Human Arenas

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The Science and Ethics of Intervention Programmes in Family and Child Welfare: Towards Building an Inclusive Psychology for Social Justice

  • Nandita ChaudharyEmail author
Arena of Ethics


India’s cultural diversity is an illustration of sustainable engagement of people with their environment where cultural practices are in a delicate ecological balance often with meagre resources and harsh conditions. This balance is underestimated when programmes and services seek inspiration and guidance from global trends without adequate attention to local reality. Poverty is treated as a failure of the people (and by the people as a failure of the Government) rather than a consequence of long-standing structural marginalization. Blaming the victim has been an important theme in evaluating cultural practices of people living with disadvantage. This is a serious error in judgement both on scientific and ethical grounds. Despite enduring scholarly work that recognizes the need for context-sensitive theory and research in the field of psychology, institutional practices have remained largely loyal to global trends. Large-scale intervention programmes in community welfare persist with practices that derive directly from mainstream psychology, especially in the fields of education, family studies and child development. Through the financial and ideological push from international NGOs that prescribe objectives and strategies for intervention, the real problem remains ignored despite claiming impressive outreach. Primarily because of misplaced emphases and misconstrued priorities, intervention initiatives often fail to meet the objectives of social justice and equity. Furthermore, they may even result in distancing people in marginalized communities further, on account of unintended consequences of welfare activity. This can be seen in the large number of youth that hang precariously in between the world that they knew and the one that was implicitly promised to them. In spite of claims about coverage in terms of numbers, providing ecologically valid, cultural relevant and socially just services is restricted to a handful of committed agencies. This article will focus on specific instances of educational and welfare programmes that are advanced without either the knowledge about or respect for local community ideology in the desire to bring about social change for their “upliftment”. A special case in point is the persistent inability for the poor to access and participate in good quality education despite their enthusiasm and motivation. After providing an overview of the ideological mismatch between local culture and global policy, I will also give examples of experiments that have been successful in working towards ethically and scientifically sound welfare initiatives.


Intervention Welfare Children’s rights International NGOs Ethics Cultural differences Poverty 

Local to Global to Local: Persistent Trends in the Transfer of Expertise in the Human Sciences

There are serious shortcomings of “thinking locally and acting globally” (Gergen et al. 1996). More specifically, in the social sciences, uncritical application of ideas emerging from a particular location to the rest of the world has been proved to have several significant shortcomings. “Typically, because of the greater scientific stakes in documenting the general as opposed to the particular, cultural variations are either de-emphasized or simply bracketed for ‘later study’…….cultural distinctiveness is but an impediment to achieving the broader goal of research” (p. 496). This article in 1996 drew our attention to the importance of horizontal rather than vertical collaborations between countries (Misra 1994).

More recently, a more focused attack has come from careful analysis of publications, particularly regarding the demographic characteristics of participants. We find that a small percentage of the world’s people, those who live predominantly in service-based economies and who share socio-demographic characteristics such as high levels of education, nuclear family structure with few children and financial security (that is, people living a Western lifestyle, commonly referred to as Western or Westernized societies) (Arnett 2008; Henrich et al. 2010), predominate. This comes as no surprise. Publications in psychological research are dominated by scholars in US academic institutions and in English-speaking countries, and research is focused on select populations in the USA and in Europe (Nielsen et al. 2017), and exaggerates the extent of scientific consensus about favourable conditions for and features of children’s psychological development (Serpell and Nsamenang 2014).

WEIRD Psychology

Let us take a closer look at the allegations. Almost 70% of American psychology is derived from studies on American college-going students. A review of research articles prompted Henrich et al. (2010) to examine the participants of the research on which these studies were based. Overwhelmingly, subjects were from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic communities, prompting the authors to label them WEIRD subjects. Here is an overview of their findings:

“Behavioural scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behaviour in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population.…. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioural sciences to best tackle these challenges.” (p. 62)

Psychology, as Henrich and his colleagues concluded, is a cultural project, and one that does not apply universally.

International NGOs and Their Agenda

India’s policy on family and child welfare is steered by international guidelines like the CRC,1 SDGs and CCD2 that have been prepared by International NGOs like UNICEF. One important goal of these interventions is to “improve parenting practices” and thus children’s developmental achievements, quoting evidences from the field of applied developmental science.

