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Rethinking Canadian Aid

Stephen Brown
Molly den Heyer
David R. Black

Section III: Canada's Role in International Development on Key Themes

Chapter XII. From “Children-in-Development” to Social Age Mainstreaming in Canada’s Development Policy and Programming? Practice, Prospects and Proposals

Christina Clark-Kazak

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1Despite the importance of age and generation in development processes, very few development agencies attempt to mainstream age in the same way as they do gender. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the only development actor that has an explicit age, gender, and diversity mainstreaming policy. Among bilateral donors, only Canada and Australia have thematic policies directly focused on children. Canada’s emphasis on children and youth as a priority area in its international development policy and programming provides a potential point of departure for innovation and leadership on age issues. However, a discourse analysis of Canada’s Child and Youth Strategy indicates that it is primarily based on a “children-in-development” approach. This approach is limiting because it overlooks children and young people’s important development roles and tends to “target” them in isolation from broader social relationships, structures, and processes. This chapter proposes ways that Canada could leverage its well-established political commitment to children and aid (which spans a decade and both Liberal and Conservative governments) to more effectively mainstream age and generation issues into its development policy and programming. In this way, social age mainstreaming offers Canada an opportunity to carve out a new leadership role, especially in the context of the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.

The Importance of Age in Development Processes

2Age is central to development processes for several reasons. First, demographic realities vary significantly with development context. While least developed countries have largely youthful populations, the most developed areas have a greater percentage of older people (UNPD 2013). For example, according to the most recent report by the United Nations Population Division (2013, 30), the median age in more developed countries is 40.5, compared with a median age of 19.7 in the least developed countries.

3Second, for biological or social reasons, people of different ages may experience poverty differently (Sumner 2010). For example, children under the age of five have specific nutritional needs that may not be adequately met in contexts of poverty. At the other end of the spectrum, in some cultures male elders are given preferential treatment in collective meals, allowing them to eat more and better quality food than younger and female members of the same household.

4Third, development initiatives have differential impacts on people at different stages of the life course. For example, León and Younger (2007) and Himaz (2008) have assessed the impact of grants to poor households on children’s health in Ecuador and Sri Lanka, respectively. They conclude that increases in household income do not necessarily translate into better health outcomes for all members of a family. Indeed, Degraff and Levison (2009) argue that development projects that provide employment for women may result in increased child labour. This finding is reinforced by Wydick’s (1999) study of the perverse impact of microenterprise initiatives on children’s schooling in Guatemala, due to what he calls a “family-labor-substitution effect.”

5Fourth, intergenerational and family relationships can influence, and be influenced by, development policies and programs. For example, Ikels’s (2006) research analyzes changing intergenerational relationships in China, where modernization and population ageing are occurring simultaneously. In some African contexts, the introduction of formal schooling has undermined the value children and young people attach to traditional forms of knowledge espoused by older generations. This has resulted in renegotiated power relations between young and old (Abbink 2005). Finally, in cross-cultural development contexts, groups and individuals attribute varied social meanings to different stages of the life cycle and hold diverging beliefs about the roles deemed beneficial and appropriate for different generations (James and Prout 1997a; Vera-Sanso 2006). These socially constructed approaches to age can have an impact on development projects and, in turn, can be changed by development processes.

Conceptual and Theoretical Framework

6Drawing on the importance of variations in social constructions of age across time and place, I have developed the concept of social age to complement the predominant focus on chronological age. Many development agencies use the latter, based on international legal documents, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines a child as a human being under the age of eighteen. Chronological age is administratively efficient, as it provides a clear eligibility criterion for inclusion in (and exclusion from) development programming. It is also a convenient, albeit imperfect, proxy for biological development: length of time of existence gives some indication of human development, despite individual variations.

7However, a large body of scholarly literature critiques this dominant emphasis on chronological age in development policy and programming for a number of reasons. First, given non-existent or inadequate birth registration in many developing contexts, people may not know their exact chronological age. This fact may also reflect cultural norms in which chronological age is less important than biological or social markers of ageing, such as puberty and marriage. Many scholars have thus provided a second critique by emphasizing the social construction of age across time (Ariès 1979; Cunningham 1995) and place (Boyden 1997; James and Prout 1997b). Third, chronological age implies homogeneity, despite the diversity across individuals and groups (Rogoff 1990; Woodhead 1997). For example, the under-eighteen definition enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child lumps together individuals at very different stages of development: from an infant to post-pubescent young person who may already be married with children of his or her own, and thus socially and culturally considered to be an adult. Similarly, many definitions of older people set fifty-five or sixty-five as the threshold, despite low life expectancies in many developing countries.

