Casual Evil

Most people I know remember the school visit of an elderly, and usually elegant, senior citizen with a slight accent. Sometimes showing a tattooed number on a forearm, they shared their direct experience as survivors of Hitler’s concentration camps.The quiet dignity and enduring resilience stunned us into silence and stayed with us for the rest of our lives. We grew up in the shadow of the holocaust. We assumed that what was right and wrong had been settled. That in democracies at least, there could be no war. It felt like there was a shared responsibility for a common good and a mantra of Never Again. That the operationalization of evil at an industrial scale could no longer happen.

In my working life I have seen conflict and catastrophe the world over. Every life is precious and valuable. No warlord has ever invented a cause that would warrant a single human loss. Warlords never have anything to offer anyone.

The industrial scale of the war in Ukraine and the ferocity of attacks on civilians is a betrayal of the Never Again ethos. The bombing of maternity hospitals, theatres, bread queues, civilian homes. The outflux of 3 million refugees, half of them children. The horrific stories about traffickers waiting to abduct those who are unaccompanied. This war was unleashed upon a world already reeling from a pandemic. Who could be so cruel?

Today CNN reported on the story of Svetlana. A weeping, elderly babushka nursing a shattered forearm in a Mykolaiv hospital. She had witnessed her husband and lifelong companion killed and their home destroyed in a rocket attack . I just stared at the screen trying to imagine what she would do or where she would go now ? I thought about the the way many elderly couples love and know each other from a lifetime of mutual endevor and shared struggle. How entwined they must be at the roots. Who could take away a love like that? Who is involved in the chain of decision making that led to the rocket piercing their humble home? Can we ever bring them to account? Can we give Svetlana justice? If we don’t I am worried that these atrocities may become less outrageous in our collective memory. Evil will become easy and casual.

Industrial scale killing dehumanizes. We need to bring it back to the level of the individual and cherish their memories, their sorrows and struggles, the love and lessons learned over the course of a life. We need to remember their names.

In a split second Svetlana’s life was turned upside down, most probably by a fully grown man in full body armor, cowering at distance. An army that does not have the honour or courage to fight toe to toe with equals under the norms of the Geneva Convention. An army that bombs maternity wards and pensioner’s houses from afar. Soldiers whose only moral recourse should be to lay down their weapons and go home and tell their communities what they saw and what they did and to dedicate their lives to paying back. This is all an aberration. We should never stop being shocked at the depravity and scale of the crimes committed.

This war followed two decades of global fragmentation and of rolling back that post-holocaust clarity. Polarisation and culture wars, rising inequality and poorly managed de-industrialisation. The war on terror, stalled progress on human rights, climate, public health and poverty and delayed transition in Eastern Europe. All of this ruptured our shared sense of right and wrong. We became more willing to give public space to the charlatan politician or the crooked oligarch. To allow lies or tolerate the annexing of sovereign territory. Our politics dispersed to the extreme fringes whose only interest is to showboat and fight each other. Extremists are incapable of building a consensus to improve our world.

I have seen casual evil so many times in conflict zones. One memory haunts me. It is not an extreme case, it shows how atrocious behaviour can be automatic and casual. It was the first morning after huge waves of refugees had flooded across the border from Kosovo into Albania. War-weary families had shivered through the night in a makeshift refugee camp. There was a skirmish as someone found a thief in the camp. A young man from a village nearby had woken up, looked out of the window, seen the misfortune of others and decided to go and exploit it. It was automatic and without hesitation. I remain, fascinated by his decsion-making. His smallness is the same smallness of those politicians, chat show hosts and warlords who search for misfortune and frissures in our society to sow division.

If we learn one lesson from all of this it should be the need for clarity of purpose. The Burkean maxim that we hold an obligation to pass the world we inherited to future generations in a better state than we found it seems more pertinent than ever. The global values set out in the UN charter, the human rights instruments and the development goals need to be re-sanctified and pursued with relentless vigour. We should insist that institutions of democracy have the primary responsibility of harnessing the available evidence and resources to build prosperity, peace and progress. Ambiguity and relativism on what is right and what is wrong should go out of fashion along with charlatan politicians. Clarity of these purposes is the best preventative weapon against those who would do harm.

The Common Good

Global progress requires three things. A laser-focus on results, measurable targets and ability to find common ground. In the period between the end of the cold war and the global economic crisis, child mortality was halved, primary school attendance doubled and Polio cases reduced by 99%. This accompanied a near-global endorsement of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and UN Development Goals. Such a consensus is always contingent on a shared view of human rights and global development as a Common Good. The aspiration is that this progress must be universal, not selective.

After the global economic crisis, populism soared and health and education results stagnated. A sense of common good gave way to growing inequality and polarisation. Populists tried to shift from a universal view of human rights to a selective one that tied rights to identity. Culture warriors present a unique threat to universal progress. They suck the oxygen from public discourse without providing any improvement in the lives of the people they claim to serve.

Our vulnerability to the pandemic was turbo-boosted by surging inequality. When schools closed in New York city, the poorest 300,000 children did not have access to online learning. Globally 40% of families had no consistent means of hand hygiene. The virus mutated while those in poorer countries who wished to be vaccinated could not be. In rich countries the misinformed fought for air in hospital beds having refused the jab. Vaccine inequality and vaccine refusal are mutually reinforcing pandemic prolongers driven by bad politics.

