclusion: She should move to Jinja full time and set up her own charity. In an interview with NPR, Bach says it felt like a calling from God.”
Another story from the Andaman Islands of India made it to the news headlines in 2018. On 21st October 2018, John Allen Chau, a 27-year-old American from Alabama, hired some local fisherman for a journey to the endangered and protected tribes of the Andaman Islands, determined to carry the message of Christianity. Chau had been warned of the tribesmen’s antagonism towards outsiders, over and above the fact that contacting them is also illegal. These Andamanese have voluntarily remained excluded from modernity, including Western medicine, and are, by law, protected from any attempts at interference with their ways. This also guards against exposure to infectious diseases. Without heading any of the warnings, both from the Government and from the people themselves, Chau made repeated unsuccessful attempts to reach the island where he wished to work as a missionary. On his earlier attempts, he sustained injuries from arrows shot by the Sentinelese. “The Sentinelese have shown again and again that they want to be left alone, and their wishes should be respected,” a newspaper report mentioned. In subsequent sightings, some fishermen reported having seen his lifeless body being dragged along the beach. It is believed that he was shot and killed.
What drives people to volunteer?
Humanitarian action has become a thriving industry, and behind those initiatives is a deep-rooted desire to help others who are believed to be in need. Philanthropy is as old as mankind. Only now, it has also become a thriving and lucrative profession, even a business. Here are some instances of how volunteering has been expanding. The exercise in doing things for others is argued as beneficial for feelings like loneliness as this article in Scientific American reports:
Another strategy is to volunteer. In a recent survey of over 10,000 people in the U.K., two-thirds reported that volunteering helped them feel less isolated. Similarly, a 2018 study of nearly 6,000 people across the U.S. examined widows who, unsurprisingly, felt lonelier than married adults. After starting to volunteer for two or more hours per week, their average level of loneliness subsided to match that of married adults, even after controlling for demographics, baseline health, personality traits and other social involvement. These benefits may be especially strong the older you are and the more often you volunteer.
Have you heard of workaway.com? Last year I (Nandita) met a young scholar from Europe who planned a trip to Central Africa through this venture. Her story was heart-breaking. She was a student of psychology, attending a workshop at the Sigmund Freud University where I was making a presentation. Over the official dinner, we got talking about interventions and she, hesitatingly said that she had a story to tell. She had completed a degree combining public health and anthropology and was excited about exploring the world, and making a small contribution to the difficulties of living with poverty. She and her partner searched and found the organization Workaway that someone had told them about. A home-stay with a family was arranged through website by joining as a member for a fee. Accompanied by her partner, she prepared herself for some months of hardship and dedication. Yet, she was not prepared for the shock of living with almost nothing, in a small town, working with and for their host family, they returned home within the week, devastated by the experience. Both of them have carried a deep sense of failure and guilt over the year and tears ran down her cheeks as she spoke. She had a lot to say about her naivete, the complete lack of preparation, the months of agony that followed and the absence of any support from the people involved in making arrangements. Perhaps she was young enough to believe that her motivation and sincerity would be enough to help her complete the commitment. As I tried to understand her words, I searched for the website. If you log in as a member, you can see the number of people that are presently travelling through Workaway. It is a paid subscription, but I got to see the figure from her laptop since she was a member, around a million people had used the Workaway site for volunteering and the number was constantly updating. The popularity and possibilities are fascinating to consider, but along with that, the risks that such experiments run is enormous, for both the hosts as well as volunteers.
This is now a billion dollar industry, and it’s time for a serious audit.
Let us agree that humanitarian action in itself is well-intended and may even have positive impact. There are several important voluntary organizations that have had significant impact whether it is in the field of education (Pratham, in India), child welfare and education (Mobile Crèches, in New Delhi and other locations, Naandi Foundation, BODH, SEWA, Hole in the Wall), to name a few. Selected interventions in health care, disease prevention, sanitation, nutrition and education have made significant efforts locally and internationally. Yet, this does not imply that all programs are justified, even if they are well-intended. Unfortunately, the welfare sector is now operating as if it does not need to examine or explain their work. This is what we bring to your attention today. Not all well-meaning ideas are favorable for families, and thus, we have to be alert and attentive to the possibilities that welfare can have negative impact, indirectly and directly. We need initiatives that keep cultural, social and ecological relevance and respect in focus.
