Contemporary Reflections

By Di Levine

The MNS Guyana team has recently undertaken some analysis particularly focused on ‘juvenile’ experiences of prisons in Guyana between 1834 to the present (Warren et al. 2021). This blog post takes a moment to reflect on what our analysis might mean for how we work with children and young people right now.

Of course, none of the extensive work done with, for, and to, children and young people in contemporary times happens in a vacuum; rather it is rooted in the socio-cultural, political, and geographical frameworks and practices of the past. Here, I take a brief look at three key themes emerging from the team’s analysis through the lens of contemporary understandings of childhood and adolescence. I close with an invitation to build new conceptual frameworks for child and youth justice.

Theme 1: Representations and (re)presentations of childhood and youth
The ways in which childhood and adolescence are viewed and understood in any society has direct consequential relationships to the ways in which they are treated, not least in the justice system. Until relatively recently, children’s needs, presences and voices in both colonial and postcolonial justice contexts have been significantly under-represented (Ame, 2018) or dominated by the question of what is considered ‘juvenile’ (Abrams et al., 2018).

As the team discuss in their article (Warren et al. 2021), this lack of representation has also been present in their analysis of the youth incarceration context in Guyana. Pre-‘66 concerns surrounded ‘lawlessness’ amongst boys, and ‘immorality’ amongst girls, crucially and inextricably linked to harmful stereotypes regarding family formation (e.g. illegitimacy) and guidance, particularly towards the Afro-Creole population. Post-’66 they have found a broader consideration of ‘youth’ and ‘delinquency’ placed in the context of wider systemic change. Both of these trends reflect wider colonial and postcolonial representations of childhood and youth (Moruzi et al., 2019), and offer little surprise. What is surprising – and speaks to the problematic, deep embedding of colonial perceptions and practices on those colonised – is how little the processes of independence triggered debate in the justice system around opportunities to (re)present childhood and adolescence in ways that were rooted in local socio-cultural understandings of these life stages (e.g. Creole, Indigenous, African or Indian, or complex combinations of these).

I propose then, that the key learning from this theme for contemporary scholars of childhood and adolescence is the need to surface the myriad conceptualisations of these phases of the lifecourse in Guyana, in the same way that we would approach the intersectional challenges of any sub-group in a population, if we are to progress youth incarceration and justice systems that are both sustainable and effective into the future. We need to move from representations of childhood and adolescence, to (re)presentations of these life stages.

Theme 2: Deficit models and compound impact
The ‘deficit model’ linking aggression in childhood (and associated family risk factors) with later delinquency has dominated a significant proportion of the empirical literature and as the team show in their article (Warren et al., 2021) certainly speaks to the perceptions of both colonial and postcolonial administrators about child, parent and family relationships in Guyana. Recent research, however, suggests that both the directionality and nature of this model is incomplete, and that the deficit model may not be universally applicable (Renouf et al., 2010). Rather, there are multiple pathways through which aggressive behaviour may evolve (Hawley, 2014; Jambon et al., 2019).

There is a further challenge offered by the use of a deficit model in the Guyanese context: close to 90% of the evidence about childhood and adolescence is built on research in ‘high income’ (Minority World) countries (Blum & Boyden, 2018). The relevance of deficit models of delinquency to the Guyanese context is therefore highly questionable, compounded by the highly problematic stereotypes we have seen represented in archives and records, and demonstrated in Queenela Cameron’s recent study on the New Opportunity Corp (NOC) facility in Onderneeming (Cameron, 2019).

