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Approaches to Children and Adolescents: Current Practices

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Research on children and adolescents, in general, is based on Western models of childhood and child development (Sheper-Hughes 1989, Boyden 1994). Perhaps the most fundamental principle which grounds these models is the belief that all children throughout the world have the same basic needs, pass through the same developmental stages, react in a like manner to armed conflict and forced migration and employ similar coping strategies. In many cultures, the category of adolescent is not recognised and individuals of the age of twelve or thirteen are expected to take on the roles and responsibilities of adults, marrying, raising families, seeking gainful employment and caring for the elderly in the household. How individuals in such cultures react to and cope with forced migration is bound to be different from individuals in cultures where adolescence is recognised as a transitional category from childhood to adult responsibility. Research is only now beginning to show that our Western-based assumptions of child development are not universal and that children do not automatically progress through the same sequence of developmental stages (Dawes and Tredoux 1989). Discussion with researchers working in Gaza indicated that the puzzling findings of their questionnaires among children, which revealed a strong community-centric focus to their worries rather than the anticipated ego-centric focus, as would be the case in Europe or North America, could only be understood in the wider context of family and community cohesion (MacMullin, personal communications, 1998). Preliminary discussion with UNICEF programme officers in region revealed that the underlying issues which inform their programmes are set from headquarters and are based on Western assumptions of appropriate child development rather than an understanding of the cultural, social, political and economic context in which these phenomena occur. The regional offices make efforts to modify their programmes to fit local contexts. These alterations, however, are not based on any empirical study. They are, rather, an ad hoc assessment by local practitioners of what might fit their community.

Current International Government Organizations (IGO) and National Non-Government organizations (NGO) practices

UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, provides basic education, health, relief and social services to Palestinian refugees in Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. UNRWA's operating budget is reviewed by its Advisory Commission and submitted to the United Nations General Assembly every two years. In the past several years, its budget has been cut with negative repercussions on Palestinian refugee services. The general trend among international organizations to shift the focus from humanitarian relief to sustainable development has also affected UNRWA. The agency now encourages the establishment of community-based organizations. However these local organizations are financially and logistically fundamentally unable to meet the needs of the Palestinian refugee population. There is no specific focus on children between the ages of 8-18 within UNRWA or these local NGOs.

The other international government organizations (IGO) in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine have slightly differing approaches to programme implementation as reflected in the different context within which they must operate. There are, however, some commonalities. Programmes geared specifically for Palestinian refugee children and adolescents are limited. The few that do exist, or did in the past, are not based on local priorities. In many cases, the programmes are identified and developed in agency headquarters (Europe or the United States) and sent to the Middle East regional offices ready to be implemented in the local community. In 1999 and 2000 for example, 'good parenting' and 'early childhood education' was the primary focus of UNICEF programming. Initially this programme was carried out in the form of 'train-the-trainer' projects as well as 'raising parental awareness' of what is 'good parenting' in the local communities. Interviews with trainers, some of them UNRWA staff working in the refugee camps revealed that the programmes came from UNICEF headquarters in New York with pre-prepared visual and video material. This suggests that the decision to implement this programme was a top-down process; the theme having been identified at headquarters prior to engaging with the community and soliciting their participation or their perception of their needs and priorities. Once the material reaches the regional offices, however, there is a concerted effort made by local trainers and staff to re-mold the ready-made packages and to try to respond to what they perceive to be the local communities' social and cultural norms and requirement.

It is important to underscore that the basic premises upon which much IGO programming are based does not reflect a good understanding of the local social or cultural reality of the Palestinian community. For example, the 'good parenting' materials which accompany the programmes are built upon a conceptual model that deems Western 'developmental stages' as universal, dividing age groups into particular stages on a developmental scale accompanied by pictures and images of middle-class children happily playing with expensive toys or eating healthy and expensive foods. Most refugee children live in miserable and poor conditions and such images highlight what they 'do not have' as a particularly underprivileged community in society at large. Furthermore, the concepts of who are 'children', 'youths' or 'adults' are socially and historically constructed. IGO programmes aimed at reducing the incidents of 'child labour', for example, do not reflect on the possibility that Palestinian children and their families regard the paid employment which a child or youth undertakes as vital to the well-being of the family. This is not to say that children should be encouraged to work, but rather to plea for efforts to refocus the child within the wider web of social and economic relations such as the extended family, the school, the camp, and the market.

In Lebanon, a large number of IGOs and national NGOs operate. These include UNICEF, Norwegian People's Aid, Welfare Association, AFIDA-Australia, World Vision, Medical Aid for Palestinians, Radda Barnen-Sweden, and Save the Children-UK among others. These programmes tend to focus on programmes of a developmental nature rather than giving relief assistance. Vocational training for youth and in particular for school drop-outs, care for disabled children, summer residential activity clubs are among their projects.

In Syria, with the exception of a recently set up project for severely handicapped children run by Save the Children, there are no IGOs operating in the country other than UNICEF. There are, however, a number of large NGOs working with Palestinians. These include the Palestinian Women's Federation, Palestinian Youth Organization, General Union of Palestinian Teachers, Zahret Al Madayen Charity Association, and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. These organizations operate groups, after-school clubs and other projects which reinforce notions of Palestinian identity. They also occasionally provide relief assistance to the particularly needy.

UNICEF and Save the Children are major IGO actors in Jordan. Due to the specific nature of Palestinian identity in Jordan (as citizens) these projects target the Jordanian urban poor and not specifically Palestinian refugee children and adolescents. Their current focus is on good parenting, early childhood activities, and peer consultants programmes for youth. A large number of NGOs also work in Jordan. These include the Community Centers for Social Development, Jordan River Foundation, National Task Force for Children, and the Swedish Organization for Individual Relief.

In Palestine, UNICEF is a major player along with Save the Children, Defence for Children International, World Vision, Care International (Australia) to name a few. NGOs are also very numerous and include amongst them the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, Union of Health Workers, Cultural and Free Thought Association, the Red Crescent, Canaan Institute, El Qattan Children's Centre, Palestinian Counseling Centre, Terre des Hommes, Tamer Institute, and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society to name a few. These organizations have programmes which run the gamut from mental and physical health programmes, therapy clinics, summer camps, workshops for teachers, emergency social support, training in human rights and democracy, and various cultural and library activities.

Last updated Sep 25, 2011