Despite all of this, it is a moment to be optimistic. There is the knowledge and technology now to end preventable childhood death and disease and dramatically reduce abuse, neglect and harmful practices. It is possible to deliver fairer and more relevant education in countries currently suffering what the World bank has termed a Learning Crisis. With better global collaboration and leadership we could uphold the protection of the one in four children currently living in conflict zones. Equally, it is not a moment to be complacent. Climate change and population growth bring new challenges which require hard work to maintain prior progress and build out from it.

When we think about the leaders we love, they carried themselves with an abiding sense of the common good. They served all constituencies and took responsibility for what they said and the secondary impacts of how it may be interpreted by others. They delivered results by producing policies that may not have been loved by anyone, but which were acceptable to all.

Reimagining a post-pandemic world needs to bring focus back to a universal common good that appeals across constituencies. We need to talk about how nationalism, isolationism and inequality made us vulnerable to the pandemic. To reward politicians for humility, service and delivering progress for the people they serve. Building a better world, based on values of human rights and a common good is more possible now than it has ever been.

The Ghislaine Maxwell Story Must Be About The Victims.

The media noise of the Ghislaine Maxwell trial drowned out victim’s voices. The ‘socialite’s’ fall eclipsed the pain of lives devastated by organised criminal exploitation. Ghislaine Maxwell was found, through due process, to be a groomer and trafficker of vulnerable children.

What does it do to the life of a young teenager to be groomed for exploitation? Groomers have a laser-focused recruitment strategy. They identify, target and exploit the most vulnerable children and young people. Children who are already in pain. Those who feel unloved or unworthy. Those already affected by violence. Girls without a reliable adult to call for advice on an offer of a trip or friendship from an older stranger. Groomers take broken lives and break them further. They are ruthless and heartless.

Our society lacks both understanding of the grooming process and compassion for the victims. The victims evoke misogyny and class prejudice. That prejudice prevents or delays prosecution. Trauma, the lapsed time and absence of witnesses to sex crimes means testimonies can be inconsistent. Former Public Prosecutor for North- West England Nazir Afzal said that inconsistency itself is a sign of the authenticity of the testimony.

From a base of vulnerability, the victims show heroic tenacity in fighting their case. Defence lawyers try to denigrate their character. The strategy is to brazenly play into public prejudice and re-traumatize the victims. The use of a ‘false testimony’ expert was rightfully dismissed by the judge and jury at the Maxwell trial. Do we as a society believe allowing defence lawyers to roast traumatised victims of historic child sex abuse is a pathway to a fair hearing? Is it in the public interest? Does it serve justice?

Maxwell’s defence team requested a retrial on finding a juror mentioned lived experience of child abuse during jury deliberations-as if this was an outlier. According to CDC population surveillance data, between 11 and 20% of adults experienced sexual abuse as children. Data from the Council of Europe shows 1 in 5 European adults experienced sexual abuse as children. Tragically, child sex abuse is not marginal it is mainstream. A jury that did not include survivors of abuse would in itself be an anomaly-and arguably itself an injustice for a trial on organised sexual abuse.

The 2021 prosecution of Ghislaine Maxwell is rare and hopeful. Before Nazir Afzal re-opened a case against grooming gangs in Rochdale in England they had abused an estimated 1400 children with impunity between 1997 and 2013. Hundreds of complaints of systematic abuse were met with fear, incompetence and misguided politics. The eventual successful prosecution was a game-changing breakthrough.

Where do we go from here? Investigate those implicated in this case without fear or favour, regardless of how powerful they are. Turbo-charge the capacity of justice and police systems to detect, disrupt and destroy grooming gangs whether managed by Rochdale roughnecks or Manhattan socialites. Beyond that we need to address vulnerability. The first line of defence is family, friends and community. Investment in services that support families and communities to protect children and help them flourish. This enriches our society and yields an unrivaled return on public investment.

The case in Rochdale was a pre-cursor for the #MeToo movement in the UK. #MeToo later exposed widespread sexual violence against women and girls everywhere. It networked victims and activists to dismantle the structural inequalities and barriers that protect perpetrators and bring them to justice. We can build on that by scaling up action to prosecute the organised gangs that so ruthlessly exploit our most vulnerable children and young people.

The Parenting Vaccine

The short walk from Grand Central to the United Nations this Tuesday completes a journey that has taken a lifetime. It started at 13 when I fled a violent children’s home and shivered through the night on a park bench. I like to think running away was a defiant refusal to accept my lot . An effort to re-sanctify my humanity and sense of selfhood. Probably I was just very scared.

I always thought child maltreatment was an anomaly, blighting a small number of us. At leastone in three children grow up in chaos or emotional poverty. We all know the stories of Elton John, Oprah, and Billy Conolly. 30% of Oscar-nominated films in 2020 had a storyline of child trauma. Why would we be surprised?

For children, danger is not just the presence of violence but also the absence of love. A child’s adaptation to danger creates lasting trauma that can drive a lifetime of pain, poverty, and ill health. Childhood adversity is catastrophic for the child and the costliest and deadliest of social problems. for society.

Yet none of it is inevitable

On Tuesday I will present a joint UN policy call [1] to member states aimed at preventing abuse, neglect and abandonment before it happens. The call draws on the recent body of global science on why child maltreatment occurs and what works in preventing it.

In the decades that have passed since that lonely park bench, our global understanding of child maltreatment has transformed in three ways.

We know child abuse and neglect are not marginal.  These adversities do not only affect the 1-3 per cent of children who become child protection cases. Globally, at least a third of us experience significant maltreatment during childhood. Abuse, neglect and dysfunctional parenting are transmitted across generations, often automatically and unintentionally. It doesn’t always occur in chaotic, rage filled homes. It can be mild or moderate, quiet and unseen. In all cases it causes lasting  harm.

Child maltreatment costs a packet. It is the main preventable cause of life-course mental illness , addiction, obesity and vulnerability to exploitation and violence. It also increases the likelihood of non-communicable disease poor learning outcomes and fewer job prospects. It is the most common factor amongst those recruited by organized crime, extremist and terrorist groups. Abuse and neglect are one of our greatest social problems and  estimated to cost between 2 and 5 per cent of global GDP. In one way or another, we are all affected by childhood adversity.

It is not inevitable. The best protective factor is a dedicated, loving parent or caregiver. Babies are biologically programmed to attach with a parent for care and protection. The absence of love and attachment is seen by children as a threat. This activates the stress response system and derails healthy development. Parents who were neglected or abused as children themselves are at higher risk of poor attachment with their own kids. This inter-generational transmission of trauma can be disrupted by providing an opportunity to develop parenting skills and self-awareness  . Evidence-based, low cost parenting programmes have shown improved outcomes in attachment, nurturing care and violence prevention. Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman argues that parenting programmes deliver up to US$13 return on every dollar invested through better life outcomes

Global progress occurs when humanity unites behind a single accelerator that attacks multiple problems . A  laser focus on vaccines against childhood diseases in the 1980s increased global coverage from 20 to 80% of under-fives and halved child mortality. The world became a place where child death was no longer seen as inevitable or unpreventable.  

As an absolute minimum standard, the World health Organization and UNICEF are calling  on governments to ensure 5-7 home visits  in early childhood with ‘booster’ sessions at critical development stages such as adolescence. Like vaccines, parenting programmes are an accelerator rather than a panacea. They are the most effective and proven way we currently know to prevent abuse and neglect. This very minimum package could tip the balance and disrupt transmission of intergenerational trauma. They should be made available globally and universally in the same way that vaccines are intentioned. We call this the parenting vaccine

The minimum standard is for deployment in all contexts including humanitarian and low-income countries. The more a country can do, the more it should do. The parenting vaccine is a galvanising  accelerator that would turbo-boost support for other critical interventions including family friendly policies, caring for the caregivers, universal pre-school and better funded mental health and social work services.

The launch of the parenting vaccine carries the same urgency for me as the work I have done on humanitarian crisis and natural disaster. At thirteen I refused to accept my maltreatment as inevitable. With a small and cherished group of colleagues from the UN and academia we are refusing to accept it as inevitable for any child.

For most of adulthood I suppressed an inner pain, buttoned up under the cover of sporting, academic or professional accomplishment. Therapy delivered an Ebeneezer Scrooge-style epiphany. I was never financially stingy like scrooge for the record. My austerity was with emotions. The world seemed so much more joyful, enchanting and loving after recovery . I have a deep appreciation for the feelings and sensibilities that cascaded from a place that had felt barren and broken. All around me I see people who live with unresolved trauma. They don’t even have the vocabulary to describe it, let alone acknowledge and change it. We could build a world in which everyone could understand, describe and seek to overcome trauma.

Until a few years ago I had no photo from my childhood. My mother had died when I was a young adult without me really knowing her or holding her image in my head. A long-lost family friend recently shared some much-treasured childhood photos and a single video. In the grainy film I can see my mother and the friend chatting. The friend bounces her infant on her knee effortlessly while chatting. I am off to the side, out of my mother’s gaze or affection. In my mother I see the face of someone deeply unsure of herself. We rarely think of our own parents as once having been children. I imagine my mother had been neglected herself as a child and simply lacked the relational tools to protect or love a child. Someone who never recovered. I imagine her as a beneficiary of the parenting vaccine programme . I imagine her bouncing that child on her knee and of them growing in mutual love. This is what we should all want for every child and parent.

Previous generations dramatically reduced hunger, disease and war as the science and resources became available.  In doing so they uplifted humanity.  We are the generation that can end abuse and neglect as an accelerator for health, wellbeing, prosperity and peace . We can imagine a world where Ebeneezer Scrooge doesn’t need an epiphany and I didn’t need a bench.

NB: This Article if the third in a triology. The first can be found here and the second here. I dedicate this article to my amazing colleagues Etienne Krug, Sabine van Tuyll and Alex Bouchart of WHO, Professor Lucie Cluver and Professor Frances Gardiner at Oxford University and Stephen Blight, Oluwatosin Akingbulu, Emma Ferguson, Cornelius Williams and Zeinab Hijazi of UNICEF> All of whom work tirelessly for the cause set out in this blog. The photo is taken from with the last cohort of abandoned babies who were de-instutionalised as part of a programme with the Government of North Macedonia

[1] Created by UNICEF, WHO and the UN Special Representative  on Violence Against Children

Two Journeys, One Mission: Giving Forward

Two Journeys, One Mission: Giving Forward

By Benjamin Perks & Lina Tori Jan

November 2021

November is a time of gratitude. The month is marked by Thanksgiving in the United States and by GivingTuesday in the world of global activism. It is a moment to witness the spirit of giving to one another, to our communities, and to our society. ‘Giving forward’ is one of the hallmarks of the month. Giving forward is a ripple effect witnessed over generations. It does not come with any expectation or self-interest. It is driven by love and the hope for a better tomorrow. A mother may sacrifice a comfortable life to give a better future for her children, a teacher may go the extra mile to ensure her students thrive and improve the world, and a humanitarian worker may risk their safety to reach those in need.

Our [Benjamin and Lina’s] lives have been shaped by the generosity of others over different generations and in very different places. Our lives were transformed by people who simply took a chance on us.


