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Child poverty, evidence and policyMainstreaming children in international development$

Nicola A. Jones

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9781847424464

Published to Policy Press Scholarship Online: March 2012

DOI: 10.1332/policypress/9781847424464.001.0001

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Child poverty and well-being

Child poverty and well-being

(p.6) (p.7) One Child poverty and well-being
Child poverty, evidence and policy

Nicola Jones

Andy Sumner

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses how child poverty differs from adult poverty, and presents a ‘human well-being’ or ‘three dimensional human well-being’ approach. It notes that although such an approach builds on much previous thinking regarding poverty and well-being, it is a relatively recent development, especially with regard to thinking about children, childhoods, and related policy interventions. The chapter also discusses the nature of child poverty and child well-being; introduces the ‘human well-being’ approach; and asks what this approach means for children.

Keywords:   child poverty, adult poverty, three dimensional approach, child well-being

1.1 Introduction

Children (if one takes the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child [UNCRC] definition of less than 18 years old) account for an average of 37% of the population in developing countries and 49% in the least-developed countries (UNICEF, 2005:12). Demographics are not the only reason, however, to advocate for a greater focus on child poverty and well-being in development research and policy: children are more likely to be poor, making up a disproportionate number of the total poor (Gordon et al, 2004; Barrientos and DeJong, 2009). The different ways in which adults and children experience poverty is key to advocating for a greater focus on and understanding of child poverty and well-being.

Such difference manifests itself in various ways. Child poverty is distinct from adult poverty and well-being because children’s needs and capabilities differ both from those of adults, and from those of other children depending on their life-stage, amongst other factors (Moore and Lippman, 2005; Subrahamanian, 2005a, 2005b). The long-term impacts of poverty experienced during childhood are also well documented in terms of wasting, stunting, delayed school enrolment and reduced grade completion, and exposure to physical and emotional abuse and neglect (Gerhardt, 2004; Corak, 2006; Smith and Moore, 2006; Bird, 2007).

There is, of course, a wealth of literature on child poverty. An important development has been a child-centred approach based on children as active agents in terms of voice (in decision-making in communities and societies), vision (of deprivation and well-being) and visibility (in terms of the local meaning ascribed to or social construction of childhood). A substantial body of literature around children’s voice in terms of child participation and agency in knowledge generation, policy processes and decision-making at various levels is emerging (e.g. Boyden and Ennew, 1997; White and Choudhury, 2007; Redmond, 2008, 2009). There is also a rich literature on children’s perspectives on poverty and/or well-being and how children understand and perceive their well-being (e.g. Woodhead, 2001; Ben-Arieh, 2005; (p.8) Fattore et al, 2007; Johnston, 2008; Redmond, 2008; 2009; Crivello et al, 2009). In addition, there is extensive research on children’s visibility in terms of the social construction of childhood and how the nature, norms and conventions around childhood and what childhood is or should be are context-determined/specific (e.g. in Peru, Ames and Rojas, 2009; in Ethiopia, Camfield and Tafere, 2009).

In this chapter we discuss how child poverty differs from adult poverty, and present a ‘human well-being’ or ‘three-dimensional (3D) human well-being’ approach.1 Although such an approach builds on much previous thinking regarding poverty and well-being, it is a relatively recent development, especially with regard to thinking about children, childhoods and related policy interventions (see Camfield et al, 2009a, 2009b). The chapter is structured as follows: Section 1.2 discusses the nature of child poverty and child well-being. Section 1.3 introduces the ‘human well-being’ approach. Section 1.4 asks what this approach means for children before Section 1.5 concludes.

