Spotlight On: Child Protection and Humanitarian Practice with Nigel Spence

Nigel Spence and Kayla Lochner

You have taken up a new post with the IGD as a Research to Practice Associate. What does this mean to you and why do you think it is important?

The Research to Practice Associate role with IGD is a great opportunity to draw from my experience in international development, as well as my earlier career in social work and child protection, and to support the transfer of research into practice. The evidence base in many areas of international development remains limited and the success in putting knowledge into practice is patchy. Too often knowledge transfer fails because of the lack of a strong, respectful relationship. These are challenges where IGD can make an important contribution and I am keen to assist, particularly by supporting stronger linkages between researchers and implementing organisations.  The Research for Development Impact Network (supported and co-led by UNSW colleagues), is already playing a valuable role in this respect.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently immersed in my PhD thesis that investigates the influence of international organisations on child protection policy in developing countries - specifically the experience of Vietnam in the years between the country’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 and the national child protection legislation passed in 2016. This examines the role and influence of international organisations in the diffusion of global children’s rights norms and the mediation of global ideas by local actors, beliefs and structures.

As you write your PhD, what are you reflecting on?

The PhD and my role with IGD are provoking a lot of reflection about the relationships between international actors and local communities. I am not currently in direct contact with local communities but my perspective is heavily influenced by the interaction I enjoyed at ChildFund with children, parents, teachers, government officials and partner organisations who were determined to improve conditions for children and youth. When at our best, ChildFund’s expertise and ideals joined with local commitment, knowledge and resourcefulness to design and implement development programs that made a measureable difference to children’s education, health, protection and opportunities to play, in some of the poorest communities in the Mekong region, Timor-Leste, PNG and other Pacific nations.

What have been the key impacts of your PhD so far? What do you think the opportunities are?

In talking to partners and government officials in Vietnam, and other countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, it is evident that all are experiencing huge challenges in developing functional, formal child protection systems. Sharing learning and experience has great potential to assist that development. It can help to identify and implement approaches appropriate to different national contexts and avoid some of the mistakes made in western child protection systems. There is a real opportunity to learn from the strengths in local contexts, localise international models, and integrate the formal and informal systems. 

What challenges do you think engagement and partnerships in development face?

International development organisations and Universities have vital roles to play in Asia and the Pacific by operating as principled activists, providing technical solutions and being authentic partners. But too often global norms and technical ideas are promoted without genuine engagement with local people. My experience and research highlight how difficult it is for national and international actors to engage in co-creation of solutions to complex social problems, like child protection. But that is where the most effective solutions are found.

What is next for you?

I continue to have a strong interest in the rapid changes occurring in Asia and the Pacific, specifically the effects of those changes on children and families. On many measures, conditions for children are improving. The idea of children having rights is now widely accepted and their rights to essential services are agreed, although not fully realised. At the same time there are continuing and emerging threats - some inflicted by government policy that heap trauma on already-vulnerable children, some due to global forces and climate change. Some groups experience entrenched poverty, and inequality is widening. Violence against children is pervasive and children are routinely excluded from decisions that affect them. The current COVID-19 pandemic is having negative impacts on children but, as is so often the case, these impacts are less visible than for other groups.

Much more understanding is needed about the positive and negative impacts for children arising from changes in our region. For example, the impacts on children of labour migration, climate change, the way families are dealing with economic shocks, online opportunities and risks, factors that contribute to children’s social and emotional well-being in low-income communities. More research is required on child protection system development in low and middle income countries, including models that successfully integrate informal and formal approaches. These are areas where I hope to see more attention from university and industry colleagues.

What opportunities do you think COVID-19 has for development?

International development and humanitarian relief organisations based in Australia have a deservedly strong reputation. Most are committed to high standards of practice, can demonstrate effectiveness and have partnerships with diverse local actors in many countries. The response by Australian agencies to humanitarian emergencies is essential, especially in the Pacific. But the sector has had a really tough time in recent years with cuts to aid funding and now the massive disruption brought by COVID-19. In the face of the pandemic, the adaptation of local communities and the re-focusing by aid organisations are impressive. Nevertheless, there are massive threats to the sector. It is crucial that the sector be sustained by government policy and public support during and after the crisis. It is a highly valuable national and regional resource.