“Children-in-development” to Social Age Mainstreaming?

Christina Clark-Kazak on how Canada could be a leader in better integrating age into development policy.
By: /
September 16, 2013
Associate Professor and Acting Chair of International Studies at York University’s bilingual Glendon College

Despite the importance of age and generation in development processes, very few development agencies attempt to mainstream age in the same way as they do gender. Canada’s focus on children and youth as a priority area in its international development policy and programming provides a potential point of departure for innovation and leadership on age issues. This paper proposes ways in which Canada could draw on this to more effectively mainstream age and generation issues into its development policy and programming.

Age is central to development processes for several reasons. First, demographic realities vary significantly with development context, as developing countries have younger populations while developed countries have larger numbers of older people (United Nations Population Division 2013). Second, for biological and/or social reasons, people of different ages may experience poverty differently (Sumner 2010). For example, children under the age of 5 years have specific nutritional needs that may not be adequately met in contexts of poverty.  At the other end of the spectrum, in some cultures (male) elders are given preferential treatment in collective meals, allowing them to eat more and better quality food than younger and female members of the same household.

Third, development initiatives have differential impacts on people at different stages of the life course. Fourth, inter-generational and family relationships can influence, and be influenced by, development policies and programs. For example, in cross-cultural development contexts, groups and individuals attribute varied social meanings to different stages of the life cycle, and hold varied beliefs about the roles deemed beneficial and appropriate for different generations (Vera-Sanso 2006; James and Prout 1997).  These socially constructed approaches to age can impact on development projects and, in turn, can be changed by development processes (Clark-Kazak 2009).

Canada among aid agencies: A comparative analysis of approaches to age and development

In contrast to many other development agencies, since 2000, Canada has had an explicit focus on children in its aid programming. In CIDA’s Social Development Priorities: A Framework for Action (2000), child protection was listed as one of the four social development priorities. In 2009, a news release on a “new effective approach to Canadian aid” re-emphasized a focus on “children and youth”. The details of this are spelled out in CIDA’s children and youth strategy, entitled “Securing the Future of Children and Youth”. Within this document, three areas of focus are identified: a) improve child and maternal health; b) quality education and learning opportunities; and, c) rights and protection of children and youth.

While Canada’s focus on children and youth is somewhat innovative in the development cooperation sphere, it is still limiting. A discourse analysis of the current “Children and Youth Strategy” demonstrates that the policy adopts a “children in development” approach, which has similar short-comings to the “women in development” era of the 1970s. First, it only takes into account children, rather than a broader focus on age across the life course. Indeed, elderly people are not represented in the strategy at all, despite their important development roles and differential needs. This is particularly problematic in the context of an ageing world population and projections that developing countries will experience population ageing more rapidly than their developed counterparts (United Nations Population Division, 2013: 6)

Second, while the document makes an important first step in recognizing the importance of children and young people, it tends to ‘target’ them in isolation. While some child-specific programming may be necessary, it can result in a ghettoization – rather than a systematic mainstreaming – of children’s issues.  Moreover, there is little recognition that children are already part of development processes, and that they are connected to other generations through relationships and social structures.

A third short-coming of the ‘children-in-development’ approach is that unequal power relations within and between generations are not recognized and addressed. This is partially related to the lack of agency attributed to children and young people in the document.

Towards social age mainstreaming?

Despite the shortcomings of Canada’s current “children in development” approach, it could be a first step towards social age mainstreaming, just as WID eventually gave way to gender mainstreaming. Could Canada be poised to exhibit similar leadership on age issues as it did on gender and development in the 1970s and 80s?

The current context of CIDA’s amalgamation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade provides both an opportunity and a challenge in this regard. On one hand, age mainstreaming requires “changing the way one does business”, as the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees commented. The fact that the whole context of Canadian aid is structurally changing may provide opportunities for reform. On the other hand, if Canada’s development policy and programming becomes too aligned with trade and strategic diplomatic interests, the impetus for social age mainstreaming may be lost.

Within the broader development community, there are opportunities for Canadian leadership. First, Canada is one of the only aid agencies with a child-specific strategy.  Second, while limited, the MDGs do contain some age-specific targets which could provide some opportunities to leverage further action on age issues.

Another opportunity lies in the fact that Canada is legally mandated to undertake a gender assessment in all of its initiatives. Given the fact that social age analysis is inspired by gender mainstreaming, it could be possible to save some time and resources by undertaking gender and social age assessments together. That being said, it will require more resources and innovation, which may be difficult to muster, especially in the current political climate of austerity. Moreover, it should be recognized that Canadian aid workers may already suffer from “mainstreaming fatigue”, as they are faced with integrating many different elements under time and resource constraints.[1] Indeed, there are many critiques of mainstreaming in development policy. Although intended to effect deep organizational and structural change (Hartsock 1981), mainstreaming may actually de-politicise radical agendas by incorporating ‘language’ into technocratic planning and programming without changing the reality on the ground (Hankivsky 2005).

Conclusions and recommendations

It is clear that social age mainstreaming in Canada’s development policy and programming will not be an easy or fast process. However, it could be one way for Canada to make an important contribution to international aid approaches. In this way, it could exhibit leadership beyond its fairly modest aid budget. Social age mainstreaming also presents an opportunity for Canadian politicians and civil servants to rethink the way we deliver aid, especially in the context of the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.

Given the challenges of mainstreaming articulated above, it is important to clearly demonstrate the importance of age in development processes and the dangers of current age-blindness. While there is a growing body of scholarly literature on age and development, more data is needed, particularly in relation to elderly people in development contexts (cf Lloyd-Sherlock 2000).

Lessons from previous experience indicate that the implied organizational change requires champions at both high political/policy levels, as well as working level civil servants (Thomas and Beck 2010). To effectively implement social age mainstreaming, we would need to identify key people within Canada’s aid bureaucracy and provide them with the necessary tools and resources. Given the important implementation role of non-governmental and private sector “partners”, allies should also be identified from outside government.

Finally, in the context of budget cuts and numerous critiques of Canada’s aid policy and programming, it is important that social age mainstreaming be presented as a positive way in which Canadian aid could reinvent and reinvigorate itself. Canada’s Child and Youth Strategy should be presented as a first step towards a more comprehensive and more innovative way to make Canadian aid more inclusive and ultimately more effective.

This is an excerpt from a paper to be presented at the symposium “Rethinking Canadian Aid: Foundations, Contradictions and Possibilities”.

[1] This is based on the author’s personal experiences as a CIDA employee, as well as interviews conducted when developing an action plan for conflict sensitivity (Clark 2007; Clark-Kazak 2008).


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