“Well-meaning, bad ideas”?
(Nandita) came across the expression “well-meaning bad ideas” in a political
debate initiated by the NYU Professor Jonathan Haidt,
I thought it could, at a stretch, be used in this instance. Let us agree that
people who volunteer their time and effort, even their lives in some instances,
to the cause of assisting others, join organizations that provide humanitarian
aid, have good intentions. Yet questions remain. Let us select some of the
campaigns targeting parents and families regarding the care of children that
urge parents to “talk more” or “feed children differently” or “look at children
while communicating” or “send children to preschool” both on scientific and
ethical grounds. Messages such as these are usually followed up with a
cautionary note on the harmful impact of “neglecting children”, “spanking
them”, “not showing love to them”, or “not reading books to them”, quickly
followed by a solicitation to donate funds to the organization. Let us take the
recent cyclone on the shores of Eastern India, Cyclone Fani. The advertisement
widely circulated by UNICEF urges people to donate to UNICEF initially claimed
that children were likely to be “neglected and abused” during such disasters
and so, donate to UNICEF. I (Nandita) immediately wrote to UNICEF asking how
they were making such a claim, what were the sources for identifying that
adults would abuse children? Very soon, the message of abuse was taken down and
neglect remained as an ominous message. In fact, UNICEF’s claim in this
instance was completely off the mark because the State Government’s preventive
measures ensured that families received protection and safe housing in advance.
Here is the original Facebook post on the day the post was seen which has been
The speed and ease with which poverty settings are dismissed as places that perpetuate violence, abuse and neglect are rampant is unfair and incorrect. As we have learnt from several sources, neglect of children or domestic violence is a universal problem, not one that plagues only the poor in the Global South. Yet, repeatedly, the associations are made automatically. These claims should not be seen as attempting to romanticize poverty settings, far from it. A lot of work is needed to provide basic services to communities the world over, the question is, do we need to justify that by claiming how terrible they are as carers? Using poor child care as an argument is unfair and unscientific. The care of children is, as scholars have repeatedly asserted, an adaptation to the social, historic and ecological settings, and exist in delicate balance with the contexts in which they emerge. Linking poverty with poor child care to invite funds is simply not acceptable.
History, power and politics in international relations
The urge to save the poor draws inspiration from missions, colonies, companies and empires. Although the strategies used and outcomes attained were different, these international initiatives had one simple assumption, that affluent Western societies carried the key to a good life. Western civilization is assumed to be at the top of social evolution, having learned to exploit and control the earth, its natural and human resources through domination and power. Notwithstanding the fact that much of the wealth was drawn from its colonies, European nations bargained and fought over territories for their resources. At the same time, the Americas were carrying on with the trade of slaves to fulfill the demands of agriculture and industrialization in the expanding territory. Thus, countries, and indeed whole regions were made poor by colonial exploitation, an imbalance that persists since these very same regions are now classified as poor and inadequate in comparison with Western standards of living. The transfer to neo-colonialism, the use of economic, political, cultural and other pressures to control or influence poorer regions sustained long after colonization was no longer viable. These policies ensured the sustained imbalance of power between countries. Corresponding with policies of neo-liberalism, a political, social and economic model based on individualism, free market, affluence and democracy, this imbalance was enhanced by keeping the dream of Western civilization thriving. As the dream escalated, borders became correspondingly tighter. Although the dream was exported, it was no longer possible to realize it by moving seamlessly to the West. Europe and America tightened their national borders and made it harder for people to move. The dream had to be exported in a way that kept the myth “West is Best” alive. Alongside this story, aid and welfare become an organized sector and relatively wealthy professional expatriates joined the diplomatic cadre to different parts of the world, spreading the message of well-being and care, themes that were assumed to be ignored or absent among the locals. Drawn from child development text-books, campaigns for modifying child care practices became an important movement. Individual rights were privileged over community practices, modern parenting practices were seen as more favorable than traditional strategies, International NGOs took over the space lying vacant in the imagination of subaltern communities, silently chanting: “West is best! West is best!”.