In this presentation, I will argue that, for several important reasons (political, economic, scientific and ethical), globally executed intervention programmes rarely attend to ideological, conceptual and methodological assumptions underlying the research studies and interpretations of research findings on which they are based. Selective referencing and exaggerated claims are the mainstay of these policies (Serpell and Nsamenang 2014). Furthermore, monitoring and evaluations are also funded primarily by these agencies implying a conflict of interests. I believe that as an academic community, we have failed to provide alternative models to our people, in the absence of which, imported ideologies and practices proliferate. Scientists from the country are rarely called upon for advice in this field, and the transformations in University education and research has failed to impact the ways in which individuals, families and children are understood. It is thus, necessary for a structural reorganization of the discipline to respond to contemporary challenges to make psychology more socially relevant (Bhatia 2018).

Children’s Rights and the CRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child)

The modern view of childhood in the West is barely three to four centuries old. Viewing children as frail and innocent with the corresponding breakdown of the extended family and industrial revolution insulated children from economic and social life. The increasing proportion of older people and the lowering of fertility rates accompanied by other social changes have spearheaded transformation in the ways in which childhood is constructed. The shrinking family and social changes led to heightened vulnerability of children and this insecurity is transferred onto the global policy. This is the version of childhood promoted by Western capitalism. In the global south, the child is not viewed as separate from family and society.

Child rights as an idea is firmly embedded in globalization. The failure of the SAPs (Structural Adjustment Programmes) through loans to poor countries failed to make a difference and the movement from SAP to welfare programmes is well documented. Whereas earlier efforts were for poverty alleviation, relating the primary cause of poverty to structural inequalities (historical policy in colonialism for instance), we have moved towards more psychological explanations. In the year 1990, the United Nations declared the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), under the umbrella of human rights, within which children have been identified as requiring special care and attention. Accepting the importance of family and community values, the Convention identifies that all children must be “protected and cared for” as is necessary for their well-being, for which member countries need to ensure legislative and administrative commitment. A total of 190 other member countries are signatories to this document. However, some countries have refrained from adopting the document as binding, these include Somalia, South Sudan, and the USA. The CRC has not yet received a majority vote from the US Senate that is required for its ratification, although it was symbolically accepted during the Clinton regime. The main reason for this restraint by the US government relates to the assumed sovereignty of the nation and its people, and the unwillingness to concede authority to an external body. This would imply a threat to parental rights of American citizens; it is believed (Attiah 2014). Global human rights standards were challenged at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna (1993) when a number of countries (China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran, and others) objected to the idea of universal rights. There are unresolved tensions between universalistic and relativistic approaches in the establishment of standards and strategies designed to prevent or overcome the abuse of children’s capacity to work. By deduction therefore, the signatories of the CRC would have, in fact, allowed the entry of these “universal” guidelines as superior to local practice. As a consequence, there is a notional separation of an individual child from its social setting, and the separation of development from the cultural context and a subordination of the local to the global.

As Burman (1996) argues:

Drawing on analyses of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, conceptual limitations of a shift from generalization to naturalization are identified. These culminate in a globalization of childhood that is particularly evident in models of psychological development. The article outlines how assumptions about the separation of individual and society, and development from culture, play a key role in this process. At the level of practice, therefore, the article argues for the need to maintain a critical vigilance on the adequacy of the conceptual resources that inform policy and programmes for children (p. 45).

Fundamental Problems in the CRC

Assumptions of Globally Inspired Welfare Programmes

In the 80s and 90s, the concern about childhood became consolidated and the CRC is a focussed expression of that concern. The discourse about children’s rights is in fact based on what childhood is believed to be like, and that is a matter of culture, not uniform across the world. As mentioned above, social and demographic changes in the Western society have spearheaded some of these changes. In India, which harbours some of the largest numbers of children living in poverty, the CRC has been accepted and adopted as is, in the absence of robust debates, and there are very few, if any, attempts to examine the CRC critically, in light of Indian family and society (Raman 2000).

Does modern science really show that the current practices of middle-class, cosmopolitan Western families are (a) superior in effectiveness to the traditional practices of rural African communities, and (b) transposable into low-income African communities without disturbing the prevailing sociocultural system, threatening the psychological well-being of parents and undermining their confidence in their own parenting skills? (Serpell and Nsamenang 2014, p. 20).

The child is an individual and needs to be protected and nurtured. This model is being offered to the world as the ideal model for childhood, having emerged in Western capitalism. Yet, the child is also a member of a group and nested within community and family. In fact, one of the primary reasons why USA has not signed the CRC is because it dilutes the importance of the family.

