Photo Credit: Annie Spratt
Context is everything, the saying goes, and a hallmark of effective development work is an understanding of local context. It’s increasingly widely accepted that what works in one community may have no place in another, and an appreciation of diversity and cultural norms is key to success.
Few would disagree with this principle, but there are still cases where perception and reality contrast.
This was made clear during Palladium’s Race, Ethnicity & Culture (REC) Month, when a colleague’s thoughts on child labour sparked a deep discussion between employees across the globe. Elizabeth Sibale, Deputy Chief of Party and native Malawian, commented on whether “the international concern on child rights is relevant to Africa.”
Drawing from her experiences growing up in rural Malawi, Sibale shared how often in Africa, family elders have an obligation to transfer ‘life skills’ to children.
“Children start learning these skills by observation and participation,” she explained, “whether building houses, fishing, preparing food, etc.”
According to Sibale, these life skills are essential for a family’s survival. But viewed through the lens of western culture and humanitarian aid, what are seen as at-home chores by local communities can look at lot like child labour.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), child labour is “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” At the most extreme, it involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, or exposed to serious hazards at a young age. Other examples may involve children being kept home from school in order to help the household.
But in Africa, with many areas lacking government social security programs and social services for citizens, families are left with the responsibility of educating and training the next generation to become productive and capable adults.
“An adult without life skills would be a laughingstock in the community, because they will depend on other people for food, clothing, and even shelter,” Sibale described. “Those with good life skills become resilient because they can support themselves through all odds.”
“Most of what would be see as child labour in the West, in Africa is part of skills transfer to the next generation.”
Regardless of intention, organisations risk interfering with cultural practices that are core to a community’s lived reality, underscoring the need to involve local communities at every stage of any development project.
Palladium Managing Partner Sinéad Magill has seen a significant shift toward “localisation” over the past decade.
“When I visit our projects, I’m struck by the change in the way local teams and the recipients of aid are now involved in development,” she says. “Ten years ago, programs were implemented largely by ‘international experts’. Now, programs are run by talented and empowered national staff. Project beneficiaries are no longer passive recipients of grant funds…they’re empowered groups approaching us with their definition of the challenge and their ideas on how to address it.”
For Magill, the goal should be to unlock the potential of local communities and set them up for success – not to impose western ideas of what solutions should look like or how they should be implemented. No matter the local context, when a large organisation is putting a child to work, it’s exploitation, she says. Understanding the distinction between exploitation and the transfer of life skills within a family is crucial for development workers stepping into any community.
Yet, the issue of skills transfer raised by Sibale came as a surprise to even seasoned development professionals, many of whom have expressed gratitude at having this blind spot called out.
“My advice?” Sibale says: “The only thing we can emphasise as development workers is to make sure kids have a chance to go to school, to play, and to act their age. We cannot tell parents how to parent or what to do in their homes, but we can involve parents in our work.”
This means empowering communities, embracing blurred lines and the complexities of cultural norms, and in Sibale’s words, “not painting the world with one brush.”
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