Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Mainstreaming marginalised knowledge into development policy processes

Time (GMT +01) 12:30 14:00
Hero image description: Children in Oromia, Ethiopia, holding up their hands Image credit:Antony Robbins Image license:ODI given rights

Dr Nicola Jones
- ODI Research Fellow
Dr Chris de Neubourg
-Chief of Child Poverty and Social and Economic Policy Responses, UNICEF Inncoenti Research Center 
Emeritus Professor Valerie Brown -
Visiting Fellow, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University.

Dr Lata Narayanaswamy - Lecturer in Gender Studies, University of Hull

Paola Pereznieto, Chair and Research Fellow in ODI's Social Development Programme, opened the lunchtime session by welcoming everyone and explaining that the aim of the event was to discuss strategies for mainstreaming marginalised sources of knowledge - including from children, women and marginalised communities - into international development, with the three speakers drawing on perspectives from the global South and North. As well as sharing findings on Nicola Jones’ and Andy Sumner’s new book on Children, Evidence and Policy: Mainstreaming Children into International Development however, Paola noted that it was also an opportunity to bring together leading scholars in the field to discuss some of the challenges entailed in raising the profile of too-often hidden voices in the knowledge-development policy interface.

Nicola Jones

Research Fellow in the Social Development Programme at ODI, Head of a programme of research on knowledge, policy and power, and coordinator of the institute's gender theme.

Nicola’s presentation briefly outlined some of the key themes in her new book. Starting with a quick snapshot of the progress and challenges involved in integrating knowledge about children into development debates, Nicola then went on to present the conceptual framework used and give a brief overview of some regional differences in the linkages between knowledge about child poverty and development policy dialogues. She rounded off her presentation by outlining the conclusions and policy recommendations to come out of this particular study.

Nicola started off by explaining that this new book aims to bring together a range of different insights - primary research and secondary analysis - and looks at how both expert and experiential knowledge about child well-being can be better mainstreamed into international development policy processes. Over the last twenty years there has been considerable progress on raising the profile of child poverty as an urgent policy challenge in international development however, children remain poorly integrated within donor situation analyses and poverty strategies. At the national level, governments may be obliged to report on progress vis-à-vis the UNCRC and the MDGS, yet systematic integration of child poverty in national strategies remains quite limited particularly in terms of child protection and participation. The book therefore tries to highlight the disconnect between the growing and diverse body of research on the subject, and its uptake in policy development.

Nicola presented a multi-layered 3D conceptual framework that aims to facilitate a better understanding of why this disconnect is so strong and how better to address this issue. A 3D approach highlights the importance of not just material deprivations but also those deprivations that are relational and subjective. It also incorporates the importance of including not just Q2 research methods but also participatory approaches to research in order to reflect children’s vision and understanding of their wellbeing and their voices on how these problems might be addressed. Furthermore it recognises that evidence or knowledge production is never a neutral or value-free process. Rather it is strongly shaped by power relations, whether material, discursive or institutional. Finally, in order to understand how knowledge is reflected or not in the policy process they synthesis across a number of theoretical frameworks highlighting the importance of three clusters of factors: political/policy context, actors and actor networks and ideas/policy narratives. By approaching advocacy and policy engagement with an understanding of these four aspects, our synergies between knowledge and policy on child well-being could be significantly improved.

An understanding of child well-being as 3D recognises that children’s experiences are quite distinct from adults’ experiences of poverty and vulnerability. This model aims to give children a central place in analysis and approaches it from a positive perspective that avoids disempowering labels such as ‘poor’, thus avoiding the stigma that comes with labels of inferiority. It goes beyond material dimensions such as education, health and nutrition which only provide a partial picture, to integrating relational indicators e.g. children’s participation in community decisions about their lives, or the extent to which children are protected in the community from violence, and emotional/psychological development.

Generating evidence that captures the richness of children’s experiences requires methodological innovation. Mixed methods approaches are important however a furthering layering of participatory approaches is required as well as greater attention to intra-household dynamics, and highlighting the macro-micro linkages.

The book adopts a synthesis approaches that embraces multiple understandings of power and focuses on three key factors;

  • policy ideas and narratives
  • policy actors and networks
  • political contexts/institutions

Nicola made some brief observations on the regional context namely that in both Sub Saharan Africa and Asia, knowledge generation processes remain very limited particularly on children’s subjective and relational experiences, with UNICEF being the exception. She noted that there is also limited breadth and depth of child-focused communities of practice in knowledge interaction processes which may reflect the relatively new emergence of CSOs and NGOs. This is more extensive in Latin America particularly within the media.

Nicola concluded her presentation with four key recommendations.

