Monday, January 7, 2013

Chaotic Environments Shaping the Next Generations

Children in Gaza during the 2008/2009 Operation Cast Lead. (Photo by Al Jazeera)

In South Sudan, United Nations personnel persuade hundreds of children and teenagers to relinquish their guns in exchange for their reintegration into society. In Mali, children along with their families flee their homes in the northern region for safety from militias. In Gaza, prolonged instability and armed exchanges between militants and Israeli forces has resulted in PTSD in a majority of the strip's one million children. And just north in war-stricken Syria, thousands of Syrians flee their homes in the midst of bloodshed that has killed more than 60,000 people. International aid organizations like Save the Children--perpetually understaffed and underfunded--scramble to provide adequate resources to thousands of refugees living in camps in Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. 

These are only a few examples of children engulfed in crisis situations that can have a drastic impact on a child's formation of intelligence, personality and social behavior. While children anywhere could be victim to any number of threats to their development and security, there are critical differences between a massacre of 20 children in a Connecticut elementary school and a flood in Pakistan or life in a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in how crises affect children. In the former situation, resources and personnel are readily accessible and available. There are local, state and federal governments that have the capacity to provide this aid, as well as the capacity to pass legislation that could diminish the chances of something like this happening again. Children can receive counseling and support from a grieving community that will foster their healthy, post-trauma development. At the other end of the spectrum, children and adolescents in poor, unstable and war torn countries face a different set of challenges and opportunities. The governments may be corrupt, illegitimate or nonexistent, unable or unwilling to provide adequate emergency supplies to those displaced and affected by crises. The child's community becomes defined by the shared experiences of squalor, homelessness, malnutrition and witness to violence, instead of by its capacity to nurture the afflicted and itself back to health. Political instability invites outside pressures that recruit children to battle. Even their own government might consider recruiting child soldiers. Without the conditions to foster healthy physical and mental development, children are left exposed to harsh realities that invite extremism. 

Refugee camp in Congo. 13 November 2008. (Photo by Julien Harneis)

In chaotic environments, threats to a child's development and security include minimal or uneven access to food and water, violence and its physical and psychological ramifications, displacement caused by violence or natural disaster and limited upward mobility and economic opportunity. Combined, these factors desensitize and normalize the chaotic status quo, making an eventual transition to normalcy far more difficult. Over 180 million children under the age of 5 suffer physical and mental impairments caused by malnutrition and stunted growth. For children also threatened by violence and instability, joining the armed forces or a militia brings with it the promise of meals, drugs and protection that satisfy the nutritional and security aspects of their survival. Many youth embrace the violence, often finding that the option to join the violence or avoid reintegration is far more practical than putting down their guns. With distorted incentives, no safety net and survival at stake, children in these crisis situations end up vulnerable to the centripetal pull of conflict and instability and the consequences of prolonged crisis.

Although international agencies like UNICEF make it their goal to alleviate suffering and shield children from malnutrition, violence and instability, youth in crisis situations are still at considerable risk. Higher education and job opportunities remain distant fantasies for many kids and adolescents in crises as their environments continue to deteriorate. The children in these chaotic circumstances are far more likely to become the next generations of the poor and disenfranchised, making them a prime audience for recruitment to arms and extremism. The vast majority of them, however, might never experience a secure and nurturing environment. Instead they will depend on international aid agencies and donors for survival and will be lucky if their emotional and physical development isn't impaired. As the current crises in South Sudan, Gaza, Syria, DRC and Mali persist, more and more youths are put at risk and perish at the twin altars of political expediency and insufficient donor contributions. Revamped political will and continued multilateral efforts might be our best shot at remembering that investing in a child's security and development is not just an investment for the present but for future generations as well.

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