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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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Policy processes, knowledge and child well-being

Policy processes, knowledge and child well-being

(p.53) Three Policy processes, knowledge and child well-being
Child poverty, evidence and policy

Nicola Jones

Andy Sumner

Policy Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter extends the 3D perspective on child poverty and well-being to consider policy processes, the role of knowledge in policy processes, and policy advocacy with regard to children's poverty and well-being. It sets out thinking on the dynamics of policy processes and discusses types of policy change. The chapter also focuses on policy advocacy and knowledge–policy interaction approaches, and applies the preceding debates to child well-being.

Keywords:   3D perspective, child well-being, policy processes, knowledge, policy advocacy, knowledge–policy interaction, debates

3.1 Introduction

In this chapter, we extend our 3D perspective on child poverty and well-being to consider policy processes, the role of knowledge in policy processes and policy advocacy with regard to children’s poverty and well-being.1 There is a growing literature on children and policy processes. Many have defined a child-centred approach as one based on participatory decision-making with children (e.g. O’Malley, 2004). However, this is just one approach, and is no guarantee that children’s voices will be heard or heard equally. A child-sensitive approach can also be achieved by ensuring that children’s needs and rights are represented by children’s advocates – whether service providers, advocates, bureaucrats or researchers – in policy discourse and integrated into the development of new policies and policy and programme evaluations (Jones and Sumner, 2009).

This chapter is structured as follows: Section 3.2 sets out thinking on the dynamics of policy processes. Section 3.3 then discusses types of policy change and Section 3.4 focuses on policy advocacy and knowledge–policy interaction approaches. Section 3.5 applies the preceding debates to child well-being and Section 3.6 concludes.

3.2 The dynamics of policy processes

Understanding of decision-making in public policy processes has evolved from Northern contexts since Lasswell and Lerner (1951), and particularly since the 1970s/80s (see, for example, Lindblom, 1959, 1979; Etzioni, 1967; Pressman and Wildavsky, 1973; Wildavsky, 1980; Hogwood and Gunn, 1984). Over the last two decades research has expanded to Southern contexts (see, for example, Grindle and Thomas, 1980; Walt, 1984; Thomas and Grindle, 1990; Walt and Gibson, 1994; Holmes and Scoones, 2000; Court and Young, 2003; Keeley and Scoones, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2006; Brock and McGee, 2004; Leach et al, 2005). Assumptions regarding policy-making processes have been challenged, particularly in Southern contexts – notably those relating (p.54) to the rationality and linearity of policy processes (see Stone Sweet et al, 2001). The net result is that there is now an array of theories and analytical frameworks of policy processes (see Box 3.1).

The stages of policy-making – agenda-setting, formation, decision-making, implementation and evaluation – are commonly used as heuristic devices to break down the complexity of policy processes, but are increasingly criticised as too linear and unrealistic (see discussion in Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith, 1993). An alternative to thinking about policy stages is the concept of ‘policy spaces’. Policy spaces are moments (p.55) of intervention that reconfigure relations, or bring in new ones and set the tone for a new direction. These spaces may be:

  • conceptual spaces (where new ideas can be introduced into the debate and circulated through various media);

  • bureaucratic spaces (formal policymaking spaces within the government bureaucracy/legal system, led by civil servants with selected inputs from external experts);

  • political/electoral spaces (i.e. formal participation in elections);

  • invited spaces (consultations on policy led by government agencies involving selective stakeholder participation);

  • popular or claimed spaces such as protests and demonstrations that put pressure on governments (KNOTS, 2006).

Brock et al (2001), Gaventa (2006) and others have argued that spaces may be closed, invited, claimed/created, visible, hidden and/or invisible in nature. Such spaces likely differ by sector, country and time. For example, the high level of technical expertise required to engage in trade or climate change policy debates provides different policy process dynamics than do policies on social protection (e.g. Newell and Tussie, 2006; Pomares and Jones, 2009).

Different approaches to understanding the dynamics of policy processes encompass the three different conceptualisations of power noted in Chapter 1: (i) material political economy; (ii) discourse and the socio-political construction of knowledge; and (iii) power as embedded in social structures and institutions. Significantly though, there is no single approach to policy processes that explicitly accounts for these multiple (and interlinked) understandings of power. We therefore propose a synthesis approach that takes these multiple and interlocking understandings into account as follows:

  • Policy ideas and narratives: the ways policy issues are conceptualised and how their relevance is understood with regard to policy agendas and the knowledge base that underpins them (i.e. drawing on Foucault’s power as discourse);

  • Policy actors and networks: the role of actor interests, key decisionmakers and policy entrepreneurs, or networks and groups who are influential in decision-making and their political interests and incentive/disincentive structures (i.e. drawing on Marx’s power as material political economy); and

  • Political contexts/institutions: the ‘hard’ structures in which decisions are made and the broader ‘soft’ socio-economic, political and cultural (p.56) environment or rules of the game that shapes policy processes (i.e. North’s [1990] understanding of power as institutions) and policy spaces – both of which provide dynamic opportunities for change.

Underlying these three domains is the assumption that there is an unclear line between those who ‘make’ policy and those who ‘influence’ policy, that policy processes are likely to be non-linear and highly iterative, and that ‘evidence’ used in policy processes is contestable rather than positivistic.

Because these domains are critical to our analysis in Part Two of the book, we discuss each in turn before reflecting on different types of policy change and the role that knowledge does or does not play (also see Table 3.1).

Policy ideas/narratives

Policy narratives are the ‘storylines’ that shape policy debates and seek to legitimise decision-making processes. We might ask what is the prevailing policy narrative? How is it framed? Whose interests does it represent? Whose interests are marginalised? It is important to ascertain, for example, the extent to which there is consensus on what should be done, the extent of influence of international domestic policy discourses, and the extent to which a policy issue is novel.

In thinking about policy narratives, it is also critical to ask about the evidence or knowledge base that supports a particular narrative. ‘Evidence’ is not a neutral concept (Upshur et al, 2001: 94) and some kinds are given more weight than others in the policymaking process. As noted in Chapter 2, academic rigour is often shaped by understandings of hierarchies of knowledge that privilege some methods and academic disciplines over others (e.g. quantitative methods, economics) and is a critical filter through which research evidence is consumed in policy processes. For example, indigenous, participatory or experiential ‘evidence’ may have lower status than mathematical modelling ‘evidence’. However, the way evidence is framed so as to suit a particular political and socio-cultural context, and the credibility of the messengers who present the research findings, are also important factors and should not be underestimated.

(p.57) Policy actors/networks

Although policy process analysis generally focuses on the role of politicians and government officials, policy actors are broader, including those who are formally (i.e. elected, such as legislators) and informally (non-elected, either visible or invisible/behind-the-scenes actors such as NGOs, donors, grassroots groups, the media and researchers) involved in the decision-making process.

The overall constellation of actors involved matters, but, more importantly, we need to understand what actors’ respective interests are, and the formal and informal powers and capabilities available to them to realise their goals. An analysis could therefore consider such issues as the degree to which the ruling party is ideologically driven, the extent of ‘special interests’ (business, unions etc.), the level of civil service professionalism, the relative strength of civil society and/or the influence of donors in policy-making.

