The DNA of cultural-sensitivity in protecting and promoting child rights
by Victor P. Karunan

A central challenge for all international development agencies working in diverse cultural and social contexts in both North and South is cultural-sensitivity in the local environments in which they work and implement their programmes.

So too for UNICEF as the global leader in child rights. Perhaps even more so, because cultural-sensitivity is at the heart of understanding child development and working with families and communities in their given cultural context to protect and promote child rights. Anthropology – “as the science that studies human societies and their cultures in development” – therefore needs to be part of the DNA of UNICEF’s mission and work for children in every local and national context.

My concern as well as interest in this field is based on my academic background as an anthropologist and having served UNICEF at the national, regional and HQ levels for over 16 years. In the 1980s, I did my PhD on peasant movements in Asia with focus on local knowledge/wisdom, cultural context and grassroots activism. I thought when I joined UNICEF in 2000 in EAPRO-Bangkok that this background and expertise will be a great asset to promoting and protecting the rights of children in our Asian context. Sadly, I was wrong – the challenges I faced both from my “technical colleagues” in health, education, emergency (and even more so in later years in Innovation and Communication) – as well as by senior management to many ideas/proposals on the need for cultural sensitivity, understanding local history and knowledge and learning from it – were shunned as “traditional”, “outdated” and even deemed as “not new science”. On the contrary, I found increased understanding and like-mindedness among my national staff colleagues – they too struggle with the tensions of UNICEF’s “global (Western) culture” and their own “local cultures” and knowledge/wisdom – resulting in mis-understandings, tensions and conflicts between us – international staff – and our local/national staff. Furthermore, this “tension” also translates into how UNICEF works with government agencies and officials in many countries. I see this “tension” continuing even today in UNICEF.

To cite just one instance in HQ-NY. I had just moved as Chief of Adolescent Development and Participation in the Programme Division in 2004. Richard Morgan who was then just appointed as Programme Director (who BTW is also an anthropologist) asked the 60+ staff gathered in his first Programme Division staff meeting – “how many anthropologists do we have here?” – only two of us put up our hands – Richard and myself. That incident speaks directly to the message I want to convey in this article.

As Ronald van Dijk noted in the last X-UNICEF “News and Views” September 2018: “anthropology should become part of UNICEF’s program tools and how anthropological skills can provide knowledge of what is actually going on in rural, urban, and semi-urban communities where the millions of children who are the “raison d’être” of the organization live”.

Not only is it a fact that the number of staff with a background in anthropology in UNICEF are few and far between, whenever anything comes up about “culture” and “anthropology” in UNICEF, everyone talks about C4D (communication for development) – which as we know, is only a technical tool that is used in the periphery of UNICEF’s programming and not integrated at the core of its mandate and plan.

In my view, there are three major issues here that UNICEF needs to address:

Firstly, is the issue of lack of cultural sensitivity among UNICEF staff generally. The lack of cultural awareness within the UNICEF workforce explains why the very same staff do not see its significance in UNICEF programmes. Moreover, it is also reflected in the tensions and conflicts that arise between “international” and “national” staff in country offices – of which there are innumerable cases to be cited – from both minor ones that occur on a daily basis, to some cases which have resulted in wide press coverage and litigation as well. Even more, these tensions are not only played out within UNICEF country, regional offices and HQ divisions; it is also reflected in UNICEF staffs’ sensitive relationships and credibility with many Government agencies and local partners.

Secondly, is the issue that tradition, local wisdom and local norms and practices (anthropology) is often seen by UNICEF as “outdated”, “backward” and “regressive” to making a reality of the rights of the child in local settings and national contexts. In doing so, UNICEF unfortunately is not learning from some of the positive and rich local traditions and wisdom that should be the foundation on which it should be developing its national policies and programmes. As a result, in many country contexts, the “local ownership” of UNICEF programmes remains in question.

Finally – as a consequence of the above two factors – UNICEF tends, in many situations, to be viewed as an organisation that is “Western” and influenced more by the so-called “modern” theories of childhood and child development that is generally conceptualised and authored in the Global North by academics, universities and child rights organisations. As a result, many child right activists and academics in the Global South share my serious concern that their knowledge and wisdom based on their own cultural and social context is often ignored – if not outrightly negated – by UNICEF’s HQ-driven global policies and programme frameworks.

Moving forward, I do believe that UNICEF can claim to be a global leader in child rights if and only when it its mandate is reflected in credible local (national) ownership and cultural sensitivity becomes the DNA of its staff development and management practices.

We – as UNICEF retirees – can play a useful role in supporting UNICEF by offering our services for staff development and training in this area. I also believe there is the urgent need for knowledge generation and research in this area. It may be worth considering the possibility that – in collaboration with IRC-Florence – we could offer our services for research and knowledge exchange. In this regard, perhaps periodically bringing together academics, researchers, local leaders,adolescents/youth, grassroots movements for consultations – in the Strategic Global Programme priorities areas of UNICEF. I see the urgent need for such knowledge exchanges on cultural sensitivity especially in ECD, child marriage, breastfeeding, child labor, youth participation, among many others.

Some suggested next steps for UNICEF could be:
(a) Using more anthropology in UNICEF programmes
(b) Enhancing cultural awareness among senior management and staff
(c) Integrating cultural awareness and sensitivity in UNICEF’s HR policies – including staff development and orientation
(d) As retirees we can help UNICEF to “de-silo” UNICEF staff organisational structures.

*The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of SPRI Global. It was originally published as part of the X-UNICEF NEWS & VIEWS newsletter.*