Interview: Neil Boothby

Neil Boothby
Sanchi Ravishanker
Publication Year:
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Dr. Neil Boothby is a Professor and Director of the Global Center for the Development of the Whole Child at the University of Notre Dame. He is an internationally recognized expert and advocate for children affected by war, displacement and abject poverty.  As a senior representative of UNICEF, UNHCR and Save the Children, he has worked for more than 25 years with children in crises in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. He is the former director of the Program on Forced Migration and Health at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and his research focuses on ways to create pathways out of adversity for children and youth.  He is also the recipient of several awards for his fieldwork, including the Red Cross Humanitarian of the Year Award, for his work with child soldiers, the Mickey Leyland Award, for his work on behalf of uprooted people, the United Nation's Golden Achievement Award, for excellence in social sector activities, and Duke University's Humanitarian Service Award.



What has your research in child development revealed regarding areas with arising needs for better child-focused programming?

The number one area that it’s revealed is that we tend to think of education as starting in the kindergarten or first grade. However, our research in the Global South is indicating that significant percentages of achievement gaps in children are evident before they even go to formal school. Point one is the household is the first school. It’s very important that we start digging in at the household level when we think about child development and education, in particular.


Given your experience as a Senior Advisor to UNICEF, do you think the organization is adequately responding to these needs? If not, perhaps more concretely, what would you highlight or prioritize as key components of a successful child development intervention or strategy?

I do think that UNICEF has made significant progress over the last ten years and maybe more rapid progress in the last several years by setting up an ECD unit at the Headquarters and hiring someone who is very knowledgeable and very active. The global community as a whole has done a very good job moving forward science that shows that 80% of intellectual capacity is created in those first thousand days of life and what some of the social and emotional underpinnings are to cognitive development such as responsive social care. So there has been tremendous progress, globally, and UNICEF has been part of that progress in advancing understanding. I think just now, in the last year or two, that understanding is beginning to manifest itself in changing donor habits and health and education policies. USAID is an example where they have integrated ECD into their education programmes. DFID and other donors have done that as well. Collectively, the global community has done a very good job advancing these issues.

The science is pretty clear. The challenge is: how do you translate that science into action?

Here we become fragmented. To some extent, if you are trying to fit it into traditional sectors, you could say it’s a health issue or an education issue and in fact, it’s both. Nutrition is obviously important but so is responsive social care. The challenge is to figure out, at the country level, how do you balance interventions in households that include both, responsive social care, reduction of violent and harsh discipline and nutritional inputs. It’s a multi-sector activity and many organizations, including UNICEF, have trouble when you have to combine sectors. I think that is the major challenge for implementers.


From a psychological point of view, what is happening to the brains of children living in refugee camps or war zones, such as Syria? What are the short and long-term consequences of these brain changes and how can policy help alleviate this? 

That’s a good question and perhaps a complicated one. It is the question of how do children turn out if they spend long periods of time in adverse conditions such as refugee camps. The answer really is: it depends. It depends on the people closest to them – their parents, teachers and others; the day-to-day champions in their lives – and how they help children buffer from the stresses and strains. It depends on the host community and how open or closed they are in terms of allowing kids to get an education, for example. In our work in Jordan, we found both types of communities. On the one hand, some communities were incredibly receptive and giving, while and on the other hand, there was quite a bit of intimidation and bullying in other communities. I think those contextual issues or those l social-ecological issues will determine as much as anything, how children turn out. So it’s the champions in their lives that are with them, day-to-day, and it’s the host community behavior or the conditions within a refugee camp.


What are ways international organizations can support communities in fostering a sense of togetherness for children?

Again, great question. I think at the macro-level, the largest level, many of the tensions that evolve in refugee situations in which host communities are involved as opposed to separate internationally-subsidized camps, is the perception over competition for jobs and the way housing or rent can go up when there is a large influx of people from another country. Taking on those economic issues and dealing with issues of livelihood and opportunity and having that be equitable – not thinking about just targeting refugees – but targeting host communities including refugees is important. The equity issue will go a long way. In schools, there is much that can be done peer-to-peer and student-to-student, in creating a safe and welcoming culture, not tolerating bullying, and promoting inclusive discussions, conversations and curriculum activities.

Teachers and schools can be key to what takes place between host community children and refugee children.

In your view, how can UNICEF improve the education of refugee and displaced children from the level of the individual to the level of policy? 

