Tensions in Incorporating Global Childhood with Early Childhood Programs: The Case of South Africa

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The concept of global childhood used in this article refers to an essentialist, homogenising and standardised view of childhood which privileges western ideals (Nieuwenhuys, 2010) and attaches limitations to the human experience. Human advancement is viewed in terms of progression towards Euro-American traditions and practices (Nsameneng, 2008; Marfo, 2011). The concept finds expression in the majority world through a variety of intervention programs undertaken largely by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) funded by international donor organisations that mostly aim at mobilising the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Child development textbooks of Euro-American origins, electronic and learning exchanges, conferences and partnerships between minority and majority world institutions further enhance the export value of global childhood.

The uptake of concepts associated with global childhood has the power to enable a more just distribution of opportunities for young children and their families on a worldwide scale. It also allows for bolder generalisations to be made about the conditions of young children's lives. Global childhood also makes salient the fact that all children have similar needs which makes them dependent on those entrusted for shaping their road to adulthood.

While positive aspects of ideas and concepts associated with global childhood are noted, this article provides insight into its contested nature with the specific aim of encouraging critical exchange of ideas, reflection and debate by practitioners, academics and students in the field. As a stimulus in this direction, Nieuwenhuys (2010, pp. 294-295) warns that scholars have time and again remarked 'that childhood has become a trope now circulating globally to be imposed on the entire world at the expense of other ideals and experiences'. In interrogating the definition of childhood, Nieuwenhuys asks whose definition counts. Is it the one of the international community 'armed with international conventions, a body of knowledge and specialists, media spectacles and an array of symbolic goods--or fragmentary, fleeting and contradictory ideas and practices that are part and parcel of the business of real-life people crafting a future for the next generation'? (Nieuwenhuys, 2010, pp. 294-295). Okwany, Ngutuku and Muhangi (2009) also question top-down approaches which make assumptions about people's needs. They encourage us to ask: Whose early childhood development (ECD)? Whose good start? This line of questioning is particularly important, taking into account the history of early childhood programs in Africa.

Tracing the power and effects of global childhood in Africa

The work of Prochner and Kabiru (2008) is helpful in understanding how a certain version of early childhood was exported through British colonisation into Africa. In tracing the history of formal early childhood programs in Africa, the authors note how a foreign way of educating young children gained currency. The missionary schools, developed during the nineteenth century, were strongly influenced by western ideas of childhood, race, education and religion. The main aims were the conversion of the indigenous people to Christianity and gaining support for a European worldview. The latter promoted an individualist culture as opposed to collective ways of knowing and living. The infant schools based on the British model took a rigid academic approach for early civilisation of children of indigenous people. Over time, kindergarten and the nursery schools developed as limited non-academic options for young children. The civilising attempts of these models were powerful and contested the culture, values and traditions related to child care and early socialisation of children in families and communities.

Decades of change in the world order and its effect on political, economic and social structures have shaped ideas and concepts associated with global childhood. …