Vol.4 No.14, 01 November 2004

New Way to Address Child Deprivation

By Margaret Legum

The City of Johannesburg has been presented with an innovative programme to address child poverty and early childhood development - that would also regenerate local economies by enabling poor communities to earn money in the process. It builds upon Education Minister Naledi Pandor's announcement that funds for the Child Nutrition Programme must from now be used to buy food grown locally and not simply imported from wholesalers.

The City Council called for a comprehensive plan to meet the needs of the 300,000 plus children aged 0 to 5 living in the city. The majority experience extreme poverty and neglect. The proposal comes from a developmental consortium of New Economics innovators, Wits academics, and early childhood development experts.

The plan builds on the principle that cash transfer programmes can do more than simply deliver services from the centre to passive individual recipients. They can also build communities and the role of parents within communities, so that poor communities are seen less as clients than as agents of change.

The programme enlarges the government's plan for skills training under the Expanded Public Works Programme to build the capacity of Early Childhood Development Centres, where the effects of generations of neglect, as well as extreme poverty can be mitigated. Many of these, as now, will be in people's homes, suitably adapted, within the community.

To bring all children into effective early childhood centres would require an additional 8,000 trained practitioners in Johannesburg alone - hence creating 8,000 permanent valuable jobs. Part of their work would be to offer supportive training to all parents in three areas: child development; family maths, science and literacy; and HIV/AIDS.

The R250 million budgeted for child-feeding could make a real difference to the incomes of poor people by providing a demand for food grown locally. The incomes would enable parents to pay school fees (so that all children attend ECD and other schools) and City rates. It is calculated it would enable cash within those communities to circulate three or four times, generating local economic stimulation of R1billion per year: currently cash that comes into poor areas generally goes straight out again into the richer retail outlets.

Some R40 million in loans a year will be needed to build community gardens, small farms and backyard livestock keeping: it is already available through the Land Bank and other poverty alleviation funds. So is money for the adaptation of premises for purposes like professional child care. What is lacking is the legal entity under which communal access to such funding and its management can take place.

The proposal is that Managing Trusts would be formed in each community, answerable to the City for the effective use of funds. The City would make policy, oversee, monitor and facilitate the programme, but not deliver it directly.

The idea is rooted in the Constitutional provision that parents and the wider family have responsibility for their children, and that the State should intervene only in extreme circumstances. It draws inspiration from the African tradition of Ubuntu, which supports community, rather than individual, responsibility for children. It would put resources directly into the hands of parents and communities formalized as Managing Trusts.

Such an alternative proposal challenges international models of care for vulnerable people, which put the emphasis upon individuals' proof of their own entitlement through need. Everywhere, however, these models are being challenged as humiliating to the recipients of help, expensive in terms of bureaucratic resources and contrary to the deepest understanding that communities are the only developmental context for poverty alleviation.

In Britain, for example, there is cross-party understanding that the whole social services model, based upon proof of poverty, must be replaced. Decades of Thatcherism and its New Labour equivalents focused on 'targeting' of need as the path to delivery of grants of all kinds. 'Targeting' became the sine qua non of efficient poverty alleviation - as opposed to universal provision, considered inefficient.

New thinking arises from the current recognition that 'targeted' pension policy, for instance, leaves most pensioners with too little to live on, while millions are spent on administering supplementary grants of various kinds. Tomes are written annually about 'targeted' entitlements for everyone from children to disabled people to unemployed; yet both administrators and supposed beneficiaries feel oppressed by the system.

In Glasgow, for instance, some 70% of the population is in receipt of some grant to mitigate a need. Thinking is moving from targeting to universal grants. South Africa's BIG Coalition will take heart from this.

There are of course challenges in the concept and the practice of creating or reviving communities as recipients of state funding. The model understands that the real poverty is in the absence of local institutions and the paucity of local management - which it builds. Trusting very poor people with large sums of money is counter-culture in the world today; and the skills of community entrepreneurship are not widely valued or highly paid.

Perhaps, however, we are on the cusp of something really new in terms of government funding for poverty eradication.

To see the document contact Norman Reynolds on [email protected]

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