Meanwhile, in the West
In the meantime, several significant changes had taken place in Western societies. As a consequence of industrialization and individualization, family size had shrunk and fertility rates were dropping to an all-time low. Grandparents became separated from young couples and their babies and the reliance on the science of behavioural development was established. Gradually, children became viewed as fragile and innocent, in need of protection and constant attention through adults. This was quite in contrast to the construction of childhood in other generations and other places. Yet, without reflecting on the peculiarity of this context characterized by small nuclear families, the domination of Western science ensured that this template for childhood and family life became the universal ideal. All other forms of family were marginalized and limited to text boxes in text books as exotic and unusual, despite the fact the they proliferated in other parts of the world and also in the recent past of the West. Sibling care, joint families, multiple caregivers are examples. Child welfare policies were developed around this imagined WEIRD reality, as a popular scientific article argues. A large chunk of research in Psychology is based on a small minority of the world’s people, Henrich and his colleagues claimed, with the catchy acronym for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic societies (WEIRD).
The insecurity about child protection because of demographic changes translated into global policy on childhood and the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) was born. The most significant organization in this field, UNICEF, had its agenda drastically curtailed after demands for emergency aid were weakening. They needed a new agenda, and along with the failure of Structural Adjustment Programs like the International Monetary Fund or World Bank IMF, WB loans, international aid became the new player and children’s rights as an idea is firmly based in globalization. In 1989, the CRC were signed in the UN. As an aside, it is not insignificant that despite being the seat of the UN office, the US has still refused to ratify the CRC, precisely because they believe in the sovereignty of the American family that cannot be dictated by an international body, but that is another story that needs discussion and debate. For now, it is important to realize that (in the words of the scholar Erica Burman) the ‘Child’ was now globalized and separated from its context, and ‘Development’ was separated from culture. Within this view, diversity is seen as a threat and policing of childhood especially in the case of immigrants from the Global South becomes a justifiable, even honorable action. In India, for instance, admiration for UN policies has always been high, and we have failed, as a country, to debate the cultural appropriateness of these policies. In the passage below, the automatic dismissal of the poor as ineffective and harmful parents is clearly evident.
Care for Child Development (UNICEF)
“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…Therefore health care encounters for women and young children are important opportunities to help strengthen families’ efforts to promote children’s early development and may represent a critical time when health professionals in developing countries can positively influence parents of young children to enable their development.” [UNICEF on their website: https://www.unicef.org/earlychildhood/index_85518.html, Emphasis added]
As the discourse around the judgement of parenting is heightened, at the same time, we find a range of critiques of modern parenting in the West, the region from where the idea of “best practices” usually emerges. Most of these themes are drawn from selective references to specific studies that prove the point, that by changing the way in which children are cared for, their future will change and they will become successful, well-nourished, healthy and productive citizens. Furthermore, most referenced studies are conducted in the specific context of WEIRD worlds which makes it highly problematic to apply their results to judge children and parents living in strongly diverging social worlds. As developmental scientists, we evaluate these claims as exaggerated and misplaced, over-estimating the imagined outcomes, ignoring local contexts and undermining local practices.
International aid agencies base their objectives on a small range of studies to make claims about childhood circumstances and their consequences. Let us look at the claims made on the website of TOSTAN, an NGO operating in Senegal. One of their programs is the “Reinforcement Parental Practices Module” (RPP), which so far has been implemented in 462 rural communities in Senegal. On the website we learn that RPP aims at “strengthening the positive early childhood development practices of parents and community members, in an effort to create an environment conductive to child development.” (https://www.tostan.org/programs/projects-modules/reinforcement-parental-practices-module/). This is realized by measures to “enrich interactions between parents and their young children” by teaching parents, among other things, to look into their children’s eyes, to talk more to children and to playfully copy their children’s behavior. The projected outcomes of the interventions, as it is further explained on the website, include “brain development” and “healthy development” which “will in turn result in improved academic performance and later success in life in general.” In a video, embedded at the end of the website, these alleged causal links are represented as an equation: “engaged parent = prepared child = successful student = brighter future”. Form this video, we also learn about the outcomes of the program, for example: “95% of the program’s parents became very knowledgeable about early childhood development”.