Another important feature is that whereas 18 years is seen as the age of transition into adulthood, in Asian and African countries it would be well before that. At 18, they would be considered young adults and would be assigned and expected to take on adult roles. In fact, children are expected to contribute to the household or family occupation from a very early age. Article 32 of the CRC states that children should be free from child labour. Yet, what is considered harmful and what is exploitative is different across cultures. Various types of children’s work have been known to be beneficial to the family and social economy and also provide children with a sense of importance and self-esteem, provided it is not hazardous. Many scholars now favour a more conditional wisdom founded on a greater sense of social, historical and cultural contextualisation of child development, of children’s lived experience and beliefs and theories of those who care for them (Woodhead 1999). The parameters of welfare are relative, and there is no space for dialogue in the CRC. For instance, in the case of the care of younger siblings, there is a clear difference on the meanings attributed to sibling care, in some places it is considered inappropriate, exploitative whereas in others it is an expectation (Weisner and Gallimore 1977).

Based on the assumption of proximal causes, most intervention work for children’s welfare is transacted with the fundamental purpose of changing the way people live, think and go about their lives. Let us examine, for instance, the Care for Child Development (CCD) initiated in 23 sites in 19 countries by UNICEF and WHO, that derives from Attachment Theory (Lucas 2016). In order to justify the world-wide call for intervention among the poor, it is argued that caregivers who respond frequently in fact facilitate “…….secure attachment, which serves as a foundation for how the child builds a capacity for human relationships and lifelong learning. Highly responsive caregivers contribute, for example, to the child’s vocabulary, problem-solving abilities, and complex social interactions…..They build the fundamental architecture of the infant’s rapidly growing brain, and help infants to develop emotional control – all pieces of a strong start to learning the skills needed for life” (p. 64). Research studies demonstrate that CCD interventions have shown great advances in making caregivers more sensitive and responsive (Lucas 2016). How this has changed their lives in other ways is, however, left to the imagination.

Specific Conflicts Between Local Views and Global Positions

Let me provide some concrete examples from my experiences, about how intervention initiatives, if not caringly planned, can be at odds with local practices, cultural beliefs and dignity and respect of beneficiaries. These are features common to most communities in India and they transcend religious, ethnic and linguistic boundaries. One could say these are threads that run through the people of the subcontinent. These include well-documented practices like multiple caregiving, care of children by children, continuity in adult-child relationships characterized by a lack of separation between the world of children, youth, adults and the elderly, multi-party conversations, children as household helpers, and joint and extended family structure and the omnipresence of children.

The Global Epidemic of Sameness

From undescribed microbes to undocumented tongues, life is characterized by diversity. The belief that there is one good way of living family life or bringing up children is based on cultural imperialism. Globalization is a force that visualizes sameness as an ideal, but that is based on the assumption of a level playing field. Yet, countries, and within these, communities and inside those, individuals are diverse and uneven. Although diversity and equality may seem at odds, difference does not imply the absence of equity. Rather, ignoring diversity can perpetuate hidden inequalities that are far more sinister and damaging to local cultures. We have to replace the equality in human rights campaigns to the more favourable notion of equity, which allows for the inclusion of difference.

In the present times, it is possible to discern a global epidemic of sameness that carries away entire human languages, destroys domesticated food-crops and kills off entire species. The havoc caused by this view of the human-environment interface is the cause for our balance with nature to become tenuous. The fallout is not merely an assault to our aesthetic or even ethical values: as cultures and languages vanish, along with them go vast and ancient storehouses of accumulated knowledge. And as species disappear, along with them go not just valuable genetic resources, but critical links in complex ecological webs (Montenegro and Glavin 2015, p. 1). In fact, the authors of the above piece argue that the threat to diversity in biological and cultural spheres results from the same syndrome. Social and natural systems interact in several ways; the destruction of languages as well as microbes may in fact result from the very same desires. “Our collective failure to recognize and impede this rampant winnowing of diversity can in part be blamed on the sheer rapidity with which it has advanced (Montenegro and Glavin 2015, p. 2). The disappearance of ethnic diversity is closely linked with the disappearance of biodiversity (Maffi and Woodley 2012). This curtailment and intolerance of “other” ways of living is a manifestation of ethnocentrism, and has far reaching consequences, some of which are not possible to imagine at the outset. When social change is attempted, whether within migrating populations, international aid or even educational institutions, the intended impact is couched in a discourse of “development”. The intricate interlinkages that exist between people and their environments are in fact not a frequent consideration when we recommend a shift in beliefs, attitudes and practices.

