What Works for Africa's Poorest

How the Very Worst-Off Families Can Lead the Way to Create Lasting Change for Children in Poverty in Africa

by Martin Kalisa and Diana Skelton, ATD Fourth World

In order to make a difference for the poorest children, policy-makers must first understand what differentiates their lives from those of children who are less poor and why they are particularly hard to reach. This paper will explore some of the characteristics of extreme poverty, such as shame and stigmatisation, separation of children from their families, lack of civil registration for several reasons, and lack of access to education and health care. Because of stigmatisation, reaching the poorest people requires more than just making services available; only specific outreach can ensure the inclusion of all. The most effective policies are those elaborated in direct consultation with the poorest children and their families. Only this direct consultation makes it possible for actions to reach and benefit the very poorest among the poor, and to push back against their stigmatisation, thus strengthening their connections to the rest of society. This paper will present examples of programme design concerning family reunification in Burkina Faso, international human rights policies in Senegal, and national education policies in Tanzania.

This is extreme destitution: others distrust you

In any country where a majority of people live on low incomes, it is important to differentiate between those who are merely poor and those who are the very poorest. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights define extreme poverty as being characterised by social exclusion and by an accumulation of insecurities in many areas of life: a lack of identity papers, unsafe housing, insufficient food, and a lack of access to health care and to education. These insecurities tend to cut people off from the rest of society. Their compounded result is a cycle of extreme poverty passed down from one generation to the next.

Moustapha Diop is a member of ATD Fourth World in Senegal who was born into extreme poverty. At a 2016 seminar on extreme poverty and human rights held in Dakar, Mr. Diop described how extreme poverty differs from poverty:

“When you are poor, you go through times when life is out of balance, but your life makes sense. Improving your station in life is not an idle dream but what you strive toward daily. Little by little, your efforts bear fruit. But in extreme poverty, your efforts do not bear fruit. What grows every day, all the time, are your problems. And you just can't fix things: your child falls ill, you can't afford the medicine, and then it's your wife who falls ill. It never ends.

“The custom here in working-class families is to be discreet and to hide any suffering from others. But when a family is in extreme poverty, everyone in the home wails in despair. There's just no room in the shanty, so you spend most of your life outdoors in full view of everyone else. When your home floods, the toilet can't be used. The stagnant water has a stench that you can't possibly hide. This is extreme destitution: your roof is barely one meter above the ground and your rooms are half flooded, with rubbish everywhere. You cannot hide your misery. You have to pick up and move once a year. Everyone can see the imbalance of your life.

 “In Senegal, when you are poor, you are glad to be with your children—they are the joy of every day. But parents who are in extreme poverty have to entrust their children to others, outside the city, back in the village. Sometimes they can no longer even maintain honourable relationships with one another. During traditional ceremonies, a poor person is present, but isolated, off to the side. However, someone in extreme poverty will hide. He will not even be present at the ceremony. When you are in extreme poverty, others distrust you. They have no faith in you. They don't know who you are.  

“When you are poor, you do what is needed to gain your dignity by summoning your children to the table at mealtime. But a head of household in extreme poverty must send his children out to beg for their meal.”

Addressing the characteristics of extreme poverty


Separation of children from their families

In the city streets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, as in many other countries, some children live on their own, cut off from their families. Institutions designed for their benefit have left some of these children disoriented, not knowing how they can grow up to participate in their community. The creation of these institutions can have unintended consequences, inciting the most fragile families to splinter, with both children and parents believing that the children will be better off in an institution. Despite the sincere efforts of staff, many children’s lives do not actually stabilise there. Each time a new centre opens, children rush there, quitting projects they have begun in other centres. This infatuation usually wears off soon, but it can be too late to return to a previous incomplete project. Children find themselves failing and growing disillusioned.

