Studying Governance through Participatory Theatre and Sketch-Making: Dialogical Research with Organized Working Children

Nadine Benedix
PhD candidate at the Chair of Transnational Governance at the Technical University of Darmstadt

Synopsis: How can we explore the diverse relational engagements of children and youth in global governance processes? Looking specifically at participatory action research methods, Nadine Benedix advances a dialogical approach that emphasizes the collaborative dimension of research in practice. Drawing on experiences with organizations of working children in Senegal, she shows how dialogical contextualization can open up avenues for different knowledge generation practices such as participatory theater performances.

Keywords: Children and Youth in IR; Agency; Ethnography; Participatory Action; Theatrical Performance

It is now widely recognized that international politics is shaped not only on global stages, but also through the everyday actions of various actors. This recognition has prompted scholars to incorporate non-Western perspectives and diverse forms of agency in their work to provide a more comprehensive understanding of global politics. Within such debates, the role of children and youth as political agents and representatives has also recently been “discovered” (Beier 2020). In political discourse, young people are often depicted as victims or beneficiaries, i.e. as being at the receiving end of international governance. Yet, children and youth actually participate in conflict, peacebuilding, norm translation and/or change, and norm negotiations at local and global levels.

Just one case in point, working children and youth have organized themselves as locally rooted movements in Africa, South America and Asia and have formed a transnational advocacy network (see Liebel 2003; Holzscheiter 2016, 2018). As a network, they have repeatedly intervened in international negotiations on appropriate child labor regulations, claiming their right for participation and a need for protection as workers (Liebel and Invernizzi 2019; Van Daalen and Mabillard 2018). Active in contesting existing labor norms, the children in the network are also important for child protection in their respective local communities. Local branches of the continental movements are mainly concerned with supporting children’s well-being and promoting their rights, and they do this via psycho-social and legal support, rights education, the provision of mutual micro-credits, the provision of lunches and the offer of recreational activities. In so doing, the local organizations often cooperate with other (international and national) child protection actors (see Taft 2019; Mabillard 2020; Benedix 2022). These practices point to important instances of relational agency. However, they also raise the question of how to adequately describe and analyze the different levels at which they engage in global governance – as program implementers and norm contesters.

The globalized nature of the working children’s engagements – ranging from community-based engagement to transnational advocacy within international fora – presents challenges for conducting ethnographic “field” research. It is difficult to draw boundaries of the field to be researched. Indeed, researching their engagement in only one “field” is problematic, given that actors are engaging in multiple, constantly transforming globalized fields. Acknowledging these continuous dynamics is thus at odds with the attempted objectivity of field descriptions that ethnographic practice aims to attain.

Moreover, working children’s organizations are situated within multiple power hierarchies stemming from colonial power relations that influence their engagement in practice. As working children, they find themselves in precarious living situations shaped by poverty and unequal economic development (Weber and Abbasi 2022). In this context, they, like other “Global South representatives” in global governance, are confronted with difficulties in accessing sustained funding for movement building, project implementation and representation in international fora, ultimately being prone to co-optation.  Beyond that, as representatives of children and youth, their engagement is constrained by dominant understandings of childhood, which separate children from adults and construct the latter as fully empowered social actors and the former as “becoming” actors in need of education and protection (see Beier 2015; Berents 2015; Liebel 2020; Tabak 2020). The problem with this is that when specific protection and education measures for children are not available, the affected may find themselves in unclear subject positions, as they cannot fulfill their ascribed subjecthood. In such ambivalent relationships, recognizing children’s agency and simply including their participation comes at the risk of just “add-and-stirring” (Beier 2015: 9) i.e., a simplistic and eventually romanticizing understanding of what such participation can or should look like (see also Weber and Abbasi 2022).

Dialogical approaches, however, offer the means to counter such power hierarchies prevalent in childhood research and among child rights NGOs and development actors. By adapting practical research tools and methods for inclusive communication and “collaboration” with children, they can empower them to speak out on issues that affect them. Participatory Action Research (PAR), understood as a research practice that explicitly aims to create “democratic spaces” for the co-creation of knowledge, is usually brought into the conversation in this context (Lundy and McEvoy 2011; Berents and McEvoy-Levy 2015; Pruitt 2021; Sutton 2022). However, despite their wide recognition and use in emancipatory and progressive social movements, such dialogical research practices also run the risk of being treated as a mere method rather than an “epistemological relationship” (Freire in Freire and Macedo 1995: 379). As a result, power relations between researchers and research participants can end up being ignored (Macedo 2000: 18; Watson 2020: 253).

Therefore, it is important to note that a dialogical research perspective is not an end in itself, but rather an understanding of research that encourages awareness of intersubjectivity in the creation of knowledge. Following these premises, we need to conceive of ethnographic research approaches, like PAR, less as a fixed “method” and more as a practice itself, allowing for reflexivity about the relationships and potential power hierarchies that emerge within research and engaging in deconstructing the ways in which subjectivity and agency emerge within these processes. In essence, “dialogical research” means recognizing the relationality of research and thus sensitizing the researcher to the agency of the represented (Freire 1970; Tripathi 2021).