Regarding childhood as well, there seems to be an increasing demand and desire for being like everyone else. The desire to fit in is a tendency sometimes attributed to the age of adolescence. However, young children are not an exception to this and global trends are increasingly defining what children should look like and behave. In order to achieve these “global standards” defined usually by the wealthy, care practices are also becoming narrowly defined, and there may soon be the emergence of the “right way to bring up children” as we have seen in recent cases of immigrant parents in Scandinavian countries. The particular instances of removing children from parents on account of suspicion or abuse are on the increase. These services are called in when there are some misgivings about a child’s safety. Although this is a State service for child protection, a decrease in the tolerance of variation seems to have become evident in more recent times. Norway and the USA have increasing number of instances of removing children from their homes and parents and placed in foster care. Mostly, it is when the personnel visit homes and find the family following practices at odds with the local ideology of care like feeding children with the hand (interpreted as force feeding) or co-sleeping (interpreted as abuse). Quite unknowingly, families have become ensnared in a battle of custody for their children. In Norway, this supervision applies even to people who are travelling to the country as tourists. In complete contrast, India has permitted expatriates from different countries to persist with not only their own care arrangements; there is even permission for each nationality to set up educational institutions so that their children would not have to attend “Indian schools”.

Clearly, there is the politics of affluence that comes into play here. Cultural practices of care are adapted to the social, geographic and ecological context in which a child is growing up. Additionally, there are certain pathways of development that are priorities for different social groups, their inalienable right. I am arguing here that preserving this variation is not simply an issue of human rights and cultural difference; it is a matter of survival. Increasingly, we have evidence from the natural sciences that we are more likely to survive if variation is sustained.

In Defence of Difference and the Danger of the Single Story

As a young girl growing up in Nigeria, Chimamanda Adichie was steeped in English literature with fair-skinned children with blond hair and blue eyes. Her imagination was captured by those stories. In her TED talk and in fact, in all her writing, Adichie warns of the collapse of our imagination into a single story:

What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. This is the danger of the single story, it colonises your imagination to a point where you cannot think outside of the images you feed on. Unless of course, there is an awakening to the fact. You are not successful unless you have attained the next thing, until you have reached the West, because that is the world that has filled your imagination. The poor? They were to be pitied because they had lesser lives. It was only later that she realised how dangerous this story was for her, her identity and nationality, for her country (Adichie 2009).

We have to be warned about single stories and power structures, whether these are attempts at saving people from darkness through religious conversion or political domination. Humanity thrives on diversity.

The Science of Scarcity and Ethical Considerations

Another important issue is who is marked as poor or disadvantaged and how they are viewed. This has great impact on how welfare programmes are positioned in the community, for example, are the members seen as wasteful, useless, incapable of learning, unwise and ignorant? Or are they believed to be hardworking, dignified individuals who are doing the best they can under the circumstances?

Who is defined as poor is fraught with ambiguity. On account of the immense diversity of the world’s people, it is not possible to simply draw a line and mark a section of people as poor (Sen 1992). The discourse on poverty has to change in order to engage with people effectively. When we work with the poor, there is a tendency to believe there is something “wrong with them” (Feinberg 2016, p. 41). In this manner, we land up with a double load on the poor; the first and most important load is placed on them by their situation, and the second, by blaming them for their situation (Chaudhary 2017)!

Furthermore, the scientific study of poverty has been recently debated by behavioural economists Mullainathan and Shafir (2014) where they argue that on the basis of their research that behaviours that are commonly associated with the poor, poor attention at school, unwise financial decisions, or impulsive conduct, are in fact likely to be the products of scarcity rather than its cause. If poverty, hunger and scarcity persist, a person’s behaviour is seriously impacted negatively. These findings in fact overturn our assumptions that the poor are poor because they have bad attitudes. In fact they make poor decisions because they live with scarcity. By examining several research studies, Mullainathan and Shafir (2014) prove that because of chronic scarcity people make poor decisions.

What concerns us as social scientists is how such interventions have been initiated in the absence of sufficient scientific evidence. How has the cultural sovereignty of people been compromised so effortlessly? Does such an intervention not dilute the rights of the family and reach beyond the agenda of poverty alleviation? How can welfare agencies provide a guarantee that their interventions and the subsequent changes that they claim to have made, do not in fact compromise the adaptive mechanisms that people develop in particular contexts in order to survive. After all, the context of poverty or disadvantage is not going to change as quickly as behaviour might. Changing practices can in fact, predispose families and children towards unanticipated vulnerabilities. There is no doubt here that the confidence of the counsellors, the change agents derives from a background of relative affluence and the corresponding poverty of the people they work with. It seems quite clear that the poor also lose their rights to privacy and self-determination on account of being poor.