8Is it possible to reconcile these seemingly opposing conceptions of age within aid programming on the one hand and scholarly literature on the other? I suggest that one way forward is to make an analytical distinction similar to sex and gender. While sex refers to the biological realities of being male, female, or intersex, gender refers to the socially constructed roles and attributes attached to males, females, and those who identify as neither. Similarly, chronological age is an imperfect proxy for biological development. It should be complemented by an additional analysis of social age: the socially constructed roles and attributes ascribed to different stages of the life course, as well as intra-and inter-generational relationships (see Clark-Kazak 2009b).

9As I have argued elsewhere (Clark-Kazak 2009b), social age mainstreaming in development policy and practice would involve a comprehensive analysis of age and generational issues. The first step entails gathering basic demographic information, including chronological age, biological development indicators such as infant mortality and life expectancy, and marital, familial, and employment status (since these are important social age markers). This age-disaggregated data should be collected for the population as a whole, as well as for the specific development issue (e.g., education, health, labour, or sanitation). Second, social age analysis involves an investigation into the social meanings ascribed to biological human development and chronological age. What are the culturally specific definitions of childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age? Are there socially prescribed roles for different generations that may be codified in norms or laws? A third element of social age analysis entails an exploration into how biological and socially constructed differences may affect differential experiences and impacts of development initiatives for children, young people, adults, and elders. Fourth, social age analysis involves an evaluation of the generational division of labour. Productive and reproductive roles will also be informed by other subject positions, particularly gender and class. The division of labour is important in understanding power structures within a given community, as well as the differential opportunities and time available to participate in various development activities. Finally, social age analysis requires an understanding of dynamic intra-and inter-generational relationships. These relationships provide the context for development initiatives, which, in turn, may provoke changes in these relationships, as discussed above.

10Social age analysis has the potential to make development initiatives more effective and less discriminatory by taking into account the physical and socially constructed differences that may affect poor people’s experiences of poverty and development initiatives. Just as gender analysis should be undertaken even when – and, perhaps, especially when – a development project is not focused on sex or gender, similarly a social age analysis is a necessary part of development programming and planning. For instance, in many parts of the world, children are primarily responsible for fetching water. However, when deciding the location of water sources, development agencies rarely consider the physical development of children, nor the socially constructed power relations that may make children vulnerable to physical and sexual violence. Instead, water points are often placed far away from areas of high population density for sanitary reasons. This isolation could exacerbate the physical and socially constructed vulnerabilities that children encounter when fetching water. An age-based analysis would help to identify these issues so that they could be factored into decisions about the location of water sources.

Canada among Aid Agencies: A Comparative Analysis of Approaches to Age and Development

  • 1 This does not necessarily mean that gender mainstreaming has been effective. See, for example, Tie (...)

11Indeed, despite the importance of social age in development processes, few aid agencies have an explicit or implicit policy on age. This contrasts with well-established gender mainstreaming efforts in all aid agencies.1 My research indicates that only the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has an explicit age component to its age, gender, and diversity mainstreaming (AGDM) policy. Established in 2004, UNHCR’s AGDM aims “to ensure a broad participatory, rights- and community-based approach within UNHCR operations, based on an analysis of protection risks from the standpoint of age, gender and other social factors” (Thomas and Beck 2010, 1). It entails a fundamental conceptual and behavioural shift in the way UNHCR does its programming, and has only been partially successful (Clark-Kazak 2009a; Groves 2004; Thomas and Beck 2010).

12Among bilateral development cooperation agencies, there is no well-developed approach to age. I have undertaken a comprehensive survey of all bilateral donors who are members of OECD/DAC. For each country, I identified direct policies or thematic priorities related to age, as well as indirect policies or priorities (such as primary education, which can be assumed to be targeted mostly at children). This analysis revealed that only Australia and Canada have specific policies on children, with Australia focusing on child protection in the delivery of aid, rather than in development programming, as in the Canadian approach.