There are also various types of networks that divide and connect policymakers and non-policymakers, such as ‘policy communities’ (networks of policy actors from inside and outside government that are integrated with the policy-making process), ‘epistemic communities’ (networks of experts with recognised/‘legitimised’ policy-relevant knowledge) and ‘advocacy coalitions’ (groups of actors on an issue).

Table 3.1: Examples of determinants of policy change

Policy process dimension

Determinants of policy change

Policy ideas, narratives,and discourse(s)

  • Extent to which there is consensus on the nature of the problem and appropriate responses

  • Extent of influence of international discourses on domestic policy

  • Extent to which policy issue is novel

Policy actors and networks

  • Extent to which ruling party is ideologically driven

  • Extent of ‘special interests’ or range of actors – including the relative influence of service users, the private sector, unions, professional associations, civil society and donors in the policy arena

  • Level of bureaucracy, professionalism, and capacity to process evidence

  • Importance placed on evidence reviews by policymakers in power

Contexts and institutions

  • Extent of democratic openness, degree of academic and media freedom, and norms of consultation and participation in policy processes

  • Use of multi-year development plans and other planning instruments

  • Level of centralisation of political decision making

  • Established institutional structures and policy advisory bodies

  • Nature of policy spaces

Source: Sumner et al (2009).

(p.58) Political contexts/institutions

Institutions and political contexts are central to policy processes. Key factors to consider include: a country’s political history and the extent to which some policy areas are path-dependent (largely reliant on historic policy trajectories); its level of economic and social development and the factors that underpin this (e.g. GDP level, reliance on particular economic sectors, weak governance, high levels of inequality); and the relative balance of power between political institutions (legislature, bureaucracy [and particular ministries], judiciary, political parties etc.), whether the policy process is consultative and seeks to represent the views of a broad range of stakeholders or is determined by a small technocratic group of government officials largely behind closed doors; the relative influence of external forces (e.g. global economic integration, risk of conflict) and policy actors (e.g. international financial institutions [IFIs], donors, NGOs); and which issues are politically palatable or sensitive and why.

Institutions are the formal and informal rules for interaction, presenting policy actors with a series of strategic options. We need to know what institutions prescribe, whether they enjoy legitimacy from all actors, whether their rules are effectively or selectively enforced, and whether they have stood the test of time or are vulnerable to political and economic change. For example, we could consider the degree of party competition or democratic openness, the use of multi-year development plans, the level of centralisation of political decisionmaking, the degree of academic and media freedom, and the presence or absence of mechanisms for public participation and consultation.

3.3 Types of policy change and the role of knowledge

In order to understand the dynamics of the knowledge–policy interface, we need to combine our 3D framework for approaching policy processes and the role of knowledge with a model that helps to capture different types of policy change. Our starting point is that a 3D well-being approach implies the need to think of policy change at multiple levels, and not only about changing policy content. We can then identify types of policy change that are linked to different and multilayered understandings of power ranging from agenda-setting and discursive shifts to procedural changes, and from changes in policy content to shifts in behaviour and popular attitudes.

Whereas ‘interest group influence’ theories focus on the extent to which lobbyists are able to influence electoral campaigns, key political (p.59) appointments, budget decisions and legislative change (Loomis and Cigler, 2002), analysts interested in the role of ideas in policy change have highlighted the importance of adopting a broader approach that includes the capacity to set new policy agendas and shift discursive practices. Drawing on insights from Foucault’s theory of knowledge as power and Lukes’ (1974) observation that intangible forms of power can be strongest when it comes to shaping preferences, values and ideologies, Keck and Sikkink’s (1998) work on transnational advocacy networks emphasises the centrality of information politics in policy change endeavours. They argue that the efficacy of such advocacy depends on providing alternative sources of information and filtering or interpreting these ideas through a particular set of principles or values in order to inspire political action:

This information may seem inconsequential in the face of the economic, political, or military might of other global actors. But by overcoming the deliberate suppression of information that sustains many abuses of power, networks can help reframe international and domestic debates, changing their terms, their sites and the configuration of participants. (Keck and Sikkink, 1998: 300)

Keck and Sikkink (1998) outline five points to their approach, which are types of policy changes, as follows:

  • Framing debates and getting issues on the political agenda: Focusing attention on new issues that were previously not part of public policy debate is one of the key levers of power that advocacy networks can exercise. Drawing on Foucauldian notions of the relationship between knowledge and power, discourse can play a powerful role in shaping which dimensions of a problem are considered or ignored, and can promote a rethinking of dominant values and policy priorities. For instance, human rights groups such as Amnesty International in the UK have sought to raise awareness of the entrenched problem of violence against women in the family by reframing it as a human rights abuse. The language of human rights abuse lends new gravity to the problem and seeks to awaken the general public to the fact that human rights concerns are not confined to developing-country contexts, but are an issue in the North too.

  • (p.60) Encouraging discursive commitments from states and other policy actors: Persuading state and non-state actors to endorse international declarations or conventions or to modify national policy positions in favour of marginalised groups can also represent an important policy-influencing step. For example, introducing the language of the MDGs into national debates puts pressure on policymakers to articulate how their country-specific plans help to reach these development targets. It also provides poor and socially excluded groups (e.g. women, children) and their advocates with a framework and with specific measurable goals against which to assess their governments’ progress.

  • Promoting procedural changes at the international and domestic level: Successful advocacy does not only involve policy outcomes, but also remoulds the process through which policy decisions are made. While procedural changes may not automatically improve policy content, they often improve dialogue processes between state and civil society actors that can lead to gradual policy reforms over time (Keck and Sikkink, 1998: 26). Here the policy spaces opened by the World Bank’s and International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) PRSP initiative, which includes mandatory national grassroots consultations, constitutes a good example. Although the final content of many PRSPs has been justly criticised for not adequately recognising these multiple perspectives (e.g. Heidel, 2004; Oxfam GB, 2004), the initiative has created greater awareness among a broader array of ‘counter-publics’ about the importance of engaging with national development policy frameworks and provided the impetus for a range of new monitoring and evaluating endeavours.

  • Securing policy, regulatory or legislative changes: Securing changes in policy – including budget increases, the passage of new legislation or more favourable ministerial policy positions or regulations – is most often recognised as the yardstick of effective advocacy. For example, the trial and imprisonment of military officials convicted of human rights abuses and the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions in a number of post-conflict societies are often cited as evidence of the successful advocacy efforts of human rights organisations (e.g. Dougherty, 2004). Such policy shifts cannot be equated with policy enforcement, but their role in encouraging broader processes of cultural change should not be underestimated: ‘While legal advances alone cannot eliminate discrimination … laws expanding the rights of [marginalised groups] interact with and (p.61) reinforce broader processes of cultural change. The process by which de jure rights are translated into de facto rights may be frustratingly slow, but the latter is impossible without the former’ (Haas, 2000: 1).