Contemporary evidence suggests that there are some aspects of youth development specifically that are universal. For example, the powerful neurological drive during adolescence leading to heightened effects of peer influences on perception of risk, reasoning surrounding risk, and risk-taking, and hypersensitivity to social exclusion (Foulkes & Blakemore, 2018). The team therefore saw recurring discussion of the problems of ‘gang’ cultures in their analysis, and the administrative urge to channel these neurobiological drivers into national service or corps in post-independence Guyana.
However, while there are characteristics of childhood and adolescence that are observed across cultures and histories (e.g. Blakemore, 2019), system-level interactions (e.g. between child/youth and health, education or indeed justice) can often be context-specific. Arguably the concatenation of these two circumstances the team has witnessed in archives and records, has contributed to the lack of sustained change in the youth incarceration system both in Guyana and elsewhere over long periods of time.

Theme 3: Work, educational reform and rehabilitation
The perceived close relationship between ‘work’ and ‘rehabilitation’ is a recurrent theme in our analysis since the colonial period. While much has been written on the definition and nature of child ‘work’ and ‘labour’ (e.g. Van Daalen & Mabillard, 2019; Rahikainen, 2017; Adonteng-Kissi, 2018), because child and youth voices are so absent from the evidence available to us in Guyana within the prison system, it is difficult build a picture of what aspects of this work could be considered rehabilitative, or even restorative, in the longer term. We cannot judge whether the highly-gendered educational opportunities afforded young Guyanese were sufficient to enable them to build a life for themselves beyond institutions, were barriers or facilitators of what limited social mobility might be available to them during these periods, or whether this work impacted on recidivism. The study by Cameron (Cameron, 2019) represents an initial step towards building a contemporary picture that centres the lived experience of young, incarcerated people now, which will provide new foundations for future scholarship.

Finally, we have reached the point where we understand that children and youth people are progressing through crucial periods of human development. This understanding enables us to reflect on what it means to ‘become’ an adult, and therefore what is means to be human. Significant physiological and psychosocial change (e.g. Sawyer et al., 2018), associated changes in attitudinal and behavioural appetites, influences from socio-cultural constructs, all point to complex multisystems of anthropometric, environmental and psychosocial change in which a young person navigating the justice system operates. The team’s analysis invites scholars to begin to conceptualise these multiple, interconnected systems (Theron & Ungar, 2020), some universal, some highly contextualised, all rooted on the past, in order to build more transformative pathways (Case & Hampson, 2019) in youth incarceration and justice system for Guyana’s future.

Dr Diane Levine is Deputy Director of the Leicester Institute for Advanced Studies.

(Warren et al. 2021) Warren, K., Moss, K., Kerrigan, D., Ayres, T., Anderson, A., Cameron, Q., Confronting Silences Haunting Guyana’s Juvenile Justice System, Caribbean Journal of Criminology, Vol 3:1 (2021), ISSN: 0799-3897, pp. 10-39.

Evaluation in a post-colonial context

By Diane Levine

In their 2020 chapter “The South against the destroying machine”, Lara Hofner takes an interdisciplinary approach to reflecting on the social realities of the Minority World, the ways in which they are hegemonic and violent, and the contrasting social realities of the Majority World,  considered ‘oppressed’ (see Hofner in Baumann & Bultmann, 2020). In this blog post I reflect on the challenges of evaluating the MNS Disorders in Guyana’s Jails project as we saw them at the outset, then share some of the key messages emerging from the mid-point evaluation, and consider some of the challenges we will face in the remainder of the project in ensuring evaluation does not become part of the “destroying machine”. [Note: I do not sit directly within the research team, which I hope has given me some small sense of distance and objectivity in delivering evaluative activity.]

What was

At the project launch stage the team’s planned evaluation and impact activities were founded on some shared key principles:

  1. We collaborate and align our efforts for the benefit of the project as a whole wherever possible,
  2. We ensure equity of access to data, including by considering gender, socio-economic and socio-cultural dimensions to our findings.
  3. Our research emerges from meaningful understandings of the complex environments in which we operate.
  4. We promote decolonising methods and perspectives.
  5. We learn continuously by analysing and reflecting on the specific and changing circumstances in which we operate.
  6. We harmonize with our colleagues outside the academy, committing to co-ordinating our efforts with others in the same space on their advice. 