If we think about children in adversity, such as children in refugee camps or children growing up in poverty, obviously access is a key issue. There are different ways in which access can be achieved through a combination of infrastructure improvement and also creating inclusive school communities Social-emotional learning (SEL) and competencies, in addition to reading and writing, is the brick and mortar to academic learning. There is a high correlation between academic resilience and SEL competency skills. I think that UNICEF could improve in terms of ensuring quality of education programmes by focusing more on the SEL component. I think SEL really is a psychological intervention in terms of how teachers relate to students, how fellow students treat one another, etc.  Additionally, a focus on skills and competencies that enhance executive functioning for young people, and enable them regulate their thoughts and behaviors under stressful circumstances, is a scalable psychosocial intervention. I would like to see us move more out of the idea that we have to have psychological interventions per se, which may lead us into clinical intervention thinking, and instead, within the education sector, think much more about SEL as a psychological intervention that one can take to scale to deal with a broad range of issues. In that context, if there are children having acute problems, one can create referral services. I think that promoting SEL at scale will take us a long way towards school cultures that can support and even heal children exposed to extreme adversity. 


Do you know of any communities or programmes that have integrated SEL into their education programme?

Yes, there’s quite a bit of work in this area. OECD has overarching research and publications in this area. So for the global overview, OECD might be the place to turn to. More specifically, many NGOs and ministries of education are taking this quite seriously. For example, I work in Peru with UNESCO and the Ministry of Education in four indigenous communities –in the Andes, the coastal areas and the Amazon. So very diverse communities. The programme works to integrate SEL into these regional school system, while the Ministry of Education is beginning to promote this as national policy. There’s a long way to go but it is an example of a Ministry of Education understanding that if you want to produce a viable labor force, good citizens and create economic and social progress, this part of education is just as important as literacy and numeracy.


There is a fear the current pandemic can prove devastating for the most vulnerable children – like those in refugee camps or without access to basic sanitation or health services. The impacts of COVID-19 on children’s overall wellbeing will likely not be evenly distributed. Drawing from your work on risk and resilience, what are immediate actions the international community can take protect refugee children and their families?

I would focus on three things. Obviously, the physical isolation or so-called social distancing is critical to avoid infections and stop the spread. It’s very hard to achieve in overcrowded conditions. There are efforts in which youth in rural communities, for example where we work in the central part of Kenya, have made their own hand sanitizers and list of do’s and don’ts that they are using to mobilize their communities towards more protective behaviors.  We also are seeing similar efforts in the favelas of Brazil. People in poor communities are mobilizing. We should identify these innovators and highlight them nationally and globally.  Second, in the education area, the digital divide is cruel to children who live in rural, remote or marginalized communities such as refugee camps. There are some interesting innovative efforts taking place. For example, in Haiti, there are regions where electricity is inconsistent and the internet is non-existent. Indeed, this is the case in many of the 340 school communities where we work.  We are thus activating the Catholic radio network as means for delivering distance learning that focus on literacy, social-emotional learning and positive family dynamics and routines. . There are challenges in terms of capacity and antiquated equipment but it’s an example of some pioneers that are really trying to make a difference in the midst of this awful pandemic.  When this is over, and hopefully it’ll be over by the fall, we need to start thinking about how do we close the gap between kids in remote, rural areas and kids in urban areas. Between conflict, natural disasters and pandemics, schools will continue to be episodically closed; hence a resilient school system needs to build the capacity for distance learning – for all kids. The third major concern is that there are many children in poor communities that depend on school feeding and schools are closed. Nutrition becomes a critical issue and how do we make sure kids can continue to be fed when they can’t access food in schools.


Do you think the current situation will make us think differently about refugee and migrant children?

I think that it should and it might. I also think that some countries in the Global South are going to be very hard hit because of health systems that don’t function as well as they are going to need to, crowded living conditions and the lack of sanitation. Europe and North America are being hit hard by COVID 19, and also suffering through tremendous economic challenges.

Will there be sufficient resources among traditional donor countries to tackle both domestic and foreign assistance challenges?  I fear that foreign assistance will decline, so as a global community we need to actively promote human solidarity as an operative formula to ensure this crisis does not divide us even more.  We need to be alert to autocratic politicians’ overreach:  we are already seeing power grabs taking place in several countries, including in the United States. There is a high likelihood that economic inequality will be exacerbated as opposed to reduced and marginalized groups, such as refugees, will suffer the most. If we as a global community focus on human solidarity as an operative ethical framework, we can preserve some degree of  fairness that we can continue to build on over when the crisis subsides.


What do you see as being important for the next generation and their potential to improve the state of the world’s children?

To me, the biggest challenge in the world in terms of global security is growing economic inequality and climate change. More specifically, how those two are coming together. With this pandemic, we are learning that whether it’s animal cruelty in the wet markets that creates the toxic stress in animals that foster viruses and diseases or whether it’s the defamation of the Amazon; there is a link between what happens in the world and crises, including pandemics.

I think that economic inequality and climate change are the major challenges for this generation and also the next.

How we address those two issues will have a lot to do with wellbeing and even survival. Through our education systems and our social imagination of who were are as a human race, we need to ramp up global ownership and responsibility of these critical challenges, and invest generously in solutions.  Saving the environment is in everyone’s best interest and everyone’s security. We urgently need to change the idea of what it means to be a responsible citizen – both, globally and nationally.


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