Children in a refugee camp schoolroom in Africa, some at desks some on the dirt floor


Children First

School children in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya. Photo by Unesco via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

By T. Robinson Ahlstrom

“There is a sacredness in tears,” wrote Washington Irving, “. . . they speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.” Perhaps the greatest question of our age is whether or not the world’s grown-ups will ever notice the tears of the world’s children.

Did you know that almost one-third of the world’s seven billion people are children? Or that, of those 2.2 billion children, seven hundred thousand lack any real roof under which to lay their heads? Five hundred million have no access to sanitation. Four hundred million lack safe water. Three hundred million receive no health care. Two hundred million—mostly girls—receive no education. More than one hundred million children endure severe malnutrition.

Every year starvation and preventable diseases, including malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea, and HIV, claim the lives of 6.9 million children before they reach their fifth birthday. Every day approximately nineteen thousand of these little children are taken from us—enough to fill Madison Square Garden or the Chicago Stadium. Right here in the United States, the number of children facing real food insecurity is at the highest level since 1933. One in six worries about where his or her next meal will come from.

Add to these the two million children each year who are now victims of sexual trafficking, the thousands who are conscripted into warfare, the tens of thousands who are killed or maimed in those conflicts, and the fifteen million who are AIDS orphans, and it is safe to say that the idea of childhood as a protected time of healthy growth has been obliterated.

The world is a tough neighborhood—especially for children. While serious people may spar over the causes and cures of the world’s political turmoil, social unrest, and economic dislocation, one thing is certain: it is the children who suffer. Alleviating the plight of children, here in the United States and throughout the world, represents the profound moral imperative of our generation.

For the past half-century, developed nations have attempted to deliver aid and promote development by pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund—with deeply disappointing results. The long list of government initiatives and macroremedies launched by Western economists and social scientists has, to an astonishing degree, failed to lift those the University of Oxford’s Paul Collier has dubbed, “the bottom billion.”

While many foundations, think tanks, and policy institutes have added value by contributing to the store of usable knowledge, too often their pronouncements and panaceas have been naïvely out of touch with reality. Isolated from the situation on the ground and influenced, if not driven, by flawed data or ideological agendas, it has been all too easy for government-funded international agencies and university-based scholars to produce esoteric work that has little practical value for those serving in the field—or for those they serve.

Today, there is hope. Even as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) prepares for the 2015 target date of its Millennium Development Goals, it is already looking beyond, to establish new frameworks to guide future investments. While its rhetoric is still laden with sloganeering about the eradication of poverty and disease, notes of modesty and realism can be heard.

There is an emerging awareness that children are both the leading indicator of a society’s long-term prospects and a critical organizing principle in any responsible program to establish viability and sustainability. In promising “a more people-centered approach,” Richard Morgan, UNICEF’s senior advisor on the post-2015 development agenda, recently declared: “We see children at the centre of this because they are both the makers and the markers of healthy, sustainable societies. They are the canary in the coalmine—the earliest warning we get when things go very wrong.”

One prime mover in this new realism is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its data-driven pragmatism. The foundation’s tenderhearted, tough-minded approach to the planning, delivery, and reporting of aid has encouraged many NGOs and, to a lesser degree, government agencies, to rethink their core strategies and refine their systems of benchmarking and accountability. The stakes are high. As Bill Gates insists, “Setting clear goals and finding measures that will mark progress toward them can improve the human condition.”

There is a growing consensus that the inflated schemes and bureaucratic responses of the past must be judged according to the human outcomes and measurable progress they have produced. In the words of William Easterly, co-director of the Development Research Institute at New York University, “To escape the cycle of tragedy, we have to be tough on the ideas of the planners, even while we salute their goodwill.”

Many now admit that, although the problems are universal, the solutions are local—and communal. By making lessons of the past the working assumptions for the future, it may now be possible to plant the seeds for lively enclaves in which grace and moral imagination enable resilient children to grow and thrive. At least five hard-learned lessons must be applied if our community development efforts are to be successfully focused on children.

First: Personhood is complex, even mysterious. People are more than highly evolved amalgams of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. We are neither defined nor determined by our genetic code. Each one of us is a wonder of body, soul, and spirit—the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Our efforts to serve humanity must begin with a reverential appreciation of what it means to be human. Moreover, while a measure of “moral hazard” is implicit in any attempt of one person to help another, the profound cross-cultural implications of international aid and development make respect for persons the first principle.