13Within the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), there is also a lack of systematic attention to social age across the life cycle. Two goals have an implicit and explicit focus on children (respectively, MDG 3 “Universal Primary Education” and MDG 4: “Reduce Child Mortality”). Similarly, only two targets implicitly and explicitly mention children and young people (Target 3A, “Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education”), and Target 1B, “Achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people”). Other generations are invisible in the MDGs.

A Decade of “Children in Development” in Canada’s Aid Policy and Programming

14Since 2000, Canada has had an explicit focus on children in its aid programming, making it a priority that has been upheld by both Liberal and Conservative governments over a sustained period of time. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) document, CIDA’s Social Development Priorities: A Framework for Action, listed child protection as one of four social development priorities (CIDA 2000). In 2002, these social development priorities were retained, along with gender as a crosscutting theme, in Canada Making a Difference in the World: A Policy Statement on Strengthening Aid Effectiveness (CIDA 2002). The next major policy statement, Canada’s International Policy Statement, dropped child protection as a priority (Foreign Affairs Canada 2005). However, in 2009, a news release on a “new effective approach to Canadian aid” resurrected a focus on “children and youth” (CIDA 2009). The details of this are spelled out in the CIDA strategy entitled, “Securing the Future of Children and Youth” (CIDA 2010), which identified three areas of focus: (a) improve child and maternal health; (b) quality education and learning opportunities; and (c) rights and protection of children and youth. This section highlights the key findings of a discourse analysis of this strategy.

15While Canada’s focus on children and youth is somewhat innovative in the development cooperation sphere, it is still limiting. An analysis of the Children and Youth Strategy illustrates how Canada has adopted a “children in development” approach. I first undertook a content analysis to determine the frequency and location of the following words: child(ren), girl, boy, youth, young, adolescent, teenage, adult, family, generation, age, parent, mother, father, elder, old. Then, I employed grounded theory to identify the dominant themes that emerged from the document. Not surprisingly, “child(ren)” has the highest word count in Canada’s Children and Youth Strategy, appearing eighty-six times in the seven-page document (not including references to the title of the document). The second most frequently used term is “youth,” which appears thirty-nine times, almost exclusively in the formulation “children and youth,” as in the title of the strategy. Indeed, there are only five references to “youth” that are not preceded by children. All of these references pertain to risks of young people turning to violence (CIDA 2010, 1, 7) and educational and learning opportunities for youth (CIDA 2010, 5–6) in order for them to become “productive members of their societies” (CIDA 2010, 7). “Young” appears nine times: five times to describe young women, twice to refer to young men and twice to refer to young people. “Adolescent” is used only once in reference to females. This gender difference is also apparent when analyzing the frequency of reference to girls (twenty-three times) versus boys (twice).

16Other generations are much less represented in the document. “Adult” is mentioned only once – and this in reference to children “grow[ing] into active and productive young adults” (CIDA 2010, 1). There are no references to elders or older people. Parents are mentioned only three times: in relation to transmission of HIV (CIDA 2010, 1), in reference to children and young people’s future potential as “better parents” (CIDA 2010, 5), and as potential barriers to girls’ schooling (CIDA 2010, 5). The document contains no references to “father.” In contrast, mothers are mentioned nine times, always pertaining to health issues, including mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS, maternal health, and benefits to children of healthy mothers.

17Several themes emerge from a close reading of the document. First, children and young people are most often represented as “human becomings” (Qvortrup 1994). In other words, the strategy emphasizes their future potential as adults, but also the risks they could pose to society if they do not receive education and adequate health care. At many points in the document, the rationale for Canada’s focus on children is explicitly linked to future development, as in the following statement: “Investing in children and youth today is investing in the future stability, quality of life, and economic self-sufficiency of developing countries” (CIDA 2010, 2). It pays very little attention to children and young people’s current development roles. In this way, it instrumentalizes children and young people, underestimates their agency, and presents them primarily as a vehicle for future development. This is reinforced by the three priority areas. The strategy presents education and health as social development goods to be provided to children. In relation to the “safety and security” priority, children are conceptualized as victims in need of protection, instead of as active rights-holders.