1.2 Perspectives on child poverty

Childhood poverty can be defined and conceptualised in various ways that emphasise the differences between child and adult poverty to varying extents. In its 2007 Resolution on the rights of the child, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted a definition of child poverty that acknowledges, albeit in a somewhat limited way, the differential experience of poverty in childhood. The definition highlighted that its impacts are both more severe and also potentially longer lasting than those of poverty experienced in adulthood:

Children living in poverty are deprived of nutrition, water and sanitation facilities, access to basic health-care services, shelter, education, participation and protection, and that while a severe lack of goods and services hurts every human being, it is most threatening and harmful to children, leaving them unable to enjoy their rights, to reach their full potential and to participate as full members of the society.2

Although there is relatively little consensus on what conceptual frameworks are most appropriate for understanding childhood poverty (Harper et al, 2003), rights-based approaches have become dominant in international policy discourses and have emerged as the primary instrument for thinking about childhood poverty at UNICEF and amongst international NGOs.3 Rights-based approaches to child (p.9) poverty draw upon the set of basic needs codified in the legal instrument of the UNCRC (adopted in 1989 and effective from 1990). Ratified by 189 countries, the UNCRC is one of the most universal of human rights conventions.4 However, the UNCRC is more than just a legal codification. Its transformative power lies in its potential as a tool by which children and their advocates may demand the realisation of four broad clusters of rights – child survival (nutrition, health, water and sanitation), child development (education and psychological development), child protection (from violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect) and child participation (in community decisions that affect children’s lives) – and hold ‘duty-bearers’ (i.e. governments) accountable for ensuring progress in advancing children’s well-being.5 To this end, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has actively encouraged countries to ‘domesticate’ the UNCRC by incorporating it into national action plans for children that have legal standing within countries.

A ‘rights-based’ approach to poverty is based on the notion that poverty is itself a violation of human rights. Definitions steer between the general and more specific. For example, Hausermann’s (1999: 31) approach is more general, defining it as an ‘approach to development that stresses liberty, equality and empowerment’, whereas Maxwell (1999: 1) conceptualises it more specifically as an approach that, ‘sets the achievement of human rights as an objective of development…. [invoking] the international apparatus [of] rights accountability in support of development action’. The significance of the latter is that, as noted earlier, it allows for a focus on the accountability that duty-bearers (e.g. parents, educators and local, regional and state governments) have in ensuring that children’s rights are fulfilled. Importantly, the UNCRC recognises that different states, especially in the developing world, have different capacities to uphold these rights, and therefore invokes the principle of ‘progressive realisation’. The convention specifies that states have a responsibility to demonstrate how their record of fulfilling children’s rights is improving over time relative to their resource base and capacities. In order to support countries in this process, various targets on rights were set at UN conferences in the 1990s, including:

  • to halve extreme poverty (Copenhagen, 1995);

  • to attain universal primary education (Jomtien, 1990; Beijing, 1995; Copenhagen, 1995);

  • to attain gender equality in education (Cairo, 1994; Beijing, 1995; Copenhagen, 1995);

  • (p.10) to reduce by two-thirds infant and under-five mortality (Cairo, 1994);

  • to reduce by three-quarters maternal mortality (Cairo, 1994; Beijing, 1995); and

  • to provide reproductive health care for all (Cairo, 1994).

The rights-based approach evident in the above declarations was interwoven with Amartya Sen’s and the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP’s) Human Development approach to ultimately contribute to the emergence of the MDGs.6 Sen and the UNDP argued that development is not based on fulfilling desire (utility or consumption measured by a proxy for income such as per capita gross domestic product [GDP]), as this does not take sufficient evaluative account of the physical condition of the individual or of a person’s or child’s capabilities. Sen (see, in particular, 1999), Nussbaum (see, in particular, 2000) and the UNDP (1990–present) have argued that attention should be paid to the capabilities – means, opportunities or substantive freedoms – which permit the achievement of a set of ‘functionings’ – things that human beings value in terms of ‘being’ and ‘doing’.

Sen has argued that there is a broad set of conditions (including being fed, healthy, clothed and educated) that together constitute well-being. Individuals have a set of entitlements (command over commodities) that are created through a set of endowments (financial, human, natural, social and productive) and exchange (production and trade by the individual). These entitlements are traded for a set of opportunities (capabilities) in order to achieve a set of functionings (well-being outcomes). Although Sen resolutely refuses to name the capabilities, he does identify basic freedoms (1999: 38). Furthermore, in the case of poverty assessments and ‘basic capabilities’, Sen (1992: 44–5) notes that, ‘[i]n dealing with extreme poverty … [capabilities might include] the ability to be well-nourished and well-sheltered … escaping avoidable morbidity and premature mortality, and so forth’.

