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.

As people live on the streets or take refuge in camps that have been temporarily set up, or in whatever neighborhoods remain, children are subjected to risks such as family separation, exposure to live electrical wires and unstable structures, sexual exploitation and violence, discrimination, neglect or lack of proper care, psychosocial distress, and use of harmful substances. Lacking food, some children take to stealing, bringing them into conflict with the law. Although the need for basic necessities and social supports is enormous, the earthquake has badly disrupted services, damaged the social fabric, and worsened poverty, thereby aggravating all of the problems mentioned above.

The urgency of the situation demands immediate, effective action, mitigating against a slower, highly participatory approach. Some of the greatest risks to children arise near where they live—in their community setting. Families can meet some of children’s protection needs, but by themselves cannot always meet these needs, especially in such a context. When existing social structures and processes are not operative, having effective community-based child protection mechanisms in place is a high priority.

This type of emergency context demands immediate action. Such action is often taken through top-down approaches to child protection at community or grassroots level. Typically, in these situations an international non-governmental organization (NGO) assesses the main child protection risks and then enables the formation and capacity-building of a Child Welfare Committee (CWC, sometimes called a Child Protection Committee) in consultation with local people. A CWC might consist of 10–15 community members (or members of the displaced, affected group) who, following training, monitor the risks to children, report serious violations against children (e.g., rape of a child) to authorities, work locally to prevent abuses to children, and enable grassroots supports such as non-formal, psychosocial support for affected children.

A CWC is a community-based child protection mechanism since it operates at community level and the activities are carried out by community members. This is a partnership approach insofar as the NGO and community members work together to achieve the common goal of protecting children.

This approach is top-down in several respects. Typically, it is the NGO that initiates, defines the problem, guides the planning and implementation, and also evaluates its success or lack thereof. Community members are consulted and participate, but the work is defined and often led by external, expert child protection workers who define priorities, indicate that CWCs are needed, and provide relevant training and follow-up support for community CWC members.

Perhaps most importantly, the NGO holds the power and takes the key decisions. Imagine, for example, that an assessment has indicated child-beating as a significant risk to children, but community members say that child-beating is not a problem since parents and teachers need to discipline unruly children and teach them appropriate values and respect for authority. The NGO child protection workers would likely try to teach local people about child rights and the harm caused to children by corporal punishment. They would also likely persuade community leaders to accept that child-beating needs to be addressed, or they would even make willingness to address this issue a condition for partnering with the NGO.

Particularly in desperate circumstances, most communities want to partner with external NGOs in the hope of securing material aid and better conditions for their families. Indeed, NGOs in such conditions wield significant power even without trying—the economic asymmetry between the NGO and affected communities makes communities eager to partner, willing to silence their own priorities and doubts, and compliant with NGO suggestions and approaches.

Top-down, community-based approaches such as those described in the example above are not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, they have several advantages, such as enabling rapid responses like reuniting unaccompanied children with their families. In addition to responding to violations against children, they may also reduce suffering and help to save lives in a highly dangerous situation in which there are no existing structures or group processes that can perform the functions of child protection.

Many agencies favor these approaches because they enable a rapid response to violations against children in a manner that is consistent with international child protection standards. Managers frequently prefer them because they follow fixed timetables and logframes and can be implemented according to standardized protocols. Also, they promise the kind of relatively quick results on a large scale that donors increasingly require. From this standpoint, it would be ill-advised to do away with top-down approaches.

An important point is that bottom-up and top-down approaches are not mutually exclusive but complementary. The wider task of strengthening national child protection systems requires a mixture of different kinds of work. Top-down approaches are necessary, for example, in establishing a framework of national laws and policies that prioritize, legitimate, and support the protection of children. Bottom-up approaches, meanwhile, are necessary for enabling sustainable supports for children’s protection at grassroots level and building an environment of prevention. And middle-out efforts, such as work at municipal or district level to support child protection, are needed in order to foster connections between the grassroots and national elements of the child protection system and to promote congruence between these different elements.

From this standpoint, it would be misguided to focus solely, as the child protection sector has, on a top-down approach. The spirit of this Guide is that much more attention to bottom-up approaches is needed in order to strengthen child protection systems and achieve the wider humanitarian goal of sustainability.