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By the Sweat of Their Brow? ‘Street Children’, NGOs and Children's Rights in Addis Ababa

  • Olga Nieuwenhuys

Abstract

In the past two decades NGOs helping ‘street children’ in Addis Ababa have distinguished themselves by their adherence to highly controversial assumptions about the nature of childhood and the failure of the poor to raise their children in ways that they conceive as ‘proper’. The ratification of the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child by the Ethiopian government has inspired them to stop food relief in order to persuade the children in their care to seek a way out of their miserable ways of life through work on the street. In a remarkable replication of late Victorian philanthropic thinking, NGOs dispel hereby local middle-class fears that relief agencies may foster truancy and idleness and reassuringly define the code—work—that confers legitimacy on children's presence on the streets. Anticipating their escape from undeniably harsh and unjust family relations, the children of the poor are enticed into accepting this solution as the price of a ‘decent’ and morally acceptable childhood. They remain nevertheless highly critical of the rights-based approach, claiming that in the name of their rights they are denied what used to be children's normal entitlement such as protected food prices, free basic health and education. The article is based on the findings of an action research project by social workers among the children assisted by eight Addis Ababa-based NGOs in the period 1996-98.

Au cours des deux dernières décennies, des ONG d'aide aux « enfants des rues » se sont distinguées à Addis-Abeba en adhérant à des idées extrêmement controversées concernant la nature de l'enfance et l'incapacité des pauvres à élever leurs enfants d'une manière qu'elles considèrent comme « convenable ». La ratification de la Déclaration des droits de l'enfant de l'ONU par le gouvernement éthiopien les a incitées à suspendre l'aide alimentaire pour persuader les enfants dont elles ont la charge de trouver un moyen d'échapper à leurs conditions de vie misérables en travaillant dans la rue. A l'image de la pensée philanthropique de la fin de l'époque victorienne, ces ONG dissipent en ce faisant la crainte des classes moyennes locales de voir les organisations humanitaires encourager l'absentéisme scolaire et l'oisiveté, et définissent de façon rassurante le code : le travail, qui confère une légitimité à la présence des enfants dans la rue. Désireux d'échapper à des rapports familiaux indéniablement difficiles et injustes, les enfants des familles pauvres se laissent persuader d'accepter cette solution comme le prix d'une enfance « décente » et moralement acceptable. Ils demeurent néanmoins très critiques à l'égard de l'approche axée sur les droits, affirmant qu'au nom de ces droits on leur refuse ce à quoi ils avaient autrefois normalement droit, comme la protection du prix des denrées alimentaires, ainsi que des soins de santé et une éducation de base gratuits. l'article se base sur les conclusions d'une étude active réalisée entre 1996 et 1998 par des travailleurs sociaux auprès d'enfants aidés par huit ONG établies à Addis-Abeba.

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By the Sweat of Their Brow? ‘Street Children’, NGOs and Children's Rights in Addis Ababa

  • Olga Nieuwenhuys

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