  • Influencing attitudinal and behavioural change in key actors: Changing behaviour – at the levels of officialdom and policy implementation – is the final way of changing policy. The critical question is whether new policies are effectively implemented so as to improve people’s lives? For example, are natural resource management programmes translating into less environmental degradation? Do women have better access to micro-finance? However, as the broader literature on behavioural change (especially regarding health interventions) emphasises, this complex area is difficult to evaluate as the change process is seldom linear (Gerwe, 2000).

In short, Keck and Sikkink’s approach to policy change encourages a more nuanced account of the complexities of the policy process. It encompasses the full policy cycle – from expanding the policy agenda through to policy implementation. Keck and Sikkink (1998) are at pains, however, to emphasise that these are not simply different types of policy change, but are likely to represent different points of impact, which are often mutually reinforcing.

3.4 Policy advocacy and knowledge–policy interactions

Interest in the role of policy advocacy in shaping policy processes has expanded exponentially over the last three decades (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith, 1993; Edwards and Hulme, 1996), including as part of a general trend towards democratisation in developing-country contexts (e.g. Escobar and Alvarez, 1992). Policy advocacy is the act of an individual or group seeking to influence public policy and resource allocation decisions, but not to govern (Young and Everitt, 2004). Advocacy groups, which can include social movements, NGOs, CSOs and policy networks and communities, typically engage in a range of activities to achieve their change objectives, from undertaking media campaigns and public speaking to budget analysis, lobbying elected representatives and publishing research reports and surveys. What distinguishes advocates from political parties is that they are motivated by a common set of ideas rather than by the exercise of self-interested power (Buse et al, 2005) and are pursuing a collective good framed in the public interest (Jenkins, 1978). While advocates may draw on (p.62) a range of techniques, including what Keck and Sikkink (1998) have categorised as symbolic politics (using symbolic events and conferences to publicise issues and build networks), leverage politics (threatening sanctions if the gap between norms and practices remains too large) and accountability politics (whereby governments or institutions are held accountable to previous commitments and principles they have endorsed), information politics (the generation and strategic use of knowledge to enhance understanding and dramatise facts) remains one of the most powerful policy advocacy approaches. This section, focuses on this subset of advocacy, or what the literature increasingly refers to as ‘research communications’, ‘knowledge translation’, ‘knowledge exchange’ or ‘knowledge–policy interactions’.

Knowledge translation is a term that emerged in the health sciences, and is focused on ‘bridging’ the divide between the policymaker and research communities (e.g. Estabrooks et al, 2006; Mitton et al, 2007). It is now widely recognised that policymakers and researchers conceptualise evidence differently, are embedded within institutions with markedly different professional incentive structures, work to very different time horizons, and that their understandings of the world are often shaped by divergent discourses and meta-narratives (e.g. Jones et al, 2009). Knowledge ‘translation’, therefore, entails a dynamic and iterative process involving the exchange, synthesis and application of knowledge in diverse contexts. In this system, ‘knowledge brokers’ are actors who negotiate and facilitate a complex system of interactions between researchers and research ‘users’ in order to promote greater understanding about public policy challenges and solutions (Canadian Health Services Research Foundation, 2003). It includes a range of activities that aim to present and communicate knowledge in a way that it is easily accessible and in line with users’ knowledge needs. These include knowledge dissemination and communication, technology transfer, knowledge management, exchanges between researchers and those who apply knowledge, and the synthesis of results to suit a particular political or policy context. By specifying the importance of synthesis and interaction with knowledge users, the definition acknowledges the need to consider not only what knowledge should be translated, but also to which audiences, for which purpose and through which types of communication channels. In other words, this conceptualisation departs from the conventional idea that researchers are not responsible for the policy messages that are derived from their research or how they are used, but rather is informed by a commitment to consider the potential needs of knowledge users as well as their (p.63) capacities to understand and make use of particular knowledge and knowledge products.

This literature also highlights the importance of ‘knowledge brokers’, which can play an important intermediary role between researchers, policymakers, practitioners and the citizens (e.g. Nutley et al, 2002; Lomas, 2007). Knowledge brokering is recognised as a key factor, for example, in the rapid ascent of right-wing economic and cultural thought on the American political stage in the 1980s and 1990s. Rich’s (2005) comparative analysis of two leading think tanks in the USA, one progressive (the Brookings Institute) and the other conservative (the Heritage Foundation), for instance, underscores the critical role that conservative foundations placed on proactively brokering their analysis of key policy challenges. Heritage spent almost sevenfold that of Brookings on communication efforts, informed by what their former vice-president for communication described as:

Our belief is that when the research product has been printed, then the job is only half done. That is when we start marketing it to the media … . We have as part of our charge the selling of ideas, the selling of policy proposals. We are out there actively selling these things, day afiter day. It’s our mission. (Rich, 2005: 25)

In the same vein, the broader literature on the knowledge–policy interface includes a growing body of work on ‘intermediary organisations’ that seek to manage the boundary between research and policy so as to promote the credibility, salience and legitimacy of knowledge incorporated in policy (Cash et al, 2003). Key intermediary functions include: awareness-raising, leveraging access to research, signposting research and acting as a repository, synthesising and summarising research findings, capacity-building in research communication and research uptake, lobbying and advocacy for particular perspectives, and facilitating exchange and interaction among researcher and policymaker communities. The added value of intermediary organisations is their accountability to both the role of facilitating effective information flows and mediating in the case of conflict or trade-offs (Cash et al, 2003).2

This demand for brokering and intermediary roles notwithstanding, there is growing recognition that the terms ‘knowledge translation’ and ‘knowledge transfer’ may need to be rethought to adequately account for the complex and contested nature of applied social research (Lemieux-Charles and Champagne, 2004; Dopson and Fitzgerald, 2005). As (p.64) such, a more appropriate emphasis may be on ‘knowledge interaction’ or ‘knowledge mediation’, which encompasses ‘the messy nature of engagements between actors with diverse types of knowledge’). As Lavis et al (2006) argue, this involves partnerships between the ‘producers’ and ‘users’ of knowledge that recognise the ‘co-construction’ of policy knowledge, including forging a shared understanding about what research questions to ask, how to go about answering them and how best to interpret the answers. Similar ideas have been advocated by proponents of deliberative processes that involve bringing together scientists, policymakers and citizens so as to interrogate evidence from a range of perspectives (scientific, social, cultural and ethical), and ground decisions in relevant, feasible and implementable advice (Lomas et al, 2008). In particular, such mechanisms provide opportunities for citizens to examine and challenge the positions of expert outsiders and/or domestic elites.