  1. More collaborative mixed-methods knowledge generation efforts around child wellbeing are needed
  2. Institutionalising systematic context at the national and sub-national levels within organisations championing children’s rights is imperative
  3. It is critical to support intermediary organisations to foster communities of practice capable of developing feasible and regionally strategic approaches to evidence-informed policy, particularly in Africa and Asia.
  4. It is essential to address the dearth of monitoring and evaluation learning initiatives relating to knowledge-policy interactions on child wellbeing.

Chris de Neubourg

Chris is currently Chief of Child Poverty and Social and Economic Policy Responses at the UNICEF Innocenti Research Center in Florence and formerly Academic Director of the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance.

Chris’ presentation gave a broad overview of how the UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre in Florence deals with the problems that Nicola identified in her presentation and in the book. He noted that UNICEF has a tradition of dealing with some of the problems, although not all of them, in order to put children’s issues at the centre of the policy table.

The Innocenti centre’s reputation lies in the report card series which though mainly measures child poverty and deprivation in rich countries, gives a good example of how we try to mainstream not just material wellbeing of children but also all of the other dimensions that Nicola pointed to in her book and in the presentation.

The last report card which was published in November 2010 – No Child Left Behind– tried to estimate using five different dimensions, the gap between children at the bottom in relation to the median and then ranked the countries in these 5 dimensions accordingly in with a view to closing this gap. This method has proved to be useful in rendering visible forms of deprivation other than material. In short, the report cards not only highlight the issues surrounding child poverty but also child deprivation.

Report Card Ten, to be published in November 2011, will especially examine overlapping dimensions of deprivation to identify those children that are deprived in many areas at the same time e.g. not only live in a poor family but also do not go to school or do not have access to health services. The Report Card coming out in 2012 will remake report card 7 with the updated data and will try to come up with an index of child wellbeing that will influence policy making.

The overall purpose of the report cards is to analyse, rank and influence child-related policy in rich countries by putting children at the centre of the agenda and by framing the results of the analysis in a language that policy-makers respond to, particularly journalists who put the issues in a language that is understandable.

In addition to the Report Cards, Chris also outlined the Innocenti centre’s other projects including a global poverty study seeking to understand the multiple dimensions of child poverty in middle and low-income countries which was started in 2007, and a programme looking at the role of social protection instruments and interventions in improving the lives of children, the results for which will be out early next year.

Chris’ final remarks brought additional insights into the challenges of mainstreaming the non-material aspects of childhood wellbeing such as taking a research-driven approach that explores

new theoretical frameworks such as the impacts of malnourishment on children’s memory and learning opportunities, or understanding how changes in social norms in societies have contributed or prevented children being abused or being victims of violence. He noted also the possibilities for thinking beyond a narrative of deprivation to thinking about children’s resilience to shocks.

Valerie Brown

Emeritus Professor at the University of Western Sydney, Valerie Brown is currently Visiting Fellow and Director of the Local Sustainability Project, at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at The Australian National University.

Drawing unique examples from work carried out in over a hundred communities all over the Australasian area, Nepal and Europe – Valerie’s presentation provided important insights into ways in which community specialists and governments have been working together to try and transform their communities - usually towards sustainability but certainly on their own terms – and in particular highlighted some of the challenges and opportunities for liberating the voices of those people from communities not our own.

Valerie started off by stating that we need to change the way we think about what we think and in order to do these she made two key propositions to assist researchers in modifying their own approaches or thought processes:

  1. Community knowledge is an essential component of all decision making
  2. The way Western decision making takes place tends to exclude the contribution of communities

To understand other communities we have to stop looking at the single picture that we might get on a television or from our single pieces of research and we need to look out of the window at the whole and try and see how the community fits in there.

If you look at any form of community change, you need individual commitment, community knowledge, specialised advice, organisational resources and an agreed focus. Each of those interest groups that come together to make decisions is so different from each other that often, they can’t even hear each other. They all base their contribution on their own knowledge-base so that it would be very difficult for an individual whose knowledge is based on their past experience to be understood by an organisation that’s working towards its own objectives. Even communities speak from their own shared understanding of what their place in the world is and then we encounter problems with arriving at a holistic focus. Furthermore, there is an organisational hierarchy to knowledge such that specialist knowledge is usually regarded as the premier knowledge, with organisational knowledge coming next, and then only then do we get the individual and the community’s understanding and voice heard. The very last is then the holistic understanding, or the collective knowledge.

Valerie then went on to suggest two approaches to connecting these knowledges that take into account the need for a diversity of voices:

  1. A nested set in which each builds on each other. It is not a hierarchy, it is a collaborative system.
  2. Distributive network – which is a strong combination of all knowledges – a web in which each is speaking to each.

