EPISODE 3: Ensuring Children's Future During Lockdown

Podcast RSS

Developing countries often struggle to provide basic health and education. As they now focus their efforts to contain the pandemic, funding for other sectors are at risk, undermining years of efforts to tackle poverty through education. In this episode, former CEO of Child fund Nigel Spence discusses some of the consequences of maintaining schools closed in the long-term, particularly in developing countries.

 

 

Nigel Spence is a Research to Practice Associate at the Institute for Global Development at the University of New South Wales. He is currently completing a PhD investigating the influence of international organisations on child protection policy in Vietnam. Nigel recently completed 14years as CEO of ChildFund Australia overseeing child-focused development programs in the Asia-Pacific region. He also contributed to the wider international development sector and in 2019 was awarded the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), Outstanding Contribution to the Sector Award. Previously, Nigel was CEO of the NSW Association of Children's Welfare Agencies (ACWA). His early career was as a child welfare social worker in Australia and the UK.

Learn more



Transcript

 

Nigel S

The numbers of children experiencing forms of violence is really staggering. And the estimates are that around 1 billion children annually will experience some form of violence, whether that's physical abuse from adults, parents typically or bullying from peers, sexual violence that so many girls experience, and online bullying and exploitation is also on the rise.

 

Peter M

Certainly in an Australian context, the government focusing more on health-based initiatives rather than education and domestic violence, etc. A lot of that funding is going to be moved or as they like to say pivoted away from focusing on these sorts of issues.

 

Nigel S

I think we've got to try and resume the programmes, trying to get the school back open for children as quickly as possible and as safely as possible, so that children can get back into school and the protective programmes that many organisations operating and local actors, the child protection services that are there to get them back up and running.

 

Peter M

Welcome to the third series of conversations in development, a podcast about challenges, life stories and experiences in the development sector. I'm Peter Mason, your host and CEO of Cufa, an international development agency, working across the Asia Pacific region. Today we welcome Nigel Spence, former CEO of childfund for over 14 years. a development organisation focused on reducing poverty and promoting children's rights in Asia-Pacific, Africa and South America. Welcome, Nigel. Thank you for joining conversations in development. I hear you've recently retired from childfund.

 

Nigel S

Yes, look at the end of last year I finished a long term as CEO of Childfund. I'd been there for 14 years and loved every minute of it, but it was time for a change remains and certainly a time for For the organisation. I stepped away from childfund at the end of 2019 and at the moment, I'm just taking some time to hopefully complete a PhD on Child Protection Policy in Southeast Asia and do a little bit of work a little bit of teaching work and take some time out from the pressures of managing a large organisation. What exactly is your research topic, your thesis topic, I'm researching Child Protection Policy in Vietnam. Specifically, I'm looking at the influence of international organisations on Child Protection Policy in a developing country contexts such as Vietnam, the role of organisations like UNICEF and the big NGOs like World Vision and ChildFund the way that they have influenced Child Protection Policy in the development of the child protection system in Vietnam. And because Vietnam has a lot to show for its efforts over the last 30 years, it's been busy in putting in place laws and systems to develop a functional child protection system and international organisations have been often working closely with with government to help create that, so that that's the area that I'm investigating.

 

Peter M

are you focusing on Vietnam because of the centralised government and the ability to, I guess implement fairly widely? Is that part of the reason you're looking at Vietnam?

 

Nigel S

The research stems from a broader interest that I have, and I think lots of organisations have around, how should one go about developing functioning child protection systems in low and middle income countries? And yeah, I think that there's a need for functioning child protection systems. At the same time, I think it would be a mistake simply to try and replicate what we have in Australia or North America, and so on. There needs to be child protection systems that are appropriate to the context and places so that that's the kind of overriding interest and Vietnam has been active in working to develop a system taking on many international ideas, but also mediating those ideas with local beliefs and local values. So it provides a really strong example for how mixture of international and local ideas can be integrated to try and help contextualise system

 

Peter M

Vietnam has had a great economy and lots of growth in that economy, which allows them to then look more deeply at these sorts of issues, whereas other economies, you know, just struggling to provide education or struggling to provide basic health care, etc. Do you think that also impacts?

 

Nigel S

Yes, it does. And I think you're right that Vietnam has with its successful economy or growing economy, that's let's say and really significant and very sustained growth in the economy has been able to turn some attention at least two distinct child protection system as you say, lots of places are still focused very much on health and education as they need to be, you know, as foundation services for children. And again, I think the question still stands out how to create even in really resource poor environments, how to create systems which provide some level of protection for kids, whether that's reliant on informal systems or fully fledged formal systems, they tend to be very expensive.

 

Peter M

Yeah, I think you've hit the nail on the head when you use the term resource poor. Yeah. When I look at many of the countries that we work in, they're struggling to put resources to those key fundamental services such as you mentioned, health and education and so attention, they just don't have the attention to those other things that need to be put in place alongside those services, which is quite a shame.