Second: Persons are social beings, made to live and thrive in communities. Targeted programmatic aid to children who live in marginalized groups (such as those who live in refugee camps), though critical, is ultimately no more sustainable than the community itself. By definition, all child-focused communities must provide access to 1) a safe physical environment; 2) family life and spiritual formation; 3) literature-based learning; 4) food, shelter, and clothing; 5) essential medical care; 6) legal protection of human and civil rights; and 7) economic opportunity. These are the essential elements that all aid should be striving to achieve.

Third: It takes socially responsible enterprise to generate the wealth necessary to sustain vibrant communities. Charity without industry equals poverty. By the same token, industry without responsibility equals plunder. Socially responsible enterprise can be the engine for creativity, progress, and prosperity. In reality, the only way to create sustainable change and real opportunity for people is to harness their energy to generate wealth, build infrastructure, train and employ breadwinners, and sustain families. Instead of subsidizing poverty, future development efforts must capitalize on ingenuity and hard work, fostering self-reliant enclaves that can support schools, clinics, cultural institutions, religious societies, and all key components of vibrant communities.

There is one caveat. For these enterprises to be redemptive rather than rapacious, they must be responsible to the people being served and to the environment. This will mean listening to and learning from locals, focusing on their expressed needs and harnessing their imagination to design and manufacture low-cost products which, while tailor-made for their local economies, might also be “sold” back to the West in a process called “reverse innovation.”

The enterprises that are needed will be governed by 1) market viability; 2) wise stewardship of natural resources; and 3) economic justice that honors the worker and the work. Only socially responsible enterprise that generates real profits, sustains the physical environment, and protects the economic and legal rights of workers can unlock the genius of the so-called bottom billion and lead to new inventions, new markets, and new wealth.

Fourth: Liberal education is an essential component of any twenty-first-century community development. In today’s world, rudimentary literacy is an insufficient foundation for self-reliance. Access to a quality secondary education that prepares the young for university, informed citizenship, and participation in the global economy is a critical component of any viable community development.

This involves more than support for existing government grammar schools. It begins with understanding that access to education (as opposed to mere training) is the next universal civil right. It requires the establishment of world-class academies that teach the humanities along with advanced courses in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It calls for “blended learning” strategies that extend the benefits of traditional “bricks and sticks” schools through the imaginative use of emerging educational technologies.

Fifth: Measurement matters. Careful measurement requires concentrated focus and constant calibration of the tools employed, and it is often the difference between mere activity and real success. Human progress—like human nature—is, at best, ambiguous. A more thorough and dispassionate self-critical process must be a key element in future efforts to address the world’s great human challenges.

That self-critical process begins by measuring the right thing. Success is about meeting or exceeding a predetermined objective. Real accountability involves much more than a statistical abstract of the programs launched or the resources spent. It scientifically measures and accurately reports tangible progress toward specific goals. Outcomes-based measurement is a regime of benchmarking that begins with clearly defined aims and objectives and ends with data-driven assessments of progress. It is about outcomes, not output. It registers accomplishment, not activity.

People matter. Communities matter. Markets matter. Education matters. Measurement matters. And, if there is another lesson for those genuinely committed to serving the world’s children, it may be that the challenges and opportunities are not merely “over there.” They are right around the corner. Even in the most highly industrialized nations, systemic poverty—and the despair that accompanies it—exists, in part as a consequence of the larger phenomenon we call “globalization.” Post-industrialization, digital movement of capital across national borders, and related dislocations in labor markets have metastasized into unanticipated pockets of both excessive prosperity and unimaginable poverty throughout the world. While there are significant differences in the way economic and social disintegration plays out in developed and developing societies, the need for building just and sustainable communities that are safe for children is universal.

Underestimating, undervaluing, and underserving children is nothing new. In my own Christian tradition, there is the well-known blessing of the children. As Jesus went about unfolding the meaning of the kingdom of God, his disciples became more and more engaged—and personally ambitious. Deluded by their own utopian schemes, they wanted nothing so much as to be a part of the new realm. In whispered tones, they sparred over which office each would hold in the new government, and who should sit on his right hand and who on his left. Mark tells us that “they disputed among themselves, who should be the greatest” (Mark 9:34).

In the magisterial phrasing of the King James Bible, it is reported that Jesus was “much displeased”—an Elizabethan understatement that hardly captures the pathos of the moment. Jesus was angry. He was indignant. His spirit was grieved within him. Yet, in that anger, out of a broken heart, he delivered the Magna Carta for all the world’s children. As the children climbed up, each to receive their own blessing, Jesus looked up at his dull disciples and said: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14, King James Version).

In addition to his duties as senior scholar and director of the Center for Children and Social Responsibility, T. Robinson Ahlstrom, ThM ’93, serves on the board of the American Academy for Liberal Education and chairs the board of the George Washington Scholars Endowment.

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