Development thus consists of removing various types of ‘un-freedom’ that leave people with little opportunity to exercise their reasoned agency:

Development can be seen … as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy … the expansion of the ‘capabilities’ of persons to lead the kind of lives they value – and have reason to value. (Sen, 1999: xii, 1, 18)

(p.11) The child poverty aspects of the MDGs that arose from the interweaving of rights and human development approaches are important for children because many are about child poverty directly and unambiguously (see Table 1.1), for example primary school enrolment and child malnutrition.

However, although there are a substantial number of child-focused indicators among the MDGs, they do not fully capture the distinctions between childhood and adult poverty. Further, it is well noted how MDG 1a (the dollar-a-day poverty measure – now $1.25/day) and ‘traditional’ proxy monetary measures of poverty and, more broadly, sources of data such as income and consumption, are deeply problematic when considering the well-being of children (see Box 1.1).

Moreover, the MDGs also overlook key dimensions of children’s experiences of poverty, such as the absence of protection from violence, abuse and neglect, and opportunities, or lack of them, to participate in community decision-making.

Table 1.1: Mapping UN rights instruments and key MDGs

Rights instrument




MDGs 4–7

Income and nutrition


Gender equality in education

Health and environment


23, 25, 26.1





10; 14.2d

Pre; 2a; 3; 4.1;

12.1, 14.2b, 14.2h



23.3; 28

23.3, 24.1, 24.2e, 24.3

Note: Numbers refer to Article numbers in the respective Convention/Declaration.

(p.12) In addition to the MDG indicators there are now numerous sets of child indicators (see Table 1.2). Indeed ‘child indicators’ is a major area of research, and has its own association, the International Society for Child Indicators.7 A recent innovation, published in 2007, was the UNICEF Innocenti Centre’s first Report Card on children’s well-being. It included six dimensions of well-being: material well-being; health and safety; educational well-being; family and peer relationships; behaviours and risks; and subjective well-being. However, to date this scorecard only covers Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries due to data constraints.8

Another recent innovation is the set of indices produced by the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF), which is based in Addis Ababa and focuses on the ‘child-friendliness’ of policy in Africa.9 The ACPF’s 2009 report contains data on the records of governments throughout the region with regard to child protection (by legal and policy frameworks); basic service provision for children (efforts to meet basic needs assessed by budgetary allocation, service provision and achievement of outcomes); and child participation in consultations held to draft poverty-reduction strategy papers (PRSPs) or other national plans.

Finally, in terms of indicators that seek to address issues related to children’s relational well-being, an important new development can be found in the OECD’s Social Institutions Gender Index (SIGI). Although not specifically focused on children, unlike the UNDP’s Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), which is solely adult-focused, many of the indicators are relevant to childhood. The SIGI looks at five clusters of indicators, three of which relate to childhood: family code, physical integrity and son preference; only civil liberties and ownership rights are more pertinent to adulthood.10 There are various other child indicator sets, indices and networks (see Table 1.2).

Whilst the above-mentioned analytical approaches have their uses, there is a need for an approach that can more comprehensively account for the differential experiences of children and identify how child poverty is distinct from adult poverty. An emergent approach that offers potential and is not mutually exclusive to many of the perspectives already discussed, but is holistic, is a ‘human well-being’ or ‘3D well-being’ approach. It is important to note that although some of the other indices refer to ‘well-being’, the 3D well-being approach is conceptually specific.


