Child-focused non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Africa often use international policy guidelines in their effort to protect children. They also depend on international donors to fund their activities.
NGOs rely on standardised childhood policy frameworks, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Little attention is given to indigenous knowledge on childhood, and its inclusion in child-focused interventions.
We conducted a study to explore the interplay between these two worlds. The study, using an ethnographic method of participant observation and interviews, explored indigenous knowledge on child protection in a rural cocoa growing community of Ghana. We explored rural parents’ attitudes to an NGO intervention on children’s rights to basic schooling, and the illegality of child labour. We focused mainly on the effects of indigenous knowledge on the outcomes of a child-rights based intervention; and interactions between parents and staff of a child-focused NGO.
Using ethnographic methods enabled us to capture insights behind practices on rural childhood which would have been impossible with a quantitative approach.
Findings from the study shows that parents perspectives on child protection were fundamentally different from those promoted by NGO frontline workers and the UNCRC. Rural parents viewed child protection as providing for the physical wellbeing of children and making sure they were trained in the norms and customs of the community.
Based on our findings we recommended that for sustainable child protection interventions in rural Africa, Child-focused NGOs working in these settings should meaningfully merge local knowledge on childhood in their intervention programmes. This may ensure long term local ownership and sustainability of the intervention by rural stakeholders.
The idea of a ‘normative child’ only came into being in Western Europe between the 17th and 19th century. During this period, childhood was constructed as a distinct phase of life separate from adulthood and children were seen as needing an enabling environment to play, receive formal education and to be free from work.
Today these constructs are the embodiment of childhood in Western countries and are enshrined in documents such as the UNCRC which has become the conveying instrument of this approach. Organisations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and UK and US aid bodies work mostly with countries that have ratified the UNCRC.
In most African countries, too, the legal construction of what a proper childhood should be is guided by the UNCRC.
But, as realised in our study, traditional African childhoods different from the child-rights based UNCRC. The organisation and coherence of African childhoods are usefully oriented toward different contextual purposes to those reflected in the UNCRC approach.
In traditional African societies, children get to know the ways of their community through family traditions. They work alongside adults on daily routines. Children are thus seen as social actors with agency for the collective good rather than oriented towards individual interests.
Education is through hands-on practice, rather than mainly by attending school.
In spite of the difference between the Western and African childhood constructs, the work of local child-focused NGOs in rural Africa is often influenced by the Western narrative of children’s rights and the illegality of children’s work. At the same time, indigenous knowledge which underpins parental perspectives as enshrined in Article 31 of the African Charter of the Rights and Welfare of the Child, is ignored.
The attitudes of rural parents
Interactions with parents revealed that children learning through work was highly valued. This was due to the economic and cultural implications of children’s work for parents and children themselves. Children’s work was simply essential to their integration in the local community.
This meant that parents continued to engage their children in work even after being exposed to the child-rights based intervention of the NGO.
Observations further showed that local perspectives – which were largely embedded in indigenous knowledge – were ignored by the participating NGO. The foremost concern of the NGO was to show that the childhood interventions they implemented were aligned with the global policy framework.
Thus the participating local child-focused NGO for the most part rejected local knowledge or treated it as an obstacle to childhood development. This resulted in implementation of an intervention that did not address local realities.
A sustainable way forward
What then can be done to ensure sustainable NGO interventions in rural communities of Africa?
First, local child-focused NGOs should stop treating indigenous knowledge on childhood as obstacles to childhood development. They should not see the situation of children in rural communities of Africa as a result of the failings of rural parents. Rather they should make an effort to consider contextual reality, indigenous knowledge and the reasons behind childhood practices.
They should also value the importance of the skills children learn through work in relation to their context.
Secondly, NGOs should identify local structures that can handle local problems. They should work with these to improve the situation of children. These local structures should take the lead in implementing interventions in the local community with NGO staff serving as resource persons with an aim of establishing an intervention that seamlessly blends local and international knowledge on childhood development.
In addition, local child-focus NGOs should be realistic in the content of information they disseminate on childhoods. An example is parents constantly being told that children who work at the expense of schooling are bound to fail in life. This can raise expectations that are rather exaggerated and unsustainable given the low quality of rural formal education.
Child-focus NGOs in these instances should strive to disseminate knowledge that is practical and capable of shifting parents from old ways of caring for children. This would involve toning down the use of standardised best practices while factoring in the social structure and intergenerational relations within family systems in rural African communities.