Western ideology and the popularity of Attachment Theory and practice are considered “best practice”, without attention either to the veracity of these claims or the cultural specificity of the ideological assumptions. As Burman (1996) argues, we need to maintain “critical vigilance” on these programmes and practices to ensure that the changes that are being initiated are in fact favourable for the community and not driven by exaggerated claims of weak scientific evidence (Serpell and Nsamenang 2014).

Call for Change: Working with Poverty

It is also possible to see similar trends in other related areas of work. The well-known Word Gap controversy that claims that the discrepancy in the number of words children hear creates a pattern where 30 million word difference based on social class. In a recent article, authors Sperry et al. (2018) argue that there is an urgent need to re-examine how development is defined and studied. Since consequences of such assertions have consequences on patterns of language use and may even result in the erasure of entire languages other than English in the USA where interventions are already being planned, but also in other parts of the world where programmes have been initiated (Weber et al. 2017). Besides, their new study, with more appropriate methods, failed to find the kind of gap that has been reported thus far.3 This amounts to conversion. When philosophical ideas are translated into practice, there is a “price of passage” (Lemieux 2012) and we need to ensure that the price is not too high!

Engaging with people living with poverty needs careful examination. Singh (2015) selects a bleak landscape of tribal Rajasthan to illustrate the lives of the Shariya community, the poorest among the poor. Through his compelling exposition on power and ethics, Singh succeeds in providing an alternative position on poverty, after having lived among the tribals for an extended period of time. His narrative transcends the dichotomies of religion-secularism and material-cultural frames. The perseverance of people to survive, as resources are depleted, is taken as evidence of vitality and strength. Poverty is neither romanticized nor dismissed; it is described and discussed from the perspective of the people who live their lives in the shadows. One is not moved to pity or anger about why people should live with so little, but with a sense of respect for humankind that survives even under very difficult circumstances. Through his insightful examination, Singh finds that his subjects resist being reduced to categories.

Calls to change the status quo span decades (e.g. LeVine and Norman 2001) with more recent appeals pointedly demonstrating the potential harm of this bias towards communities living outside of the affluent West (Arnett 2008; Henrich et al. 2010). Bhatia (2018) argues that Euro-American psychological science has adopted a dominant and imperial position to the extent that it speaks for and represents the majority of humanity. It also subordinates other psychological perspectives (like religion, for instance) thereby creating a power structure that leaves no space for other views. When we consider social justice and psychology, there is a need to be aware of and theorize about inequity and lay open the injustice while connecting “here” with “there” (Bhatia 2018). When we work with the poor, it is essential to go beyond the material-cultural dichotomy that swings between the discourse of deprivation and relativism, beyond pity and anger, and recognize the perseverance of the people in the face of depleting resources and to treat that as evidence of vitality and the will to survive under difficult circumstances. Welfare and aid should be provided as basic services, on grounds of human dignity, equity and respect and not hand-outs.

Although teaching and research in psychology have been increasingly impacted, the consequences of social science research on practices have received little attention. In fact, family and child welfare programmes, especially those funded by international NGOs campaign for intervention for social change based on Euro-American ideals of community living, family dynamics, and children’s development drawing from traditional perspectives in developmental psychology and child development, with little or no attention to culture and ecology. In fact, whenever culture is considered, it is focused on “how to get the message across” and not “what messages are meaningful” (Chaudhary 2018). These policies have profound impact on the ways in which services are presented to people ranging from school experiences, youth programmes, care of children and health and family welfare. Fortunately, India has a robust range of local players in this field who keep their objectives grounded in local reality. However, their impact is usually restricted to the communities that they work among, whereas National and State policy is hugely impacted by the presence of International players.

Why So Many Interventions Have Failed

Globally inspired attempts at poverty alleviation have not worked on account of several reasons, in fact, it has even been argued that the political overtones and economic consequences of welfare do in fact have unanticipated consequences for people that can cause an imbalance. Given that the poor (rural, tribal, islanders) live in such a delicate balance with their ecology, interventions can lead to other consequences. Structures of oppression are perpetuated with welfare programmes that derive from a sense of superiority and claims to having the answers to people’s problems, and in fact, even creating problems where there are none. When we push for activities that promote play with manufactured toys, reading out at bed-time to your child, have face to face conversation and promote independent eating, as activities that are essential for healthy development (measured through adapted scales like VSMS), we often do not realize how seriously it underestimates cultural practices like play with other children, explorations of local ecology, knowledge of local flora and fauna, verbal narration, cultural discourse patterns and so on. One kind of approach is presented as if it is the only way in which intelligent, mature and successful children can be brought up, and this is unethical and unscientific!