Table 1.2: selected sources of child poverty and well-being indicators


Indicators and indices



Child Friendliness of Policy Indices


Bristol University; Gordon et al

Child deprivation indicators


Child and Youth Network

Child and Youth Network Indicators


Foundation for Child Well-being

Child Well-being Index



Social Institutions and Gender Index


Save the Children

Child Development Index






UNCRC Indicators


UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre

Child well-being index


1.3 What is a three-dimensional well-being approach?

‘Human well-being’ or ‘three-dimensional (3D) human well-being’ is emerging as a complement to more traditional and material ways of conceptualising and measuring poverty and deprivation. Although the concept of well-being has a long intellectual history, the quantity of published books and articles indicates that it has been particularly hotly debated over the last 10 years or so (see, for example, Lewis, 1996; Sen, 1999, 2009; Kahneman et al, 2004; Layard, 2006; McGillivray, 2006; McGillivray and Clarke, 2006; Gough and McGregor, 2007; McGregor, 2007; Samman, 2007; Alkire, 2008; Copestake, 2008; White, 2008; Deneulin and McGregor, 2009; Sumner et al, 2009). Evidence of this trend is most visible in the recent Sarkozy Commission, chaired by Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Jean-Paul Fitoussi, which has provided one of the latest and strongest signposts of all with its conclusion that there is a need ‘to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being’ (Fitoussi et al, 2009: 10). There is further evidence in the OECD’s Measuring the Progress of Societies, which suggests that current approaches to poverty, development and the goals of pro-poor policy are being rethought (Giovannini, 2009), and the UNDP Human Development Report Office’s 20-year review of human development, released in 2010. One might also note the (p.14) academic debate stimulated by the five-year, multi-country research undertaken by the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC’s) Well-being in Developing Countries (known as WeD) network and the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative (OPHI).

The approach to human well-being that is outlined here draws upon and synthesises various traditions (see discussion in McGregor, 2007). This well-being approach thus builds on human development and Sen’s (1999) concepts of ‘beings’ and ‘doings’ (i.e. human development is about freedoms and what a person can do and be), focusing on the interactions between beings, doings and feelings. Robert Chambers’ (2003) emphasis on the need for the development profession to listen to the voices of poor people and their perceptions and feelings about poverty has also been influential in shaping the notion of 3D human well-being.

‘Three-dimensional human well-being’ shifts our focus beyond incomes and narrow human development indicators such as the Human Development Index (HDI) to take account of what people can do and be, and how they feel about what they can do and be. Indeed, McGregor (2007: 317) defines well-being as the interplay of: ‘the resources that a person is able to command; what they are able to achieve with those resources and what needs and goals they are able to meet; the meaning that they give to the goals they achieve and the processes in which they engage’.

Human well-being is thus 3D: it takes into account material well-being, subjective well-being and relational well-being, and their dynamic and evolving interactions. Policy that is intended to stimulate development processes cannot realistically focus on just one or two of these factors to the exclusion of the other(s). People’s own perceptions and experience of life matter, as do their relationships and their material standards of living. The three dimensions of material, subjective and relational well-being are summarised in Table 1.3. The material dimension of well-being concerns ‘practical welfare and standards of living’,the relational concerns ‘personal and social relations’ and the subjective concerns ‘values, perceptions, and experience’ (White, 2008: 8). The well-being lens can take both the individual and the community as the unit of analysis.11

While many contemporary definitions of poverty go beyond measures of income to include more socio-cultural and subjective dimensions of deprivation (e.g. human development, rights-based approaches, social exclusion approaches and sustainable livelihoods), a well-being approach sharpens the focus of the ‘traditional’ poverty lens in at least two ways. First, its emphasis is on the relational and the subjective, (p.15)

Table 1.3: 3D well-being – dimensions, areas of study, indicators and key determinants

Dimensions of well-being




What is to be studied

Objectively observable outcomes people are able to achieve

The extent to which people are able to engage with others in order to achieve particular needs and goals, and the nature of these engagements

The meanings that people give to the goals they achieve and the processes they engage in