The example of Port Pirie, a small town with the largest lead smelter in the world, was used to illustrate these suggested methodologies. The issue was that over 90% of the children in the town had been diagnosed with lead poisoning which, rather than uniting the town in a common goal to change this actually divided opinion due to conflicting knowledges and therefore agendas. Firstly, the community was so used to dealing with risk that they just got used to it. Then the specialists that carried out the test didn’t feel that as objective scientists they should do any more. Every member but one in the local council was employed at the mine. And finally, the fear the loss of livelihoods incurred through the potential closure of the mine meant that livelihoods were taking precedence over the lives of their children. However when it had been arranged for the different interest groups to talk to each other, the seriousness of the situation became apparent and the ensuing collective outcry became enough to shame the health centre into thinking it would have to advocate about the figures and for the mine to realise that there was in fact equipment that would be able to get the lead out of the air which had seemed too expensive until now. Once the mine told the council that they would help there were an enormous number of things people could do. So the focus changed from livelihoods to child wellbeing which could only have happened if all the voices they talked to one another.

Valerie brought her presentation to a close with an insightful analysis of Nicola and Andy’s new book according to the five knowledges. In it, she noted that the individuals they are concerned with are the children in poverty, that they are magnifying the children’s voices in every community in which children live, and that they are actually asking all policy makers from every level and from every area of interest to consider children and poverty as a focus. They are then giving a possible structure which is the 3D policy and finally their holistic focus is changing from children in poverty to flourishing childhood.

Lata Narayanaswamy

Lata is a lecturer in gender studies at the University of Hull. Her research focus is on the intersection between knowledge, policy and power and its gender dimensions.

Lata started off by drawing out two major threads that she felt brought together the key contributions of the book. The first is the micro-narrative that the book draws out that challenges us to confront child poverty and what it means to be a child in range of diverse political, cultural and socio-economic contexts. Secondly, it highlights the need for problematising the question of how we understand children and development beyond simple formulations that invoke the concerns of children into broader discourses around relative vulnerability or the imperative of addressing the needs of vulnerable groups where children are all too frequently limped in with discussions about the family or the household or together with other groups marginalised from mainstream development including women, sexual or ethnic and religious minorities or just people with disabilities. Lata expressed that she feels this effectively invisibilises the diversity of all of the experiences of all of these groups, particularly in this context of children.

Lata observed that as feminist research as been highlighting for over four decades that an emphasis on victimisation or vulnerability has a tendency to invisibilise the exercise of power relations and essentialise the needs and experiences of groups who are treated as beneficiaries rather than as agents of development discourse.

Drawing on today’s presentations and her own research Lata outlined two immediate concerns highlighted by the problematising of discourses on vulnerability and power: representation and accountability. Who is speaking? With what authority? To whom are they answerable? And how is this accountability to be assessed and enforced? As the book highlights, this is a particular challenge with children where western perceptions of what constitutes children dominate and harnessing the views of children, given that they barely qualify as a group. In the West we have a particular conception of childhood as being quite a private experience in relation to how childhood is experienced around the world in a range of diverse contexts which can actually be public and yet invisible. There is a need to find a balance between those different perceptions.

Lata highlighted that the challenge of this question in relation to representation and accountability is a perpetual one and unanswerable in such a short time, but that there is a continuing need to problematise how these two objectives of accountability and representation are to be achieved if we are to prevent policy and knowledge initiatives from  remaining within policy arenas without ever really filtering down or indeed emanating from children or other diverse vulnerable groups who are most affected by policy. These are issues that today’s discussions have really highlighted and in a way it also reinforces their intractability.

The second major thread she highlighted was the fact there we are being challenged to think about how we think. The book asks us to reflect on and to reconsider what we mean by childhood and the need to bring in more diverse three dimensional approaches to this question that take account of material, relational and subjective understandings of childhood and childhood poverty. She noted how today’s discussion asked us to engage with the pervasiveness of the dominant knowledge infrastructure itself and to problematise it in order to interrogate the extent to which these ideas represent the power of the knowledge infrastructure in which we find ourselves, perhaps irretrievably embedded.

As a final point, Lata pointed out the need to monitor and evaluate processes as we go along to ensure that change processes are as true as possible to every stakeholder group working towards a common or holistic vision. She reflected that this is harder work that requires constant monitoring and reflection and as the book and today’s presenters have highlighted it does have the potential to secure much more inclusive, broader and long lasting change processes.

Questions and answer session 

1. Knowledge is ability to take action. What are your comments about a process of research which will show how this huge knowledge we are building actually finds a way to effective action?

Nicola – I think some of the key lessons coming out is that we’ve spent too long focusing on research communication rather than thinking about knowledge interaction, which is the much more messy long-term negotiated process of knowledge exchange. I think that one of the things we wanted to criticise was the focus on communicating or disseminating the findings once the research process is finished, but really we need to see it as embedded in the design of the research from the outset.

