Bouril on Roelen and Morgan and Tafere, 'Putting Children First: New Frontiers in the Fight Against Child Poverty in Africa'

Keetie Roelen, Richard Morgan, Yisak Tafere, eds.
Thomas Bouril

Keetie Roelen, Richard Morgan, Yisak Tafere, eds. Putting Children First: New Frontiers in the Fight Against Child Poverty in Africa. Stuttgart: ibidem, 2019. 354 pp. $46.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-8382-1317-0

Reviewed by Thomas Bouril (Syracuse University) Published on H-Africa (August, 2020) Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Boston University)

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The fight against child poverty has long been a focal point for intergovernmental and aid organizations in Africa. While these efforts have made important steps, child poverty remains a critical issue throughout much of the continent. Furthermore, with the deleterious effects that Covid-19 is having on Africa’s middle and lower classes, many children in or on the edge of poverty are now faced with an increasingly difficult situation as economic growth and foreign aid declines. This makes a comprehensive understanding of the nature of child poverty, and the best practices to combat it, even more critical.

Putting Children First: New Frontiers in the Fight Against Child Poverty in Africa is the result of a 2017 conference in Addis Ababa that brought together 150 individuals from all facets of the fight against child poverty. Edited by Keetie Roelen, Richard Morgan, and Yisak Tafere, the twelve chapters that comprise the volume are an invaluable collection of research for anyone interested in the new frontiers of best practices and policy in the effort to eradicate child poverty. Roelen, Morgan, and Tafere organize the chapters of Putting Children First into three parts: the manifestations of child poverty, child-sensitive social protection, and the transition from childhood to adulthood. While each section speaks to different components of child poverty, there are many leitmotifs that run throughout the volume which create coherence among the chapters. It also puts individuals from diverse backgrounds and varied expertise in conversation with one another and bridges many gaps that often separate academic researchers and policymakers outside of the academy. The persistent theme of challenging existing assumptions and practices, such as moving away from rigid categories of what constitutes child poverty, is one such area. The collective result is a more nuanced and useful set of tools for understanding and improving the lives of children in poverty.

The five chapters that comprise the first section of Putting Children First study the contingent and fluid experiences that children in poverty have. Several chapters focus on the malleability and relativity of these experiences, especially for children who move in and out of poverty. The first chapter, “Beyond Categories: Rhizomatic Experiences of Child Poverty and Vulnerability in Kenya,” contends that more needs to be done to understand how child poverty is experienced. In this chapter, Elizabeth Ngutuku argues that categorical, multidimensional, and rights-based approaches to child poverty alleviation in Kenya have failed to capture the lived experiences of children in poverty and the spaces where they encounter it most intensely. Her research illustrates the limited usefulness of fixed categorization and captures why there is a greater need to understand the experiences of children who move in and out, and between, different categories used in categorically based approaches. Chapter 5, “Dynamics of Poverty in Ethiopia,” takes a multidimensional approach to child poverty, and while the authors are sensitive to many of the concerns raised by Ngutuku in chapter 1, there are points where they focus overly on the categorization of children rather than how those categories relate to experience. This is one of the few points of disagreement between chapters, as well as an example of the difficulty of moving away from categorization in attempts to quantify and understand poverty. Chapter 2, “Children and Young People’s Experiences of Managing Poverty-Related Shame in Uganda and the UK,” analyzes how childhood experiences of poverty-related shame are dependent on local understandings of what constitutes poverty. Its illustration of how “children become vectors or channels of feelings of shame on the part of parents and carers” is particularly valuable in understanding the impact of childhood shame within a broader social context (p. 67).

Chapters 3 and 4, “Poverty and Child Hunger in South Africa: A Child-Centered Analysis of Household Level Survey Data” and “Child Stunting in Sub-Saharan Africa: Interrelated Effects of Neighbourhoods and Families,” both examine the interrelationship between poverty and childhood nutritional issues. Together these studies show the long-term effects of nutritional deficiencies and how improving the diets of children is not strictly correlated to raising incomes. This is especially clear in chapter 3, where Winnie Sambu and Katherine Hall demonstrate how in South Africa, “even after substantial decreases in income poverty rates, many children remain below the food poverty line” (pp. 94-95). They contend that this is because families have to prioritize other means in addition to improving nutrition. Sambu and Hall recommend targeted measures to make healthy food more affordable, such as “removing value added taxes” to healthy food (pp. 94-95). Their research reminds the reader that specific policy goals (e.g., improved nutrition) require specific policy measures.

