The world turn’d upside down

The world turn’d upside down

For various reasons (mainly a new job) I’ve been thinking a lot about “international development” recently. The development industry’s interventions are always socially transformative. Fair enough: whatever you may think about it, social and economic change – “development” – is supposed to be the point. But the direction of social transformation promoted – or permitted – in the Majority World by Western governments and development agencies is often constrained. Constrained either by a liberal self-censorship that prohibits the imperialism of modernisation, and prioritises instead a georgic vision of prosperous, stable, discrete,self-sufficient (and generally rural) communities; or, more straightforwardly, constrained by donors’ and developers’ conservative tolerance for some social transformations, but not others. With some significant exceptions, Western development donors and agencies are generally in favour of equalising relations between men and women. They’re sometimes supportive of formal political democracy (or, more commonly, it’s technocratic cousin, ‘governance’). And increasingly some agencies promote measures to end unequal power relations experienced by other disempowered groups, such as disabled people.

But one of the last liberal development taboos – even in the Minority World – seems to be to fundamentally challenge power relations between children and adults. And the institution where development practitioners are perhaps at their most self-congratulatory is the key site where children – everywhere – are disempowered and repressed by adults: school. Schools obviously instantiate, inculcate and reproduce unequal power relations of all kinds. And as a result, it’s probably fair to say that almost all school eduaction involves widespread and systematic violations of children’s human rights. Day in, day out, children at school are denied free expression; are arbitrarily deprived of their liberty and property; have their privacy routinely violated; and are in many cases subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.

I’m not suggesting that this is any great hidden scandal. It’s a mark of how fundamental the powerlessness of children is in our societies that these deprivations of rights garner almost universal acceptance by adults and children alike. And since wealthy, western societies continue to pretend that they’re not happening, you wouldn’t expect children’s powerlessness to be challenged by our liberal efforts to remake other societies.

Which is why I’m pretty surprised by this: a project to train up Ugandan schoolchildren as education and anti-corruption monitors – to monitor their own teachers. As one of the schoolchildren describes it to ActionAid:

“Every fortnight, we go and see the head teacher and ask him questions. We ask for the receipts for what has been spent and also check the physical amount of things bought. We see whether the head teacher has bought the things or if he has just eaten the money. We would know if the head teacher has eaten the money because we look at the receipts to see if they are forged. We check the displays of releases of money which is required under UPE [Universal Primary Education], and we count the children class by class. If something is wrong, we report this to the head teacher. If the head teacher does not accept what we say, we call the teachers and tell them. We also talk to the [charity involved in running the project]”

Why don’t development organisations and donors talk about these kind of projects more? Even if this small inversion of power relations in Ugandan schools didn’t detect corruption (it does), it would be worthwhile just for its quiet but astonishingly radical challenge to adult-child power relations. Just picture it – can you imagine British schoolkids being trained to audit the accounts of Academy schools, and to challenge the dodgy spending decisions and bloated salaries of their head teachers and chief executives? Tolstoy, Dewey and Foucault would, I think, have been delighted. And it looks like I’m going to have to eat my words about the U.S. Christian charity jointly responsible for this project – a charity whose child sponsorship scheme in northern Kenya I roundly slagged off elsewhere.

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