"People don't have direction" (part 1)

"Sister over here people don’t get their basic needs a normal human being is supposed to have in term of having formal schedule for example tomorrow when I wake up, when sunrises, which way should I take. You know my sister. But people don’t have direction. They don’t know where to go when sunrises."  (Interview 5.1, 5th May, 2015)

A lot of literature on street-connected children falls into one of two camps. The first camp highlights the negative impacts of street life on children's emotional, mental and physical health. It strongly emphasises the humanitarian imperative of removing children from the street in order for them to recover and rehabilitate. The second camp emphasises the resilience, ingenuity and determination of street-connected children, recognising the significant obstacles the children have overcome to just survive - often giving the impression that street-connected children can deal with anything you throw at them. This camp emphasises the street-smarts that children and youth have developed and defends their right to choose to stay on the street.

Before commencing my fieldwork I found myself heavily embroiled in this literature dichotomy of whether the street harmed children or helped them in learning valuable life lessons. I would change my mind on a weekly basis depending on the argument in the most recent journal article I'd read. It seemed that the variation in literature was as much about the authors' backgrounds and ideologies as the children's lived experiences, and that arguing about these two perspectives was perhaps not a good use of time. The resilience argument arose as a counter-weight to dominant narratives portraying street-connected children as passive victims, and in this context added depth and value to discussions about street-connected children's lives. But in recent years, I have started to consider the limits of the "resilience" lens and wondering if there is more helpful terminology that recognises children's abilities without making the mention that street-connected children need "help" a taboo.

Moving past resilience
My biggest bug-bear with the resilience argument is that I never quite managed to understand what "resilient" actually means in the context of people. The word is unfortunately both very vague and very over-used in international and community development discourse. While children may develop good survival techniques and seemingly become very head-strong in the face of adversity through their experiences on the street, does such resilience equate to flourishing? Or am I understanding "resilience" too narrowly here?

For a deeper look into the concept of "resilience", I really like the book Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012). Taleb discusses in depth the concept of "antifragility" whereby things become stronger due to the adversity they face. He argues that this is the opposite of fragile, where things break in the face of adversity. He goes on to support his theory by saying that "antifragile" is qualitatively different from "robust" or "resilient". The latter two explain instances where things return to how they originally were when faced with shocks rather than becoming stronger.

"Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better." (Taleb, 2012)[1]

While "resilience" has been a useful counter to dominant discourses of "poor people" as "passive victims," I feel like it is now time to move on from "resilience" and to see if we can develop a discourse which expects more than staying the same in the face of shocks. Similarly, I think it is important to recognise the "fragile," admitting where damage has been done and where professional help is needed. I feel like Taleb's definition of "resilience" puts into question the endorsement of "resilience" as a prominent goal in international development programming. The goal should be to ensure people are able to improve their lives, not to merely survive and stay the same. I think a more interesting question would be to ask if street-connected children are "antifragile", or perhaps what are the limits of their antifragility? Or put another way, what aspects of living on the street can hurt children, and which are enhancing their abilities and future outlook.

What kind of help children need
Street-connected children are living in a hostile environment. Almost all children who choose to live away from their families and support themselves on the street are challenging societal perceptions of children and childhood. In societies where children's rights are not understood, or where children are not deemed as equal to adults, street-connected children are at risk of abuse, neglect and scorn. In many societies, children need an adult to advocate for them in order to access services and escape punishment from the hands of strangers and police.

Street-connected children are able to support each other with food, clothing and companionship. In this way, children can be very self-sufficient and resistant to shocks that the street throws their way. However, while a street-connected child/young person is not concerned about dying from hunger, older youth share a genuine concern of death by beating at the hands of strangers. 

The children we've spoken to talk a lot about "being known" to certain people and how that improves their prospects in life - "it is the one's that know you who will be the ones help you." To help children work through the adversity that results from a life without family, I believe that children need to be "known" by as many reliable, caring, encouraging, committed and consistent people as possible. They need to be encouraged that their lives can flourish if they take the right small steps forward. They need role models who have gone through the same thing as them and who can offer advice. They need people who they can learn to trust and who will learn to trust them and offer them opportunities to learn, increase their skills and career prospects for the future (see my earlier blog on this). They need people to mediate between them and their families. They also need professionals in mental health, addiction and coaching to help them to shift from a mindset of coping to one of thriving. I believe, unlike food and money, that these are the things that children are not able to attain through their hard work alone. I believe these are the inputs that can help a child to harness their own potential and improve their own lives. Persuading children to leave the street is not easy, but while they are there, it is easy for people with the right intentions to show up and get to know them, and this could be just the thing they need.

"People don't have direction Part 2" will share some analytical insights into children's self-sufficiency and powerlessness on the street, and how a future-focus may help to improve their prospects.

As always, your thoughts are very welcome. If you have examples, exceptions or counter-arguments to issues I have raised in this blog, please take time to write a comment below. Sharing comments will promote collaborative learning and idea development, since thoughts and ideas are never static!

[1] Sadly, no page number - my copy of the book is in the UK!

Header image taken from Koshy Koshy on Flickr with thanks.