It is also ineffective to bring children suddenly from city streets back to their home village without preparation. Some children left home in hopes of earning more money to help their families and are embarrassed to return empty-handed. Other children may have left following a conflict. A generation ago, extended families were better prepared to support their members through conflicts. Today, rapid changes in society have frayed extended families and led children to leave home at a younger age. When these children come home, parents do not know what their children have been through or what they have done to survive. It takes time to rebuild trust within a family.

Shame and stigmatisation

Some of the families who, as Mr. Diop says, “cannot hide [their] misery” live in Grand Yoff, an outlying district of Dakar, Senegal. This district spans economic extremes: some residents benefit from well-maintained modern homes and infrastructure; other residents live in informal dwellings with no access to clean water or electricity. When these extremes co-exist on opposite sides of a single street, the children all see each other in the street. However, parents on the more affluent side have often forbidden their own children to talk to “those children” from the other side of the street. 

In 2004, ATD Fourth World began a Tapori Street Learning programme on one such street in Grand Yoff.  The residents of comfortable modern buildings — who are nicknamed “the upper storeys” — were continually trying to rid their street of people called “the shanties”. From home visits to families, ATD Fourth World's volunteers already knew most children from the “shanty” side of the street (which its residents then called Khelcom, and which is now called a “catchment area”). Seeing how much these children suffered from their neighbours’ avoidance and disdain, the volunteers began running regular Tapori Street Learning workshops in this community as a way to build bridges.

During each workshop, volunteers would sit on the roadside to read books aloud and to coordinate artistic and educational projects including songs and games. The natural interest of children from both sides of the street drew them together. When the children got to know one another and began collaborating on projects, they became friends. The children then told their parents about their new friends from Street Learning, and this led to many of the adults developing a more respectful relationship with one another. A few continue to look down on their neighbours, but even these parents now allow their children to play together.

Since 2014, the continued development of the neighbourhood has displaced most of the families from the Khelcom catchment area. ATD volunteers continue to visit these families, who are now somewhat dispersed around the area. They refocused their programme in order to benefit fully the children from the very poorest families, whom they now bring together in the shade of a wall where the more educational activities continue in smaller groups, closer to the shanties. Even in this changed context, however, the more privileged children continue to participate, sitting alongside the others on the same plastic mats. The friendships from both sides of the street have endured. Fallou, whose family lives with the “upper storeys” and who owns a bicycle, continues to play with Adama, who runs well enough to keep up with Fallou even though he does not own a bike.

The cycle of shame and stigmatisation attached to extreme poverty affects many areas of life, such as schooling and access to health care. When this cycle is broken, as in the Khelcom catchment area, children's lives improve.

Lack of civil registration

While it is laudable that UNICEF and many NGOs are already prioritising the need for every child to have a legal existence, the lack of civil registration remains a significant barrier for many children in extreme poverty. Even when fees for this registration are removed, and the paperwork made less cumbersome, many very poor parents still encounter significant obstacles, such as constraints on their time and sometimes shame felt during interactions with officials. 

Lack of access to education

In addition to obstacles related to shame and stigmatisation, children in extreme poverty face other complex barriers to schooling, such as frequent changes in their place of residence, repeated health issues within the family, a misunderstanding on the part of school personnel of the special obstacles facing children in extreme poverty, and lack of funds to cover the cost of school materials. One example of this in Tanzania concerns the situation of Mama R, a single mother, and her three children, aged 11, 9, and 4 in 2015. The family lives north of Dar-es-Salaam close to a stone quarry where Mama R breaks stones for a meagre wage. Her high blood pressure and heart problems prevent her from working on certain days. Her health concerns also cause her worry, particularly when she needs to speak to officials such as health workers, local government leaders, or teachers.