Lata – There isn’t an answer to the problem. People really want to have participatory exercises, but they often don’t have the money or the time. Donors are not interested in funding the feedback loop. Often to convince donors that it is a worthwhile process to engage in the long-term is very difficult. We need to step back to ask questions about how the donor-driven paradigm limits engaging in questions about feedback loops.

2. How do you see the feedback loops of applying the knowledge coming from the grassroots?

Nicola – Taking the research back to communities to see what they can do with it and looking at different types of communications methods for this needs to be embedded within the research design.

3. How can we mobilise the energy of marginalised groups?

Nicola – There is an interesting body of work looking at demand driven research and how we can collate demand through community consultation processes before research agendas are even put together. We have to start from the demand side. A lot of it is trying to translate these kind of concepts because most people aren’t going to be able to articulate a researchable question. They have a problem but then providing them with the capacity or the tools which you can then convert into something researchable necessitates a lot of intense capacity strengthening work – this is a long-term challenge of institutional building.

Chris – This is a big problem in two ways. 1. mobilising marginalised knowledge is about making it available to everyone. 2. even if it is available it is probably marginalised by power relations.

Lata – The difficulty comes when we try to define what we mean by marginalised knowledge. There is a tendency to essentialise such terminology. We have to be able to have policy messages but then it is difficult to get people on board with the idea that while we have a big message it needs to be disaggregated to make it context specific. In terms of the knowledge-paradigm the parameters are often already established in line with donor needs. E.g. often researchers have gone in and already have the research question. If you really want to mobilise marginalised knowledges you can’t already have your research question.

3. How do we reconcile international conventions like the CRC whose conceptions of childhood are very western with the reality on the ground?

Chris - UNICEF is not prepared in international terms to vary conceptions of childhood, but on the ground we need to think differently, not just about conceptualisations of when children become adults or adolescents but also about what we think children should be doing at certain ages. In the West we have firm notions of children playing and learning and developing. Views on what children should do and what their economic role is varies greatly in developing countries.

5. To what extent do you think the media can give unheard people a voice to help their situation and what outlets would you prioritise?

Nicola – Multi-media approaches can be extremely powerful particularly in post-conflict situations where there is little trust in the institutions but where there is a free media – In Latin America participatory video, radio broadcast all played a powerful role in bridging technical expertise and community level. Radio continues to be the most powerful although internet and texting is increasing, but in rural areas less so.

6. To what level are the young people/children/indigenous people are empowered/engaged and have a voice in what they think is right for them at the policy level?

Nicola – The answer drawing on a systematic review of the literature is very limited. Changes in policy processes are happening and children are becoming more included in processes but it will be slow. Participatory work is often quite tokenistic involving elite children.

Chris – Idealistically I am in favour of hearing people’s voices however, we shouldn’t exaggerate its influence – roughly 75% of the budget of UNICEF is devoted to children who are too young to have a voice.  We have to listen to voices of mothers but again there is the issue of power relations.

7. What about older people? Part of the problem of mainstreaming marginalised knowledge is that we are picking and choosing which marginalised knowledge so we end up pitting various groups against one another.

Nicola – On the one hand, we need to understand the specificity of marginalised knowledges. For instance, children’s experiences of poverty and vulnerability are very different to those of adults or older people because they go through such a huge amount of change in a short space of time, which is not repeated during the lifecycle. On the other hand, the challenges that marginalised groups face in mainstreaming relevant knowledge into development policy processes share many commonalities. For example, there are many similarities between the experiences of champions of gender and child rights but these groups and approaches to the knowledge-policy interface remain very divided in practice. We definitely need to initiate conversations to start bridging these differences.

Lata – We need to stop thinking about competition between groups and think more about the bigger picture.


This event will discuss strategies for mainstreaming marginalised sources of knowledge - including from children, women and marginalised communities - into international development. It will draw on perspectives from the global South and North.

Dr Nicola Jones, ODI Research Fellow, will discuss the findings from her new book with Andy Sumner at IDS on Child Poverty, Evidence and Policy : Mainstreaming Children in Internationl Development (Policy Press, 2011), drawing on findings from South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

Dr Chris de Neubourg will reflect on the topic drawing on his experiences as Chief of Child Poverty and Social and Economic Policy Responses at the UNICEF Inncoenti Research Center in Florence and former Academic Director of the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance.

Emeritus Professor Valerie Brown, Visiting Fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University, will discuss collective knowledge approaches and indigenous and commnity-based public planning processes in Australia.

Dr Lata Narayanaswamy, Lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Hull, will serve as a discussant drawing on her own work on gender and knowledge-for-development