Link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=putYmR7It-o&feature=youtu.be
At first glance, these aims and claims may sound fairly positive and desirably. However, they also carry a number of negative messages about the parents and children, and the targeted communities altogether: Tostan’s “effort to create an environment conductive to child development” implies that the environment created by the parents and community is detrimental to child development. Their aim to “enrich interactions between parents and their young children” means that these interactions are of poor quality. The claim to produce “engaged parents” transports the message that they are currently disengaged towards their children. To say that the “program’s parents became very knowledgeable about early childhood development” is to say that they were unknowing before. The same logic applies to the children: Tostan’s claim to enable “healthy development” and foster “brain development” means that the children in these communities do not develop in a healthy way and their brains do not develop properly – if Tostan did not intervene. Only once, the dark side of Tostan’s campaign is addressed frankly: “Research conducted in Senegal has shown that some social traditions and norms can hinder infants’ brain development”. As it turns out, to abolish these “traditions and norms” in the community and to replace them by Tostan’s norms and practices – allegedly based on “recent discoveries in cognitive science” – is at the heart of the RPP program.
The core message that the brain development of infants in Senegalese communities is hindered by their parent’s childrearing traditions and norms is hardly limited to the infants themselves. It implies that the parents and – in fact – all other adults of these communities actually have not fully developed brains. After all, the parents (and grandparents, and great-grandparents) must also have been raised by these brain hindering norms and traditions in a developmentally un-conductive environment. With their aim of “Nurturing the Next Generation of Learners” (headline of the website’s video) and, thus, to create a “breakthrough generation” Tostan implies that the population is caught in an inter-generational circle of poverty, poor parenting, and undeveloped brains. Putting it simply Tostan’s message to English speakers can be summarized as follows: The people of Senegal are poor because their population is cognitively underdeveloped. By helping the next generation to become smarter, the population will thrive in the future.
Of course, it should be considered that blaming parents for poor parenting and de-valuating whole communities as cognitively underdeveloped may be just a ‘collateral damage’ compared to the positive change such projects engender. To convince potential donors of the positive impact, campaigns usually resort to scientific evidence. Tostan, for example, refers to “recent discoveries in cognitive science [which] have shown that the stimulating interaction between parents and their children is an essential factor in young children’s development.” However, as we have shown elsewhere (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cdev.13115), the scientific evidence they are referring to is actually highly ambiguous on many levels. But even if we assumed that there is definite scientific evidence, the crucial question is whether it applies to the communities in Senegal. Tostan claims on its website that certain traditions and norms hold parents back from looking into their infant’s eyes and talking to them. Does this necessarily imply that the children of the Senegalese communities actually lack stimulating interaction? This is not the case. It is actually very likely that these children have available a high number of nonparental social partners in their extended families, who can provide abundant social stimulation, even if the parents don’t do it much. Obviously, the claim that these children lack stimulating interaction is based on a false projection of the nuclear family situation onto the Senegalese communities. The ethnocentrism which is at play here may become more obvious when reversing the perspective for a moment: Do infants in Western nuclear families lack stimulating interaction because their social world is relatively impoverished? Such a question would raise a storm, and one hesitates even to spell it out.
Another example for the precarious link between parenting interventions and scientific evidence is “Responsive Feeding” (RF). RF refers to a bunch of feeding practices, which are taught all over the world to parents of young children by UNICEF, WHO, and many other organizations. According to RF feeding should be guided solely by the child’s signals of hunger and satiety, not by other factors as for example emotions; parents should make sure that the child eats always at the same time and place and is not distracted by other activities; while feeding, parents should look into the child’s eyes, talk a lot with her, use praising, role play and role modelling to encourage eating instead of any negative pressure; and parents should promote early self-feeding through finger foods. In most low- and middle-income countries parents are found to use feeding practices that depart from responsive feeding. According to my own research many Vietnamese parents combine spoon feeding routinely with a pleasant activity for the child, such as playing or watching a clip. This feeding practice, which may be continued until the child enters primary school, contradicts almost all principles of RF: The child is partly distracted, face-to-face contact and conversations are reduced as the child is focused on playing or watching, space and time of eating are flexible, the mother strongly controls the feeding activity while the child is in a passive role, and early self-feeding is discouraged. It is important to notice that parents engage purposefully in this feeding stile, not out of lacking knowledge or skills. The parents I (Gabriel) interviewed considered it to be one of the most important ways to express maternal love and care and to build an emotional bond to the child.
