The “national” in “national coalitions”, or, how to escape from coconut shells

Photography credits: Jonathan/Flickr

At ChildPact, we talk a lot about coalitions and child protection… about the role of coalitions, the importance of coalitions, and the need for having stronger coalitions. And of course, about child rights. But when we talk about child-focused coalitions, we actually mean “national coalitions”, and we rarely talk about the “national” part, even if this element is spelled out clearly in our founding documents.

Why does this need to be the case? Why, if we believe that child rights have no borders and we highlight the importance of international actors such as the European Union, do we focus so much of our work on strengthening national coalitions? Why are we a “coalition of coalitions”, with all our members being national coalitions?

I ended up thinking again about such questions recently when, as a regional communication advisor and coordinator for ChildPact, I reviewed the marketing and visibility materials of our members. Unsurprisingly, mottos and taglines frequently include references to their country, say (not real examples), “For the children of Serbia!”, or, “For the welfare of Georgia’s children and youth!”, “For every child in Moldova”.

These are simple and straightforward messages, and I do believe that making explicit reference to a community defined in national terms contributes to getting the message through to the intended audience. Yet, this raises a few questions:

  • Why is this the case?
  • Do we need this?
  • What’s the point of being a regional coalition if we focus so much on the national level?

Thinking in national terms

Scholars of nations and nationalism offer a variety of answers to the first question. But without complicating things too much, I’ll just refer to Benedict Anderson and his idea that nations are ‘imagined communitiesof people that do not know each other, yet feel a strong reciprocal attachment based on a shared feeling of belonging together. This bond, as the past century has vividly shown, can result in unfathomable destructive power, but can also be a force harnessed for good.

From a universalistic perspective it may sound unfair, but we do feel more strongly about people and events that take place in our own country, within our own ‘imagined community’. The news cycle epitomizes this trend: while staying in Transylvania, I am constantly updated about events happening in Bucharest or Constanța, but rarely even get to hear news from Budapest or Belgrade, which may be no further away in geographical terms. And truth is, whatever the reason, I seem to care more about what takes place in Romania right now than in neighbouring countries.

So, no matter the underlying (psychological, social and political) dynamics behind this phenomenon, as a child protection organisation, we simply can’t ignore it. Each of our members advocates for child rights in its own country, for the welfare of all children living there, irrespective of their nationality, religion or origins. If in their work they can harness the strength and solidarity stemming from reference to their own country, they should not shy away from doing so.

Advocating at the right level

But there is also a more pragmatic aspect: the work of our members is focused on bringing about systemic change, rather than on providing services to beneficiaries. Such advocacy work is aimed at changing the policies that deeply influence the life of children, and the opportunities that especially the most vulnerable of them will, or will not, get as they grow into adulthood. And — we like it or not — most of these policies are defined at state level, by national parliaments and national governments. It is at that level that we want to bring about change, and it is at that level that we need strong actors able to give voice to vulnerable children: this is why we need strong national coalitions.

The regional dimension

Which leads us to my final question. If we want to bring about change at national level, what’s the need for a regional coalition such as ChildPact?

I will quote again Benedict Anderson, the author of the above-mentioned book ‘Imagined communities’, and an expert on South-East Asia. In his fascinating memoirs, published in English just a few months ago, he makes reference to a piece of folklore common to Indonesia and Thailand.

“The folklore of Indonesia and Thailand tells of a frog who is born under half of a coconut-shell bowl and lives out his life there. In time, he draws the only sensible conclusion: the inside of the shell is the whole universe”.

Unfortunately, this is what has often happened in the struggle for child rights. Reference was perhaps made to international standards, but solutions would be national, based on national experience. Countries in the region face similar problems, often face similar challenges, and sometimes repeat the same mistakes.

This is why we need ChildPact: to share experiences among us frogs… and to knock from the outside on the coconut shells of national governments.

We believe coalitions are agents of innovation and change — and thus, strong coalitions translate into better policies for children. If you believe systemic changes for children’s rights is needed, I invite you to join us on our journey. You may want to consider a donation for ChildPact. Or you may want to contribute ideas and intellectual capital. Either way, we’d be happy to hear from you.

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