The family had moved in 2013 to the stone quarry from another district. Before moving, the two eldest children had been attending primary school; but when they moved the mother was unable to obtain school transfer papers. She tried to follow up after moving, but her own lack of literacy skills made this difficult, so after several failed attempts she grew discouraged and stopped. Mama R then met a neighbour who was helping ATD to run an adult literacy class in their community. Several weeks after joining the class, Mama R felt confident enough to trust ATD and to ask for support in finding a place in primary school for her two eldest children. ATD volunteers accompanied Mama R to meet the teacher of a Memkwa class, which accepts children who have been out of school for a long time. This first meeting with the teacher was humiliating for Mama R. The teacher accused her — in front of her children — of not caring for them by keeping them out of school for such a long time. After leaving the school, it took a long time and many kind words of reassurance for the mother to calm down. The next day, the ATD volunteer visited the head teacher, telling her about the previous day's encounter with the Memkwa teacher. The head teacher felt concerned by the teacher’s overreaction. She arranged for the children to start school immediately.

However, more challenges lay ahead. Children who have missed school for more than a year need close accompaniment and support to reintegrate successfully. Children need time to readapt to the routine, structure, and rules of school. Particularly for older children who might have been absent for some time, this can be a big challenge. Not long after starting school, Mama R’s two daughters went to play with friends one day instead of attending class. The auxiliary police caught them. Shocked to see the police returning children to her school, the head teacher expelled the whole group. Mama R went to the school to ask the head teacher to reconsider — but in vain. Humiliated and distraught, she returned to ATD and asked for support. When an ATD volunteer went to the school, he faced the head teacher, the Memkwa teacher, a police officer, and the chair of the school committee, all of whom were against the children returning to the school, with the head teacher saying that the involvement of the police brought shame on her school. When finally given a chance to speak, the ATD volunteer asked:

“What will be the future of our country if we expel these children? If they miss the chance to go to school, they miss the chance to be somebody important in the future of our community, like a teacher, a police officer, or a local leader. If they have this chance to study, in the future our country will be a safer place for them.”

After much persuasion, the head teacher finally agreed to allow them to return.

From this point on, it was very important to support the children more closely in their return to school. The head teacher, the Memkwa teacher, and the mother all agreed to exchange telephone numbers and stay in regular contact. At regular intervals, the ATD volunteer accompanied the mother to school to follow up on the girls' progress. Eventually the mother took the initiative herself to visit the school. The teachers began to recognise Mama R and then to welcome her in a respectful way. Whenever she had a crisis at home, she would call to inform the teacher if one of her children might miss school for any reason. Now Mama R is much more confident when speaking with authority figures. She went on her own to register her youngest child for pre-school, and he is now in primary school. The two older girls are studying well in school, and are currently in Class Six.

Projects designed to reach even the poorest among children in poverty

1) Recognizing that extreme poverty is the result of multiple human rights violations, and not just a lack of development:  In Senegal in March 2016, several residents of Grand Yoff and a representative of the district's mayor joined forty other stakeholders in Dakar for a seminar organised by ATD Fourth World and the human rights office of the Senegalese Ministry of Justice. Participants from six Senegalese ministries, as well as from city halls, non-profit associations, religious groups, and schools, all received training to use the publication: Making Human Rights Work for People Living in Extreme Poverty: A Handbook for Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.

Some participants already had grassroots experience working with families in extreme poverty. Others were invited because their responsibilities give them the opportunity to reinforce or develop anti-poverty programmes. The UN Guiding Principles at the heart of the handbook were drafted in extensive consultation with people in extreme poverty from many parts of the world, as well as with reference to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They call for States to: “respect and promote the rights of children living in poverty, including by strengthening and allocating the necessary resources to child protection strategies and programmes, with a particular focus on marginalised children, such as street children, child soldiers, children with disabilities, victims of trafficking, child heads of households and children living in care institutions, all of whom are at a heightened risk of exploitation and abuse”; and to “promote children’s right to have their voices heard in decision-making processes relevant to their lives.”[1] The handbook offers concrete tools to policy-makers and to organisations working at a community level to implement these guiding principles, paying particular attention to the lifelong harm that children can suffer from the humiliation and shame associated with extreme poverty. 