The beliefs and practices of local people are either opaque to Western-trained researchers and practitioners or marginalized by them because of the (assumed) risk that these beliefs and practices have on children’s healthy and successful developmental trajectories. These researchers’ well-intentioned efforts to improve the health and well-being or intelligence and language of children disregard and often interfere with communities’ ways of living with others’ that are ecologically and culturally grounded (Keller and Chaudhary 2017) and they neglect the real-world consequences of their recommendations.

The Example of School

Feeling personally responsible for the state of education in India today, the eminent Professor G. N. Devy (2017) writes that “Unfortunately, after Independence, none of the greater visions suitable for sustaining the inner strengths of Indian society were organically integrated with education” (p. 14), we remain stunted under the pressure of information gathering for successful futures. And schools have created a distance between how lives are lived and what is learnt. One of the outcomes of partial and inappropriate schooling has been the number of unemployed, educated youth who have been displaced from their family occupations by being partly educated, and have not yet found a destination that would accept them. The outcome has been a generation of youth who will not accept what they have and will not be accepted where they wish in terms of work. This is an issue of concern especially when delinquency and crime are concerned. This is another reason why schools must be adapted to and working within the practical context of the community in which they live. Unless the local knowledge is integrated, the displacement between the people and their community will continue to grow and youth will become strangers in their own land, not being able to get anywhere, and not being able to stay.

“The rarefied, idealistic abstractions that proliferate in UN declarations concerning the universal brotherhood of mankind’ are increasingly unreal, and we have to ensure that the intersecting realities find a voice” (Serpell 1993, p. xi). When there is a discrepancy between the cultural meaning systems of the host community, the economic agenda takes over and as a result, there is a systematic devaluation of the child’s family, home and community. As they stand today, schools in India have failed a large proportion of the very children who are likely to benefit from it the most. Schools systematically persist in physical punishment in the name of “improving” children and teaching without any practical exposure is the norm. There is very little scope for the sort of classroom that Badheka4 (1990) had visualized in Divaswapna. With the exception of a handful of innovative programmes, schools and even preschools follow the format of a disciplined, formal set-up where teachers speak and children write. There is very little scope for any discussion, and even less for practical demonstration.

Rethinking Interventions

The goals of welfare programmes, educational services and other such interventions have some basic objectives that are repeatedly adopted. These include sustainability, quality and equality and human rights.

Let me take a specific extract from CCD package, I quote:

Globally over 200 million children do not reach their developmental potential in the first 5 years of life because they live in poverty, and have poor health services, nutrition and psycho-social care. These disadvantaged children do poorly in school and subsequently have low incomes, high fertility, high criminality, and provide poor care for their own children. The health sector in countries has the capacity to play a unique role in the field of early child development because the most important window of opportunity for ensuring optimal development….The Care for Child Development intervention provides information and recommendations for cognitive stimulation and social support to young children, through sensitive and responsive caregiver-child interactions5

The solutions for poverty often failed to attain their objective, and it is important to review our positions on disadvantage. For instance, the automatic link between poverty and poor psychosocial care is unethical and unscientific. According to the above declaration, there is an assumption that all people living in disadvantage are automatically attributed with high criminality, for instance. Furthermore, the assumption that children do poorly in school is also unjustified. In fact, children are very keen to go to school, but, at least in India, there just aren’t enough schools! And for the ones that there are, entry for the children of the poor is arduous and they are quickly removed for the smallest of reasons, being frequently “pushed out” on account of their circumstances. There is an urgent need to rethink interventions if we have to make services available to all children in all communities.

What We Need to Do

Any expenditure by Governments that are already under financial constraints can only be justified if the local populations benefit from the interventions. A serious audit of welfare programmes across the developing world is an urgent need (Burman 1996). Presently, welfare does not seem to have had the sort of world-wide impact that was predicted and aid agencies have clearly exaggerated success stories (Rajan and Subhramanian 2007; Serpell and Nsamenang 2014), but that does not mean that welfare services are not needed, a renewal in policy, planning a delivery is an urgent need if the continued expenditure and the presence of international and national aid agencies is to be justified.

Since variation is a primary quality of life and its survival, it could be argued that sameness is a risk we should not take as a species. The more similar we are, the more vulnerable the species. Like buildings, art, and craft, child care practices and community activities need a heritage tag; we should not allow them to be transformed. Globalization has enhanced the need for preserving and studying diversity even more. We need to fully utilize the recent openness between cultures for a better understanding of human phenomena. “The new era of global openness for contacts between human beings across borders of national, social or religious kind sets up a new opportunity for the social sciences to expand their understanding to include the varieties of cultural histories into their scientific cores” (Valsiner 2017).