The challenge ahead was not underestimated by team members. Impact and evaluation have already been problematized widely in the academy (e.g. Aguinis et al, 2014). With particular reference to this project were conceptualisations of impact that rely wholly on ideas of rationality and control that provide an unfortunately fantastical security in a context that does not in reality allow for non-linear ‘contradiction, complexity, or paradox’ (e.g. Shahjahan & Wagner, 2018, p.g.3). We all saw that this formulation made an incontrovertible link between the rational and the conqueror, and brought us dangerously into colonial practice: in this framing everything must be manageable, observable, knowable, and measurable, as the team sought to identify causal linkages between intersectional complexities and ‘impactful’ intervention.

As was expected across the funding landscape at the time (2018/19), the team intended to produce an evolutionary logical framework, and emergent classical Theory of Change goals that would: i) model pathways to impact, explaining the potential connection between activity, output, outcome, and impact, ii) provide rationales on how implemented activities and inputs are likely to lead to our desired outcomes, and iii) make assumptions and constraints explicit. The original logframe looked something like this:

Attempts to conceptualise impact in the context of a decolonial imperative have aimed to demonstrate multi-stratified perspectives of reality (e.g. Izutsu, 2008), and alternative ways of knowing that we cannot normally see through the common impact lenses of, say, policy citation (see Śūnyatā, as explicated in Shahjahan & Wagner, 2018). Change that might arise from our research activities as viewed through Śūnyatā’s lens is not change in itself. Rather, change depend for existence on everything else.

We realised that we would need to learn the lessons being taught to us by the limits and failures of tools such as logical frameworks and Theories of Change, whilst acknowledging our commitments to our funders, colleagues’ careers, institutional progression, and our partners. Following their first fieldtrip (March 2019) the team began to ask themselves some difficult questions:

  • Can we understand and evaluate in a pluriversal way that surfaces the interconnectedness between us all in the Guyanese context?
  • Can we accept the discomfort that our work may not ‘make a difference’ in the ways we conceptualise ‘difference-making’?

Alongside finding ways of addressing these questions, the team realised that parallel systems might need to be run for capturing the pragmatic requirements of funders and institutions. They wanted to formulate these new ways of evaluating and knowing without sacrificing their integrity. This seemed to me an excellent position from which to begin my observation (and learning) journey.

What is now

One of the parallel systems to which we had committed was a mid-point evaluation. Our original conceptualisation was of something that would be delivered in Guyana, with Guyanese stakeholders. Sadly, in March 2020 we had to rapidly re-formulate our approach with the onset of Covid-19. Fieldwork, workshops, focus groups and consultation would no longer be possible in the way we had envisaged. Not only that, but uncertainty within the Guyanese socio-political context, and associated significant workloads for everyone, meant that we could not in fairness ask people to give up their time for long virtual workshops.

In the interests of pragmatism we opted for a light touch mid-point evaluation comprising a content analysis of all meeting minutes to summer 2020, 1:1 interviews of all team members willing to speak, and a summary that would then be reflected to our Advisory Board for comment, critique, and critical friendship. Six key themes emerged.

What will be?

So what about next steps? Well, there are some practical things we need to do. For example, for large scale projects, we need to begin to consider costing/building in professional support for those gathering data in the field (including in archives), or possible training modules available to all teams in managing emotional responses to this kind of high-stakes work.

But the significant, intersectional task ahead for evaluation will be to continue to recognise that “evaluation is unavoidably and simultaneously in dialog with the prevailing contexts of colonization and decolonization vis-à-vis the location and moment in which it occurs” (Marama Cavino, 2013). We need to build a culturally-meaningful, Caribbean-aligned, model of evaluation that meets Guyanese needs, as well as our original commitments. Watch this space!

Dr Diane Levine is the Deputy Director and Manager of the Leicester Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Leicester.