Background to CLARISSA

The complex issue of the worst forms of child labour
The Systemic Action Research approach
CLARISSA's value add


Child Labour: Action-Research-Innovation in South and South-Eastern Asia (CLARISSA) was a five-year (2019–2024), deeply participatory, Action Research consortium which generated evidence-informed, innovative solutions by children and business owners to tackle hazardous, exploitative labour in Bangladesh and Nepal.

The consortium partners were the Institute of Development Studies (IDS); Terre des hommes (Tdh); ChildHope; Consortium for Street Children (CSC); Children-Women in Social Service and Human Rights (CWISH); Voice of Children (VOC); Grambangla Unnayan Committee, and BRAC Institute of Governance and Development. It was funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).

The complex issue of the worst forms of child labour

Worst forms of child labour is an example of a longstanding development problem, with numerous interlinked causes, which vary from one context to another. An intervention which can reduce worst forms of child labour in one context may not be effective in another. So far, most interventions designed to reduce or eliminate the worst forms of child labour globally have proved limited, and the problem remains hard to tackle effectively and sustainably.

In response, CLARISSA set out to build on existing evidence and test how a participatory, learning- and action-oriented, whole systems approach (Systemic Action Research) could generate new and innovative, child- and people-driven solutions to the problem of worst forms of child labour. The decision to work with informal business owners was one important and novel aspect of the programme, as it reframed these actors as potential change agents, and not just as perpetrators.

The Systemic Action Research approach

CLARISSA used Systemic Action Research to work at scale using deeply participatory methods, with hundreds of children, business owners, and community members in informal and unregulated employment sectors, namely, the leather supply chain in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the adult entertainment sector in Kathmandu, Nepal.

One aim was to uncover the big picture – the system which drives children to work in the worst forms of child labour – and to find new ways to change this system. Systemic Action Research has also been used for diverse development and humanitarian challenges such as peacebuilding, HIV prevention, and sanitation.

Over five years, some 800 children from the adult entertainment sector in Kathmandu and leather-supply chains in Dhaka – told their ‘Life Stories’ to adult and child researchers. This resulted in 25 Action Research groups mostly made up of children, and some business owners. The Action Research groups generated their own evidence around the themes they had identified from the Life Stories – themes which they had come to understand as contributing to children working in worst forms of child labour.

Action Research themes included: family dynamics, such as alcohol abuse and family violence; social norms, such as child marriage; workplace related topics, such as health and safety, and abuse; and broader community issues, such as access to education. Engaging with children and business owners in this way also enabled a deep understanding of the business practices which take place in the informal, and often hidden, spaces of unregulated work sectors.

An aerial photograph of a neighbourhood in Dhaka, showing high rise buildings.
An aerial view of a Dhaka neighbourhood, and home to many CLARISSA participants. CREDIT: CLARISSA.

These deep and collective understandings of the various interlinked factors that perpetuate the worst forms of child labour were followed by a set of innovative and context-specific actions designed to change the system. These actions were developed and implemented by the children and business owners themselves, with the support of CLARISSA facilitators.

While some actions had a focus on improving family relations or improving a business association’s code of conduct, others had a stronger advocacy focus, for instance by bringing issues for children who work to the attention of schools and local government.

Additionally, during COVID, when CLARISSA was unable to operate as planned, children also took part in CLARISSA Children’s research groups which learned about issues in their neighbourhoods. This included documenting their neighbourhood by taking photos using the PhotoVoice methodology.


CLARISSA's value add

The evidence generated by CLARISSA contributed to a new understanding of what drives children into the worst form of child labour in Kathmandu and Dhaka, and how it could be tackled. The evidence was also used to influence policy at local and national government levels. More generally, it also adds to the existing evidence base and learning around the value of a Systemic Action Research approach in diverse contexts.

CLARISSA was also able to rigorously test a number of programme approaches which can support Systemic Action Research at scale, including using ‘Participatory Adaptive Management’ whereby programme planning is adjusted based on evidence and learning in real time; and how to work effectively with diverse partners as a consortium.

This evidenced learning has very practical applications for any organisation or team seeking to tackle a longstanding development or humanitarian challenge in a new way, for instance, by working across sectors with different partners. 

Importantly, CLARISSA showed that, even when working at scale, using Systemic Action Research can support deep participation, help build a strong sense of collective ownership and agency among participants, and identify different and new understandings and ways of addressing a longstanding problem such as worst forms of child labour.

Furthermore, not only did CLARISSA demonstrate that the approach brought very real benefits to children, their families and communities, but also how it is possible to shift significant power to participants, where they take the lead in finding their own solutions to the challenges which affect them.

CLARISSA has its own website where all the research outputs and many other programme resources can be accessed. This learning and reflection series is also hosted by and Child Hub.

Chain Reaction: Child labour revisited is a film created by the CLARISSA team that distills the key research methods, findings and experience of the programme. You can watch the full video below.

You can also explore stories from children that were collected during the CLARISSA programme on the Hard Labour website.