Professor Jo Boyden | University of Oxford
KATHMANDU, NEPAL - CIRCA DEC, 2013: Unidentified child and his parents during lunch in break between working on dump. Only 35% of population Nepal have access to adequate sanitation.
KATHMANDU, NEPAL - CIRCA DEC, 2013: Unidentified child and his parents during lunch in break between working on dump. Only 35% of population Nepal have access to adequate sanitation.
Image credit: Shutterstock

Professor Jo Boyden

'The single biggest surprise is the incredible importance of education to all the children, all the families, even to the children who are not always able to go to school. Education is the single thing that everybody cares about the most and everybody aspires to. It’s the thing all the parents want most for their children and it’s seen as the most important vehicle for getting a better life in the future.'

Children growing up in poor countries grow up with a lot more responsibility than children in richer countries. In other words, their families often rely on them to help out in the home, on the farm, or in small enterprises, such as a shop or workshop. So, from a very young age, children are developing life skills – skills that will become very useful when they become adults.

Children growing up in poor countries grow up with a lot more responsibility than children in richer countries. In other words, their families often rely on them to help out in the home, on the farm, or in small enterprises, such as a shop or workshop. So, from a very young age, children are developing life skills – skills that will become very useful when they become adults.

Education isn’t as good as in richer countries and in fact children often struggle: they struggle to stay in school, they struggle to attend regularly on a daily basis because of their family responsibilities and many children leave school early but often without having a good education. So there’s a real challenge in terms of the quality of the education that they’re getting.

Ethiopia is one of four countries we’re studying, and the amount of responsibility children assume in rural areas of Ethiopia is astonishing. That’s often because their parents are sick, and in many cases children are caring for parents. The impact is enormous – we see children as young as 11 or 12 who are the primary breadwinner in the household.

Through our work, we’re contributing to debates about child work and child labour. A lot of the work the children do is probably not that dangerous, although some of the paid jobs can be; they can be exploitative. We’re trying to understand work in all its forms  and we certainly wouldn’t argue that work is inherently bad for children, because sometimes they really do get important skills out of it. I worry that in the UK and other industrialised countries children don't have any responsibilities – there are many skills they haven't learnt that are essential for adult life, like financial management. It’s important for us to make a distinction between things that are bad and dangerous and things that may be quite conducive and positive.

 

You mentioned that Ethiopia is one of four countries that you’re studying; where are the others?
I work as Director of an international study called Young Lives, which was set up at the beginning of the millennium to try to understand the lives, experiences and changes occurring for children growing up in poverty. The study was established in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam and we are working with about 12,000 children spread across 80 sites in those 4 countries. We’ve got a mix of rural and urban children, roughly equal numbers of boys and girls and quite a lot of diversity in each of those countries in terms of ethnicity, language, religion, poverty level, etc. 

There are 2 age groups: a younger cohort born in 2000–1, and an older cohort born in 1994–5. In our last round of the survey the younger children were about 12 and in the older cohort around 19. Having two age groups allows us to compare children at the same age but 7 years apart.

  

What is the full remit of Young Lives?
Young Lives was set up to follow these 12,000 children for 15 years and to do that we’re conducting 5 rounds of survey with the children, their caregivers and community leaders, as well as qualitative research with 200 children across the 4 countries through in-depth interviews and focus groups. Doing the 2 methods together (qualitative and quantitative), we can get a sense of the numbers – the big trends – as well as a better understanding of why things are the way they are: why did a family decide to marry their daughter young? Why did a family decide to send their eldest son to school and withdraw their youngest son so that he could work?

Behind all of this is the intention to inform policy. This isn’t abstract academic research. It’s about influencing the way policy-makers plan things for children.

Behind all of this is the intention to inform policy. This isn’t abstract academic research. It’s about influencing the way policy-makers plan things for children. We work not just with research teams but with policy teams in the study countries. We have a partnership approach which involves country partners who are incredibly important to the study. They gather the data, they maintain the relationships with the families and the children, and local officials, they analyse the data, but they are also very well-networked into policy circles. They talk to ministers of education and health. They talk to senior officials in government and engage with them about policy questions; they work with them on planning better policies for children. So the whole study is aimed to improve the way we work with children and provide practical advice and guidance on how to make things better for them.

 

Was there anything you found, over the course of the 15 years of the study, that you found really surprising?
The single biggest surprise is the incredible importance of education to all the children, all the families, even to the children who are not always able to go to school. Education is the single thing that everybody cares about the most and everybody aspires to. It’s the thing all the parents want most for their children and it’s seen as the most important vehicle for getting a better life in the future. I wasn’t expecting that in places like Ethiopia – education didn't exist in most rural areas there historically, but things are changing rapidly.

So this is really exciting; it shows there’s a lot of investment by families and children in education and we see families making extraordinary sacrifices for their children to go to school – it’s not easy for a poor child to attend school. We have many examples of families selling animals, selling land, moving house or encouraging the child to move on his or her own, in order to be able to access a better school in a different place.

Because of this, we introduced a new element in the study where we look at the schools that the Young Lives children attend. We’re trying to understand what it is about school that facilitates – or in other cases discourages – learning. What are children’s experiences at school? How well are they performing in school? There are really serious problems to do with education quality, particularly in Ethiopia, India and Peru, not so much in Vietnam. In Vietnam children do consistently better than in the other 3 countries, including the poor children. So we can say that in Vietnam education is an equalising system, whereas in the other countries it’s an entrenching one. We’re looking at what it is about Vietnam that’s so different from the other countries.

