Home Children as agents in crises: Re-assessing adult-child power dynamics in humanitarian action

Humanitarian crises present a myriad of threats to children, such as structural and physical violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation. Humanitarian response efforts seek to address such risk factors through their programming to ensure a child’s protection and wellbeing before, during and after an emergency. This humanitarian assistance can range from support for basic needs, the provision of shelter, psychosocial and hygiene care to formal and non-formal educational activities in child-friendly spaces.

In recent years, humanitarian response efforts have started to embrace children’s contributions to humanitarian programming, design and implementation, however much of the emphasis on child participation still draws on adult-designed strategies that view children as passive victims rather than actors in their own right. Protections are generally necessary for vulnerable children – but they are frequently overemphasised and can override children’s agency even in situations where a participatory approach would be beneficial.

Generic, adult-driven processes deny children the opportunity to identify and communicate potential risks and hazards, which can result in their heightened exposure to harm. In this article, the authors argue that conventional top-down approaches to humanitarian assistance should be replaced by child-driven programming that acknowledges children as skilled actors within emergency contexts who are exceedingly capable of shaping their environment and making autonomous decisions.

The article Children as agents in crises: re-assessing adult-child power dynamics in humanitarian action was published in Humanitarian Alternatives in March 2022.

Les enfants, acteurs dans les crises : réévaluer la dynamique de pouvoir adulte-enfant dans l’action humanitaire a été publié dans Alternatives Humanitaires en mars 2022.

Photo: Children participating in craft workshops for Ramadan in the child friendly space, Al Hol camp, Syria. Credit: Muhannad Khaled/Save the Children

Author note

Kirstin Kreyscher is a PhD candidate at Deakin University, and CHL Research Affiliate. She received funding through the Centre’s IKEA Foundation grant for her doctoral research in the Philippines, which she is currently undertaking.

Academic contributors