The term ‘knowledge interaction’ is also likely to be more palatable to analysts concerned about the intersection between knowledge and power (as discussed in Chapter 2) and the central role that discourse and values play in the public policy process. A growing school of thought is highly critical of the apolitical and technocratic bent of much evidence-based policy literature and is interested in addressing questions around: who decides what knowledge to translate? Who translates it? What does not get translated and why? Whose interests are served by translation and whose are excluded (e.g. Marston and Watts, 2003; Sanderson, 2004)? Drawing on the Habermasian concept of the ‘argumentative turn’, Fischer (2003) points out that because of the high degree of uncertainty in the physical and social worlds, analysts are regularly compelled to make interpretive judgements:

the under-determination of the empirical world means the policy analyst has to connect data and theories through arguments rather than prove them per se … . As policy decisions have to be legitimised, the tasks of explanation, justification and persuasion play important roles in every stage of the policy cycle … . New arguments have to be constantly made to give ‘the different policy components the greatest possible internal coherence and the closest fit to an ever-changing environment’. (Majone, 1989: 31, citied in Fischer, 2003: 183)

(p.65) Fischer emphasises the central role of values in the policy process and the critical importance of policies and programmes tackling these directly:

The argumentative approach recognizes that policy arguments are intimately involved with relations of power and the exercise of power. Beyond merely emphasizing efficiency and effectiveness, it calls attention to the inclusion of some concerns and the exclusion of others, the distribution of responsibility as well as causality, the assigning of praise and blame, and the employment of particular political strategies of problem framing as opposed to others. (Fischer, 2003)

Building on these insights, recent scholarship on the knowledge–policy interface has called for a shift away from models of research ‘use’ that assign the responsibility for knowledge ‘uptake’ to the individual practitioner or policymaker, and towards those that call for a shift in organisation culture that is ‘research-minded’. In the latter case, research use is not only viewed as instrumental – ‘what works’ – but also as valuable in challenging existing paradigms and promoting new ways of conceptualising a problem. This shifts away from ideas of ‘modernising’ policy processes, with an emphasis on central control and rationality, and towards ideas of opening up or ‘democratising’ that process instead, so that a greater diversity of voices and views can be heard (Nutley et al, 2002: 259–60).

3.5 Children, policy processes and knowledge

If we seek to apply the above discussion to child poverty and well-being, evidence and policy processes, we find a relatively new but rapidly expanding array of ideas, actors and policy spaces in developing-country contexts. As Chapters 4, 5 and 6 will present more detailed discussion by region, this section sets the stage by providing a broad overview of the policy narratives, actors and contexts that constitute policy processes related to child poverty and well-being, emerging knowledge-generation efforts and the ways in which these have been reflected (or not) in advocacy and knowledge interaction endeavours.

(p.66) Policy processes


Broadly speaking, three key policy narratives have emerged about child poverty and well-being: human development, child rights and child mainstreaming. The human development approach has focused on policy and programmatic efforts to enhance children’s human development. Within this broad school of thought, economists and health professionals have emphasised the importance of interventions to ensure improvements in child education, health and nutrition because of life-course and potential intergenerational dividends. Meanwhile, proponents of the capabilities concept have emphasised the importance of investing in childhood to promote the realisation of all children’s human – but context-specific – potential.

The child rights policy narrative draws attention to the importance of children’s well-being, and maintains that all children have a set of inalienable rights to multidimensional well-being. This includes the survival (health, nutrition) and development (education) elements of the human development approach, but puts an equal emphasis on a child’s right to protection from violence and neglect and their right to participate in decisions related to their well-being (in accordance with age-specific capacities).

The fledgling child mainstreaming approach is still developing, but seeks to integrate concern for child well-being outcomes into mainstream policy debates, much the same way that gender mainstreaming sought to sensitise policy and practitioner communities to the importance of gender dynamics in shaping policy and programme impacts. As such, over the last decade, discourses about children and childhood poverty in the developing world have shifted away from a sole concern with children’s educational or health outcomes, and towards a broader focus on including children as a significant group affected by macroeconomic policies, such as trade liberalisation, PRSP frameworks and complementary social protection programmes designed to mitigate poverty, risk and vulnerabilities. The origins of this process can arguably be found in the 1987 UNICEF-commissioned Structural Adjustment with a Human Face report, which highlighted the negative spillover effects of structural adjustment programmes on social-sector public expenditures (Cornia et al, 1987). Pais (2002) argues that the child mainstreaming agenda is ambitious, seeking to involve government and non-government actors at international, national and sub-national levels around the agendas of development, humanitarian aid, peace and security. As the 2002 State of the World’s Children Report emphasised, the (p.67) call is ‘to mainstream children’s well-being at the centre of the national agenda, as the most important indicator of national economic and social progress, and allocate sufficient resources for investing in children’.


Given children’s widespread marginalisation within society – arguably particularly in the policy- and knowledge-production arenas – understanding the constellation of actors involved in child-related policy processes is complex. Formal institutional champions tend to be weak and marginalised. Many developing countries lack a dedicated children’s ministry, and in contexts where a ministry or government agency for children’s affairs does exist, it is typically among the least influential and under-resourced in terms of staff numbers, capacity and budget resources. Moreover, such agencies often do not have sub-national representation or presence, limiting their grassroots linkages.

In terms of NGOs, local civil society groups tend to be project-focused and poorly coordinated in many developing-country contexts, and Northern-based NGOs have been slow to adopt policy advocacy approaches, and are thus still striving to make significant inroads into mainstream development debates. Similarly, at the UN level, although UNICEF enjoys a strong international and country presence and brand, it has only relatively recently started to participate systematically in high-level policy debates on, for instance, poverty, social protection and responses to the food, fuel and financial crises.

Compounding this, and as discussed in Chapter 1, on account of the particular depth of voicelessness typically experienced by children, opportunities and resources to advocate on their own behalf in decision-making processes are often very limited. In many contexts, the principle of child participation remains controversial on theoretical and practical grounds. It not only calls into question traditional paternalistic models of children’s needs based on adult knowledge, but also challenges institutional structures and processes that have been developed according to adult norms. While there is a growing array of initiatives to facilitate children’s participation in policy processes, they generally remain small in scale and limited in duration.


The UNCRC provides a clear formal framework within which child-related policy processes can play out. There is a mechanism for regular reporting of government progress vis-à-vis the UNCRC to (p.68) the Committee on the Rights of the Child, including a civil society shadow reporting process, and many countries have adopted their own national plans of action for children. However, in countries facing substantial governance challenges and/or with weak legal cultures, informal rules of the game frequently override formal institutions of this nature, significantly limiting the extent to which policy decisions are informed by universal human rights considerations. Moreover, as Harper and Jones (2009) argue, a children’s rights perspective is generally accorded low visibility within international donor policy agendas, thereby reinforcing weak national-level prioritisation.

Knowledge generation

Over the past 20 years, knowledge generation on childhood and child well-being in developing-country contexts has burgeoned in both academic and applied research settings. On the academic front, the discipline of childhood studies has emerged and, although scholarship remains heavily Northern in focus, there is a rapidly expanding body of knowledge related to developing-country contexts. This is exemplified by initiatives such as CHIP at the University of Manchester, Young Lives at Oxford University and Childwatch, a network of institutions focused on research on childhood in the global North and South; a growing number of childhood studies programmes at universities in the UK, the US, Europe and South Africa that include a developing-country focus; and the emergence of journals seeking to attract scholarship on children in developing-country contexts such as the Journal of Childhood Poverty, Children’s Geographies and Childhood.