While examining the politics of the collective and the infinite diversity of the individual, our recent discoveries should inform our ideology of the cultural lives of people and their classification. It is an ethical responsibility for academics to incorporate the centrality of diversity in human forms and function into the ideology of the social sciences. The scientific search for the truth needs to move away from efforts for unravelling a fundamental unity and/or irreconcilable diversity. We need to incorporate the principle that diversity is a universal and life-sustaining feature of life, in biology as well as in culture and the humanities offer us many insights.

Recent research in biology has revealed that even the genome adapts actively to the environment. In a nutshell, if variation is a primary property of life, our treatment of the “norm” (and in fact the very idea of the norm) as ideal must be replaced.


To wrap up, what are some of the lessons from this presentation? I argue that we urgently need an audit of all welfare programmes to ensure scientific and ethical standards, favourable to the community, are being maintained.

Models for Culturally Situated Interventions

We need to evolve our own models that are adapted to the cultural context in which the children have grown so that rather than attempting “remedial action”, educational efforts can supplement and support the ongoing learning. Somewhat wealthier populations seem to believe that they need to “change” people in order to change their economic status when in fact their strategies may be adapted to their circumstances and thus also key to their survival.

There is need to develop greater dialogues between local people and welfare agencies mediated by social scientists who are grounded in matters of cultural difference. There should also be checks and balances on which aspects of family life are interfered with. Being poor does not mean having fewer rights as human beings. In order to proceed with health care, nutritional supplementation, sanitation and survival, wherever cultural practices need to be addressed, the local meaning system must be known to the personnel in the programme in order to better understand the significance of certain ways of doing things. Intervention programmes must be built around these local knowledge systems, some of which are very precious to people in their ecological settings, and may even better sustain the person-environment relationship. Intervention workers do not have the right to make changes beyond those that have gone through the rigour of academic validation. As Burman (1996) writes about the promotion of children’s welfare, there is no option but to take the difficult path “between the globalisations of cultural imperialism and the cultural relativism of localised conceptions” (p. 45).

Initiatives in rural areas of the developing world should therefore build on “strengths of indigenous cultures by respecting their meaning-systems and adapting their demonstrably beneficial practices. For instance, in an era of falling academic standards and the promotion of consumerism, school curricula would benefit from promoting values of reciprocal accountability and cooperation evident in African family traditions” (Serpell and Nsamenang 2014, p. 8).

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child6

In the adoption of Universal conventions, the African charter shows us a way forward in how to take a culturally favourable stance while accepting global standards to provide for the best interests of children. Goonsekere (1997) argues that while African and Asian countries were involved in the drafting of the CRC, the West dominated in the ways in which the model was promoted and that initiated an independent charter for African countries in 1990 (The African Charter on the Welfare and Rights of the Child). One of the key features of this charter is that although it recognizes in letter and spirit the UNCRC, there are distinctive aspects of African society that have been inserted in the preamble. For instance, by inserting clauses related to the “performance of duties on the part of others”, keeping a focus on “the unique factors of their socio-economic, cultural, traditional and developmental circumstances” as well as the child’s unique position in African society, the charter acknowledges the cultural situatedness of childhood. Such measures are important in the adoption of universal guidelines since they recognize and work with local cultural belief systems. How far these become implemented is the responsibility of the partners, local, national and global, but it definitely provides a framework for considering cultural knowledge systems and the social situation of children, which all cultures value.

Familism Instead of Children Versus Adults

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was declared in the year 1990, and has received international agreement and ratification from all countries with the exception of two countries (USA has signed but not ratified the CRC). The right to live free, with peace and dignity is accorded to all children of the world through this provision. Despite the political negotiations regarding signatures and ratifications by different countries, this document makes the notion of the child as a separate entity, and individual in his or her own right, an accepted fact. Although the Convention brings into focus the importance of viewing the child as an individual, with rights that can be considered separately from the family, the issue of universal rights and cultural difference remains contentious as a rarefied, idealistic abstraction, devoid of practical details.

Apprenticeship, and the co-existence of multiple ages is an important way of organizing communities. This form of organic organizations that was typical of rural societies, permitted the supervision of children of all ages including youth, and was an important phenomenon in the containment of delinquency and crime.

Poverty cannot be romanticized and we have a huge task ahead of us. However, unless we find our own sustainable solutions, treat our own people with respect, we will not find our way. In a recent audit, Rajan and Subhramanian (2007) find that welfare has not worked, despite all the millions of dollars of revenue spent, the world’s poverty still stands. This does not mean that welfare should be abandoned, but it certainly points to the fact that the present transactions are not working. We have to find workable solutions, it is our responsibility. And unless the social sciences are involved, this will continue to be a lot cause.

