Children, capabilities and global justice

Brando, Nico (2019). 'Children, capabilities and global justice' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA 2019, London, UK.


Children are a group that has been neglected in most philosophical and political theories of global justice so far, which is especially striking since children are victims of severe injustices, face several disadvantages compared to adults and nearly all indicators to measure global injustice show that they are a particularly deprived group. For example, children experience higher rates of poverty in most developing countries as well as in developed countries. Many children are undernourished and malnourished, they are exploited through forced labour, sexual abuse and trafficking, and they are recruited as combatants in violent conflicts. There is therefore a strong need for improvements in the lives of children around the world.

However, what global justice demands for children and how it can be achieved has not been fleshed out in detail. Certainly, there are important policy approaches available, like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Sustainable Development Goals, and monitoring initiatives such as UNICEF’s Innocenti Report Cards. Longstanding philosophical literature on children’s rights has recently been complemented by first steps to modify existing theories of global justice, such as the capability approach, to fit for children. The multidisciplinary character of the capability approach has allowed insights from other fields on child poverty, disadvantage and rights to permeate the philosophical discussions on the matter. Nonetheless, much more reflection and research are still needed, as philosophical interest on the global implications of researching child justice is only starting to grow. Thus, the aim of this panel is to advance our understanding of the place of children in theories of global justice, both to indicate what global justice for children demands and to establish how justice can be achieved and sustained.

Theories of global justice have tended to overlook their impact on children. Although one fourth of the current global population is under fifteen years-old, theorists of global justice have rarely focused on how their normative prescriptions affect this section of the population in particular. Children are different from adults in several important ways and in regard to, for example, their physical, cognitive and emotional development as well as their social status. But such widely held assumptions about children as particularly vulnerable and worthy of protection are not fully accounted for. Furthermore, the particularity of childhood makes it necessary to think about child-sensitive and child-specific responses to the injustices they face and how they can be implemented on a global level. Most policy measures that fit for adults often do not fit well for children, and concerns of intergenerational justice may apply to their case, as they apply for generations to come. Adult-focused moral and political theories have to be extended, modified or substantially altered in order to apply to children. This holds also for the applied field of global justice, in which philosophical theories about childhood have not had an international focus so far.

Children have special characteristics that make them relevant from the perspective of global justice. Childhood is a universal condition through which we all pass; our experience of childhood defines to a great extent the options we have available in life and the opportunities we can pursue. On top of this, children’s dependence on others for meeting their basic needs, their powerlessness over most of the decisions and actions taken by the adult population, and their relatively low position in age-based social hierarchies, all have a large impact on a child’s lives, human rights and future prospects. Physical weakness makes them more prone to maltreatment and exploitation; their lower mental and physical competences restricts their capacity to shape their own lives; and their socio-economically weaker status puts them in an asymmetric relation with the institutions (public and private) that control their present life and their development.

We expect this panel to be of great interest to philosophers working on the capability approach, to capability researchers working on issues of childhood and to practitioners engaged with the capability approach. The coordinators of Childhood and Youth and of the Foundational Issues of the Capability Approach thematic groups have been informed of our proposal, and have helped us bringing it together.

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