The Risk-Monger

How to use a child

A child’s voice, when heard clearly, can put an adult to shame. So should we be surprised when adults use children to further their campaigns? We don’t want children to be used in factories, battlefields or scientific testing, but what about in front of cameras and in political debates?

Last week, Malala Yousafzai, became the most recent child to be used by the UN in a campaign. Her story is compelling, the cause noble (many would argue, Nobel) and I could not imagine any reasonable person arguing against the campaign for the right for young women to have an education. But when Malala gave a prepared speech in front of the UN on 12 July 2013 (see speech), wasn’t she also a child being used? She was singled out by the Taliban because of a political documentary her father, a Pakistani activist, did with the New York Times. In this 2009 documentary, he presented the challenges of educating a girl in Swat through the articulate and emotional remarks of her then 11-year-old daughter.

Many would argue that the issue of the right of young women to have an education is so important, and as the symbol of Malala has become an effective rallying cry across the world on this subject, her story and person should be told directly. That is, no doubt, very true (although it resembles a form of brand management). We need to be aware then that, in the case of Malala, the ends justify the means (and the means is that we are using children to make our point). In doing so, are we that much better than those who force children to work or take up arms?

As a father of three very articulate children, I would never dream of using them to advance my views or positions in debates I am involved in here in Brussels. In the same vein, I would not force them to work as child models, actors or beauty contestants, no matter how beautiful people tell me they are. I feel I have a duty to create an environment where my children can develop normally and not as a tool in a world they are not mature enough to understand. I would never dare to use them, expose them or place them in danger just for me to make a point.

This does not seem to be the case for the Canadian environmentalist and media activist, David Suzuki, who, during the 1992 UN Earth Summit, got a place on the podium at the plenary for his 12-year-old daughter, Severn, to shame the world (see her prepared speech). She was clearly not “only a child” with a simple, single goal – she was a tool in a complex debate that no 12-year-old could understand (regardless of how she was coached by her father).

Environmental activists seem to have no hesitation in using children to emotivise their issues – sustainability is about their future. So getting children to stand up and simplify a complex problem and shame adults who dare seek a rational discussion is very attractive. If the end (“saving the planet”) is so great, then are the means (using children) justifiable?

Rent a child-lobbyist: The worst case of such abuse by environmental activists is one I had witnessed firsthand. When I was working on REACH at Cefic in 2005, many disturbed MEPs contacted us, sharing letters they had received from ten-year-olds in the UK demanding that they vote for a stronger REACH because chemicals will do bad things to them and their future. It seems that WWF had been visiting primary schools to “educate” children on the dangers of chemicals, giving them stuffed panda bears, the name of their constituent MEPs and stamped envelopes. You can tell ten-year-olds to write a letter to Santa Claus, and they will. But when you tell a child to write to a politician on your behalf, you are using them as lobbyists.

I still have copies of those letters done in UK “arts and crafts classes” with the pedagogical support of WWF. The chemical industry did not play that game nor did we do anything against WWF’s tactics here – we felt that the identities of the children needed to be protected. But I still use non-identifiable parts of those letters today in my lectures on lobbying (for the Ethics in Lobbying class). It always makes me wonder how environmental activists have no hesitation or guilt when they continually paste industry as being immoral and disrespectful to others while they themselves have no problem using children. The ends justify the means, I suppose (and they view their ends as noble).

Not all child manipulation works: But then there is Cordelia, the four-year-old daughter of the then British Minister of Agriculture, John Gummer, who, during the height of the BSE (mad-cow) crisis in the UK in 1990, decided to force-feed this angelic young girl a hamburger in front of the gathered media. He wanted to give the British public a reassuring message that British beef was safe (so safe that he would still feed it to his own child). There was, quite rightly, outrage that he would use his child in such a way. Although badly managed by his PR handlers, Gummer was merely doing what Malala’s or Severn’s parents were doing – using his child to make his political point. We did not trust him and were not prepared to share his point, thus making his use of this child, his daughter, offensive and distasteful.

The hypocrisy of commonality: So it is OK to use children if we all agree that the ends are justifiable (what I call “commonality” – the manufactured perception of consensus through communications techniques), but absolutely abhorrent if they are used to further an issue that “we all disagree with”. We all agree that young women have a right to an education. We all agree that we must do what we can to save the planet from climate change or restore lost biodiversity. Children could be used in furthering these goals without hesitation. What would happen if Monsanto were to show films of children in the Amazon or India with them stating how well they are because of the biotech company’s innovations and contributions? That challenges our commonality and we find that unacceptable.

If we selectively accept using children in some cases, but not others, are we not hypocrites?

So there is no doubt that a child’s voice, heard clearly, can put an adult to shame. But a parent or activist who uses children for political gain is shameful.