The expansion of applied and policy research on children in developing-country contexts has also been significant. Key developments have included the establishment of:

  • the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre in Florence (established in 1988), which carries out in-depth quantitative and qualitative analysis on children in developed- and developing-country contexts;

  • the Child Rights Information Network (CRIN) (established in 1995), a clearing house of information on children from governmental, non-governmental, academic and donor sources;

  • annual publication of UNICEF’s thematic State of the World’s Children Reports, which seek to draw attention to key issues facing children around the globe;

  • (p.69) UNICEF’s MICS, which have been collecting quantitative household data on progress on children’s rights in over 100 countries since 1995; and

  • UNICEF’s Global Poverty Study, which is synthesising quantitative and qualitative information on childhood poverty in developing countries and undertaking policy analysis to help explain trends in childhood poverty in different national contexts.

Policy advocacy and knowledge interaction

Evidence-informed policy advocacy on childhood poverty and well-being in developing-country contexts is newer still, dating largely from the 21st century. Not surprisingly, given the fledgling state of policy processes and knowledge-generation endeavours outlined earlier, policy advocacy and knowledge interaction efforts on child well-being are incipient and generally poorly documented. The case studies in Chapters 4, 5 and 6 seek to address this gap. Two involve champions for children – NGO- and expert-led approaches – and the third entails children’s direct participation, which we also discuss later.

Evidence on children’s visibility and engagement in policy processes is very recent (see Table 3.2). Perhaps unsurprisingly, when defining or outlining the meaning of ‘participation’, many authors either refer explicitly to Article 12 of the UNCRC, or incorporate many of the article’s core concepts and ideas into their discussion. Except in cases where authors have all but eschewed any particular meaning of ‘participation’ (for example, Pridmore [2003: 12] conceptualises participation as ‘simply a set of ideas based on a firm belief in children’s agency’ rather than any sort of model), understandings of the term accordingly revolve around notions of children as capable social actors, their ability to comprehend important issues and express a view on them, and their universal right to not only voice that view, but to have it listened to and incorporated into decision-making processes. In addition, many commentators categorise children’s participation into further ‘stages’ or ‘levels’ depending on the type, degree and duration of the participation. For instance, a one-off, high-profile event entails a very different set of processes and outcomes than more sustained modes of participation such as the inclusion of children in local councils and assemblies (Williams, 2004). Thus, a key point is the necessity to treat ‘participation’ as a multidimensional and multifaceted concept as opposed to some sort of monolithic praxis. This becomes ever clearer when we recognise that at different stages of the policy (p.70) process, children’s participation takes on different forms that entail varying likelihoods of ‘success’.

Children’s participation in policy processes, like participation in knowledge generation, is mediated by a spectrum of factors across our 3D approach (see Table 3.2). As White and Choudhury (2007: 530) argue, by looking closely at the empirical realities of so-called ‘genuine’ or ‘meaningful’ participatory initiatives, a series of questions are raised that challenge the idea of an ‘unmediated insertion of an authentic “child’s voice” into the development arena’. Recognising that all forms of participation are circumscribed by complex power relations and located within embedded power structures – regardless of who the participants are – is a necessary step towards understanding that participation is rarely a ‘neutral’ and apolitical project. Many authors comment on the tension between the ‘global vision’ of children and their right to participate as propounded in the UNCRC, and the diverse local realities and challenges faced by practitioners around the world. As long as there are spatially and culturally contingent (contested) meanings of childhood (i.e. the ‘correct’ role of children in society and dominant social attitudes towards their capacities, or lack thereof), child participation will remain a fundamentally political exercise. However, this is not to say it is doomed to failure. Factors such as negative attitudes towards children and adult-oriented organisational structures, whilst clearly shaping the prospects for and processes and outcomes of children’s participation in policy, do not necessarily determine these things in an absolute sense, and, further, can themselves undergo processes of transformation.

Finally, action can be taken to facilitate children’s participation in policy processes. These range from training staff to better deal with child participants to utilising a variety of participatory techniques – such as drawing, role-playing and drama – in order to create child-friendly spaces and open multiple channels for expression. White and Choudhury (2007: 530) argue, however, that whilst participation is ideally about representing children’s voices in development matters, in reality it is ‘produced’ through the ‘projectisation’ of participation. Drawing on primary data collected with Amra, a children’s organisation in Bangladesh, they report that development-agency staff determine what counts as ‘participation’ and that children’s agency is constrained and determined by adults in development agencies (i.e. what can be said, when it should be said). Accordingly, a number of authors call for innovative approaches that reconcile tensions between ‘traditional’ views and participatory initiatives (for example, through the promotion of stakeholder dialogue) and raise awareness of, in culturally sensitive (p.71) ways, the potential widespread benefits of involving children in policymaking processes.

3.6 Conclusions

This chapter has sought to provide a broad overview of emerging thinking on policy processes, the role of knowledge in policy change and policy advocacy, and sought to extend the 3D approach discussed in Chapters 1 and 2. We identified a 3D approach as taking into account multiple understandings of power relations around three interlocking domains: ideas/policy narratives, policy actors/networks and political contexts/ institutions, as well as different concepts of policy change, including discursive, procedural, substantive and behavioural shifts. The discussion then turned to models of policy advocacy.

The second half of the chapter applied the theoretical literature to policy processes concerned with childhood well-being and poverty in developing-country contexts, arguing that the constellation of actors and institutions involved are especially complex given the particular voicelessness of children in many contexts and their exclusion from conventional policy spaces. Nevertheless, there is scope for optimism within a growing array of child participation initiatives taking place at multiple policy levels (international, national and sub-national) in a variety of policy sectors that the chapter briefly reviewed. This said, direct participation approaches to policy advocacy and knowledge interaction continue to face a number of challenges, including tokenism, inadequate resources to overcome structural inequalities and difficulties moving away from projectising children’s right to participation, and towards embedding children’s involvement in policy processes. These challenges are unlikely to be quickly or comprehensively addressed, and it is therefore important that participatory approaches are complemented and developed in synergy with other approaches that involve experts and NGOs.

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Table 3.2: Factors mediating children’s direct participation in policy processes

Factors mediating children’s participation

Reference – author(s)/date

Definition/meaning of participation taken by author(s)

Policy ideas and power as narratives/discourses

Policy interests and power as actors/networks

Policy institutions and power as context/institutions

Adolescent Development and Participation Unit, UNICEF 2009

  • Involvement in (national) policy planning and development processes (e.g. through consultations).

  • Very few countries have set up nationwide youth consultations (i.e. poor government commitment to child participation in PRSPs)

  • UNICEF’s weak capacity

  • Economic agendas and outcomes have been promoted over social ones

African Child Policy Forum (2006)

  • Active and democratic involvement of youth in programme decisions, design and implementation through relationships with adults based on mutual respect and understanding.

  • Youth cynicism about politics

  • ‘Adultism ’

  • Lack of access to education and training

  • Limited roles in collecting information and lack of constructive outlets (and expression) for young people


  • Discrimination against girls

  • Organisational culture and institutional resistance

Alfini (2006)

  • People (children) taking active roles in shaping the circumstances of their own lives. Participatory processes enable stakeholders to identify, develop, and express their own interests and ideas and influence decisions. Multidimensional and occurs in various forms and settings.