  • Needs satisfaction indicators

  • Material asset indicators

  • Multidimensional resource indicators

  • Human agency indicators

  • Quality of life indicatores

Key determinants

  • Income, wealth, and assets

  • Employment and livelihood activities

  • Education and skills

  • Physical health and (dis)ability

  • Access to services and amenities

  • Environmental quality

  • Relationships, love, and care

  • Networks of support and obligation

  • Relations with the state: law, politics, and welfare

  • Social, political, and cultural identities and inequalities

  • Violence, conflict, and (in)security

  • Scope for personal and collective action and influence

  • Understanding of the sacred and moral order

  • Self-concept and personality

  • Hopes, fears, and aspirations

  • Sense of meaning/meaninglessness

  • Levels of (dis)satisfaction

  • Trust and confidence

Sources: Gough and McGregor (2007); White (2008) and McGregor and Sumner (2010).

implying that what people feel they can do or be influences what they will actually be able to do and be. These feelings and perceptions are determined by people’s experiences as well as by norms and values that are culturally and socially determined by their relationships. Examples include prevailing notions of ‘normal’ adult–child interactions or relationships at school, home and, in the case of child labour, at work.

Second, a well-being approach is about positives. It is arguably more respectful as it is based on what people and children can do/be/feel, rather than deficits in what they can do/be/feel. This resonates with Nancy Fraser’s work (e.g. Fraser, 2000) on recognition, respect and issues of stigma, and in particular how labelling or ‘othering’ people as the ‘poor’ infers a status inferior to the ‘non-poor’. It is also respectful in the sense that it is about self-determination and participation rather than exogenously defined well-being.

It is true, however, that the development community may be uncomfortable talking about ‘positives’, as it might seem to make light (p.16) of deprivation as framed by Western-trained researchers, and as such risk making poverty analysis apolitical. But by focusing on the perceptual and relational, the concept of well-being is rendered inherently political in that it is about agency. This approach asks questions about who has what, who can do what, who feels good about what they can have and do, who commands resources, who is able to achieve their needs and goals with those resources, and who constructs meanings in terms of goals to be achieved and processes to achieve those goals. A well-being approach makes power more explicit – not only as material political economy (in Marx’s terms), but also as discourse (i.e. Foucault), and as embedded in norms, values and conventions (i.e. North’s institutions [1990] and Bourdieu’s habitus [1990]) and the dynamic interaction of different types of power.

In short, if we take a ‘3D well-being’ perspective, we can see that conventional approaches may capture the material dimensions of child well-being but less so other aspects, such as the relational and subjective dimensions of children’s lives and the dynamic interaction of the material, relational and subjective in shaping outcomes for children.

1.4 3D well-being and child poverty

Standard material and human indicators of child development are important, but they do not provide sufficient information about whether particular children are flourishing in a specific society. Increasingly, however, as international agencies have engaged with children’s own voices, a broader agenda has emerged. In Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), for example, UNICEF (1999) has noted that perceptions of peace in society, family harmony, environmental health, food quality, access to schooling, ability to play in safety and the degree to which they are ‘looked down on’ by others are all important to children. There is now a voluminous literature on child participation. Redmond’s reviews (2008, 2009) note that although adults (and inter alia policymakers) emphasise the material well-being of children, when asked, children themselves frequently drew attention to the relational aspects of well-being:

What concerns children is not lack of resources per se, but exclusion from activities that other children appear to take for granted, and embarrassment and shame at not being able to participate on equal terms with other children. (Redmond, 2008: 12)

(p.17) A 3D child well-being approach, to echo McGregor earlier, could thus be thought to be: what a child has, what a child can do with what s/he has, and how a child thinks about what s/he has and can do. It involves the interplay of the resources that children are able to command; what they are able to achieve with those resources and what needs and goals they are able to meet; the meaning that they give to the goals they achieve; and the processes in which they engage. This is, of course, not completely new, but rather constitutes a bringing together of dimensions. For example, in the UNCRC the material and relational aspects of child well-being are clear.12 The former relate to child survival and child development in particular, and the latter to child participation and child protection. However, aspects of child development, participation and protection all relate to subjective aspects of well-being as well (see Table 1.4).

