In your own way

Norms and Rights, Love and Care: Why Care for Children? – A Conversation with Save the Children

“[Other than focusing only on policymaking and technical aspects of poverty reduction], we also need to create a powerful norm of care and compassion in society as a whole.”

The SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) have placed particular emphasis on alleviating extreme poverty. For the first time among global goals, child poverty is being specifically targeted and recognised. Universality is also acknowledged – no longer is child poverty a challenge of the Global South, but it is also present in relatively developed countries.


Say for Development had a conversation with Richard Morgan*, Director of Global Child Poverty Initiative at Save the Children, and Co-Chair of Global Coalition to End Child Poverty. With 30 years of ample experience working with children’s rights issues in both Save the Children and UNICEF, Richard shares his insights on addressing child poverty and the SDGs, how interventions around children’s rights have changed over the years, and most importantly, how to ensure that children receive love and affection.

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Say for Development: You have been working in leadership positions to address child poverty issues for quite a long time. Currently, you are the Director of Global Child Poverty Initiative at Save the Children, how did you get interested in international development, particularly in a delicate issue like child poverty?

Richard: While studying at the university, I got interested in international development and wanted to work in Africa. At 22 years old, I went to Botswana initially with the ODI (Overseas Development Institute) Fellowship Scheme. After 2 years, I became a civil servant in Botswana on a local contract and stayed for several years there working on rural development and emergency response. I did a few other things like short-term consultancy and volunteering.

In my 20s and 30s, many things happened almost by accident because people were looking a particular profile at a particular time. So, back then I wanted to join the UN and I was invited by UNICEF in Mozambique to become the Head of the Emergency Programme. During my 28 years with UNICEF, I worked at the country, regional and global levels. A few years ago, I came back to the UK to work for Save the Children, an organisation that shares a very similar mission with UNICEF.

It was joining UNICEF that got me interested in and alive to children’s issues in the first place. I became very convinced with the idea that children are the most important people in the society, but that they are not very visible in public policy while they should be the people that receive the most care and attention from society. From an economic and utilitarian view, children are the future producers on which prosperity will depend; and from an ethical point of view, children are the most vulnerable people and therefore need most care and consideration in terms of policy and the proritisation  of resources. Before joining UNICEF, I had not thought so much about this – I was ‘child blind’ – but I have become very involved since then, and have been concerned about the intersection of economic interventions and children’s rights for exactly 30 years now.

Say for Development: Save the Children was founded after WWI in the midst of famine and diseases in Europe. Advocacy for children’s rights has since then been a central part of its work; while UNICEF and other organisations have taken slightly different approaches towards addressing child poverty. Generally speaking, how have approaches towards addressing child poverty changed or evolved over the past 30 years?

Richard: First, health and nutrition have perhaps been the bedrock of responses by Save the Children and other child-focused organisations over the last 30 years. In my experience, there has always been a strong focus on basic services to reach children. The core of that was probably around public health interventions to improve child survival during the first years of life. One major area has been addressing vaccine-preventable diseases and other major killers like malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia. Linked to that, there has been increasing focus on improving young child nutrition and to some extent maternal nutrition. Poor nutrition has been an underlying cause of many child deaths, and it leads to children being unable to reach their full capabilities because of conditions like stunting. Over the years, hygiene, sanitation and clean water availability have also become more recognised as key issues in child survival, growth and development.

Second, there has been a broadening concentration on child protection, from initially being largely focused on street children and children in conflicts, to a wider range of protection risks faced by children. These are to do with situations where society and adults are not protecting children adequately. These can take many forms – violence, abuse, exploitation, neglect, trafficking and so on.

The third area has been around education. Until quite recently, the focus was really about primary education enrolment. Now that there has been a lot more success in getting both girls and boys into primary education, the focus is being expanded into secondary education and also pre-schooling. The concentration on school attendance is now broadening out to addressing the quality of education to ensure that children are actually learning while they are in school. Children’s safety and inclusion in the school environment are also coming to the fore, including for children with disabilities and of disadvantaged minority groups.

Another big change is a shift from a focus on needs to a more human rights-based approach. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the UN in 1989, addresses children not only as objects of charity and compassion but also as subjects and holders of rights – rights which governments and other sectors have duties to address and fulfil. Over the last 20-30 years, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has developed a body of international law and practice on how the Convention can best be implemented, and made important recommendations to individual governments, based on their progress reports, on how national policies and programmes should be developed to address children’s rights.

