RPN 24 September 1997

1. Putting children first by Murray Last

Save the Children Fund in 1923 and UNICEF in 1990 both declared that children must come first in receiving relief. In contrast, the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child omitted all reference to giving such priority to children. The reason for transforming the original credo is that the principle of 'children first', if it includes every child and is to be applied literally in the field, is not only impracticable but unacceptable in many cultures. The social value of a particular child's life - or of human life generally - is simply not an absolute, in all circumstances, in all cultures.

The 'principle of first call'

'The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress.' So ran the third of the five articles making up the Declaration of Geneva which was adopted first by the Save the Children International Union in May 1923, and then in September 1924 by the League of Nations at its Fifth Assembly(1). The Declaration was more controversial than it might seem: in giving children priority over adults, and doing so to all children as children, it was setting children (and childhood) apart as both a special and a separate moral category distinct from adults.

Eglantyne Jebb, who drafted the Declaration in Geneva some four years after she and her colleagues had founded the Save the Children Fund, is rarely mentioned now in the spate of literature on the Great War and its aftermath. Yet, at the time, she was put alongside Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Fry and other pioneer women humanitarians. As a relief worker in Macedonia during the Balkan wars of 1912-13, she had witnessed the awful reality of famine and its impact on small children. It was children's hunger, then, that was her first priority, and the child's first right to relief is in essence probably about just that: give them food before the adults.

She was ready to speak out for all children everywhere. After the war, while the Great Powers' blockade of Germany was still in force, a leaflet she was distributing demonstrated, with a picture of a staving child, how the Allies were by their policies actually making children die. She later described how: 'Mothers killed the babies whom they could not feed. Old people committed suicide so that the younger members of the family might have more to eat(2).

A revolution in seeing and hearing, as this was, was always in danger of being taken over by a sentimental romanticism about children, or else by paternalism towards desperate mothers who needed help. It provoked opposition - and still does. There are, for example, the arguments that the family as a whole should have priority, and that the rights and wishes of parents have to be respected (as against the rights of others, including the state, to intervene); or the argument that such Declarations are unnecessary, since children's rights are, or should be, covered by their rights as humans, and not on the grounds that they are some special kind of human.

As a result of these objections, the original five-point Declaration came in for amendment. In the 1948 Declaration, the old article III dropped down the list to become article V and a new article II made it clear that 'the child must be cared for with due respect for the family as an entity'. By 1959, in the last of the Declarations, the old article III had become Principle 8, 'the child shall in all circumstances be among the first to receive protection and relief'.

The drafting of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was launched in 1989 and signed by some states in 1990, often proved problematic. Though the preamble acknowledges the earlier Declarations, the Convention is of course a very different document. Such simple statements as the 'first to receive relief' drop out. Even the ' best interests of the child' creates difficulties: should they be 'primary' or 'paramount'? (The final text offers 'the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration'; 'the primary consideration' was dropped.) Above all, there are clauses that offer signatories flexibility: 'in accordance with their national law', 'to the maximimum extent of their available resources'.

Unlike earlier Declarations, the Convention had to specify, if only for legal reasons, at least when a child ceases to be a child: a child, it was decided, is 'every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier'. With a child defined as anyone under 18, to insist upon Jebb's priority for children was impracticable.

The Convention's dropping of the 'first to receive' clause did not, however, deter UNICEF. In the year of the Convention's acceptance and signing, UNICEF used its 1990 issue of The State of the World's Children to launch a vigorous re-statement of what was now called the 'Principle of the first call': '...that the lives and the normal development of children should have first call on society's concerns and capacities and that children should be able to depend upon that commitment in good times and bad, in normal times and in times of emergency, in times of peace and in times of war, in times of prosperity and in times of recession.'