18Second, there is a gender bias in the document towards females. On one hand, this could be intended to recognize and counteract gender discrimination against girls in many developing countries. However, it also ironically reinforces negative stereotypes. For example, in presenting the priority given to maternal health, the document almost always explicitly links mothers’ well-being to children’s benefits, as in the following statement: “Maternal health is vital to the survival, health, and development of children. When a mother dies in childbirth, her child is four times more likely to die also” (CIDA 2010, 2). This extract implies that women’s health is important primarily because of their biological reproductive roles, rather than as a development priority in and of itself. As Tiessen (this volume) argues, some people believe that Canada’s approach to maternal health “had little to do with women, let alone gender equality, treating women like ‘walking wombs’ … rather than active agents in the development of policies, programs, and projects to promote improved maternal health options and to address the reasons why women are unable to access maternal health services.”

19Similarly, Canada’s Children and Youth Strategy links investments in girls to broader community development objectives, rather than presenting them as important for girls’ sakes alone: “Investments in … young women have a ripple effect, reaching their families, their communities, and their future children” (CIDA 2010, 2). Moreover, the document’s focus on girls under-emphasizes the risks and challenges boys face. For example, it states, “72 million children – 54 percent of them girls – still do not have access to schools” (CIDA 2010, 2). While it is significant that more girls than boys face barriers to formal schooling, we should not overlook the over 33 million boys who, according to the document, are not accessing education.

20Third, there is very little attention to intergenerational relationships in the strategy. This is indicated quantitatively in the very few references to parents, and the lack of references to fathers and grandparents. Similarly, children and young people are often presented in isolation, without recognizing the importance of familial and community relationships. While it is somewhat understandable that children and young people are the focus of the document, given the priority theme, it does not make developmental sense (in both meanings of the term) to exclude other generations from policy and programming.

21Canada’s Children and Youth Strategy thus adopts a “children in development” approach, which has shortcomings similar to those of the “women in development” era of the 1970s. At that time, following the publication of Ester Boserup’s (1970) research on the gendered division of labour, “women in development” (WID) emerged in development theory and practice to describe a concern with “integrating” women into ongoing development initiatives (Kabeer 1994; Rathberger 1990). While the WID approach was an improvement on earlier development practices that ignored women altogether, it focused attention exclusively on women, rather than on gender norms and relationships between women and men. Moreover, WID approaches encouraged greater implication of women in productive work, ignoring the reproductive roles that women already undertook, thereby contributing to their “double burden.”

22Similarly, Canada’s “children-in-development” approach is limiting for a number of reasons. First, it only takes into account children, rather than a broader focus on age across the life course. Indeed, elderly people are not represented in the strategy at all, despite their important development roles and differential needs. This is particularly problematic in the context of an ageing world population and projections that developing countries will experience population ageing more rapidly than their developed counterparts (UNPD 2013, 6). Second, while the document takes an important first step in recognizing the significance of children and young people, it tends to target them in isolation. While some child-specific programming may be necessary, it can result in a ghettoization – rather than a systematic mainstreaming – of children’s issues. Moreover, there is little recognition that children are already part of development processes and that they are connected to other generations through relationships and social structures. Relatedly, a third shortcoming of the “children-in-development” approach is that it does not recognize and address unequal power relations within and between generations. This is partially associated with the lack of agency attributed to children and young people in the document.

Towards Social Age Mainstreaming?

23Despite the shortcomings of Canada’s current “children in development” approach, it could be a first step towards social age mainstreaming, just as WID eventually gave way to gender mainstreaming. Could Canada exhibit leadership on age issues as it did on gender and development in the 1970s and 1980s (despite Canada’s recent backtracking on this issue – see Tiessen, this volume)? This section explores the opportunities and challenges of this approach, especially in the context of CIDA’s amalgamation with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

24This latter process provides both an opportunity and a challenge. On the one hand, age mainstreaming requires “changing the way one does business,” as the former High Commissioner for Refugees commented in relation to UNHCR’s age, gender, and diversity mainstreaming (cited in Thomas and Beck 2010, 2). The fact that the structure of Canadian aid is changing may provide opportunities for reform. On the other hand, if Canada’s development policy and programming becomes too aligned with trade and strategic diplomatic interests, the impetus for social age mainstreaming may be lost.

  • 2 This is based on my experiences as a CIDA employee, as well as interviews conducted when developin (...)