Handling diversity, not by making it more homogenous, but by permitting people the capability to learn from and educate themselves without feeling that they have to “leave their lives” in order to progress. How many parents send their children to school saying that “We don’t want them to be like us”? Why? If there is no pride in hard work, who is responsible for making them feel that way? Why has poverty always meant the lack of dignity? I think we are collectively responsible. The pockets of poverty in India are not poor on account of their habits; they are poor because of the chance of birth!

Looking inwards for patterns and principles, epistemology in Indian philosophies presents a far more experientially grounded range of experiences for accessing and gaining knowledge. The ways in which has seen many shifts. No other civilisation developed the use of memory (oral) as a central tool of gathering information. Knowledge is defined in Indian schools of thought both a verb and a noun (Devy 2017), perspectives that we have almost lost in the confrontation with Western thought.

Using local art, crafts and literature for making learning more sustainable and respectful of local culture, all institutions must be compelled to use local ways of crafting objects, fabrics, buildings, both for sustainability and conservation.

The dreamers, incorporating India’s emerging youth, in Snigdha Poonam’s recently released volume (Poonam 2018), we find dramatic accounts of young entrepreneurs forging ahead with establishing ventures for the quick and easy delivery of English lessons or creating algorithms to attract international audiences to strands of “news” on the internet. These kids of ventures have made millions and are thriving industries because they fill the imagination of a population that sees its tradition as empty and have not yet consolidated an image of where they want to be, because they cannot reach the place which feeds their imagination, the West! So, speedily taught English lessons and ticking numbers of people reached on a superficial (or fake) news item or health solution is hardly likely to sustain long-term interest. Yet the commercial success has got these youngsters somewhere. However, their interview sessions reported by the author demonstrate a sense of emptiness and absence of meaning. Is this the outcome of providing an image of an unattainable ideal life? Have all our narratives (schools, media, work, market) become dominated by second-hand images of family, home, life and livelihood? Is it possible that these people are chasing a dream that was not theirs? A dream that was shown to them through glossy magazines and photoshopped images, to show them how they should live? Perhaps we need a renaissance of the past, a past that is actively present (Thapar 2014) in some private spaces. We still retain enduring fragments of ancient wisdom and are in the risk of losing those. But for this we need not blind recursion, but a considered and balanced approach, because the former will be rudely rejected by youth. Old ideas have to be heavily screened and adapted to fit with modernity and global trends, and psychologists have an important role to play in this campaign precisely because social scientists inhabit the intersection of personal space and collective identity that can make such a dialogue possible.

Summing up

Let us not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Changing cultural practices can endanger the delicate balance that child-care practices provide between the household and the ecology. Surely, the direction in which the Western world is headed is not a direction we need to take. We need to forge our own direction in the soft, intimate spaces that children and families inhabit with confidence and pride, and not a sense of lacking something. Food, family life and cultural practices are still the aspects of intimate life that carry some resonance with the past. There is a new India that has left many things behind and has not reached somewhere, we need to act before it’s too late, and one of the important ways in which this can be achieved is through supporting services that address people with dignity and respect, rather than contempt. We need an urgent audit of programmes aimed at changing cultural practices by giving these a heritage tag just like we do for art, craft and buildings! The role of associations like the NAOP (National Association of Psychology, India) is critical in this campaign since it is a community of experts…….Can we, as Bhatia (urges us, “imagine a different Psychology? A psychology that goes beyond the mechanistic, universalizing, essentialising and ethnocentric dimensions that make up the hegemony of Euro-American psychological science” (Bhatia 2018, p. xx, Introduction).

I will end with a story from A. K. Ramanujan to illustrate my point further:

“In a South Indian folktale, also told elsewhere, one dark night, an old woman was searching intently for something in the street. A passer-by asked her “Have you lost something?”

She answered, “Yes, I have lost my keys. I’ve been looking for them all evening.”

“Where did you lose them?” the passer-by asked.

“I don’t know, maybe inside the house?”

“Then why are you looking for them here?”

“Because it’s dark in there, I don’t have any oil in my lamps. I can see much better here under the streetlights.”

Until recently, many studies of Indian civilisation have been conducted on that principle. Look for it under the light… well-lit public spaces….that we already know. There we have, of course, found previous things,……we need to move indoors into the expressive culture of the household to look for our keys. As often happens, we may not even find what we are looking for, but we will find all sorts of other things that we may not even know we had lost or even had.” (Ramanujan 1991, Introduction).




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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Lady Irwin CollegeNew DelhiIndia

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