 

Do you think that because life is a lot harder for these families, they tend not to have the social problems that trouble us in the west (divorce, truanting children)?
I think that holds true. We don’t have systematic evidence on it, but we did conduct a self-administered questionnaire where we asked children about their relationships, drug use (smoking, drinking), and so on. It was interesting because, for many of the children, these things just don’t exist. So the things we in the west worry about a great deal, particularly in the teen years, are not really very prevalent at all.

These children are very, very proud of the work that they do, of the contribution they make to their families, and their families really appreciate them for the contribution they make.

These children are very, very proud of the work that they do, of the contribution they make to their families, and their families really appreciate them for the contribution they make.

We have one boy in Ethiopia, for example, who was really distressed because the local authorities had intervened since he wasn’t going to school. Both of his parents were very frail, very elderly, and he was saying to us: “How are we going to survive? I need to be able to look after my parents and to tend our fields. If I’m forced to go to school, I can't do that.”

So, I think there’s a sense of responsibility, a sense of empathy, pride gained from these roles, that children in the west don’t have. Our children grow up, in many cases, entirely dependent on their parents well into their teens.

We do see changes; in Vietnam the internet is expanding very fast. It’s not that families have access in their homes but internet cafes are really quite common now and parents in Vietnam are really worried about the influence of the internet. We have a lot of interviews with parents who say 'Well, I thought my son was going to school, but they’re actually going to an internet cafe. When they get any money at all, they’re using it to go to the internet cafes.' Some of the concerns that one might have about children growing up in industrialised countries are increasingly becoming concerns in developing countries as well.

In the west, children’s lives changed gradually, over centuries, through the industrial revolution, then the introduction of education systems and their withdrawal from work during the 20th century. But in developing countries the pace of change has been accelerated. That has a lot of implications for children’s development.   

 

If you could wish one thing for these children, what would it be?
That’s a big one. I think what we really want to get across is that inequality is growing massively globally. Because of that there are children growing up in extreme deprivation and hardship. What we’re really trying to achieve is a recognition that to break the cycle of poverty, you absolutely must invest in children. Deprivations like malnutrition in early childhood are really hard to rectify later on.  

If we can convince governments to invest more in children, that is cost effective, and helps reduce pockets of entrenched poverty which persist even in the context of economic growth. 

At the moment policy is very siloed, and not just for children. You have your social services, you have your health services, you have your education. If there’s one thing Young Lives has found, it is how crucial the interaction between these different aspects of a child’s life are. We know that nutritional deprivation impacts education, and impacts wider well-being. I’d really like to achieve a more integrated way of thinking about human well-being, human development and child development in particular.

 

How did you come to be Director of Young Lives?
I came into it really by accident. I’m an anthropologist. I did my doctoral research in Peru and when I finished my doctorate I had no plans to go into academia. I came back from Peru to the UK and, through contacts, I learnt that Oxfam was looking for an author to write what they called in those days The Field Directors’ Handbook, which was a guide for their staff. In those days there was no internet, no information. As an Oxfam field director you could be responsible for anything from health and nutrition to land rights to agricultural extension work. So you had to have some kind of guidance. I took up the role of writing the book. We decided to introduce a new section in the book on the people that tend to be most vulnerable to poverty and other hardships that an Oxfam programme should be focusing on. We included indigenous groups, minority groups and women and realised we should be thinking specifically about children but we just couldn't find an author to write that section. There was nobody in those days who could speak to all the issues. There were paediatricians, educationalists, social workers, but nobody who could speak to children’s issues more broadly. I realised there was no real repository of knowledge about children’s needs, about the best approaches for supporting them so I began writing the section myself. 

I then started to raise funds and worked all over the world with a whole range of different agencies. The purpose was to use research to help shape better policies for children. I did that for about 20 years until I came to the point where I realised that I was always responding to other people’s requests but I needed to be able to set the agenda myself. The Refugees Study Centre in Oxford was advertising a job to do an overview study of the circumstances of refugee, forced migrant and war-affected children.

I worked there until the Directorship of the Young Lives study came up. It wasn’t focusing necessarily on the children most disadvantaged socially, for example child sex workers or refugees, but it was longitudinal and concerned with poverty and I really wanted the opportunity to be able to look at the early determinants of later outcomes. All my work up until then had been 'cross sectional' – just studying a particular point in time. The exciting thing about longitudinal research is that you can follow the lives of the same children over a period of time and look at how their early circumstances affected their later outcomes, what it was that shaped these children’s lives.

 

What gives you most job satisfaction?
I love working across so many different cultures and perspectives. We’re a totally multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary team: it can be a source of enormous frustration because we don't use the same concepts or techniques, but it’s also really fun. One person couldn’t understand all of it: as an anthropologist I know I’m going to leave the econometrics to the economists. But I love the fact that we’re working from so many different perspectives, we learn so much from each other.

I love doing the research but don't get nearly enough time to do it. I spend far too much time, from my own personal perspective, on the management and leadership side of it. Although that has its rewards, I only wish it were possible to spend more time on the research.

My only regret is because of my age there’s not going to be time for it all! I’d like to go for another study, for more rounds! Some of the Young Lives children now have their own children, and I’d like to understand what’s happening to the babies as well.

 

If you wanted to give a call to action to anyone reading this to help children, what would it be?
It’s often assumed that children are not very well informed, that they’re not very competent, that they don’t understand things or don’t know how things are done. The single biggest thing I have learned across all my life of working with children is the extraordinary capacity of children to know and understand well before adults realise that they do.

This matters to the world of policy-making because evidence must include the evidence of children. Very often they understand the problems they face, the dilemmas they are in, the dilemmas their families face, the difficult decisions that have to be made, but they also have ideas about solutions. It’s an extraordinary arrogance of adults that we think we always know better and know what’s best for children. I think that’s an attitude we apply at our peril and at our children’s peril.