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Painting by numbers: how does the post-2015 High-Level Panel score on child protection?

Written by David Walker

Last week, the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda released  its recommendations to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The words ‘child’, ‘children’ and ‘childhood’ collectively appear 96 times in the report: a marked increase, given the lack of mentions in previous reports this year (more than double, per page, than in the Human Development Report, for example). This is quite a remarkable achievement in itself, given that that buzzword, 'growth’, appears on a slightly more humble number of occasions (88), followed closely by its associated cousin ‘economic’, with 82 mentions. The words ‘youth’, ‘young’ and ‘adolescent’ trail, with a collective count of 69. Children are well represented in the goals section of the report, under what many development actors consider to be the standard list of essential services: namely, education, health, and food security/nutrition. Youth appear in the report under education (skills and vocational components) as well as jobs and equitable growth, suggesting a clear and useful connection between the two areas.

This is clearly an emphasis to be welcomed by those working on general child- and youth-poverty issues. For those working on the issue of ‘child protection’, however, the picture becomes a little more complicated. The topic of child protection as a discrete area of thinking and practice is highlighted only once in the report – and then only in the ‘Summary of Outreach’ annexe.

We are still able to see two promising avenues. First, there is a stand-alone recommendation on child marriage, which is a considerable achievement, given that there is already an accompanying draft goal for ending all forms of violence against women and children. This is an area in which connections between gender, poverty and child protection communities can be utilised and strengthened for ongoing discussions.

The second promising entry-point for child-protection advocates is Universal Goal 11 (a). Here we see a clear and qualitatively new interest in eliminating ‘all forms of violence against children’. The framing of this statement is currently with respect to fragile, conflict and post-conflict contexts, but it is still usefully ambiguous. For instance, there is a standalone goal on enhancing capacity, professionalism and accountability of the security forces, police and judiciary. This bodes very well as an entry point for those working on child protection, and those who are interested in building structures and strengthening systems that address child violence, abuse and exploitation.

Nevertheless, there remain three broad challenges to delivering on these opportunities. These are the challenges of focusing the child-protection agenda on the variable evidence, appropriate language, and siloed constituencies in promoting the child protection agenda.

First, the right evidence is essential: in terms of timely, detailed and tailored evidence, a good place to start is the recent inter-agency papers coordinated by the Family for Every Child coalition (FFEC) – gathering evidence on how children are central to matters of equity, health, governance, population dynamics and disasters. The most recent paper, developed between the FFEC and ODI, looks at the linkages between child protection, employment and growth. It highlights the importance of taking a life-cycle approach, which acknowledges both children’s current wellbeing, as well as their future role as contributors to national economies, while also warning that unbridled economic growth can bring new and continuing risks for children.

Second, drawing on appropriate language is equally important.There is a growing and commendable interest in the strengthening of child-protection ‘systems’. While this promotes the interests of children generally, there is, however, a distinct danger that systems-based language may be overly technical and alienating this early on in the game. It may be much more fruitful to discuss the potential child-wellbeing outcomes of protection programming, while picking-up the more jargonistic and challenging issue of ‘systems strengthening’ later on in discussions.

Third, there remain challenging questions over engaging the right constituencies in the debate. For example, how far should child protection actors go in engaging with youth-oriented thinking and practice in order to raise the profile of child protection? A recent event, hosted by ODI in association with the DFID CSO Youth Working group, discussed the case for investing in young people and making their voices count in post-2015 discussions. This work demonstrates clear overlaps and relevance for the child protection agenda. However, in broader debates, there appears to be a lack of clear and constructive dialogue and mutual support between the child-focused and youth-focused development actors, as well as a gap between these, and those working on gender issues. This is nothing new, but may nonetheless prove regrettable in the cold light of 2016.

A final and broader challenge has been furtively raised in child protection circles, and is in fact relevant to all actors looking to promote their agenda in forthcoming post-2015 discussions. Here I humbly defer to the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm (played byJeff Goldblum) in the film Jurassic Park,

‘but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn't stop to think if they should.’

This refers to the speed and opportunism that characterises any policymaking process, as well as the dangers inherent to such a process. In other words, it is easy to get caught-up in short-term tactics, while foregoing long-term strategies in promoting an agenda. For the child-protection community, and as outlined by a number of authors in a special issue of Development in Practice journal last year, the evidence base on child-protection concepts and interventions is small – but growing. This is important for post-2015 policy goals, but let us not forget that what we do now (and how we do it) will affect the promotion of synergies, coalitions and new child protection interventions down the line. After all, we are still (I would argue) unsure of exactly what works, where, and why, with respect to some areas of child protection. So, while there is still some way to go before child protection is unequivocally recognised in current high-level panel discussions, let us bear in mind that the challenges in this area have a wide orbit, and will require significant further investments in looking at evidence, language and associated actors - both in the next two years, and beyond.