If my memories of childhood were photos, they would not be high resolution. They would be grainy, frayed at the edges, blurred by trauma and the absence of shared family memories. I was a children’s home boy. My adolescence was punctuated by moves to more than twenty addresses strewn across London and Birmingham. I would often move in a moment’s notice, belongings in a garbage bag. One of the children’s homes was so violent and chaotic that I ran away and slept on the streets. I was thirteen years old.

At fifteen I started a new school and met an incredible teacher Jan Rapport. Jan asked questions and listened to the answers. She got me excited about literature, politics and philosophy. She was the first person in my life to hold me up to a higher standard and help me achieve it. Coming from the emotional desolation of a children’s home, knowing someone held me in their mind and heart was a game-changer. She turned me away from a likely trajectory of crime and risk. I eventually went to university, got a masters degree and settled on a career with UNICEF.

One moment in my working life stands out. Nurooz, Afghan New Year 2002.

23 years of war had given way to a peace agreement and a commitment to get the child population into school. Most Afghan children had never been to school. The few schools from before the war had largely been destroyed. Our job was to put in place an infrastructure for basic education for millions of children within a few months. Our deadline was Nurooz on the 21st March. We express-trained thousands of would-be Afghan teachers, imported tens of thousands of tent classrooms and millions of textbooks, stationary and backpacks. We repurposed living rooms and factories as classrooms and distributed supplies via truck, camel or donkey train to every city, town and village, including those not reachable by roads. We barely took a breath for weeks and just got the last supplies in place in the early hours of Nurooz. After a few hours of sleep, we awoke to the most wonderful scene. Through faint snow we could see children going in every different direction to school. For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, the majority of children were in school.


The Back to School Campaign of 2002 is the foundation of my education. Just a year prior, a group of insurgents had arrived at my school, destroying it with bullets and burning all the books. By the age of five, I had heard angry words that no child should hear: “Burn the books so the idea of getting an education never crosses their minds again.” They pillaged my school and set the books ablaze. The terror caused by these insurgents displaced many people to neighboring countries, and forced my family to live in hiding in a basement in Herat.

With the change of regimes in late 2001, life started to get better for many, including Afghan women and numerous minority groups in Afghanistan. My family moved to the capital city, Kabul, where I saw an opportunity to continue to pursue an education. The day I first learned that I would get to go to school, I was ecstatic—bouncing my way down the dusty streets as I made the two-hour walk to the nearest UNICEF tent, where I proceeded to register myself for school. In the months that followed, I would walk the two hours with my friends and occasionally walk alone.

My initial classroom was a greyish-white tarpaulin awning. On sunny and hot days, the outside classroom sweltered with heat to the point that my black hair started to turn brown. On rainy days, we would have to cancel classes because the whole classroom would be submerged in water. Eventually, the school received a UNICEF tent, which made the situation much better. It was so exciting! It meant no more days of sitting in the sun and no cancelation of classes because of rain. Soon after, we started getting chairs and desks. Life was going really well and, for the first time, I began to have a glimpse of a “normal” childhood. As time passed, this initial spark grew into a burning passion for learning and a drive to pursue education as a path to a better life.

As a result of my early years of learning, I have had opportunities beyond what I ever could have imagined, from completing my high school diploma in the United States to working with the Governor of Virginia’s office while completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Richmond to studying alongside classmates from over 50 countries at the University of Oxford.

Years later, while completing my master’s in Oxford, a friend of mine told me about Ben and his involvement in the Back to School Campaign. I was so ecstatic to meet Ben and thank him for the work he did. I was one of the students which Ben helped to attend school. Our paths may have crossed when he was in Afghanistan but the mere fact that he took the time to serve and give forward his blessings, changed my life. Through UNICEF, Ben and others like him empowered me to have the tools and foundation for my education.


When I heard about Lina, I realised that she would have been one of those children on that day. I wonder if my younger self in Afghanistan could have imagined being blessed by such a connection all those years later. I am lucky to know her and of her accomplishments as an inspirational young Afghan leader. For every child, going to school, feeling safe accessing food and water and being loved should not be dependent on generosity. They are non-negotiable human rights. Lina harnessed the narrowest of opportunities to achieve the widest of impacts.

This Giving Tuesday my life will come full circle. I will present a joint UN policy call to member states in New York to bring an end to child abuse, neglect and abandonment by strengthening parenting programmes. The evidence shows that such programmes dramatically reduce child maltreatment. We now have the know-how to make them universally available and can realistically envisage a world where children don’t suffer abuse and neglect. A world where children don’t experience what I did.  On that special day I will carry a thought of Jan and Lina in my heart and think about how our destinies are interwoven across generations and continents. How the best version of ourselves rises to the top when we give forward for a better tomorrow.


When I heard of Ben’s story, I was touched by his resilience, courage, empathy, and giving heart. While our quest for education and service brought us out from difficult moments of life, our journey would not have been possible without the incredible support of many individuals who took the time to guide us. Our journey has reminded us again and again, in a world where tidal waves of news can make humanity and hope seem distant, they are anything but—hope and humanity are ever-present in every corner of every community around the globe.

So, this holiday season, please take a moment to pause and reflect on how the generosity of others has impacted your own life, and how you might—in ways big or small—give forward and positively impact the lives of those around you. Together, we can build a better future for millions of children around the world by giving forward our blessings.

