In the past two decades NGOs helping `street children' in Addis Ababa have distinguished themselves by their adherence to highly controversial assumptions about the nature of childhood and the failure of the poor to raise their children in ways that they conceive as `proper'. The ratification of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child by the Ethiopian government has inspired them to stop food relief in order to persuade the children in their care to seek a way out of their miserable ways of life through work on the street. In a remarkable replication of late Victorian philanthropic thinking, NGOs dispel hereby local middle-class fears that relief agencies may foster truancy and idleness and reassuringly define the code--work--that confers legitimacy on children's presence on the streets. Anticipating their escape from undeniably harsh and unjust family relations, the children of the poor are enticed into accepting this solution as the price of a `decent' and morally acceptable childhood. They remain nevertheless highly critical of the rights-based approach, claiming that in the name of their rights they are denied what used to be children's normal entitlement such as protected food prices, free basic health and education. The article is based on the findings of an action research project by social workers among the children assisted by eight Addis Ababa-based NGOs in the period 1996-98.
The girls say that they do not want to pay thirty cents for the lunch we
provide at the drop-in centre ... My colleague had prepared a role-play in
which the girls said that in order to pay for the lunch they have to go out
on the streets to earn some money. At the end of the play they turned to
the audience and asked, `Is this right?' The expatriate co-ordinator of the
programme, who happened to be there, answered, `We make you pay so that you
do not become dependent and can promote what you have learned about your
rights to your friends in the streets.' But I feel that the girls are
right. After having stayed in the centre they do not want to go out on the
streets to beg ... I used to believe in the rationale behind it, that it
would be good for girls to learn to become self-sufficient, but not any
more. The girls prefer to starve rather than to go on the streets.
The girls at a drop-in centre in Addis Ababa about whom this story is told by one of the social workers stop short of accusing the management that its interpretation of the issue of children's rights threatens to turn them into prostitutes. As is now widely recognised, the danger is a real one, particularly for girls like those in the drop-in centre who have no close relatives to turn to for support and protection. (1) We are not faced here with just one of the many cases of miscommunication between the management of an NGO and its clientele, nor even with a flagrant case of coveting up ineptitude in addressing children's problems with high-sounding arguments. We are rather, as I shall argue in this article, at the core of the highly critical debate between poor children and those who work strenuously for their welfare in the name of the international community. Non-governmental organisations claim that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) prompts them to depart from earlier charitable approaches to children. Parents are to be made aware of their children's entitlement to nurture, protection and love, while children must themselves become aware of their right to self-determination. Children, in contrast, argue that their parents cannot support them and that the rights discourse is but a pretext to push them into earning a livelihood on the streets. In this article I argue that, when transposed to the Ethiopian situation, the issue of children's rights gives rise to an ambiguous situation: predicting their emancipation from undeniably often harsh and unjust family relations, NGOs entice children into accepting self-exploitation as the price to be paid for what they expect to be the key to a `decent' childhood. …