Children’s Stories and Development in India – ASAA thesis prize winner

Children’s Stories and Development in India – ASAA thesis prize winner

Dr Annie McCarthy was awarded the 2017 John Legge Prize for best thesis in Asian Studies, here she tells us about her work.

Can you tell us a bit about your thesis. What’s the problem it explores and what did you find?

My thesis ethnographically explored the relationship between children and the development industry, particularly newer forms of child-centred development, in programs conducted for slum children in Delhi, India. Documenting the stories, performances, drawings, and daily routines of child participants in development programs, my thesis explored the way children in four different slum communities participated in a range of development campaigns targeting hand washing, child marriage, gendered violence and sexual harassment. Structured around children’s texts which uniquely reveal and conceal the realities of their lives in India’s capital, my thesis asked the following questions. In these development spaces where participation is premised on underdevelopment, in what ways do child participants see their lives as ‘developing’? In the movement between a passive subjectivity and an active process of transformation, how does development attain meaning, garner consensus and circulate through stories and performances? What can children’s stories and performances teach us about life in city saturated with ideas about development and underdevelopment?

How did you first become interested in this topic?

I was initially interested in children’s storytelling and the ways all kinds of cultural and religious stories are told and presented for children. But once I began to read more about researching children I became more and more interested in speaking directly to children themselves about the stories they hear and the stories they tell. I wanted to work with Hindi speaking children to develop my language skills, and I came to development spaces primarily because they were an easier way to spend time with children than spaces like schools where it is difficult to get permission to conduct research. But as I started visiting NGOs I realised that storytelling was central to the work of so many NGOs. In the participatory development moment in which we find ourselves, child-authored stories were tangible objects that could be held up as proof the effectiveness of development programs. But what was in it for the children?

What was the most challenging aspect of doing this research?

Rather than any specific practical difficulty of navigating slums— even in the months when it was 45 degrees everyday— it was probably questions about how to represent the lives of the children I worked with that I grappled with most throughout my research. Given the way images of impoverished children are utilised by development organisations to solicit donations or celebrate the success of their programs I struggled most with trying to tell a story that did justice to the structural violences of children’s lives as well as their obvious esteem and enjoyment of the development programs they participated in.

Do you have a favourite anecdote, moment or insight from doing your research?

One of the key anecdotes I use to try and explain the misfiring of ‘developments’ that often occurs in these spaces is the story of how a group of girls when given 10 minutes to compose a skit demonstrating a ‘solution’ to child marriage, formulated a skit in which the betrothed and her friend hatched a plan to evade the marriage that involved the revelation to the husband’s family that the bride was HIV positive. As I watched this skit with the other children and the development workers shook their head at the inappropriate co-option of one development problem to solve another, I realised how the boundaries of what development is, what problems are, and what solutions could look like is nowhere near as obvious as it might seem. This ‘ultimate development mash-up’ forced me to look closer at the multiplicity of ideas, values, and intentions that go into producing development spaces and the activities that take place within them.

What are you working on now? What can we expect to see next?

Right now I’m doing a lot of teaching, so while I have ideas about what you might see next you might have to wait a little while to see it. In the immediate future the plan is to spend more time writing about ways we can re-frame the slum, moving away from language that depicts slums as stains on cities, as mushrooming amoebas full of excess lives, as archetypical sites of under-development, to a recognition that slums are made of up innumerable families pursuing innumerable development projects that that have been shaped over generations to take unique forms that often coalesce around the children of the family into whom resources and hopes are channeled in complex and dynamic ways. More long term I have my heart set on a project ethnographically exploring bio-medical frameworks of child stunting. Globally one in four children under five are considered to be stunted. As a medical framework that calls into the question the childhood and future adulthood of one quarter of the world’s children, stunting urgently requires ethnographic attention. This project combines historical and ethnographic material to ask about the social and cultural meanings of growth, to explore both the ways bodies and lives are framed by discourses of failure, deficiency and lack, and the ways lack is experienced by poor and under-nourished children in North India.

Dr Annie McCarthy teaches anthropology at the Australian National University.

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