The global Child Protection Minimum Standards define child protection as “the prevention of and response to abuse, neglect, exploitation, and violence against children.”[1] Most child protection workers agree on the importance of top-down steps, which are initiated and guided by authorities, in the strengthening of comprehensive child protection systems.

Child protection systems typically stand on a foundation of child rights instruments, laws, and policies that prohibit violations against children, such as rape and other forms of sexual abuse, early marriage, assault and bullying, trafficking, dangerous labor, and recruitment into armed forces and armed groups, among many others.

The value of such prohibitions derives in no small part from the fact that they are imposed by authorities. In fact, laws and policies that aim to protect children lose their value if authorities do not enforce them in a uniform and fair manner. At the community level, too, top-down approaches have their value and place.

The purpose of this chapter is to help readers step back from current practice, in which top-down approaches are dominant, and reflect on the limits of such approaches. The objectives are to:

  • show the value of top-down, expert-led approaches in particular settings; and
  • to increase understanding of how these approaches are limited.

The latter point includes how top-down approaches evoke low levels of community ownership, increase dependency, do too little on prevention, and do not help local people to develop their own sustainable solutions to problems of child protection and well-being.

Key Question for Practitioners

Is my agency’s way of working too top-down, and what could I do to help strengthen its community engagement and ownership?

Relevant tools from the Toolkit: FAC 1; TRN 1 & TRN 2; MGM 1 & MGM 2.

[1] Child Protection Working Group (2012). Minimum standards for child protection in humanitarian action. Geneva, CH: Author.

Emergency situations clearly illustrate the need for top-down approaches. Imagine that a major earthquake devastates a crowded urban area in a country that is already racked by chronic poverty, weak governance, and a paucity of supports for vulnerable children. In the blink of an eye, masses of families become homeless and large numbers of children become unaccompanied or separated.

Despite their advantages, top-down approaches have numerous limitations and problematic aspects. In terms of strengthening child protection systems, top-down approaches often lead to decontextualization in which outside models (such as those from the Anglo-Saxon world) are imposed in ways that do not fit the local context.[1] At the community level, significant limitations include relatively low levels of community ownership, self-silencing by community members, backlash, high levels of dependency, and low levels of sustainability.

In light of these limitations, it is vital to seek alternatives that complement top-down approaches, offer a stronger way forward, and unleash the full creative power and agency of communities. Since reflection is the key to successful change, please take a moment to reflect quietly on the questions presented in the box below: