Some definitions

I’ve noticed that few topics are more vexing in our sector than agreeing on definitions; we often get quite worked up arguing over the terms that describe our work, the concepts that underlie why we do what we do.  Maybe this is because, even though we have achieved enormous progress over the last decades in overcoming poverty and suffering, our sector is still developing its evidence base: we are still learning what works and what doesn’t work.  In such an uncertain endeavour, lacking a clear and complete toolbox, a philosophical or ideological foundation becomes critical to guiding our efforts to learn in the face of ambiguity.  And there is no end to arguing about philosophy or ideology!

But in some cases, I’ve found that the definitions don’t really matter all that much, and we can just agree to adopt certain meanings and get on with learning how to build a fairer, more just world.  (In other cases, definitions become much more critical…)

In that spirit, I’ve created a small set of definitions that I’d like to share here.  They relate mostly to the kind of work I’ve been doing over the last three decades, to terms that have been used (and misused!) and discussions (or arguments!) that have taken place with colleagues:

  • A project or program can be described as “child-focused” if the activities are described, and are prioritized, with reference to children;
  • A project or program can be described as “child-centred” if the activities relate to children or to factors that surround them.  This could be described as an ecological point of view, related to what surrounds the child;
  • A project or program can be described as “community development” if its activities seek to create positive sustainable changes for populations in particular communities;
  • We work to “realise child rights” when the activities we support seek to fulfil existing child rights, such as survival, protection, development, and participation;
  • We work to “defend child rights” when the activities we support seek to correct violations of the rights of particular groups of excluded children;
  • “Advancing child rights” involves seeking to expand current concepts of child rights, or establish new rights;
  • When we seek to change policy and practice of other organisations, we are engaged in “advocacy”;
  • Finally, and perhaps most controversially, “rights-based approaches” seek to build the capacity of duty-bearers and to stimulate informed claims of rights-holders.

Can we agree to these definitions, and use them to get on with learning what works?

I’d be interested in your thoughts and comments and, especially, alternatives!

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2 thoughts on “Some definitions

  1. Great and useful, you could also add:

    ‘Child-Led’ – when a project or project activities are designed, implemented and evaluated by children.

    Truly ‘child-led’ projects are probably quite rare in the development space because the impetus for action often comes from donors or people in head offices. However, I think it is still a useful term for describing work that attempts to ensure children’s active engagement throughout all stages of the project cycle.

    • A good addition, Kelly.

      We know that good development practice always ensures that the impetus for projects comes from the people themselves, but it’s true that child-led projects are rare. Youth-led efforts are more common, of course. It’s all about the “evolving capacities” that the Convention on the Rights of the Child speaks about… and how we can expand that space.

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