25Within the broader development community, there are opportunities for Canadian leadership. First, Canada has one of only two aid agencies with a child-specific strategy. It has also provided some push towards UNHCR’s AGDM strategy, given Canada’s role on the UNHCR Executive Committee. Second, while limited, the MDGs do contain some age-specific targets (as highlighted above), which could provide some opportunities to leverage further action on age issues. An additional opportunity lies in the fact that Canada is legally mandated to undertake a gender assessment in all of its initiatives. Given the fact that social age analysis is inspired by gender mainstreaming, it could be possible to save some time and ressources by undertaking gender and social age assessments together. That being said, it will require more resources and innovation, which may be difficult to muster, especially in a political climate of austerity. Moreover, it should be recognized that Canadian aid workers may already suffer from “mainstreaming fatigue,” as they are faced with integrating many different elements – including gender, environment, conflict-sensitivity, and HIV/AIDS analysis – under time and resource constraints.2

26Indeed, there are many critiques of mainstreaming in development policy. Although intended to effect deep organizational and structural change (Hartsock 1981), mainstreaming may actually depoliticize radical agendas by incorporating “language” into technocratic planning and programming without changing the reality on the ground (Hankivsky 2005). Mainstreaming has also been critiqued for its “fuzzy” approach (Booth and Bennett 2002), resulting in mixed or counterproductive application in practice, or being “everywhere but nowhere” (Tiessen 2007). In some cases, gender is simply equated with “women” without adequate attention to “the wider context of power relations caused by societally defined … gender roles” (Groves 2005, 7; see also Clark-Kazak 2009a). Finally, the complexity of mainstreaming requires a long-term, multi-staged process (Donaghy 2004; Moser 2005).

Conclusions and Recommendations

27It is clear that social age mainstreaming in Canada’s development policy and programming will not be an easy or fast process. However, it could be one way for Canada to make an important contribution to international aid approaches and to exhibit leadership beyond its fairly modest aid budget. Social age mainstreaming also presents an opportunity for Canadian politicians and civil servants to rethink the way we deliver aid, especially in the context of the expanded Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD).

28Given the challenges of mainstreaming articulated above, it is important to demonstrate clearly the importance of age in development processes and the dangers of current age-blindness. While there is a growing body of scholarly literature on age and development, more data is needed, particularly in relation to elderly people in development contexts (see Lloyd-Sherlock 2000). Lessons from the UNHCR AGDM experience (Thomas and Beck 2010) and CIDA’s gender mainstreaming (Tiessen, this volume) indicate that the implied organizational change requires champions at high political and policy levels, as well as working-level civil servants. To implement social age mainstreaming effectively, advocates for greater age-sensitivity in Canada’s international development assistance need to identify key people within Canada’s aid bureaucracy and provide them with the necessary data and tools. Given the important implementation role of non-governmental and private sector partners, allies from outside government could also encourage change within the new DFATD. These constituencies include organizations with an explicit mandate on age, such as members of the Child Rights Consortium, as well as organizations focused on elderly people, for instance, HelpAge Canada. Canadian officials could also consult with colleagues at UNHCR to see the degree to which their migration-specific policies could have broader applicability in development assistance.

29Finally, in the context of budget cuts and numerous critiques of Canada’s aid policy and programming, it is important for champions of social age mainstreaming to present it as a positive way for Canadian aid to reinvent and reinvigorate itself. Canada’s Child and Youth Strategy, despite its “children-in-development” shortcomings described in this chapter, could be a first step towards a more comprehensive and innovative way to make Canadian aid more inclusive and ultimately more effective.


30This research was made possible by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. I am grateful to David Black, Stephen Brown, Rebecca Tiessen, and students in my “Global Politics of International Development” course for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this chapter and the ideas behind it. All errors and omissions are my own.



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1 This does not necessarily mean that gender mainstreaming has been effective. See, for example, Tiessen (2007), as well as Hankivsky (2005), Hartsock (1981), and Moser (2005).

2 This is based on my experiences as a CIDA employee, as well as interviews conducted when developing an action plan for conflict sensitivity (Clark 2007; Clark-Kazak 2008).


Associate Professor at York University’s bilingual Glendon College. Her research interests include age mainstreaming, political participation of young people, methodology in interdisciplinary contexts, and international development policy and programming, particularly in contexts of conflict and migration. She teaches undergraduate, graduate, and professional development courses related to research methodology, migration, international development, peace and security, child rights, and gender. Since 1999, she has also worked as a development practitioner and consultant for the Canadian government, non-governmental organizations, and the United Nations. Christina is currently serving as editor-in-chief of Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees


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