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Say for Development in a conversation with Richard Morgan

Say for Development: SDG 1.2 aims to ‘reduce at least by half the proportion of men, women and children of all ages living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions by 2030’. In a blog that you have written for UNICEF, you mentioned that child poverty was being specifically recognised and targeted for the first time in global goals. What role will Save the Children (especially the Global Child Poverty Initiative) play in ensuring that this target will be achieved?

Richard: The history of goals for children goes back to the 1990 World Summit for Children, initiated by UNICEF, to gather governments together to give explicit priority to progress for children. The goals adopted at this summit were the forerunners of some of the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), which in turn were quite strongly focused on children. The newly-adopted SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) for the Post-2015 period take this further: their targets are more detailed and include many new areas addressing child protection, such as eliminating all forms of violence against girls. The SDGs also recognise child poverty as a specific issue, whereas the MDGs focused on reducing poverty at the household level. The SDGs further put a more explicit emphasis on data disaggregation that can help ensure that the most disadvantaged groups are sharing in overall progress towards development goals.

The new Global Coalition to End Child Poverty, which I co-chair on behalf of Save the Children, together with UNICEF, is trying to identify policy solutions to child poverty and make recommendations on the types of concrete measures that governments can take in addressing deprivations among the poorest children in the context of the Post-2015 Agenda. The Coalition believes that child poverty has distinct characteristics and multiple impacts on children, which in turn have both short- and long-term consequences for society as well as children themselves as individuals and holders of rights. And, there are practical ways for countries to address this. The first step is to assess and understand child poverty as distinct from overall poverty by looking at the specific patterns of poverty among girls and boys in that society (for example, is it related to gender, household income, ethnicity and/or location?) and the kinds of deprivation that it is associated with (e.g. malnutrition, protection failures, lack of learning). Based on these patterns, countries can design context-relevant strategies to address child poverty: these can include child-sensitive social protection, basic services which are designed to include the poorest children, measures to improve the basic incomes and employment conditions of parents and caregivers, and also ways for children to be be explicitly recognised in policy, legislation, programme delivery, monitoring and through participation.

Participation is to do with recognising that children are part of civil society and enabling and empowering them to express themselves give feedback on their own lives – for example, how they experience their schools, or how safe they feel in their neighbourhoods and how they see the impact of social protection programmes.

So, there is a range of things that we in Save the Children and our wider Coalition hope to see governments do in order to recognise child poverty as a national challenge and priority, and to have an action plan to address child poverty as part of their overall poverty reduction strategy.

Say for Development: Can you tell us more about children as part of participation? What do national governments think of this?

Richard: It varies. There are some who recognise the right of children to express themselves and the importance of listening to their views. But it is a challenging area because children need to be able to express themselves safely, and may often need skilled facilitation. Opportunities and systems for child participation need to be designed according to their age and capabilities, and in line with the local cultures and possibilities. There has often been a tendency of ‘tokenism’ where adults hold a big meeting and a few children are selected to make a speech and it is called ‘participation’, but nothing really happens afterwards. So, we are looking for meaningful participation and for ways in which children’s voice can be institutionalised in society, for example through their schools, or local initiatives that children lead themselves.

Say for Development: The SDGs are universal – there is an increased recognition that child poverty is prevalent in both the Global North and the Global South. However, poor and marginalised children in conflict-afflicted, fragile and least developed countries may need more attention from the global community. In your opinion, how do organisations like Save the Children and UNICEF strike a balance in terms of resource allocation and interventions?

Richard: Save the Children is a bit distinct from UNICEF and other organisations. Save the Children is a movement that originated in the UK about a century ago and has over 30 member countries now. We have programmes in over 60 further countries. So, Save the Children is looking at both national contexts within its members (e.g. UK, South Africa but also situations of children in many of the poorer countries for which we can mobilise resources to help address these situations. Save the Children works with children who are disadvantaged within their own societies, including high-income countries, and also children who are deprived in conflict-affected and low-income situations.