Three-dimensional well-being brings together well-being in a holistic way to ensure that important aspects of child poverty are not neglected, expanding the focus from the body/physiology to include the mind/psychology. Importantly for children and child poverty, it draws attention to their current well-being rather than only their future ‘well becoming’ as adults and citizens (Ben-Arieh, 2007). While a poverty lens orientates towards future well-being (i.e. schooling to facilitate labour-market participation, food to ensure health, etc), 3D well-being also emphasises ‘newer’ areas, notably the importance of the relational or relatedness (relationships), autonomy, enjoyment/fun/play and social status.

Finally, a 3D child well-being approach can make an important contribution to understanding child well-being as it resonates strongly with children’s own perceptions of exclusion and agency (see Camfield, 2009; Redmond, 2008; UNICEF, 2005). It is also non-imposing, in that it is about self-defined well-being and focuses on what children

Table 1.4: Mapping UNCRC Articles and 3D child well-being

3D child well-being

Material well-being

Relational well-being

Subjective well-being

UNCRC Articles

  • Child survival (nutrition, health, and water and sanitation) (6, 24, 27)

  • Child development (education and psychological development) (6, 28, 29)

  • Child participation (in community decisions that affect children’s lives) (12, 13, 31)

  • Child protection (from violence, abuse, exploitation and neglect) (19, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37)

  • Child psychological and emotional development (13, 14, 28, 29)

  • Child participation (12, 13, 31) and child protection (19, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37)

Note: Numbers refer to Article numbers in UNCRC.

(p.18) can do/be/feel, that is, their agency, rather than their deficits, avoiding the stigmatising and labelling of poor children.

Applying a well-being approach to understanding the processes of IGT offers a number of important insights. First, the non-material dimensions of well-being are essential components of transmission. We can disrupt IGT via: the disruption of the transmission of material well-being, that is, via interventions such as breastfeeding promotion to improve early childhood development; the disruption of the transmission of subjective well-being, that is, via changes in values/thinking/consciousness and social conditioning; and the disruption of the transmission of relational well-being, that is, changes in behaviour and norms, conventions and institutions. An example would be public policy campaigns promoting the schooling of girls in Bangladesh relating to poor people’s aspirations (‘my girls will never go to school’) or the multiple ways IGT is gendered by role models, values and ideas.

Second, the focus on agency makes sure we do not ignore opportunities to disrupt the transmission of ill-being/well-being via child agency. In this case, it is worth reflecting on the issues of child agency with regard to the ‘voice’ and ‘visibility’ of children. In terms of voice, children are legal minors with no right to vote or to make decisions without the approval of their legal guardian. Indeed, denial of voice in family, school and community decisions is still viewed as ‘normal’ and culturally acceptable in many parts of the developing and developed world. Despite the UNCRC principles having been agreed by almost all countries, children (especially younger children) typically have few opportunities or resources to advocate on their own behalf in decision-making processes. In terms of visibility or vision, children’s limited voice is often compounded by a lack of legitimacy of children’s perspectives in many societies and the invisibility of children in public policy debates (despite their numbers).

Child and adult agency is a crucial determinant of disrupted transmissions (Harper et al, 2003; Bird, 2007). Children, including poor children, have at least some degree of individual agency, but it is highly life-stage dependent, more relational in nature than that of adults because of children’s dependence on adult protection and care, and both personal and context dependent (e.g. related to prevailing understandings of ‘childhood’). An example of the latter point is the way Western understandings of childhood tend to conceptualise this as a life-stage free from work, but this is not the case in many countries (see, for example, research in India and Peru, notably Morrow and Vennam, 2009; Crivello, 2009).

(p.19) There has been significant research on agency and poverty. Lister’s (2004) taxonomy of the agency exercised by those in poverty recognises that adults’ and children’s agency can be good/progressive or bad/regressive. Lister’s model has four quadrants (see Figure 1.1). The vertical axis is about the actions poor people (and children) take to improve their situation in the short term, and the horizontal axis is about long-term actions. This stretches from everyday matters of ‘getting by’ and ‘getting back at’ (meaning rebellious behaviour) to more strategic matters of ‘getting out’ and ‘getting organised’ (meaning collective action).