Of course, if the United Nations Children's Fund did not claim priority for children, who would? But this renewed emphasis on a principle of first call also reflects UNICEF's institutional dilemma within the UN system. It has to survive, as essentially a ministry for social welfare, in a field where education 'belongs' to UNESCO, health to WHO, and agriculture to FAO. In this technocratic arena UNICEF tends to stay within a biomedical model of health, and to assess its successes by reference to what is measurable by statistics; hence its league tables showing nations with better or worse scores on child mortality rates. UNICEF long ago recognised this, and in the 1960s (the 'Development Decade') sought to get away from its traditional child welfare role and into development. To retain its credibility, then, UNICEF's primary focus has to be on the child, and on its programmes of primary health care, implying that it, more than any other agency, can best promote the interests of young children as a distinct community; it then has to argue further that, for the future welfare of the world as a whole, the interests of children should be paramount.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes(3)

dismissed the rhetoric of [the] UNICEF 1990 campaign for 'child survival'. The 'principle of first call', she is saying, is a donors' charter which does not resonate with local life as it is lived - real life runs on different principles. Any relief that is to be more than a palliative stop-gap must be able to mesh with local principles; saved lives must be sustainable lives.

A community's apparent failure to give priority or a special place to children has led some to suggest that the culture in question has no concept of childhood, with the implication perhaps that once the community had been taught such a concept, people would 'naturally' put children first. Evidence suggests, however, that most communities do have a concept of childhood, and that the problem is not the absence of a concept of childhood but rather that the local conceptions of childhood with which each culture fleshes out the concept differ so much that we fail to recognise it as 'childhood'. Childhood is not only the concept that is open to question as being culture- or period-bound. Nancy Scheper-Hughes implies that 'mother love' may also be a bourgeois myth. It is local conditions that have shaped a mother's behaviour, not just genes or hormones. Mothering is more individually 'made', and is responsive to the particularities of time and health; it cannot be presumed simply to be in-born in every woman.

Is it too easy to treat the declaration that 'the child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress' as simply an inspiring maxim that has proved good at motivating and uniting people across social barriers? Might it not now be, for example, an obstacle to understanding? I think it might well be, and will briefly suggest why.

Firstly, it simplifies complex issues. There is rarely a ready consensus within a community over what priority should which adults give to which children in what context. We may therefore want to know what are the cultural norms regarding children in a community, and we may indeed produce careful analyses of practice, but crises tend to suspend rules that apply in the ordinary round of daily life, making even prediction unpredictable.

Secondly, the declaration obscures the process of becoming and the critical role that time plays in constituting the 'child' as a social being. Although childhood may be legally constituted as a status, it is above all a process of becoming: from baby into child, from child into adolescence. The way social value accrues to an individual life varies across cultures and involves many factors apart from age - gender, kinship or class, religion. But time is more individual. Parents watch to see how their children differ, watch the transformations over time, and encourage and care accordingly: it is a process of waiting too, and judging; of getting very attached to one and losing touch with another. To have favourites is recognised as inevitable, and unpredictable.

Thirdly, then, the declaration denies the variation between children, and hence the autonomy children have in shaping their own lives. It is perhaps an axiom of western culture that all lives are equally valuable - but the very need to assert that as an axiom suggests that it is not actually true in practice. In very large households, the very diversity of children, the competition and the inequalities, become particularly apparent. Attempts to treat each child equally would be absurd. Different children are loved in different ways for different qualities.

Lastly, the declaration distracts us from the fact that perhaps the direst form of poverty is not hunger but to be totally alone. Given how important groups are, well-being is thus not measured only in food or housing but in having a group (the larger the better usually) to be linked into. Staying together as a social unit, despite the shortages and difficulties, is thus of over-riding importance: there is no substitute. In this context, whom to save when it is not possible to save all, would require making judgements for which even Solomon, I suspect, would hesitate laying down a general rule.

Murray Last is Professor of Anthropology at the Centre for Medical Anthropology, University College London.

This article is extracted from Disasters, Vol 18, No 3, September 1994.

1.Fuller E The right of the child, 1951, Gollanz, London.

2.Freeman K If any man build, 1965, Hodder & Stoughton, London.

3.Schepper-Hughes N Death without weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil, 1992, University of California Press, Berkeley.

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October 1997