 

Nigel S

Local organisations are doing some interesting work with local partners to develop low cost community based models which do build on informal networks because every society does have mechanisms for trying to protect children. Usually it relies in lots of places that relies on kinship and community networks of support which are variable in their effectiveness. So but there are lots of organisations that are trying to work with those informal systems to to supplement and strengthen them.

 

Peter M

What do those community led initiatives look like?

 

Nigel S

There's a lot of attention to community based child protection mechanisms where there are local groups or committees or structures, which partly organically, you know, have grown up organically or have been created by external actors to identify individual instances, but also systemic issues within that location and try and take action to minimise that the harm that's coming to kids and to put things right for those individuals where there are more extreme forms of abuse or neglect. So it's largely around community level mechanisms, often again, trying to build on local champions who already were predisposed to sort of try and help kids in need.

 

Peter M

So you say they're culturally constructed? Are you saying that some of this is being driven by the community rather than from external actors?

 

Nigel S

Yeah, I think when it's at its best, it's both. I think it's a community initiative with external expertise to help support and guide and strengthen those Local systems.

 

Peter M

Fantastic. It's interesting that you're doing a PhD on child protection. And obviously, as a child centred agency Childfund must have had a particularly sharp focus around these issues. What do you think in relation to COVID? How is that going to impact on child protection?

 

Nigel S

Yeah, look, it's a great question, Peter. And I think there's still a lot that we're trying to kind of work out just how this is playing out for children in terms of protection. We know that COVID is having massive impacts for children, particularly in developing countries. It's having big impacts on education, on health on social interaction, and it is in terms of child protection. Yeah, the big concern is that for lots of kids who are confined to their homes, that risks of violence within the home will intensify. Yeah, for most children being stuck at home or being required to stay at home with their families is, fine and families are a safe places to be for most children, but for some, we know that's where violence occurs. And at the moment, the pressures are greatly increased by people being unable to, in many cases work or get outside the home. So the pressures rising, and we do know that for lots of kids, they are already reporting increased levels of violence in the home. Lots of kids are also experiencing natively the the isolation that COVID is imposing. Children are reporting feeling isolated, feeling lonely, and concerns around mental health around the levels of anxiety and depression arising. So there's lots of concerns for children and teenagers at the moment in this extraordinary unprecedented time.

 

Peter M

So you mentioned violence, how does that manifest itself? What are we talking about?

 

Nigel S

Yeah, well, I mean, violence against children is such a widespread and pervasive problem, you know, and takes many different forms. The numbers of children experiencing forms of violence is really staggering. The estimates are that around 1 billion children annually will experience some form of violence, whether That's physical abuse from adults and parents typically, or bullying from peers, sexual violence that so many girls experience and online bullying and exploitation is also on the rise. So there's lots and lots of different forms of violence, that impact on children. Whereas within the home, it typically is physical or sexual abuse from family members or within the neighbourhood. Also neglect failure to meet the basic needs of kids is another area where we have to be really concerned at the moment because poverty is intensifying for already poor families, and their ability to provide basic requirements for kids is becoming tougher. So the issue of neglect, which is often grouped with violence against kids is intensifying.

 

Peter M

So the violence that you talk about, is that pretty much the same geographically or do you see differences in variances in different regions or different countries?

 

Nigel S

I think a lot of the forms of violence are seen everywhere. And of course, we've got this problem very much in Australia, as we will know that children in Australia, many kids in Australia experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse and exploitation, even neglect is caring in Australia. So it's not confined to developing countries, but it is in some ways made more difficult in developing countries where there are fewer resources for families and fewer services available to help people. But then you get you get specific forms of violence and exploitation in certain locations. We know that there are lots of kids in Asia who are moving from home to work, the risks of violence and exploitation from employers from those who would seek to exploit kits and make money from kids exacerbates the risks of exploitation in industries and for children who are displaced or refugees, they're a whole host of issues for them, including separation from parents, and lots of kids who are separated from parents who have very high risk of physical and also emotional issues, psychological problems,

 

Peter M

And I would imagine as it is in Australia, a lot of this violence is very hidden and missed and not identified. Is that correct?

 

Nigel S

Absolutely, yeah. And that's been very much the case, historically, and still is the case today that the violence in the home is still often regarded as a private matter. It's hidden. Often, kids themselves and other family members are reluctant to speak about it, they may feel issues of shame of guilt of humiliation by having to reveal that these problems are occurring in the home. And there's still a reticence in some places to report these issues. So people will still turn a blind eye to what is often quite serious incidents of violence against kids.

 

Peter M

So it must concern you then I guess, with COVID now taking centre stage and certainly the focus in terms of funding. And I guess what we're seeing now is certainly in an Australian context, the government focusing more on health-based initiatives rather than education and domestic violence, etc, a lot of that funding is going to be moved or as they like to say pivoted away from focusing on these sorts of issues.