When Lister talks about getting by, she is referring to the little things people do in order to cope with everyday situations such as prioritising daily expenditures and juggling resources. Redmond (2008, 2009) applies this to children who take advantage of informal and ad hoc opportunities to earn income (agency in the material well-being domain), help parents with housework and childcare (agency in the relational well-being domain) and reappraise their daily situation in a positive light (agency in the subjective well-being domain). We can thus start to map child agency across 3D well-being domains (see Table 1.5).

Redmond argues that children’s agency is generally exercised in the domains of the everyday and personal (getting by, getting back at). Children are less likely to exert agency that is strategic and political (getting out, getting organised), although children can do this, especially

Child poverty and well-being

Figure 1.1: Taxonomy of agency exercised by those in poverty

Source: Lister (2004).


Table 1.5: Redmond’s taxonomies of child agency mapped across 3D well-being dimensions with examples

Dimension of well-being with examples

Type of child agency




Agency definition

Material political economy (i.e. Marx), and the available resources upon which children can call

Institutions (e.g. North), norms, and conventions, including the formal/informal ‘rules of the game’ or ways of doing things in terms of children–adult relationships

Power as discourse (i.e. Foucault) and embedded in values and ways of seeing the world, (e.g. the social construction of ‘childhood’)

Everyday and personal

Getting by – coping strategies, personal and social resources, and augmenting resources through the informal economy

Taking advantage of informal and ad-hoc opportunities to earn income

Helping parents with housework and childcare

Reappraising daily situation in a positive light

Getting back at – the channelling of anger and despair into activities and lifestyles that signal resistance to bureaucratic and social norms.

Petty crimes

Borderline non-compliance with rules and obligations of welfare receipts

Vandalism and drug/solvent use

Strategic and political

Getting out – seeking routes out of poverty via officially sanctioned responses to poverty

Children deciding to look for, or take on, work and/or education

Children influencing their parents’ perceptions of children’s needs and influencing parental decisions to look for work, seek education, etc.

Getting organised – collective responses

Child labour collectives/ unions

Collective self-help, political action and gendered action

Child collective action based on identity as children or child labourers, etc

with the support of adults, White and Choudhury (2007), for example, discuss how adults can provide ‘supplements and extensions’ (see Chapters 2 and 3).

The process of getting organised, for example, is constrained by people’s subjectivity, or how they understand and account for their own experiences and identities and the extent to which they experience belonging and ‘sameness’ with others. People overcome constraints to (p.21) getting organised via collective self-help and political action. Individual agency is, of course, a product of wider social forces. As Lister notes (2004: 128), it is not only about how those in poverty (including children) act, but also about how those in power act in relation to them – in this discussion, how poor as well as richer adults act in relation to poor children. Further, structures are perpetuated or modified by individual and collective action and non-action. What matters is not just the system of cultural norms, values, attitudes and behaviours that is transmitted across generations, but also the degree to which a person assumes or identifies herself with them (Shek et al, 2003; Shek, 2004).

In sum, child poverty and agency are distinct from adult poverty and agency because of the greater emphasis on children’s relational well-being and the limited opportunities to voice their experiences of poverty and well-being (subjective well-being). What a 3D well-being lens brings to the discussion is the ability to think holistically across differing types of child and adult agency, and to explore the dynamic interaction across dimensions of well-being.

1.5 Conclusions

This chapter has introduced concepts of child poverty and well-being and asked how adult and child poverty differ. A holistic perspective on child poverty, that of ‘3D child well-being’, has been proposed as a means of better understanding child poverty and well-being. What does such an approach offer? A 3D well-being approach can contribute to understanding child poverty in three ways. First, it puts children and their agency (what they can do and be) at the centre of analysis. It is thus a means in itself of achieving a child-centred analysis by bringing together understandings based on children as active agents in terms of voice (in decision-making in communities and societies), vision (of deprivation itself) and visibility (in terms of the subjectivities and the social construction of childhood conceptually). Second, it encourages a positive perspective on children in development by avoiding labelling certain children as ‘poor’ and thus applying the stigma that accompanies labels of inferiority.