  • Utilitarian (involving children as a means to something) or rights-based approach

  • Prevalence of participation discourse in the development industry – encourages agencies to ‘produce’ participation

  • Adult initiatives – motivations and aims of adults

  • Issues of control

  • Type of environment created by practitioners

  • Practitioners’/agencies’ transparency and accountability

  • Children’s characteristics – information, physical strength, access to transport

  • Stage at which children are involved in the policy process

  • Issues of selection

  • Dangers of creating an elite group of participating children

  • Location/site of participatory exercise

Bessell (2009)

  • Ideas about child participation informed by world views (i.e. universality of human rights, citizen participation, UNCRC), principled beliefs (i.e. social justice based on equality and respect for all citizens), and causal beliefs (i.e. children’s involvement leads to better policy outcomes). The study is, in part, about defining child participation – it is reported that in the Filipino context there is a lack of definitional clarity and poor understanding of the concept.

  • Widespread view of children as developing, passive, subordinate, and incompetent

  • Fears that participation has a negative educational impact

  • Government initiatives that promote child participation (e.g. Katipunan ng Kabataan – youth assemblies)

  • Lack of definitional clarity of child participation

Black (2004)

  • UNCRC definition – creating spaces and opportunities in civic society for children to contribute, exchange ideas with other social actors, and be consulted on matters that concern them. Key distinction drawn between genuine child participation and children as project beneficiaries.

  • Dominant negative community attitudes towards children’s participation (i.e. children seen as subservient, particularly in South Asia)

  • NGOs’ and workers’ (un)familiarity with participatory methods

  • Degree of facilitative adult support

  • Bureaucratic obstruction

  • Children in ‘hidden occupations’ less likely to have their voices heard

Brady (2007)

  • Children have a voice in matters that affect them, and their views are given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity. Children should be treated as autonomous human beings with legal rights.

  • Selection of participants (e.g. only those children with access to local youth groups could be selected)

  • Limited capacity of child participants

  • Degree of adult support and skills of facilitators

  • Timeframe of project

  • Funding – consistent/inconsistent?

Fanelli et al (2007)

  • UNCRC definition – children who have the capacity to form a viewpoint have the right to express their views in all matters affecting them, and due weight will be afforded those views in accordance with age and maturity.

  • ‘Traditional’ views towards role and position of the child in Zimbabwean society

  • Lack of understanding among facilitators of what constitutes child participation (e.g. sometimes seen as when children are targeted by programmes)

  • Resources to support child participation in organisations, e.g. funds, training of adults

Hart (2008)

  • Participation serves to ‘ensure the “transformation ” of existing development practice and, more radically, the social relations, institutional practices and capacity gaps which cause social exclusion’ (Hickey and Mohan, 2005: 13).

  • The ‘localisation’ of participation which constructs the ‘local’ as separate and isolated from wider (global) structures – depoliticises the local

  • Development agencies might hijack concept of child participation and adopt the associated rhetoric in order to appear responsible

  • Broader and deeper structural change necessary for genuine social transformation to take place

  • Constraints imposed by neoliberal institutions/structures

Heidel (2004)

  • Extensive participation of children and young people (and their organisations) in the development, implementation, and monitoring of PRSPs. Key involvement in decision-making processes – not just being heard.

  • Scepticism among child rights organisations towards PRSPs

  • Unsatisfactory child poverty analysis and inadequacy of planned projects

  • Little effort made by civil society organisations to embed child rights perspective in PRSP (Ethiopia)

  • Lack of structural cooperation between governments and child rights organisations

  • Too much PRSP focus on economic aspects

Hill et al (2004)

  • Multidimensional participation that enhances children’s involvement in decision-making and combats social exclusion/promotes social inclusion. Key distinction drawn between participation and consultation.

  • Perceptions of children’s capabilities

  • View that children’s rights undermine adults’ authority and rights

  • Lack of the authentic voice of children in public discourses about childhood

  • ‘Adult-oriented’ participatory project models are susceptible to manipulation by adults

  • ‘Elected’ children on, say, a council, may not be representative

  • Effective child participation requires sustained links between research and policy

  • Intergenerational networks, relations, and transactions

  • Lack of confidence and skills among child participants

  • Diversity among children

  • Children excluded from adult life

  • Lack of funding

  • Pressures of performance indicators

  • Lack of appropriate staff training

Hinton (2008)

  • Children’s views inform the allocation of resources used in their name.

  • Dominant conceptualisations of children and childhood (i.e. children are conventionally located in the private sphere and deemed to be passive recipients of care)

  • Dominant models of age-based developmental stages that promote a ‘competence bias’ – examples of agency overlooked

  • Greater understanding of policy networks and governance is required for policymakers to take seriously ideas of children as active social agents

  • Schools and health centres often used as interfaces to access children, thereby further excluding the most isolated and vulnerable children from participatory programmes

  • Policy context rarely enables prolonged access to listen to children

Invernizzi and Milne (2002)

  • Incorporating children’s specific needs and views into decision making processes within the context of what is possible institutionally and culturally (Ennew, 1998: xviii).

  • The way participation is defined has ‘by far’ the greatest influence on participatory processes

  • Discourses surrounding child exploitation

  • Views on children’s involvement in politics more generally

  • Tension between ‘universal’ and local views

  • Selection and presentation of particular types of children by NGOs

  • Degree of consultation before conferences with children

  • Degree of understanding of the issues by children

  • Adult-initiated and adult-run campaigns might only use tokenistic participation

  • Local differences and complexities

  • Lack of overall consensus on what constitutes meaningful participation

Lansdown (2001)

  • UNCRC definition

  • Perception among parents, teachers and NGO workers that greater child involvement will result in a loss of power

  • Generally negative attitudes towards children

  • Types of methods and techniques employed by practitioners/researchers

  • Three ‘meaningful’ approaches: consultative processes, participative initiatives, and promotion of self-advocacy

  • Likelihood of children’s views achieving any real impact on particular decisions

Lansdown (2006)

  • Linked closely to children’s evolving capacities (Article 5 of the UNCRC): as children acquire greater capacities, there should be a gradual transfer of power to children themselves, enabling them to make decisions about matters that affect them.

  • Training of adult staff and facilitators

  • (Lack of) Access to networks of people with power

  • Environment in which participation takes place (i.e. conducive and childfriendly? Is there enough potential to build relationships?)

  • Scope and quality of participation

  • Structuring of legal and political conditions

Lund (2007)

  • Multilayered and multifaceted. Generally voluntary involvement in projects and decision making processes. Can be understood as a way to sensitise people about issues that need action, as a way to actively take part in development processes, as a way to foster dialogue, and as a right to influence policymaking.

  • The way participation is conceived and framed (i.e. as a means or an end)

  • How the ‘participating child’ is understood in development and child research

  • Perceptions of children as passive recipients of change

  • Children’s organising powers

  • Constraints imposed by family and local community members: marginalisation, fear, violence

  • Economic restructuring (globalisation)

  • Whether participation is accompanied by wider structural and political reforms

  • Type of ‘place’ in which participation occurs (‘right’ or ‘wrong’ places)

  • Cultural factors

Mannion (2007)

  • Participation entails discovering and understanding children’s views (various rationales for this are proposed, including enlightenment, empowerment, and citizenship), and, importantly, is about child-adult relations.