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  1. Agree with the line of thinking and congrats for some of the brilliant examples.
    I want to zoom in on the wwf and other environmental organisations and a strategic solution.
    I’m a former board member of Youth Environment Europe – the youth federation for about all the youth environmental organisations in Europe. We’re mostly teenagers and young adults as by the age of 25, one has to leave a youth organisation in Europe, otherwise one looses the statute of “youth organisation” and cannot access EU nor National youth dedicated funds anymore.
    What we notice is that indeed everybody likes kids, till the age they talk back, i.e. become teenagers. That’s why IUCN, WWF and Greenpeace don’t have independent Youth Organisations: adults telling / using kids for the nice pictures, youth are tolerated as long as they follow EXACTLY the instructions of the adults. The reasons are indeed: they make good pictures and this helps bring in money.
    That can be improved.
    Do you know the origines of the Youth organisations? They go back to World War II, when our leaders gathered for the first time in world history on a regular basis and were also devoting time to identify and implement strategies never to have a WWIII. One of the strategies was to embed “Peace” in society itself. One of the ways to do this: every adult organisation were to make a youth division and then have all these youth devisions participate in exchanges on their topic of interest. E.g. UNESCO created IUCN – the International Union for the Conservation (protection and study) of Nature as we didn’t know too much about our nature and they set-up IYF – the International YOUTH Federation for the Conservation, Study, etc of Nature. The European branch was YEE – Youth Environment Europe. Advantage: teenagers are indeed difficult to work with, so give them a space to experiment with their radical (/ new) ideas on how to organize themselves, get experience, make mistakes, correct themselves among themselves as an adult telling a youngster, that doesn’t work always that well. 🙂
    And by the age of 25, they’re kicked out of these youth organisations and as an adult organisation you get yourself a fine – fully trained, super on topic informed, about descent behaving – young adult. Prevents your adult organisation from alzheimer/aging.
    Some of these youngsters want to organise kids camps etc. too and get into competition with adult organisations with (individuals having) a “mother-complex”. And then you get into that street of using kids for the nice pictures to bring in money, publicity and then when they’re teenagers, then nobody cares about them anymore as they are not cute anymore and question back things.
    The smarter thing imho would be that adult organisations hire = pay youth organisations to set-up activities for kids for / in collaboration with the adult organisations. That way
    1. the youth (organisations) get some money in
    2. adult organizations get access to the creativity of these youth organisations – you’d be surprised, e.g. check the game books we’ve developed
    3. often the best “teacher/trainer” for a kid/youngster is a sligthly older kid/youngster
    4. the relation between youngsters and adults improve, and some really need that – on both sides. Stereotypes are broken down.
    5. you respect kids and youth and adults and let them all play their role and give them their own space

    NOT working like this creates what you see at IUCN, WWF, Greenpeace:
    * IUCN – Alzheimer: they have broken their link with their youth organisation. No continuous flux of new young adults that have been working on the topics of IUCN. No they have to recruit out of the blue young adults with less experience and quality they find in e.g. YEE.
    * WWF- Alzheimer and often mis-using kids for the visual merchandising. Who’s responsible for the “kids” division in WWF? Just someone who applied for the job, never been a member in any youth environmental movement, just someone who “like working with kids (because they’re so cute?). WWF would become better if they’d develop a strategy where they embrace collaborate with the YEE and IYF – member organisations.
    * Greenpeace: that’s like the army. Youngsters have to follow the orders if not get lost.Or youngsters can’t take part in actions, just ask their parents to become a member, read the magazines. A Greenpeace Youth strategy, embracing these YEE-IYF members would do them much better.
    Hope this brought some interesting insights.
    Sven AERTS – IYF-YEE Seniors

    1. Very interesting comments Sven, thank you. As adolescents and young adults become more free thinking, it is hard to get them to read the lines prepared for them. That is the condescending part about how young people are used – we just want you to state our views but coming from an innocent voice.
      I agree with your views on the environmental groups – somewhere they dropped the ball. University campuses used to be their main base, recruiting grounds and natural think tanks. Now, among my students I see more cynicism towards environmentalism – anecdotal perhaps but I can’t remember the last time I had seen a WWF or Greenpeace stand on campus. When they started bringing consultants in and big fundraisers, did they lose sight of this “market segment” because of the lower potential ROI?
      What I feel is needed, to add to your comments, is more cross-generational mentoring programmes (multi-directional between young – adolescent – young adult – Alzheimers). Mentoring is not: I talk, you listen, but rather engagement and sharing experiences – all of these “spaces” are transitional. As a Belgian Lion, I have been trying to get the Lions organisation to work more with AIESEC – as mentors and to provide opportunities to continue to develop service efforts as the young transition into professional life. Bringing young people into service organisations like the Lions is like opening a window on a hot day. I think environmental NGOs will have to atrophy a little more before they realise the need to engage with young thinkers.
      One of the biggest challenges your generation will face is the resistance caused by the technology shift. If you grew up with a laptop, social media and Google, you have learnt to think (and acquire knowledge) differently from someone who was taught to study in a library (quiet, rout and reflecting). The academic establishment is still trying to force the Jesuit “Sage on the Stage” model on a student population more comfortable in a collaborative, engaging, participatory structure. So of course we are not interested in listening to you (and that is frustrating for everyone). And if you manage to graduate despite our efforts to get you to think like us, your next challenge will be to fit into the timeless management structure. Mentoring can allow everyone to bring what is valuable to the table (gain experience and learn from others’ experiences). That involves listening and engaging, not using others for our own needs.
      Young people also need to be prepared to take the reins – growing up digital means that you’ll have to figure out the best approach rather than be forced to adapt to our approach. My son is spending part of his summer at a youth exchange on the environment, and I hope the Alzheimers (I like that expression) stay far away from trying to influence their approach.
      The record youth unemployment level indicates the divide is starting to bite. As old people are talking together about what to do about this crisis, perhaps it is time to listen to those closer to the source. If ever the Commission could find a good use for funds, this would be it.

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