The Day I Got The Bus

I arrived at UNICEF on a bus, and by accident at that!
As a ragged-trousered kid from a children’s home, I had sweet talked my way into university without the pre-requisite qualifications and funded my studies by selling jackets in Camden market in North London. In addition to being entrepreneurial, I was idealistic and had been campaigning for the rights of people like me (from state care) since the age of 16, my heroes were Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. I had a vague, unclear notion of wanting to contribute to a better world. That has stayed until this day!
At the time, the wars in Bosnia and Croatia were raging and stories and images of families, children, elderly people under siege or fleeing as refugees were headline news. I signed up for a summer volunteer programme for refugees in neighbouring Slovenia and set about raising funds for the trip, even convincing the local BBC radio station to provide a portable radio recorder to do stories from the trip. I wrote to UNICEF in advance to request an interview on psychosocial work with war-affected children. They asked for my details and said they would try and help.
Those were the days before low-costs flights. The bus from Victoria Station to Zagreb in Croatia may have been ten times longer, but it was also 3 times cheaper! The trip was spent with migrant workers, returning students and endless conversations. It was the perfect introduction to the region.
Upon arrival I called the UNICEF office What happened next was bizarre, and in some ways life-changing. 
A heavy-accented French voice on the end of phone breathlessly whispered ‘Benjamin…we have been waiting for you. When can you start?’ I knew how to adapt to a sudden-situation change and I replied….breathlessly…’when would you like me to start?’

To this day, I don’t know if I was mistaken for someone else, but I was not going to miss the opportunity. We agreed that I could complete my volunteer programme and then join the Area Office working on a one-day-a-week contract helping out with English language writing in the communications office. For that miserly contract, I worked seven days a week, around the clock. I knew this was the chance of a lifetime. I wanted to be indispensable. 
Working for UNICEF was exhilarating and like nothing I had ever seen before. The work and the people were so inspiring. The capability to impact on the health, schooling and protection of children in the worst of circumstance-at scale was remarkable. I felt this was exactly the place to combine idealism with action. After a couple of months of working my socks off , I got a full-time contract and decided to take a year out from university. Halfway through the year I had a few months covering as the head of a small field office in central Bosnia, distributing humanitarian assistance to those caught between the fighting.
Upon completing a masters a few years later, I rejoined UNICEF and have served over 20 years including in Afghanistan during the massive back to School programme in 2002, in India after the Tsunami and Georgia during the 2008 conflict. I came full circle and back to the Balkans as a Rep in Montenegro and North Macedonia and now to New York. I also returned to the issues that moved me in the first place: children deprived of parental care, child poverty, neglect and mental health-issues now central to UNICEF’s global advocacy.
There has never been a better place for someone like me to work than UNICEF, though of course it can drive you crazy. If you have three UNICEF people working on a task there will be six ideas on how to do it. We have meetings about meetings about meetings. yet the results UNICEF delivers are like almost no other organisation. With a focus on children-the legacy never ends. We work for a world where children are safe from disease, hunger and violence and where they can positively flourish-in every corner of the world.

It has been and remains an incredible journey and most days I still cannot believe how lucky I am to be here. Despite all the frustrations, if I had my time again I would still get on that bus from Victoria Station!

A Safe Place to Return

There were many jobs that helped me pay my way through university. Selling leather jackets on Camden market, a very bad wedding DJ and a bartender in more places than I can remember. One of my favorites was driving a private-hire cab in North London. It had downsides: Nauseous drunks, exhibitionist backseat love-makers and menacing football hooligans who wanted to know which team I supported. But in general, it was a decent gig.

It was rare then for someone from state care to go to university. A fragile milestone on a long journey from one world to another. At times it felt like a no mans land. In my rear view mirror there was a world that seemed dysfunctional and full of violence, poverty and pain. Just across the horizon I imagined somewhere bathed in prosperity, purpose and safety. A university degree would be my rite of passage.

Driving a cab at Christmas, there was one thing worse than the small number of horrible customers. It was the much larger number of nice ones. They would jump into the back of the cab, armed with gifts, en-route to relatives or for Christmas drinks. After a few sherries they would sing Christmas songs and exchange shared memories of Christmas past.

Their joy illuminated what I lacked. I was so focussed on getting through that stage of life, I had not yet developed an adequate vocabulary to describe my life to myself. I now realize that no mans land was an unfathomably lonely place. I was 22, but had already had 25 addresses. It felt like there was no single thread tying it all together. The early roots of friendships and relationships that would endure for a lifetime were beginning to take shape. I was lucky enough to be one of the few care leavers who now always had a Christmas dinner invitation. The awkwardness of being an outsider at Christmas and a festive novice was brilliantly captured in the recent film ‘Alex Wheedle/ Small Axe’ by Steve McQueen. I am still a bit of a Christmas novice, but maybe a slightly improved one!

I guess my heart told me the world was divided into two. Those who someone cared about and those who nobody cared about at all. Deep inside I felt I was one of the second group and there because I was unworthy. What I didn’t know was that this a completely normal feeling for someone from my background.

The whole field of attachment psychology started in the 1940s when John Bowlby interviewed young offenders in London. He noted that many self- blamed for being abandoned by their parents and felt similarly unworthy. This research led to decades of work which helped the world to understand the way that childhood experience shapes adult outcomes. Inconsistent or absent affection in childhood may affect up to 40% of any given population. The situation of young people from care is just the most severe and manifest part of a much more widespread social problem that otherwise had remained taboo.

Our modern, idyllic image of Christmas comprises jolly people singing and feasting around a warm family hearth while snow falls outside. We owe this partially to Charles Dickens whose Christmas Carol did much to shape the identity and aesthetic of Christmas. His formative childhood years coincided with a rare decade of snowy London winters and a spell of abandonment and child labour at the age of 12 , as his parents languished in a debtors prison. Christmas Carol is ultimately a joyous tale when Scrooge overcomes emotional poverty and trauma and finds his place at a Christmas hearth. Many popular Christmas songs represent an aesthetic of the return to this hearth.