Based on my own research with the African Movement of Working Children and Youth (AMWCY) in Senegal, I see ethnographic research as needing to be less about making “field observations” and instead understood as a set of diverse research practices. Considering these practices as dialogically emergent within the relation between myself and the members of the working children and youth organization, it becomes possible to challenge power hierarchies within the research relation and thereby understand agentic practices as emergent in this very relation.

When I arrived in Dakar to study working children’s movements in Africa, I was invited as an “intern” by my research subjects to learn from them and their practice. As an intern engaged in the organization through participating in events, logistical support, and the co-organization of workshops, I developed closer (friendly) ties with the coordinating members of the organization. For example, when the association organized a big football tournament funded by a European NGO that aimed to educate the children on reproductive health issues while playing football, I helped one of the younger and active members of the movement to sell snacks and run the booth. I also took pictures for the organization and helped with logistics prior to the tournament. Thus, in my role as “intern/researcher,” I was engaged in such events, processes, and practices on their terms, helping when asked to and supporting the realization of the event. Acknowledging that I was assigned the role of “intern to the organization” thereby allowed for reflection on the relationality of the process of knowledge generation. Rather than pre-determining the roles in the research encounter myself by trying to adhere to an “outsider” role as an ethnographic observer or external initiator of participatory action methods with young people, our roles developed relationally in the process of encounters. These relations then shaped the knowledge that I gained in the research process.

This specific research relationship thereby enabled and co-shaped the contextualization of my research practice, namely the application of PAR with members of the organization. Thus, I learned that enabling dialogue and meaningful conversation on the terms of those speaking, is, in fact, the heart of the movement of working children as the AMWCY had emerged from the very practice of PAR practices by local NGOs in Western Africa (see Enda Tiers Monde/ Jeunesse Action 1995). In gaining this background knowledge, I adapted the “methods” of PAR to engage with the broader community of the movement members in consultation with the group members themselves.

We included techniques from the movement itself such as the development of “sketches” which can be described as theatrical performances about situations that the members see as problematic. In the sketch, members can shape these situations through theatrical intervention and thereby reflect on them. As shown by the snippet of a discussion after such a sketch shown below, these re-enacted situations evoke emotions, and it is argued by the members that in the theatrical situation they can evaluate these emotions and possibly find solutions to “target” or “disrupt” them.

Researcher: Why did you choose this sketch?

Child: Because here the majority of the bosses exploit the young dressmakers without teaching them the craft. By [re-enacting the problem in] these sketches, some employees may choose to abandon the craft to go elsewhere, in another workshop.

Researcher: How do you feel when you play this?

Child: It’s like it is reality because you are used to see these kinds of scenes. You feel the sadness and everything. […] And it’s good to do it because when those who do these kinds of things, they can be targeted and the next time they will avoid repeating it.

  •  Fieldnotes, Senegal, 26 December 2022

This shows how the creation of knowledge about one another is interwoven with the process of acting in reality. By engaging with processes of consciousness-raising as a researcher, one becomes involved in this process and evolves from being an outsider, or “observer”, to a part of the process itself, through the participation and emotion that is provoked. Thus, these sketch methods represent a small part of the process of how dialogical learning works since actors and spectators are simultaneously involved in the process of consciousness-raising. They are exemplary micro-processes of dialogical learning which are used to make visible and perform problem-oriented discussions among members (also when they discuss donor-driven topics such as reproductive health), or recapitulate knowledge generated during discussion rounds.

More than just enabling discussions about the everyday life of the children, “sketches” are also used to engage with international norms promoted by child protection NGOs.  For example, during the above-mentioned football tournament, some members of AMWCY got the children together to perform a sketch that one of their grassroots groups had elaborated specifically for this event. Related to the broader aim of the football tournament to educate children and youth in the community on child marriage and reproductive health, the children performed a sketch in which a girl approaches movement members because her mother does not send her to school. The members visit the family and convince the mother to allow her daughter to get an education and only think about a possible marriage later. The play was thereby not envisaged by the donor NGO. Thus, the members used the time they had to perform a sketch on questions on reproductive health and the potential problems of forced marriage to also engage, through theatrical performance, with the tensions they feel between the wish to go to school and the need to work to support their families.

This example shows how dialogical learning with the organization about its knowledge generation practices can raise awareness about the relational interpretation and adaptation of international governance programs. In the context of ethnographic research examining the role of “governed” actors in IR, a dialogical approach offers insights into governance processes between different actors – from the marginalized and youth to powerful NGOs, IOs, and adults. By enabling reflexivity on the power relations that shape research processes and perspectives on how actors relationally co-construct and exercise agency within such processes, research can grasp the myriad ways in which agency is practiced by all research participants, in the research relation itself and beyond. Following calls to study the multiple forms of agency in international politics (Acharya 2014), a dialogical research perspective thus offers a way to study practices of children by emphasizing the need for contextualization and reflexivity as potential tools to enable the recognition and analysis of emerging and relational agency in global governance. Rather than understanding ethnographic research as a fixed method, recognizing the situated and relational dimension of the research can offer new perspectives as enables the researcher to recognize different forms of meaning-making in the process of researching itself. By doing so, it further enables investigation of the diverse and relational forms of agency performing, enacting, and shaping global politics.

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