Six weeks ago, 150 researchers, practitioners and policy makers gathered in Addis Ababa for the conference ‘Putting Children First: identifying solutions and taking action to tackle poverty and inequality in Africa’. Over the course of three days, we discussed the available evidence on child poverty and its policy responses as well as knowledge and policy gaps. Presentations and debates were very diverse and rich, as can be seen from the compilation of presentations and blog posts and the Call of Action posted on the conference page.
Without wanting to offer a full summary, various take-away messages stood out for me:
We focus too much on households and pay too little attention to what happens within them or around them.
We know too little of what goes within households and to how support that is provided at household-level is distributed among individual members, most notably children and young adults. For too long and too often we have been working based on the assumption that benefits at household-level will translate into positive outcomes for its members. We know that this assumption is problematic, but we know too little about the dynamics, and about who might be disadvantaged and how such disadvantages may be overcome. The evidence base is expanding, such as in Somalia and Nigeria, but more remains to be done.
Equally, the role of communities is overlooked. This was discussed in reference to social protection and child protection, noting that cash transfers, youth livelihood programmes or other forms of social protection may alter community dynamics and networks in ways that we currently know too little about or do not integrate in programming. In reference to child protection, the role of communities is crucial in identifying and responding to children’s needs but approaches aiming to involve communities tend to be too top-down.
Improving nutritional outcomes will be one the key challenges in the coming decade with a strong need for innovative solutions.
Poor nutritional outcomes for children and the need to rethink policies and programmes for addressing this emerged as a recurrent theme throughout the conference. Malnutrition remains a concern across Africa with limited progress having been made in the last decades. This holds in both urban and rural areas. Social protection and poverty reduction at large appear unable to ensure that children are better nourished. Notwithstanding the importance of ensuring good nutrition in early years, results from the longitudinal Young Lives study also indicate that adverse consequences of malnutrition in childhood can be reversed in adolescence.
More children are going to school, but we need to do more to include the most vulnerable and to improve educational outcomes.
Enrolment rates have greatly increased across the region but some of the most vulnerable groups, such as children with disabilities, have been left behind. Making children with disabilities ‘school-ready’ requires an acknowledgement that children may follow different pathways into becoming ready for school and greater involvement of parents, teachers and others involved in childrens' care. Similar issues hold for girls in rural areas such as in Ethiopia, with cultural norms and expectations around types of work that are appropriate for women and women’s roles in household reproduction forming barriers to going to school.
Getting children into school is not enough for improving outcomes. Quality of schooling is crucial but issues of lack of highly-skilled and motivated teachers, poor integration with other services and lack of budget – such as with ‘O-class’ education in Ethiopia – undermine services. Also, disadvantages in cognitive ability that exist before children enter school prove hard to reverse.
We need to pay more attention to shame, dignity and psychosocial elements of child poverty.
A recurrent theme throughout the conference was the shameful experience that poverty is, and its far-reaching consequences on children and its carers. Children in Uganda experience shame as a consequence of living in poverty at home, at school and in the wider community. Rates of mental illness among Ethiopian children are high with academic performance and finding employment being particular sources of anxiety for adolescents in Ethiopia. Policies to reduce poverty – such as social protection – may also induce shame as a result of stigma that is attached to the receipt of cash transfers. A greater focus on improving psychosocial wellbeing is vital to the fight against child poverty.