In the UK there is now a movement to de-Grinch Christmas for Care Leavers. An army of volunteers make sure that careleavers across the country have a Christmas dinner. Sophia Alexander Hall sensitively created a list of care-leaver Christmas films that don’t go overboard on the whole family thing. Less sensitive was Paperchase’s ‘comedy’ greeting card featuring a Mommy rabbit demanding a refund from the orphanage for a young foster rabbit who spilt milk. Sophia and Lemn Sissay led an online protest and the card was withdrawn.

Though my young feelings of being unworthy were normal, they were also false. As the years went by, I also understood that the world is not divided between the cared for and uncared for . The land across the horizon of university degrees, suburbs and families is also broken. There is addiction, violence and emotional poverty there too. Care leavers are worthy. I saw that people will wait for us, come across town to see us on a bus or keep us in their thoughts or prayers. Through the beauty of human acknowledgement and connection we can recover and build our own hearth.

Recently a UNICEF colleague (namecheck Aleksandra) visited a juvenile detention facility, as Bowlby had done over 75 years earlier. She commented that most of the problems the young people found themselves in, happened because they had no-one to turn to. For them, any small challenge could quickly morph into something much greater. The cost of running the juvenile facility and the the crimes committed are way higher than the costs of prevention.

If the idea of a return to a safe and warm hearth is so central to our main annual holiday and therefore to our national culture, should it not also be central to our social policy? Could we guarantee a safe place of return for every child? A place of love, safety and belonging. Of shared memories and a soothing sense that one matters as an individual. If this sounds ambitious, just remember that in Dicken’s time the idea that we could do anything about childhood disease, hunger and illiteracy was considered fanciful.

The solutions are known. The evidence shows we can reduce neglect and abandonment through parenting support and social protection. We can also invest in resilient communities and schools We could realistically arrive at a point where it is simply no longer culturally acceptable or imaginable that a child would live or grow in such isolation. Even for pre-epiphany Scrooge types, the return on investment is compelling and cannot be dismissed as humbug.

It was once said that ‘safety, is not just the absence of violence, it is the presence of relationships’. This Christmas lets reimagine a world beyond the pandemic where every child has a safe place to return.

This Blog is part two in the ‘Because I Grew Up in An Orphanage’ Triology. Part one is here

What We Talk About When We Talk About Emotional Poverty

If you put your mask on and go for a socially distanced trawl through New York City’s bookshops, you will note the most in-demand book of the moment hails from Glasgow. Shuggie Bain by Glaswegian New Yorker Stuart Douglas just won the Booker Prize. Its’about a 1980s childhood derailed by poverty, exclusion and adversity, and recovery through love and resilience.

‘ Glasgow was losing its purpose’ pondered Shuggie’s father while surveying the working class communities fractured by pit and shipyard closures.

Glasgow has certainly found new purpose in its world-inspiring efforts to reduce violence and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The eminent public health thinker Sir Michael Marmot lauded Glasgow’s community-based violence reduction work for halving gang violence in the city. Sir Micheal described their approach as an example of ‘building resilient communities’. Martin Luther King used to describe community based work on violence and exclusion as striving for a ‘beloved community’. They are one and the same. Love is resilience.

It was a pleasure to join Sir Michael last week in an online public discussion on poverty and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), hosted by the incredible Ace-Aware Scotland.

This pandemic has shone the light on poverty everywhere. Austerity and prior stagnation on child health coupled with growing inequality had made us more vulnerable to the shocks of Covid19. Globally the number of children in poverty is estimated to have already risen by 15% as a result of the pandemic. We know child poverty is a disaster for children and their families, but it is also bad for society. Tackling child poverty increases wealth and growth for everyone. When we don’t, the scars last a lifetime and can be passed from one generation to another.

I see three catastrophic burdens in childhood that can drive lifelong inequality: Income Poverty through a lack of the basic means to survive, thrive and reach one’s potential. Discrimination or Exclusion based on race, gender or disability for example. Emotional Poverty ( also known as ACEs ) the absence of the basic nurturing and protective parental relationships due to violence, neglect or dysfunctional parenting .

The three burdens often converge and exacerbate each other. But not always. Most middle class respondents to the first ever ACE survey in 1998 had experienced one ACE and 12. 5 % had four or more. We all know people raised in wealthy and loving families who suffer devastating social exclusion because of disability, race or gender. We also meet people from so-called ‘privileged elites’ whose lives have been ruined by devastating emotional neglect or sexual violence in childhood. All need our compassion and our policy advocacy must focus on protecting all children in all circumstances always.

Shuggie Bain was afflicted by income and emotional poverty as well as exclusion because of homophobia. In those days only income poverty had a widely recognized and understood public and policy narrative . Homophobia was endemic and entrenched, as immortalized in the anthem’s of Glasgow’s own Bronski Beat. In 1988 the Conservatives introduced legislation through section 28 of the Local Government Act against promotion of positive images of Lesbians and Gay Men. 23 years later the Scottish Conservatives had an openly Lesbian leader. Ruth Davidson was so talented she could even promote a positive image of the Conservative party…in Scotland! Along with other forms of exclusion, including on gender, race and disability, those 23 years saw a public narrative emerge with clear policy asks to address homophobia.

