Dismantling and Reconstructing International Children’s Rights



When practiced inappropriately and without making explicit the underlying dynamics of power and funding, international development, humanitarian aid, and philanthropy can cause harm and undermine the dignity and autonomy of those it intends to support, who become othered “beneficiaries.” The axes of power differentiation includes class, gender, age, race, and ethnicity, among others. The humanitarian community’s search for quick, cost-effective solutions can heighten the likelihood of imposing concepts and practices that replicate oppressive, patriarchal, and racist norms. The recognition of this imbalance of power and potential harm has deep-rooted historical underpinnings, and constructive critique has been taking place for decades in academia, local communities, and activist communities.1 These inequalities and injustices with their roots in colonialism, racism, and patriarchy, are especially problematic in fields such as children and youth’s rights, child development, and child protection, in which the roles of children, young people, and caregivers in their families and communities will vary from context to context.
Accordingly, in 2021, the Care and Protection of Children (CPC) Learning Network, housed in the Program on Forced Migration and Health in the Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and the Global Health Justice and Governance Program, hosted the Reconstructing Children’s Rights Institute — an online institute about dismantling racism, neo-colonialism, and patriarchy in humanitarian and development efforts to protect children and support families.

The Institute has two overarching goals:

Demonstrate and engage:
Raise awareness and recognition of how colonialism, racism, and patriarchy are not just theoretical concepts, but real drivers of inequality, ineffectiveness, and harm in the international child rights and protection sector.

Sow the seeds and demonstrate action for effective change:
Critique the problems inherent in the international child rights and protection sector, but also highlight practical ways to dismantle and reconstruct the existing system.

To that end, the Institute created a multi-part series of conversations and resources to guide chief executives and leaders, policymakers, donors, practitioners, academics, researchers, students, visual artists, storytellers, and activists in their learning journey. In this series of six conversations, broadcast between May and December 2021, we invited a diverse group of experts from academia, philanthropy, visual arts, international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and activist communities to share their insights about racism, colonialism, patriarchy, and power imbalances as they affect children, young people, and families around the world. Refer to Text Box A for complete list of resources.
Through the Institute, we have been trying to understand from our guest speakers, who have dedicated their careers to social justice, how to deconstruct power and accountability inequities and transform the humanitarian and development industries to be in better service to children, young people, families, and communities. We all agree that international humanitarian aid can be necessary, but there needs to be a reset button to interrogate our assumptions, begin to take responsibility for our roles, and to redress power to ensure a more accountable system. As a community, we have not yet deconstructed the roots of power and its manifestations and are not willing to challenge and question the inherent power imbalances and “whiteness” in international aid. As noted by one of the speakers, as we move forward as a community, we need to "sit in the discomfort of our failure and of the harms that we have produced when we thought we were doing good." Dr. Dipali Mukhopadhyay, Associate Professor, Hubert H. Humphrey, School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, Conversation #1

The children’s rights community must come together to begin this reckoning and critically examine and redress these power imbalances. As a community, we must be careful to situate these current “decolonizing aid” conversations within the context of more recent conversations of inherent power imbalances, such as “localization,” “shifting power,” and the “#MeToo movement.” All these conversations, as well as earlier critiques, are part of a larger continuum of deep rooted structural and systematic power inequities that need to be addressed urgently, not with check box exercises, buzzwords, or cosmetic changes but with radical structural, strategic, and systemic changes; effective accountability measures; and movement building.
This report summarizes the key reflections that emerged from the Institute’s series of six conversations, highlights the inherent problems and provides recommendations for a way forward, as articulated by the sixteen experts. We hope that this report, in addition to the other Institute resources, can serve as a guide to facilitate self-reflection and reform.
All speakers highlighted that radical change takes effort and is not simple work that can be easily translated into matrixes over a fixed timeline. Systematic changes require self-reflection and an open-mind and patience, honesty, flexibility, and humility. We hope that you and your respective organizations can find inspiration and drive from the Institute’s insightful voices and begin to work in accountable and equitable partnership with this community of rebellion; and more importantly, to engage local organizations, communities, activists, children, young people, and families to not just shift power but relinquish power.