Power and politics in child protection reforms. Or why we should think beyond ‘technical’ approaches.

There is (still) much talk about the child protection reforms in the former socialist countries, in particular in Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans and the South Caucasus, with deinstitutionalization at the core of the reform efforts. At the end of the communist / socialist rule all countries were running a system of ‘orphanages’ where a mere 2% (at maximum) of children were real orphans. These children were put in these ‘closed institutions’ (in the adult world this would be an euphemism for ‘prisons’) because they were coming from poor families, from the wrong ethnic group (think about the over-representation of the Roma children) or because they had a disability that was offending the carefully orchestrated ideas of state ideologues who wanted women to be full-time workers rather than concerned mothers of flawed child. After 25 years form the fall of communism hundreds of thousands of children in these countries (100.000 in Ukraine alone) are still living in ‘closed institutions’.

There are scores of stake-holders, which align thousands of technical experts, in this field: UNICEF branches for each country, a UNICEF regional office for all countries, international non-governmental organisations, local NGOs, governmental agencies, local level child protection units, watch-dog organizations, training centers, research institutes, hotlines and helplines for missing or abused children and what not. All working hard to ‘save’ the children, help them, nurture them, and grow them out of poverty, stress and despair. All proposing technical solutions to what is actually… a political problem.

We keep forgetting (and some people keep reminding us) that creating a systemic change involves power. And we want to forget it because as child protection experts we want to be associated with innocence and purity, while power can be immoral and dirty. We therefore take political processes and turn them in carefully sanitized technical concepts. We talk about ‘trafficking’, but not about the role of the police in allowing or in some cases even helping the traffickers do their ‘jobs’. We talk about de-institutionalization and all it should entail, but not about the many people who are promised jobs in the ‘orphanages’ by the winning party in the last elections. We talk about the poor orphans who need a loving home abroad (the much-debated issue of international adoptions), but we carefully avoid talking about the local politicians who make fortunes from ‘facilitating’ the adoption process, nor about the foreign members of parliaments who promise their voters to lobby for their ‘right’ to adopt a child abroad. We talk about child labor but not about the parties who receive funding and votes from local entrepreneurs who use child labor. Basically what we do is to take political issues and transfer them in technical problems that the ‘experts’ that we are can solve. We put our expertise at the center children’s suffering and we do all we can to take the dirty politics out of the purity of our causes.

To be clear, I am not saying that our work is useless. Children do get saved from unscrupulous traffickers, they do get released from closed institutions, and many do find loving families abroad who offer them a better future. What I am saying is that those of us who want to work for ‘systemic change’ should stop thinking that technical expertise alone is what it takes. No, the foreign toolkit-writing expert and the guidelines-developer consultant will not solve the problem by proposing the latest type of matrix, logframe, strategy or action plan. And no, advocacy seen as a technical skill only is not more than just another word invented by the smart ones among the technical experts who understood that technical expertise is necessary but not enough to solve the problems. And no, the UNICEF country office will not be able to take care of the politics of it. Or at least not at the level which is required by individual children, as UNICEF is an inter-governmental organization (and not an NGO like many would believe) which depends for funding and operations (like many of the NGOs) on the goodwill of the hosting country governments.

If trafficking, institutionalization and child labor exist is because they are part of an economic (!) and social system which is connected to the political system. It is useless to spend millions to try to insulate ourselves from this reality by investing thousands of hours in designing fancy strategies and intervention programs that will have no real impact on children. Systemic change is possible only with the support of those in power. The only former socialist countries where closing down ‘orphanages’ was possible on a significant scale were Georgia and Romania, where the political elites made or were made to make a clear political decision about de-institutionalization. For Georgia this was part of a wider national project to show the world that Georgia belongs to the ranks of the ‘civilized’ Western world, while in Romania the child protection reform was so high on the EU accession agenda that as late as 2004 (Romania signed its accession treaty in 2005), the EU Commissioner for Enlargement publicly warned Romania in a press conference that no progress in the child protection reform means no EU integration.

If we accept that systemic change is about power, and that power is a struggle over resources, then the question is how we ensure that those in power will one day accept to relinquish part of their resources to do the right thing for children. How will the ‘orphanage’ staff accept that they can find jobs elsewhere or be re-trained for alternative child protection services? How will we convince the border police to give up bribes paid by traffickers that they probably know by name and surname? How will we convince the political parties to exclude from their ranks pedophiles or business people who use child labor? Maybe a first tiny step is to develop and propose different tools for evaluating our impact. Working along our donors to help them understand what is realistic and what is not. Reaching a sector-wide agreement to promise less to donors for their money, instead of competing with each other by promising results that are hardly realistic. Romania and Georgia saw a huge influx of resources to achieve partial de-institutionalization. None of these countries ended institutionalization for good, so why would we think that the next campaign or the next technical project will do just that for other countries? But maybe I got it all wrong about the first tiny step and maybe my questions above are simply laughable and ridiculous in the first place.

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