Now we might ask: Why should parents all over the world adopt one and the same feeding style, namely RF? The main reason provided by the involved organizations and in the literature is that, according to scientific evidence, RF helps to reduce undernutrition in children, which is still a major challenge in many parts of the world. However, when carefully examining the scientific literature, we find no clear evidence that RF interventions help to reduce undernutrition. When RF was incorporated into the policies and programs of UNICEF and WHO around 2000, no studies measuring the independent impact of such interventions were available yet. When such studies finally appeared between 2008 and 2011 they could not confirm a positive effect of responsive feeding interventions on children’s nutritional status. Yet, RF is continued to be promoted up to the present. As both examples demonstrate, the scientific evidence which parenting programs use to legitimate their interventions needs to be carefully scrutinized.
The Indian freedom movement was characterized by a very important principle, the right to self-determination. Although the departure of the British led to a bloody partition and other consequences that still trouble the sub-continent, Satyagraha, or the fight for truth and Swaraj, the right to self-governance and self-determination through non-violent means were Gandhi’s invincible messages to the British that their time was over. I invoke this term to reassert that the poor have a right to self-determination. Requiring State or other support in accessing resources does not imply diminished self-respect or the right to self-determination. Besides this, the campaigns that solicit funding, support and enrollment in services must be aware of the intended and unintended meanings, implications and outcomes of the materials used. This post is a call for serious reflection on family interventions, worldwide.
In concluding, let’s return to the basic questions. What is the motivation that drives young people like Chau and Bach to such extreme commitment, without fear of loss of life, their own or other people’s? What are the roots of this movement and what can be done to ensure protection of both the savior and the ones “being saved”? Furthermore, how does the outreach work and fund-raising shape images of regions: entire communities, countries or even the “global south” as a whole. As we have read in the essay, International parenting interventions often claim in their campaigns that they will help children to develop their full cognitive and emotional potential by changing parenting practices. This, it is argued, will lead to dramatic outcomes. Such promises, however, have a dark side – they suggest indirectly that the current state of poverty and political instability results from its cognitively and emotionally underdeveloped population which has not received proper parenting, a clause that is never considered seriously because the people being targeted are voiceless in the larger scheme of things. It may be argued that these messages motivate benevolent people and organizations to help, however, they also reach people and organizations with not so benign intentions, and, more seriously, impact the ways in which people are viewed and also how they view themselves! None of these outcomes are insignificant.
We believe that it is time to pause, step back and think seriously about the assumptions behind such efforts, both as individuals and as organizations, as well as the strategies that are used to persuade others to join by contributing, whether in cash or other donations, volunteering, or in the case of large organizations, by seeking employment in this sector.
The task is to find scientific and ethical content and methods, about finding respectful and accurate ways of communicating with and making interventions about dialogues between different ways of living rather than unidirectional advice. There is an urgent requirement to review the campaigns and claims that are made for the “improvement” of people’s lives. We need to hold back the urge to promote “best practice” and permit people the freedom and dignity we expect for ourselves, and along with that, offer services for children and families as we intend.
Summing up our thoughts:
- Humanitarian action such as parenting interventions are mostly well-intended, sometimes may have even positive effects. However, they have also been criticized for being paternalistic and neo-colonial. Due to the complexity and its many forms, we do not either endorse or dismiss parenting interventions in general. However, we think it is important to examine them from a critical perspective which helps to reduce some of its most adverse effects.
- Campaigns for participation, volunteering or donations are directed at the public and, thus, take part in creating public images and opinions about the groups to be targeted (mostly populations from Lower- and Middle-Income Countries) and about others more generally. In the case of parenting interventions, campaigns tend to depict the targeted populations as cognitively and emotionally underdeveloped (due to poor parenting) rather than materially deprived. They do this in order to convince potential donors of the need for interventions that are meant to give a chance to the next generation to fully develop their cognitive and emotional potential.
- Several campaigns use inaccurate or weak scientific evidence for the sake of persuasion. They must be avoided since they can potentially damage both the way communities and people think about themselves as well as how they are viewed. To add,
- Unintended effects of these campaigns: These campaigns do not only have the intended effect of motivating well-intended people to engage and help. They also foster a more general deficient view of the targeted population multiplied through the media. What is worse, they may be also seized by people and organization with xenophobic, chauvinist, or racist positions. (E.g. we don’t want migrants from these countries because they are cognitively limited and emotionally deprived).
- Given the many unintended side-effects, parenting intervention programs and the accompanying campaigns should be carefully tested, scrutinized and weighed before being implemented, just as is expected, for example, of medications.
Note: The featured image (credits Reshu Tomar) is used for representational purpose only