 

Nigel S

Yeah, look, I would be hugely concerned if there was a major shift of funding away from areas of protection and education into health. I mean, of course, this is, you know, a huge health crisis and has to be wrapped up, no question about that, and, of course, government revenues are finite, but still to take from one area to contribute to health, I think would be really short sighted. On education, when we think about education in schools, it's not only the learning that's so vital for children. It's also the social benefits that kids get from participation in quality schools. The impacts of the covid 19 pandemic around the world are having devastating effects on kids education, you know, in 198 countries schools have been partly or fully closed, 1.5 billion children affected by those school closures, their learning is disrupted, and of course, lots of these schools don't have the option of doing remote online digital learning. That's just not an option in poor countries and poor communities. So children's learning is being disrupted, and we don't really know for how long in some instances, and many children when schools do get back to normal and some already are, many kids won't return. Some other pandemic issues such as the Ebola crisis in West Africa, which you would remember the after the the Ebola crisis had abated, the school enrollment rates never returned to what they were prior to the outbreak. All the efforts are getting kids into school, which have been going on for decades are set back and we know that many kids especially girls will be less likely to return to school. So there's all of those problems going on. And then with children also missing out on the social benefits because we know that for kids, particularly for those who where things are not good at home, or perhaps there is neglect mistreatment caring within the home, schools can be incredibly important safe places for those children, connections with peers connections with caring teachers. So without that Lifeline at the moment for children, there's another really important protective mechanism taken away.

 

Peter M

We've talked about the problems and the challenges. So what are the steps that we need to take as development agencies? And as people that are responsible for aid budgets in many of these places? What can we do? What are what are the steps that we should be taking to limit or prevent a lot of this physical or emotional or sexual abuse?

 

Nigel S

There's so much that's required, it's difficult to know where to start. I think an awareness of these issues is the first step.

 

Peter M

You're talking about a community awareness at a very local level.

 

Nigel S

Well, both community and I think awareness within communities but also awareness amongst agencies and an awareness amongst local organisations who are most often the frontline implementers of programmes and awareness of these types of issues are occurring. Lots of organisations, I'm sure yours as well is showing us some really remarkable flexibility and refocusing programmes in order to respond to the current crisis. So lots of organisations are repurposing their programmes to provide health education, information about protection issues, awareness, raising activities, and materials and so on. So lots of that's going on. I think that that really is vital to get that kind of information out. Obviously, lots of information is needed for local people everywhere, including in Australia, around COVID itself and how to keep yourself safe, but also around issues of mobility of maintaining some kind of education and schooling during this crisis, how to minimise the risks of mental health issues. So all of that information is vital. So many families in developing communities are gonna need massive help with the impacts of the current crisis. I think measures to help families maintain at least a base level of income during this time to try and minimise the slide into poverty that so many families face at the moment, and maintaining food security is really important because we know that already levels of hunger and malnutrition are starting to rise as families lack access to those basic resources. And then more directly to your question about protection. I think we've got to try and resume the programmes trying to get the schools back open for children as quickly as possible and as safely as possible so that children can get back into school and the protective programmes that many organisations are operating and local actors, the child protection services that are there in a bit few and far between to get them back up and running.

 

Peter M

You spoke before about the impacts of Ebola and how there was a reduced retention of students at the schools. Now, obviously We do have a lot of schools closed around our region in terms of some of the countries that have been affected. What do you think are going to be the impacts? Maybe not next year, but in 5 years, 10 years time as these children grow into adults? What do you think are the impacts economically and socially down the track?

 

Nigel S

It's really hard to guess because we at the moment, we still don't know how long things like school closures and how long indeed the whole COVID-19 crisis is going to last. So it's difficult to estimate the long term effects but for sure, for lots of children, it has been a life changing event and life changing in some pretty bad ways. If you take away children's education, particularly if it's suspended for a long period of time, I lost all together that future life prospects are reduced in terms of your work opportunities, literacy levels, ability to manage one's life and achieve a good standard of living. So disruption of education is does have long lasting effect which is why to your earlier question, it is so important not to start to take funding away from education programmes or protection programmes, I would argue, because education does have some very real and the evidence is so strong here that investment in education has huge benefits not only for the individual concerned but for their family and for their community and indeed for the nation in which they there are citizen. Those countries that have done well on education and we look at countries like Vietnam, for example, there's a direct benefit to national prosperity.

 

Peter M

So we've talked about the physical and emotional and sexual abuse but what about mental health? It's something that and while we talked about sexual abuse being and violence being very much hidden, certainly mental health of young people is something that is certainly not discussed and a lot of the certainly have a lot of countries that we work in what do you think are the going to be the impacts you know, down the track with mental health, especially for teenagers as these countries come out of this crisis?