The narrative on poverty may have begun in the 18th and 19th century and on exclusion and discrimination in the 20th century. Some post-2016 soul searching has blamed the rise in populism on a post-industrial working class perception that the left had abandoned fighting poverty to fight exclusion. Thats another blog! But both struggles continue and perceived competition between them is bad for each other and for progress in general.

Our understanding of emotional poverty as a risk factor for lifelong inequality is a 21st century idea. It accompanies an explosion of new knowledge about how our brains develop, emotions work, decisions are made. It shows how healthy relationships are essential for wellbeing. This is powered through new evidence at the intersection of neuroscience, biology, psychology and sociology. It is a crucial part of the jigsaw puzzle with attachment theory, toxic stress and resilience that powers a much better understanding of child development.

This idea is so new, we don’t even have an agreed title yet. For most of us Adverse Childhood Experiences tell a story at a population level, as data sets on prevalence of ACEs and life outcomes. There have been around 30 ACE surveys in different parts of the world and across most US states. They all demonstrate remarkably similar results, though they are not yet nationally representative in the way data on childhood disease is, for example.

The ACEs methodology is often used by WHO, UNICEF, CDC and other major public health bodies. We use it with caution and humility in the knowledge that it is an emerging field of research. But there is now enough knowledge to act and call on governments to invest in the following strength-based population-wide interventions: 1)universal support for early parenting through home visits 2) reducing stress on the caregiver 3) resilient communities, including policing and schools that promote connection and belonging 4) breaking taboos and building a public narrative. These are all accelerators that can drive forward progress on multiple public health and social fields.

In the future we may have internationally comparable data sets for all countries. We can then measure progress in reducing ACEs and poor life outcomes against investments in strength-based policies on parenting and resilience. I have seen internationally comparable data leveraged for policy advocacy to reduce child mortality, disability exclusion and deinstitutionalization and to improve education outcomes. ACEs data used internationally at the population level could be as transformative as when expansion of immunisation, safe water access and improved nutrition dramatically reduced child mortality during the child survival revolution of the 1970s and 1980s.

While we must work to craft a clear narrative, we can also think about the type of conversation we want to have. Here are some initial thoughts:

  1. Poverty and exclusion are system failures. We have a right to be angry and loud about these injustices. Transmission of emotional poverty or ACEs is different. It is when things go wrong in the home and relationships-often inter-generationally and unintentionally. It becomes a system failure when we don’t address it. We need a calm thoughtful conversation that doesn’t blame or create competing victimhoods.
  2. We need to look out at any population and recognize that anyone can be in pain, often even without being aware of it. That everyone is at risk. This topic can be a trigger or a source of healing, or both at the same time. There is no ‘us and them’ as everyone’s life is touched in some way. If we have not had ACEs ourselves, our partners, neighbors or co-workers have. We need compassion.
  3. You cannot have a conversation about emotional poverty or ACEs that is judgemental. The subject feeds into how people feel about their parents, themselves and their children. These are usually complex and deeply private feelings. The policy makers and parliamentarians who we want to legislate and invest in this sphere, are no different to anyone else in this respect.
  4. Addressing ACEs does not detract from the struggle to end poverty and exclusion. Equally it doesn’t always need to take them into account. It is a different framework of analysis. It can also be used alongside child poverty and social exclusion research to advocate for a holistic advocacy agenda to child and human development. There is no competition between the three. Individuals and groups will be drawn to work on the one that is of most interest to them. We cannot talk about ACEs in an atmosphere of polarization or competition.

I write all of this with the humility of knowing it is a much less evolved sphere than say child survival or nutrition. Our knowledge is evolving. But from what I have seen thus far, we need to have a calm, compassionate, non-judgmental and inclusive policy narrative on emotional poverty and ACEs. Child psychologist Peter Fonagy highlighted that parents who become self-aware of the risks of transmitting inter-generational trauma are less likely to do so. With the right type of public narrative we can harness community wide self-awareness to bring an end to emotional poverty in the lives of children everywhere.

A Right to Love?

“He feels a dark star of pain in his throat and the last warmth of her touch on his fingers” 
― Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon

At 92 years of age, Stuart, was reluctantly bought by his son to see psychologist Daniel Siegel. Despite initial protests, he warmed to the therapy sessions. The more he talked, he more he saw his lifelong feelings of emptiness and emotional detachment. That realization motivated him to continue with the therapy and to become a better companion for his wife in their retirement . The therapy began to chip away at rigid walls that prevented intimacy and affection and made him numb.

Stuart’s wife saw how tuned-in to her feelings he became through the therapy. They were now happier than at any previous point in their 62 years of marriage. She told Professor Siegel that Stuart’s parents were the coldest and emotionally distant people she had ever met.

Stuart’s painful journey had indeed began at the start of life, not towards the end . Babies are programmed for connection, warmth and love. When absent or disrupted because of emotional neglect or loss, it is scary. The rapidly evolving young brain and body adapts to survive this trauma. But that adaption can become a lifelong maladaption. We cannot remember or recall our relationships as infants. But the earliest years define how we navigate the world and relate to others.

Neglect is often inter-generational and unintentional. We rarely think about what it meant for our parents to have been children themselves. If their parents were emotionally unavailable or unreliable in their affection, then it leaves an imprint. Children don’t come with a handbook and parenting is largely automatic and instinctive. What if our instincts are distorted by an early deficit of love?

