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Global Development Institute

Growing up on the streets

Research with street children and youth in Ghana, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo

The Challenge

Growing up on the streets logo

Children and youth living on the streets in cities across the global South are a visible sign of extreme poverty and exclusion. Supporting these young people to create adult lives, they have reason to value, is a major challenge for international and state-led policy and service programming.

Growing up on the Streets has sought to highlight the experience of urban poverty and identify how young people meet their basic needs, cope with violence and make the transition into adult life. Evidence collected through the research is intended to promote discussion and influence how the needs of street children and youth are conceptualised and in turn inform state and donor programming.   

Key activities

Growing up on the Streets has worked with 198 street children and youth, aged 14 – 20 years old, in the cities of Accra, Harare and Bukavu since 2012, to gather data on the daily experiences of urban life. The important features of the research include the following.

  • Young people are the researchers – street youth have been trained in basic ethnographic methods to work within their social networks and collect observations on the experience of living on the street. This data is reported back in weekly meetings with the research team and discussed during quarterly focus group meetings.
  • The capability approach – has been used to frame the research in order to capture both the negative and positive aspects of life on the street. The participants identified ten aspects of life (including obtaining food, shelter and income) most important to street children and youth that are used to structure weekly meetings and focus group meetings.
  • Longitudinal – data has been collected over three years to highlight the changing conditions and decisions of street children and youth as they grow up and cope with multiple challenges of living on the streets.

The impact

The research has begun to generate an impact and stimulate discussion on how the needs of street children and youth are met, including the following:

  • won funding through the University of Dundee from the ESRC in 2015 for Knowledge Exchange – used to run an international conference in London, local meetings bringing together young people, government officials and NGOs in each city and publish a training pack on involving street children in research and policy dialogue; 
  • awarded the Market Research Society President’s Medal 2015 for its ‘extraordinary contribution to research’;
  • been used to involve over 200 African street children and youth in the United Nations consultation on a new General Comment targeting street-connected children;
  • the Knowledge Exchange training pack has been used to support youth participation in the Street Child Games held in Rio de Janeiro in March 2016;
  • formed the basis for two discussions in the UK Parliament – the All Party Parliamentary Groups on Street Children and on Human Rights – and a discussion at Chatham House on poverty and youth in Africa;
  • established an effective academic / practitioner partnership with the London based NGO StreetInvest and a network of community based organisations in nine African countries;
  • secured funding from a European charity for a PhD studentship at the University of Dundee, linked to Growing up on the Streets, on issues of spirituality in the lives of street children and youth; and
  • so far has generated three academic papers and published a series of briefing papers highlighting emerging findings and issues from the research.

Key people

Dr Wayne Shand (The University of Manchester)

Professor Lorraine van Blerk (University of Dundee)

Patrick Shanahan (StreetInvest)

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