 

Nigel S

A lot of young people are reporting feelings of loneliness or feeling unsupported or feeling isolated. feelings of anxiety and depression intensified for some young people. Now, of course, lots of young people are very resilient. They can adjust to these situations. Some young people who have access to social media connections with friends are using those really effectively to maintain friendship networks and feel like they're still connected to friends to the world. But for those who are struggling with this situation, it's incredibly tough, and these are serious issues. We do know that anxiety and depression can be really debilitating illnesses, if not well managed, young people fail to get the support they need. And as you say, in lots of communities, these types of issues are not widely recognised or widely discussed. I think other types of initiatives have really good preventive effects like extracurricular programmes, recreation programmes, cultural engagement. These types of initiatives which don't rely on schools necessarily, and if they can be operated and done safely in different contexts, and I'm talking things like youth groups, children's clubs, and so on, either permitted to continue , at some level, these can have good mitigating effect.

 

Peter M

And certainly if you look at the Pacific region, even currently, there's huge unemployment or underemployment of younger people, the future doesn't look bright in terms of this cohort now then transitioning into economies that are going to be even further damaged by COVID. In terms of the opportunities that will be available to them. And I guess, as an economic development agency, we've got to then look at how do we address that issue, not when it becomes a problem, but before it becomes a problem. What's your recommendations? you've talked briefly before about the economic impacts of this as young people then move out of school and into the labour force,

 

Nigel S

it's a big challenge, isn't it? because the work opportunities at the moment for young people in lots of communities such as Pacific communities are pretty limited. Now for many young people, they will be willing and find meaning in continuing to work within the academy context, with the farm or the garden or the or the small business that the family is engaged with. But for many young people that's not financially viable. And they're looking for a lot more than that. And the employment opportunities are very, very limited. So there's a huge need for creation of new small businesses and encouraging them to establish livelihoods and a lot of support needed here from governments nationally and regionally, to create meaningful work opportunities for young people. Now, lots of young people in the Pacific will look to do seasonal work in Australia and New Zealand and that can be a good option financially, it can also be dislocating for them and for their families. So we just got to keep an eye on those that those consequences when we think about seasonal work.

 

Peter M

And of course, we're talking in fairly generic terms. But of course, when we overlay gender onto all of these challenges and problems, yeah, I mean, where do we start in terms of how do we address issues of the disparities between gender?

 

Nigel S

It's a critical question. There's good evidence to say that there's been some significant progress on gender equality and on some fronts over the last couple of decades, once again, this is that progress is a real risk of being halted or reversed. We know that in some households in some communities, for example, if there's shortage of food, then it's likely that male members of the family will be fired. In nice tough choices have to be made, when there's options about which children can return to school and which other families can afford to have all kids in the household go to school or what choices have to be made. Again, in lots of places there is a bias towards the boys returning and the girls forced to remain at home or work in discipline. The family in some other way. So those kinds of very real issues become exacerbated through this crisis. And again, I think massive efffort has to be made to try and minimise that gender inequity.

 

Peter M

What were the strategies and tactics that childfund used to encourage participation of girls in schools? What did you put in place to tip the scales.

 

Nigel S

I think the child found like a like a lot of overseas aid, international development organisations put a lot of effort into first of all community education, awareness about the right to education, not only talking about rights, but that's part of it, but also about the benefits that accrue to the girls and to their families and to the community, through enabling them to attend school, a lot of direct work with community leaders to get that message across a lot of direct work with government officials and with school leadership themselves, the school boards and management. Yeah, and the principals and senior teachers. Also, I think finding champions within local communities who who are champions for girls education, to really speak up about the issue, and to identify individual instances where girls are not attending who should be, and to raise those and to have those reversed. So, lots of intervention is required.

 

Peter M

So with all these pressures on these developing economies, do you fear that child labour will start to rise again, after all this work that a lot of agencies and a lot of governments have done in terms of educating communities and governments,

 

Nigel S

we know that if kids are out of school, then they will be working in the informal economy or in other paid work, family incomes are declining, as is already the case, then parents will feel under pressure to put their kids out to work in making bricks or in the fisheries or, or collecting plastics by the roadside. A lot of pressure already starting to happen. I think for kids to be forced back into work. So again, it's crucial to try and minimise that To try and get schools back open and to try and resume the efforts to get kids back into the classroom. Of course, lots of kids in developing communities will continue some type of work as well as school and that's commonplace. And that's the only concern around that when it's when stops kids going to school, or when kids are undertaking hazardous and harmful forms of work, as many kids still do. That's where we have real concern.

 

Peter M

Thank you so much Nigel for taking the time today to talk with us. It’s been an incredibly interesting conversation. I really appreciate your time.

 

Nigel S

Thanks Peter, I’ve enjoyed it. Good to talk to you.