9 year old Leon has a “dark star of pain” at losing his beloved brother and mother for the uncertainty of foster care. Between Leon’s 9 and Stuart’s 92, dark stars that are not soothed can be the source of much silent pain. Such stars are everywhere. Up to 40 % of adults struggle to connect or to thrive within relationships due to scars of childhood

I recently heard love defined as the promotion and protection of another’s internal emotional world. Love empowers with the soothing sense of being a “we”.  To truly love, we need to be emotionally present and in-tune with another. This can be intolerably painful and uncomfortable for someone who has not previously felt part of a “we”.

On one level we know all this. We identify it immediately in the detached James Bond or insecure Bridgette Jones. In the songs of Amy Winehouse. It has driven plot lines from Tolstoy, Dickens and Hugo to many 2020 Oscar nominee films. But it rarely drives us to demand a public conversation about how we may address it.

The right to Love  is not set out as a specific right in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child although the preamble states: Recognizing that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding,”  The latest science on human development shows child protection and development depends on the presence of love. Is it time to have an internationally recognized right to love?

We await any sequel from Kit De Waal to see how Leon’s life pans out. Healthy relationships with Maureen, Tufty and Mr Devlin are healing for Leon . An authentic connection with a teacher or another caring adult can help a traumatised child recover. Leon’s foster carer Maureen soothed him and helped him to believe that in the end “things would be alright”. Crucially, she helped him to understand he mattered as an individual. We live in a world where mental health services are scarce and stigmatized and only accessed by a fraction of those who need them. Soothing relationships are the best hope for recovery for most.

Stuart’s healing began when he became self-aware that mental maps from his childhood were not serving him well.  We can imagine how much richer his life may have been if this had occurred earlier. Or if the emotional neglect was prevented from the start. Research shows that mothers who become similarly self-aware are less likely to neglect their own children. This knowledge has informed parenting programmes designed to give attached and nurturing caregiving.

A right to love would call on governments to ensure every child has a loving family in which they are protected. It would call for parenting programs to be universally available and stressors removed from parents. It would demand that schools and communities prevent loneliness and isolation of children. That no adolescent reaches adulthood without being part of a “we”.   That everyone knows how to talk about about attachment, neglect, belonging and connection. That we talk about it without stigma or judgement.

Over recent decades we have seen unprecedented, game-changing results in public health. The world has harnessed the latest science to reduce child and maternal mortality and expand life expectancy. The next frontier of human rights in many countries has shifted from survival and basic protections, to helping us thrive and flourish. We need the public demand and political will to ensure, within this, everyone has the right to love .

Time For Us All To Grow Up and Take Childhood Seriously

For anyone concerned with childhood policy in the UK, this month has been a shocker. Children have been headlines news. Return to School and Exam algorithms have been debated and pontificated over by high-brow media, political grandees and lofty intellectuals.

Childhood is usually a second tier political issue. If debated, it appears as the parlimentary equal of Scunthorpe United versus Stevenage Town. While debates on tier one issues such as Brexit, the budget or any given war are Barcelona versus Bayern.

This was best illustrated by an article on a 2016 Conservative leadership contest in The New Statesmen. 9 Reasons You Should Be Truly Terrified of Andrea Leadsom Becoming Prime Minister. ‘Leadsom has long campaigned around parental attachment, and reportedly spent several minutes talking about babies’ brains at the first Tory leadership hustings, to the bemusement of fellow MPs’ the article tittered. The candidate had a crackpot idea that investing early could prevent costly negative life outcomes . Luckily the razor-sharp intellectuals of the New Statesmen and the bemused (probably male) MPs were not fooled.

How can a candidate for the Prime Minister talk piffle about brain development. Surely there are serious tier one issues to discuss? Terrorism, Crime, Drugs, Poor Productivity, non-communicable disease, obesity or poor education outcomes anyone?

Apart from the fact that any credible scientist from Harvard to Oxford with now tell you this: To prevent terrorism, crime, drugs, poor productivity, non-communicable disease, obesity or poor education outcomes we should invest early. The Nobel prize winning economist, James Heckman has shown that every 1 public dollar invested in early childhood yields up to $13. This makes early childhood the best investment any government can make. The World Health Organisation, Centre for Disease Control and UK National Health Service all see correlations between early trauma and costly life outcomes. The groomed, addicted, radicalised and obese are likely to have come from backgrounds of early trauma. And we now know how to prevent it. This is what Andrea Leadsom was talking about.

Most democratic political philosophies have a longstanding position on childhood. Moderate conservatives venerate Edmund Burke, who advocated for a form of intergenerational justice. Social democrat discourse on childhood was shaped by a quest for fairness and equality, as championed by Dickens and Hugo. The left has a strong focus on addressing child poverty and exclusion . These ideas remain relevant, but incomplete. All political parties are slow to champion our new understanding of how children’s brains develop and how transformative this can be for our society.

New York Times columnist, David Brookes advocates for investment in early childhood development. Like Andrea Leadsom, he was belittled by another writer for turning away from tier one politics. This time by Anne Applebaum in her recent book on geopolitics and populism Twighlight of Democracy. In many countries we can see polarised election campaigns with rhetoric that harms children. While any debate on their welfare will be out on the margins.

The same misguided hierarchy of political priorities is often seen elsewhere too. A recent conference on violent extremism was only attended by geopolitics and security experts. It is increasingly obvious that a driver of radicalisation is child trauma. We need to factor-in early preventative policies if we are to address it.

Over the course of your life, investment in childhood policy could do more for your security and wealth than any defence or economic policy. There is huge evidence that investment in parenting, pre-school and child poverty should be a tier one political priority. Depending on your politics, you may or may not be “terrified” of Andrea Leadsom. But we definitely should fear political systems that fail our children. It is time for us all to grow up and take childhood seriously!