No room at the top table

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Globalisation is bringing benefits to some of the poorest countries. Yet whether you get an education still depends very much on where you are born.

Ted Wragg reads a new study of our lopsided world

Unequal Childhoods: young children's lives in poor countries

By Helen Penn

Routledge pound;17.99

Global citizenship. The term has a pleasing 21st-century ring to it. The wizardry of electronic communications and portable facilities means that we can send text and pictures instantly to the most remote corners of the planet, or talk to someone there via a mobile phone. Modern transport can take us almost anywhere in 24 hours.

Children in a British school can take for granted what would have seemed miraculous even to their parents when they were young. Yet around the globe, which has, in theory, shrunk to a manageable size, there is poverty, misery and blight. Rights that are fundamental in the western world are denied to millions of children elsewhere.

In Unequal Childhoods, Helen Penn analyses the issues that arise in a lopsided world. There are chapters on inequality, poverty, early childhood and international aid, and she relates what it is like to be a child in Kazakhstan, Swaziland, Himalayan India and Brazil. The last two of these countries are described by writers who know them well, Pawan Gupta and Fulvia Rosemberg.

The author argues not only that rich and poor nations have moved further apart, but that individuals within them are now more polarised than ever before. The rich become more affluent and liberated, while the poor sink into a deepening quagmire of deprivation.

The true meaning of the figures she quotes are hard to absorb. Unicef estimates that more than 100 million children are denied a basic education, 60 per cent of them girls. Conflicts have created chaos: 12 million children homeless, six million injured, two million slaughtered. More than four million children have died of HIVAids. You feel sick just reading the statistics, let alone trying to envisage how they must translate for the individuals concerned and their families.

Helen Penn begins her account with an analysis of the notion of globalisation. Market economists argue that globalisation is eradicating poverty, creating employment, widening opportunities. Its critics believe the international market creates poverty, as it winkles out ever cheaper labour and materials, wherever these can be found, while vigorously protecting its own interests. International trade means that broccoli from Peru, or green beans from Zimbabwe, can be jetted into our supermarkets within a day or so. It also permits powerful rulers to command their local economy, snaffling the proceeds from a country's oil or diamonds, before depositing their ill-gotten loot safely into overseas banks, or businesses and properties.

If you are a child in such a setting, you are almost certain to be denied your fundamental human rights, such as education or protection from commercial exploitation. The author describes how the reaction of the poor to their plight can vary. In Swaziland people are more fatalistic, in Kazakhstan they get angry, demanding better conditions.

In such circumstances childhood can reveal some of its fundamental characteristics, though the nature of these is contested. The ability to reason logically, for example, sometimes labelled "rationality", is seen in different ways. Jean Piaget regarded childhood as a period when children emerge into adulthood through fixed stages. Such notions place children always behind their elders. Some sociologists, by contrast, perceive childhood more as a time when uneven power relationships keep children down, even when they are perfectly capable of reasoning maturely. Penn describes the nature of childhood in the various societies examined in the book.

In West Africa, for example, children run errands, join in family labour, look after the younger ones. Their contribution is often gender-specific, with clear roles and accompanying rewards for girls and boys. In Kazakhstan, in the central Asian steppes, the ninth biggest country in the world, participation in nursery education has fallen from 50 per cent to 11 per cent since it won independence from the former Soviet Union. Rural areas have seen the greatest decline.

Penn has visited the places she describes, so she is able to give first-hand accounts. What she sees in Kazakhstan is higher unemployment since the switch to a market economy, with state businesses sold off to rapacious entrepreneurs, and nurseries and youth clubs closed. Women and children have suffered the most. Money spent on nursery education has fallen and parents now have to pay fees and for food, so it is mainly the more affluent who attend. In Swaziland, 15 per cent of families are headed by a child; there's not much chance of getting an education yourself when you are swallowed up with the responsibility of running a family. In Himalayan India, mainstream education was thought to be diminishing children by giving them a sense of inferiority, so voluntary bodies are working to make the system more sensitive to local beliefs and opinion.

Fulvia Rosemberg describes the huge gap between rich and poor in Brazil, which is not regarded as a poor country. One in seven of the population is under six, so there are 23 million children in this age group. Nearly three-quarters live in two-parent families, while 10 per cent live with extended families. Although steps have been taken to reduce poverty, many young Brazilians live in dire conditions. In the poorest areas, a third of pre-school buildings have no electricity, while one in seven has no water.

More than 80 per cent have poor toilets. As many as one in six children in urban areas, and a quarter in rural areas, suffer from malnutrition.

Penn concludes these shocking snapshots of an international disgrace with positive suggestions about what can be done. Consumers have considerable muscle, if they shop ethically. She describes how existing structures can be improved, how care workers can be supported, what wealthier countries can do to mitigate the outrage. It is a powerful story well told. And as the author stresses, positive action is a lot better than hand-wringing.

Ted Wragg is emeritus professor at Exeter University's school of education.

As part of its Make the Link campaign, The TES has launched a series of awards for international school links, with two top prizes of pound;5,000 for the international school and FE college of the year, plus pound;3,500 for the best world link and pound;2,500 for the best European link. The awards are sponsored by HSBC and supported by the British Council. Closing date is July 20. Entry forms are available from our campaign website Link, which also carries advice on linking from experts such as Ted Wragg and tips on how to set up a link. Let us know about your link by emailing:

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