UNICEF has relatively more unrestricted resources, which enables its global Executive Board to apply an allocation formula across programme countries, in which it can prioritise resources to countries with the highest rates of child mortality and lowest per capita incomes. Save the Children relies more on individual grants and does not have one sizeable central pool of resources that are allocated in accordance to priorities, but we consider whatever the possibilities there are to address the rights of the most deprived children in each society.

Say for Development: In what ways can Save the Children influence national governments to make child-sensitive policies?

Richard: We support programmes that directly reach children which can have an immediate impact on children’s lives and also a demonstration effect to get governments and other partners to scale up interventions which work. At the same time, we advocate to governments to adopt child-sensitive legislation in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and to orient their national budget plans towards adequate support for the inclusive delivery of quality basic services to children. Save the Children also campaigns for action on child survival, and now we are moving into addressing Every Last Child. This is our new global campaign, concentrating on the most deprived and excluded children, such as girls and children who are refugees, and how national actions can reach them.

Say for Development: Many have criticised the use of images of suffering children in fundraising campaigns, while some may also think that it is a way not only to accumulate funds but also to create awareness. This has been a subject of long debate – what is your opinion on this?

Richard: In my personal opinion – which does not represent any organisational stance – I think this is a huge dilemma for people working in charitable work with children. On one hand, it is ideal to present a positive view of children and the positive impact of an organisation’s work. On the other hand, you need to capture people’s attention and encourage them to donate, especially for organisations that depend heavily on voluntary donations and public solidarity. I am not entirely sure on what the research indicates, but from what I have seen, dramatic pictures of suffering children can have a positive impact on people’s willingness to donate at least in the short term. So it is indeed a dilemma.

One way forward is to show images both “before and after” an intervention, presenting images and narrative of children who were suffering before and who have recovered as a result of an intervention that the public has supported. It’s also important carefully to consider what is in the best interest of the children who are suffering, and ultimately that should be the test. The Convention on the Rights of the Child enjoins us to take the best interests of the child into account as a primary consideration, so if one is confident that the lives of children can be saved or their nutritional status recovered by presenting tough images of them, then it might be ethical to do so, as much as we might prefer not to. There is also the question of ‘donation fatigue’. If these pictures are shown continuously, then people might think that problems are not being solved even though they have been donating. So, I think together with showing any challenging images of children suffering, there needs to be a narrative explanation of why the suffering has continued to occur despite the efforts made and what are the underlying causes of the situation.

Say for Development: Regarding children and poverty, we hear ample discussions around policymaking, resource allocation, targets, measurements and so forth – which are definitely critical. At the same time, how do you think we can also ensure that children get adequate love and affection?    

Richard: I think it is true now and throughout human history that almost all parents love their children, but not all families are safe places for children if violence is involved. Generally, the best way is to support parents and caregivers themselves to give love and affection to their children. However, where parents have difficulties in doing so (for economic reasons, due to sickness, etc.), then in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, States can step in to support parents with genuine difficulties. At the same time, it is necessary to intervene in a situation where children are (at risk of) being abused or neglected in the family. There is also a wider responsibility within the society to look out for children in a family setting and to support parents who want to give love to their children or to intervene on behalf of the child, in her or his best interests, in extreme situations.

We also need to create a powerful norm of care and compassion in society as a whole that will ensure that children are visible and recognise that they are human beings with their own rights and claims on adults for love and care. The more we can do to promote societies that are fundamentally loving, kind, caring and based on mutual respect, the better it will be for children and the more they would feel these qualities from the wider society.

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*Richard Morgan is the Director of the Child Poverty Global Initiative at Save the Children and the Co-Chair of the Global Coalition to End Child Poverty. Previously, he was the Senior Advisor on the Post-2015 Development Agenda at UNICEF, promoting children’s rights and equity through engaging in the multi-stakeholder processes. He was also Director Director of Policy and Practice at UNICEF Headquarters. Before joining UNICEF, he was a civil servant for several years with the Government of Botswana at central and local government levels. He has been working on children’s rights for the last 30 years. Read his latest blog to find out more about recent efforts to combat child poverty.

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Say for Development is thankful to Richard Morgan for sharing his insights on the topic as well as the work of Save the Children. This conversation was prepared and conducted by Sarabe Chan and Mahmudul Hoque Moni.

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Photographs: Mahmudul Hoque Moni

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