  • Tendency to analyse children’s voices in isolation from their socio-spatial contexts

  • Nature of child-adult relations

  • Extent of intergenerational dialogues

Mayo (2001)

  • Hart’s ladder. Participation may be concerned with individual decision-making, participation in service development and provision, participation in research, participation in communities, and participation in influencing policies.

  • Policymakers’ attitudes towards children

  • Scepticism among child participants and practitioners

  • Nature of relationship between practitioners and youth

  • Relationships between children (e.g. importance of child-to-child approaches)

  • Whether children’s voices are genuinely listened to – is participation rhetoric or reality?

Mniki and Rosa (2007)

  • Child participation occurs in everyday life situations, with or without adult facilitation. ‘Natural’ exercising of child agency.

  • Conceptualisations of childhood

  • Adults’ support and creation of appropriate spaces for children’s participation

  • Children’s access to information, tools, and resources to enable them to achieve change

  • Level at which they participate – some settings not appropriate (e.g. negotiating law-making processes)

  • Time and financial resources

  • Presence of other developmental priorities (particularly in developing countries)

Moses (2008)

  • A broad concept – definitions need to ask questions of participation by whom, in what, for what purpose, and under what conditions. Occurs broadly within two domains: private (household, family) and public (community, school, government). Exercise of child agency.

  • Broader, normative conceptions of childhood – informed by embedded welfarist approach

  • Child-adult relations

  • Children’s (lack of) access to appropriate and legitimate channels for expression

  • Child poverty and adult unemployment, which foment paternalism and therefore limit opportunities for participatory spaces to emerge

  • Gender inequalities

  • Tension between budgeting for participation and addressing basic needs

  • Procedural structures

  • Adult-dominated environments of governance and legal (decision-making) institutions

Naker (2007)

  • Drawn from Hart’s ladder. The concept of child participation manifests in a variety of adult-child engagements within development practice. Power (re)distribution is key. Partnerships based on joint initiation and direction of processes.

  • Understandings of the concept of participation

  • Adults’ uncertainties about their feelings regarding sharing decisionmaking power with children

  • Scepticism among children

  • Difficulty of integrating child participation into practice after years of NGOs operating in a particular way

  • Skills of facilitators and group leaders

  • The ‘African way’ of relating to children: set social hierarchies

Naker et al (2007)

  • Common usage/understandings of child participation linked closely to UNCRC.

  • Conceptualisations of children’s participation

  • Ways in which children shape and/or disrupt adults’ efforts to facilitate participation

  • Ethical considerations

  • Local context: Culturally and socially specific factors and norms

Nguyen et al (2006)

  • The right to be involved in decisions affecting one’s life is indivisibly linked to improved social and economic well-being, and the active participation of project beneficiaries leads to better development decisions and more sustained results. Child-rights-based approach to children’s involvement in decisions relating to poverty reduction.

  • ‘Traditional’ attitudes towards policy formulation and the privileging of adult experience

  • Whether decision-makers genuinely listen to children’s views

  • Lack of experience among children in terms of how to articulate views and concerns

  • Skills of adult facilitators. Involvement of parents in policy dialogues

  • Embeddedness of child participation in policy cycles

  • (Non-)presence of ‘child-friendly’ institutions

  • Types of involvement (e.g. degree and duration)

O’Malley (2004)

  • Children’s and young people’s views influence policymakers and official thinking. From a PRSP perspective, civil society is (in theory) involved in the planning and development process, and children constitute important elements of civil society. ‘Genuine participation gives children the power to shape both the process and outcome’ (O’Kane, 2002).

  • Policymakers’ attitudes towards children’s participation

  • Extent of dialogues between stakeholders concerned

  • Difference between recognising children have much to offer PRSP planning and actually ensuring their inclusion

  • Readiness of decision-makers to consider children’s views

  • Children’s access to information

  • Whether the most marginalised are included

  • Importance of working with adults

  • Partnerships

  • Power relations

  • Stage of the policy process at which children are involved

  • At what scale participation occurs (i.e. small-scale community projects or national-level initiatives)

  • Issues relating to local context: opportunities, resources, timeframes

Pham and Jones (2005)

  • Only if children’s knowledges are ‘uncovered’ will policies and programmes be designed in a way that is ‘responsive and relevant to their concerns and needs’ (Boyden and Ennew, 1997:10). Participation must embrace the diversity of children’s experiences.

  • Dominant Western models of childhood infiltrate policymakers’ perceptions

  • Presence of networks/channels linking children’s knowledge generation to policymakers

  • Evaluations of whether outcomes of participatory initiatives influence policymaking

  • Is research reciprocal?

  • Relationships between practitioners/researchers and children and their families

  • Analytical and communication skills among children

  • Whether stakeholder ‘buy-in’ is secured (from the outset)

  • Relationships with local collaborators and project partners

  • Clientalism in southern contexts

  • Embracing context is far more important than seeking standardised praxis or a grand theory

Pinkerton (2004)

  • Public consultation as a necessary part of policy-making and strategy development.

  • Power relations

  • Adult-child relations

  • Quantity and types of channels for expression available

  • Effective evaluation of mechanisms overseeing children’s participation

Pridmore (2003)

  • Children’s participation is a dynamic, constructive process embedded within a complex network of political, economic, social, cultural, and linguistic factors. There is no single model, but simply a set of ideas based on a firm belief in children’s agency.

  • Conceptualisations of the roles of children and young people

  • Degree of dialogue between policymakers, parents and community leaders

  • Specific factors associated with community contexts

  • Historical experiences of popular (non-)participation

  • Entrenched social hierarchies

  • Levels of education

Prout (2003)

  • Children and adults bound by mutual interdependence: without the active participation of children, there will be no social future. Therefore, children’s participation is a process of citizenship.

  • Dominant social attitudes towards children’s capacities, competencies, responsibilities and aspirations (i.e. ‘little angels’ versus ‘little devils’)

  • Institutional arrangements and presence or lack of spaces for children’s participation

Ray and Carter (2007)

  • Child rights-based approach – children should be provided with opportunities to participate in policy discussions at all levels. Children’s participation in governance.

  • Discriminatory attitudes towards children and their capacities

  • Willingness of different stakeholders to take responsibility for children and their families

  • Activities and priorities of community-based organisations

  • Extent of participatory assessments – do they go deep enough?

  • Presence of children’s clubs

  • Appropriate mechanisms for children’s involvement available

  • Selection bias involved with identifying youth representatives

  • Physical distance from and therefore lack of access to sites where participatory initiatives take place

  • Language barriers

  • Working children less likely to participate

Save the Children (2005)

  • The opportunity to express a view, influence decision-making, and achieve change. Informed and willing involvement of children in any matter concerning them directly or indirectly.