Part 2 of the collection focuses on the growing field of child-sensitive social protection (CSSP) programs and policies. Both direct and indirect forms of CSSP programs seek to promote “positive impacts on children and to minimize potential unintended side effects” (p. 15). Chapter 6 of the volume, “How Many Malnourished Children Are There in South Africa? What Can Be Done?,” follows up on the challenge first outlined in chapter 3 that economic growth itself is not enough to eradicate malnutrition and undernutrition in South Africa. The authors suggest that future policies and programs utilize the UNICEF conceptual framework and take a more holistic approach to malnutrition eradication. This is a useful follow-up to Sambu and Hall that highlights the benefits of a CSSP approach to tackling malnutrition. The remaining two chapters in this section focus on best practices in cash transfer programs, a growing form of CSSP. “Tackling Undernutrition with a ‘Cash Plus’ Approach” demonstrates the efficacy of cash transfer programs that include conditionalities for how certain portions of the monetary aid can be spent, as well as linkages to other forms of aid to improving childhood nutritional outcomes. The following chapter looks deeper into the improvements that personal and small-business-related unconditional cash transfers have on the welfare of children. Both chapters make clear the potential of cash transfer programs, but they also stress that specific programmatic goals will require targeted measures. With CSSP programs poised to play a greater role in efforts to improve the status of children throughout sub-Saharan Africa, these three chapters offer useful models for how to best maximize strategies.

The final section of Putting Children First addresses the challenges and opportunities created by the coming of age of Africa’s youth bulge. While unemployment, violence, and a sense of disconnect from society are three of many challenges facing young people as they transition from childhood to adulthood, the emergence of the most educated and digitally connected generation in Africa’s history also produces opportunities. The first two chapters tackle arguably the largest issue for young people in the Global South: youth unemployment. They highlight the damage that negative stereotypes of youth from families and communities can have on economic opportunities, as well as the continued hindrance of poor physical mobility on finding employment. However, “Physical and Virtual Mobility for Youth Employment in Malawi” also illustrates how access to smartphones and other digital technologies provides “virtual mobility” that creates economic opportunities for some young people (p. 282). The following chapter, “Disentangling Urban Adolescents Vulnerability to Age- and Gender-Based Violence through a Capability Lens in Ethiopia and Rwanda,” pivots away from economic challenges to the issues of age- and gender-based violence among adolescents. Based on research conducted among nearly 200 adolescents (ranging in age from ten to nineteen) in Rwanda and Ethiopia, this is the sole chapter in Putting Children First that analyzes age-based violence and its effects on adolescents as they transition to adulthood. The final chapter addresses the importance of social connectedness and social capital to South African youth in achieving their goals. While a useful inclusion, this chapter is arguably the least revelatory in the volume as the importance of social capital and networks is well established.

All twelve chapters of the collection showcase the complexity, intersectionality, and challenges of child poverty alleviation. Putting Children First deserves to be read, studied, and improved upon, but it is not an introductory text. Those beginning their research of child poverty and policies to help eradicate it should look elsewhere before coming to this collection. However, for researchers and practitioners (or those who qualify as both) this volume is a tremendous addition to the field and offers much to consider. While there are several gaps in what Putting Children First covers, rather than ignore what is missing Roelen, Morgan, and Tafere draw attention to it and call for further research on these gaps, such as how child poverty impacts children with disabilities. This openness is much appreciated and is a strong motivator for further research. The work ends with a call for action that highlights six priority measures in the fight against child poverty based on the major cross-cutting themes of the chapters. This call for action is a wonderful roadmap for where new programs and policies should begin. It also serves as a reminder to those coming to the topic from an academic research background, that these are real problems and real children. Scholarship on this issue must be based on an activist approach.

Citation: Thomas Bouril. Review of Roelen, Keetie; Morgan, Richard; Tafere, Yisak, eds., Putting Children First: New Frontiers in the Fight Against Child Poverty in Africa. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. August, 2020. URL:

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