Third, it explicitly integrates relational and subjective perspectives into the material dimension of well-being and recognises that the material, relational and subjective dimensions of children’s lives are co-evolving, interdependent and dynamically interactive. In doing so, it leads development policy in new directions by focusing on all three dimensions and their interaction, rather than focusing primarily on material well-being. This is not to suggest that child nutrition, health (p.22) or educational achievements are unimportant, but rather that the relational and subjective dimensions of well-being matter in attaining and shaping material well-being as well as in their own right.

Take, for example, the case of child nutrition. There are important aspects of material well-being such as actual allocation of food and water to children. However, there are also important aspects of relational well-being – personal and social relationships such as the agency of women and girls, individually or collectively, to negotiate gender equity in food and water for children – that play a role in shaping material well-being. Finally, there are important aspects of subjective well-being – values, perceptions and experiences – such as norms about who deserves the most and best food in the house and the practice of eating less during pregnancy to avoid too much weight gain, that also play a role in shaping material well-being.

Thus, 3D well-being offers a different way of understanding child poverty and child agency by recognising the distinctiveness of child poverty and well-being and placing children and their agency at the centre of an approach to understanding poverty and well-being and responding to it in a holistic way. In Chapter 2 we discuss knowledge generation and child poverty and well-being.


(1) This chapter draws on and develops ideas in Sumner (2010) ‘Child Poverty, Well-being and Agency: What does a 3D Well-being Approach Contribute?’, Journal of International Development 22: 1064–75; McGregor and Sumner (2010) ‘Beyond Business as Usual. What Might 3-D Well-being Contribute to MDG Momentum?’, IDS Bulletin 41(1): 104–12.

(3) We can draw a connection between child rights approaches, human development and the child-relevant Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, the UN’s poverty targets for 2015).

(4) Only two countries have not signed and/or ratified it. One of the two countries is the USA, which, although it has signed the UNCRC, has failed to ratify it. The other country that is not a signatory is Somalia. By comparison, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, adopted in 1979 and effective from 1981) has been signed and ratified by only 162 countries.

The UNCRC is part of a wider rights-based approach under which development is regarded as a combination of civil, social, economic (p.23) and political rights. These rights are also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR, adopted in 1948), which has been signed by all countries.

(5) To simplify UNCRC implementation, monitoring and reporting, UNICEF has developed six thematic areas by grouping UNCRC articles under interconnected themes. These are: general measures of implementation; civil rights and freedom; family environment and alternative care; basic health and welfare; education, leisure and cultural activities; and special protection measures. There are also two optional UNCRC protocols on child labour and child trafficking.

(6) Although one might argue that the MDGs are needs-based rather than rights-based, both interpretations have their merits.

(8) In addition to the Innocenti Report Card, UNICEF uses a range of other indicators to capture a multidimensional understanding of child well-being, notably: the UNCRC monitoring and evaluation committee’s thematic areas (37 indicators); the State of the World’s Children (approximately 50 indicators); the UNICEF Medium Term Strategy Key Result Areas (15 indicators); UNCRC committee reporting – UNCRC Effort Index (100 questions); the UNICEF Medium Term Strategy questionnaire (baseline 2006) reporting questions (55 questions); and the ‘World Fit for Children’ report (21 indicators).

(10) It is possible to calculate an aggregate score for each country on the basis of these three sub-indices (see the Appendix). Importantly, too, given the completeness of the data (compared to the limited number of countries covered by the UNICEF-supported and facilitated Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey [MICS], for instance – see discussion in Chapters 46), the SIGI is more amenable for identifying regional and subregional trends.

(11) The WeD group found that the relational and community aspects of well-being were particularly prominent in the developing countries they studied, but they were not able to compare this with findings from developed countries. ‘Relatedness’ in people’s lives was central to well-being. Further, there was often a strong moral aspect of subjective well-being related to collective aspects of well-being and the community, rather than just related to individual preferences (see White, 2008).

(p.24) (12) Subjective well-being was a component of the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre OECD Report Card (UNICEF, 2005).