  • Assumptions about what children can and cannot do

  • Degree of adult facilitators’ training, skills, and confidence

  • Quality of relationships built

  • Children’s access to information

  • Types of participatory methods employed by organisations

  • Degree of support from parents, guardians, and teachers

  • Children’s other time commitments

  • Level of protection afforded to those participating

  • Whether evaluation exercises are conducted

  • Stage at which children are involved in the participatory process

  • Local and ‘traditional’ knowledge and practice

  • (In)equality of selection

Shier (2001)

  • There are five levels of participation, ranging from ‘children are listened to’ to ‘children share power and responsibility for decision-making’, and three stages of commitment on the part of organisations relating to openings, opportunities, and obligations.

  • Belief that children are not interested in having a say in decisions

  • Actions and structuring of organisations involved in child participation

  • Support from adult facilitators

  • Low self-esteem, shyness, previous experience of not being listened to among children

  • No historical culture of participation

  • Language barriers

  • Availability of opportunities

  • How child-friendly organisational procedures are

Sinclair (2004)

  • Children and young people should be more involved in making decisions that affect them. Multidimensional with four key elements: level of participation, focus of decision-making, nature of participation activity, and children involved.

  • Attitudinal barriers

  • Conceptualisations of participation as a passive (‘listening to’) or active (empowerment) process

  • Practitioners’ clarity (or lack thereof) of purpose

  • Motivations of adult workers

  • Willingness to work in partnership and to recognise validity of child’s agenda

  • Accuracy of adults’ interpretations of what children are saying

  • Consultation fatigue

  • Presence of overarching strategies for children in government planning

  • Selection/representativeness of issues

  • Lack of evidence regarding whether child participation has any impact on major policy decisions

  • Level of integration of child participation into organisational structures for decision-makers

Skelton (2007)

  • Participation is embedded within the UNCRC: children who are capable of forming their own views should have the right to freedom of expression and access to information. However, Skelton is critical of what participation actually means, and subsequently ambivalent towards the universal view of it.

  • Conceptualisation of children as ‘adults in waiting’ (‘human becomings’)

  • Children as future citizens

  • Romanticisation of child agency

  • Suppression of children’s views when they are critical of particular institutions

  • Organisations can establish from the outset what can and cannot be said

Tisdall (2008)

  • In order for children’s participation to influence public decision-making, practitioners need to go beyond simply listening to children’s views, and consider the various relations between children and broader institutional contexts, other stakeholders, and communities of interest. Participation should entail a more routine involvement of children. Participation is multidimensional.

  • Ideas about what constitutes ‘legitimate’ forms of participation

  • Exclusion of children who do not fit dominant views of how participating children should be

  • The role of participation facilitators: if an ‘invisible’ facilitative role is adopted, a disincentive for further funding may be inadvertently created

  • External donors’ influence over activities

  • Pressure on children to present the views of children in general

UNICEF (2009)

  • UNCRC definition. Children as young citizens, therefore involvement encouraged at all levels.

  • Negative (‘traditional’) attitudes towards children and their capacities

  • Conceptualisations of participation that inform approaches (e.g. narrow or holistic approaches)

  • Adults can be reluctant to engage in dialogue with children

  • Whether all stakeholders are involved or some are left out

  • Current or recent political contexts – some more conducive to child participation than others (e.g. less conducive under authoritarian regimes)

  • Rigid organisational structures

  • Widespread lack of data and expertise in working with children

  • Lack of frameworks – unaligned interventions

  • Difficult to ensure equitable participation of girls

  • Duration of projects

Van Blerk and Ansell (2007)

  • Adults cannot presume to have insight into children’s social and cultural worlds. Children are the experts in this sense and therefore have much to offer researchers in terms of knowledge generation. Participation of children in the research process results in their empowerment.

  • Perceptions of competencies of children

  • Views on the importance of dissemination

  • Are policymakers interested in attending dissemination workshops?

  • Ways in which researchers involve children in dissemination processes

  • Understandings and utilisations of policy networks

  • Relationships with policymakers

  • Time delays between original research and dissemination processes

  • Difficulties associated with accessing street children and out-of-school children

White (2002)

  • A child-centred perspective on participation privileges the child and recognises the importance of their views, but should also situate the child in relation to his/her family and community. Thus, participation is a fundamentally relational concept.

  • Attitudes towards children (from the savage pre-social to the innocent and pure)

  • Conceptualisations of ‘adult’ and ‘child’ categories – parallel or sequential?

  • Children often conceptualised within development practice as categories rather than persons

  • Power relations between children and adults

  • The relatively short timescale of children’s critical developing years

White and Choudhury (2007)

  • Ideally, participation is about raising children’s voice in development matters. In reality, participation is ‘produced’ through the development industry – ‘projectisation’ of participation and promotion of agency-sponsored events and programmes.

  • Perceptions that when a grassroots children’s organisation, or at least its core members, become incorporated into the development industry, that particular organisation becomes dissociated from the majority of children it purports to represent

  • Understandings of what counts as ‘participation’ as determined by development agency staff

  • Children’s agency constrained and determined by adults in development agencies (i.e. what can be said, when it should be said)

  • Development agencies’ bias towards attractive, articulate, middle-class participants

  • Complexities of power relations

  • Nature of a large part of the mainstream development industry: operational shifts from action to advocacy and promotion of individualist over collectivist orientations (in terms of a particular ‘core’ of children being required to participate in international events, and benefiting from the associated material enrichment)

  • Participation as a new power relationship

  • The element of ‘show’

Williams (2004)

  • Affording decision-making power to less powerful stakeholders. ‘An ongoing process of children’s involvement in decision-making in matters that concern them … Genuine participation gives children the power to shape both the process and outcome’ (O’Kane, 2003). Varying levels of participation – Hart’s ladder.

  • Attitudes towards children, their capacities, and their role/place in society

  • Type of participation as decided by practitioners (one-off and high-profile or sustained, local-level activity)

  • Motivations and aims of practitioners

  • Interventions of the ‘development industry’ – inviting children to high-profile events impacts on their organisations’ work on the ground

  • Do children’s organisations exist to serve adult organisations?

  • Wider political structures – any single policy is part of a broader framework of ideas, therefore child participation attempts to challenge larger structures

  • Level (i.e. local, sub-national, national) at which participation takes place/intends to impact upon

  • Stage of the policy process being targeted

Williams (2005)

  • UNCRC definition. Children’s views influence agenda-setting, policy formulation, policy implementation and/or policy monitoring/evaluation.

  • Perceptions of children as passive recipients of services or recognition of the value of their participation

  • Understanding on the part of practitioners/researchers of how to ensure children’s views effect change

  • Difficulties associated with opening up and sustaining spaces for policy influences

  • Policymakers’ awareness of child rights and agency

  • Importance of advocacy work

  • When participation targets or becomes involved with legal institutions/spaces, efforts are likely to be made to reduce children’s influence (i.e. preventing the challenging of the status quo)


(1) This chapter draws on and develops ideas in Sumner and Jones (2010), Sumner and Harpham (2008) and Sumner and Tiwari (2010).

(2) A recent global survey found strong consensus among Southern scientists on the need for intermediary organisations to serve as knowledge-brokers and capacity-builders for both researchers and policymakers. There is, however, only limited agreement on the role that such intermediaries should play, exacerbated by a dearth of empirical investigation into the practicalities of managing the role of intermediaries (see Jones et al, 2008).