At the conclusion of this seminar, the participants formed a national federation in order to implement the seminar's recommendations. Its members began by examining how their own offices or organisations were trying to reach out to people living in extreme poverty.

All the participants agreed on the following: that a rights-based approach is indispensable for eradicating extreme poverty; that this approach must be multi-dimensional with collaboration among different policy sectors in order to best protect the rights of children and their families; and that people living in extreme poverty must be able to participate in the decisions that impact their lives, as well as in the implementation and evaluation of anti-poverty programmes.

2) Involving people living in extreme poverty in the design and implementation of strategies to overcome the obstacles they face:  In Tanzania, to learn how to create the right conditions for the poorest children to start and finish their primary school cycle, ATD Fourth World carried out participatory research from January 2015 to March 2016 in the Kinondoni district of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, on Access to Primary School Education for Children Living in Extreme Poverty. The team steering the research included five people living in extreme poverty.  To benefit fully from the unique life experience that they have gained by being aware of, observing, and learning how to adapt to their surroundings, the researchers recorded all interviews on video. This ensured that even researchers with weak literacy skills could participate fully in the decisions that drove the project forward. Others on the steering team included educators, students, and local community leaders. Their work led to fifteen recommendations, two of which were crucial in the situation of Mama R, described above. These are:

  • Recommendation 13 – Each school should have a community outreach worker whose responsibility is to create links between the school and the children's parents and ensure that effective communication exists, especially with families living in extreme poverty.

  • Recommendation 15 – There should be a clear complaint procedure for parents to follow. Parents should also be reassured that there will be no negative consequences for them if they do decide to make a complaint.

3) Building on the strengths of local communities:  In Burkina Faso, since 1980, ATD Fourth World's main project has been reintegrating children who were living in the streets into the lives of their families and communities, which are mostly rural. For children to return home successfully, each child first needs time and the opportunity to accomplish something, such as beginning to learn a trade. Families also need time to prepare for their children’s return. It is difficult for a poor rural family to imagine that they could offer something of value to their child. Focusing on the unrecognised strengths in the family and the community can make it possible for children to thrive at home after all. Contributions made by extended family members to raising children in the face of poverty must be valued and reinforced. It is also vital for project coordinators to show respect for children’s communities and culture, particularly in rural communities that do not feel valued. Geographic regions that have seen particularly large numbers of children leaving home should be targeted for economic, environmental, and cultural investments that strengthen the traditional local economy.

4) Providing long-term support:  For Mama R, the ATD volunteer played the role of a community outreach worker, accompanying the mother and providing support. This made it possible for the mother to go and speak with the head teacher after being humiliated by the class teacher. If the head teacher’s door had not been open to her, she would have left humiliated and demoralised, and her children would not have returned to school. Since the research in Tanzania concluded, the research team has spoken about these recommendations with teachers, parents, local government leaders, and NGOs working in the education sector. More than 1,400 people have attended parent–teacher meetings to discuss these recommendations.


When children are living in the most extreme forms of poverty, they can be reached only by policies and programmes designed specifically to target them. Children themselves can play key roles in outreach, particularly in seeking out other children in difficult situations and developing relationships with them. Parents living in deep poverty can actively participate in the analysis, design, and implementation of policies. When their efforts can be supported and reinforced by community and national leaders as part of a human-rights approach, it is possible to undo the damage of stigmatisation, to strengthen their relationships with neighbours, and to create lasting change for their children.


Skelton, Diana and Kalisa, Martin, “People in Extreme Poverty Act for Change”, in A. von Kotze  and S. Walters (eds.), Forging Solidarity: Popular Education at Work, Rotterdam, NL: Sense Publishers, 2017.

Skelton, Diana and Brunner, Valérie, How Poverty Separates Parents and Children: A Challenge to Human Rights, Pierrelaye, France: ATD Fourth World, 2004.


For their contributions to this article: Daniel Marineau, Hamisi Mpana, and Janet Nelson.

[1]    Part III, Section D of the UN Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.