Answering international development questions from primary pupils

22 July 2013

Question mark made of puzzle pieces by Horia Varlan on

This article ‘Ask a grown-up: why are so many African people poor?’, published in The Guardian on 22nd June 2013 has helped Amy West to reflect upon the challenge of answering complex international development questions from primary school pupils.

The ‘Ask a grown-up’ series from The Guardian gives young people a platform to have their questions answered by an expert. On this occasion the response to six-year-old Thea’s question ‘Why are so many African people poor?’ was written by Barbara Stocking, former CEO of Oxfam. Barbara is an expert in international development and had time to give a thoughtful written response to Thea.

As teachers, we do not always have as much time (or as much expertise) to consider our responses. As teachers we often have to think on our feet. We can be caught at the end of break-time by a curious question in the playground, or pursued by a keen pupil as we pack up our classroom at the end of the day.

So how do we make sure that we feel equipped to answer some of these hugely complex questions from our pupils? How would you respond to six-year-old Thea? What would we say if a pupil asked us ‘why are there so many wars in the world?’ or ‘why do people always tell us to buy fair trade bananas?’

These are a few simple thoughts for us to reflect upon:

  • Don’t feel that you have to know all of the answers
  • Acknowledge that the situation is often complicated
  • Encourage the student to think critically about their own question
  • Keep a class question book, and encourage ongoing enquiry in the classroom
  • Be committed to reading about international development issues (using some of the suggested ideas below) to help you to feel more confident when speaking with your pupils.

Resources, training and ideas for teachers:

  • 80:20 Development in an Unequal World – this is a useful resource for teachers to read. It gives you an overview of international development themes and issues, and some interactive activities that could be useful for a staff CPD session.
  • Why Poverty? An international documentary season that’s using film to get people talking about hunger and poverty. Some useful films to show your pupils.
  • Philosophy for Children – this is a useful teaching methodology that encourages questioning and critical thinking with your students
  • Use the support of NGOs who work with schools such as Oxfam, or ActionAid. These organisations are experts in the field and are always willing to help you. Or find your local Development Education Centre via our local support page.

Think Global offers e-learning modules on ‘developing a global learning school’. These give teachers an opportunity to reflect upon teaching about international development and global issues in their classroom. To register your interest email

Do you feel confident enough to answer six-year-old Thea’s question? Do you have any examples from your own classroom experience that you can share with us? Please write your thoughts in the comments box below.

Amy West taught music at the Castle School in South Gloucestershire and now works as a Programme Manager at Think Global.


  1. Joanne Beale

    This is a great article and I’m looking forward to seeing the e-learning modules when they come out. Alongside my job at WaterAid I work with universities to try and encourage particularly engineers to keep this kind of inquisitive mind and to think more globally about engineering. I’ll also be sharing this with teacher friends.

    I also thought I’d plug the WaterAid school resources which would hopefully fit in well with the others you suggest:

  2. Amy West

    Thanks Joanne. It’s good to hear that we are promoting critical thinking at all levels of the education system, and your work with universities sounds really interesting. Your WaterAid resources look really useful for schools – we have a few featured on our website already, but do let us know if you have any new ones we can share. Amy

  3. Anonymous

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate and say that I don’t think Barbara’s comments were extremely thoughtful. Even if I were rushing around in school, road building as a reason for widespread poverty in Africa would not have been on the tip of my tongue.

    Moreover, the choice of wording was unfortunate because the very first example sounds paternalistic- the north telling the south how to grow food. The second part of her response was interesting but I was very uncomfortable with that first paragraph. It is such a massive question anyway, it can’t possibly be handled on the fly and I wouldn’t try it. That’s why it needs a proper place in education where issues of poverty and development can be handled in a planned, non-rushed and age appropriate way.
    Children want to know and they don’t need to be fobbed off with simplistic responses but, as Amy rightly points out, this is an area that teachers often want support with in order to be able to give thoughtful answers and be ready to approach such questions. Thea, and all children, deserve this.

  4. Paul Hipperson

    Thanks Amy, I think your guidance on this is great but I have a couple of questions: can anyone explain why the Guardian deliberately chose not to ask an African to answer this question? Getting a non-African to answer the question simply reinforces the implicit assumption that many Africans are poor because “in Africa they can’t look after themselves” and need us to save them from themselves. Surely Barbara Stocking would have realised this. Why didn’t she decline to answer and give the Guardian the names of one of the hundreds of eminent academics, thinkers, politicians and development experts from the continent? Would you mind passing those questions on to Oxfam Education? This issue keeps arising in Global Learning. For example, Think Global/Oxfam’s resources on the UNDGs “Shape the Future: Getting Critical” also deliberately left out the voices of Southern academics, politicians and NGOs in favour of UK ones. These are just 2 examples of Global Learning that consciously promotes a perception among UK kids of “us” as the dynamic experts and Africans as the passive, ignorant victims. Do you agree and if so, do you agree that this is damaging?

  5. Amy West

    Thank you Global_Teacher and Paul for taking the time to respond to this blog. It’s interesting to hear your reactions about the article written by Barbara. I absolutely agree Global_Teacher and Paul that we could critique it for being a paternalistic with the north telling the south how to develop. However, I cannot deny that the response was still ‘thoughtful’ (ie, she had spent time considering what she wanted to say and how she wanted to say it) She managed to cram quite a lot of global issues (trade, corruption, education, colonisation, health, governance) into a very small space. I’m not sure if this would have been the way I would have responded to a 6 year old. However, I wonder what I would have said? How would you explain poverty to a 6 year old Global_Teacher and Paul, avoiding some of the issues that you have highlighted?

  6. Paul Hipperson

    Thanks Amy for mentioning my comment, but do you think you could respond to it and give your perspective on the its substance and the questions I raised? I am not concerned with the content of the article, I think it is wrong that Barbara Stocking should have accepted to answer the question and speak for “African people” when there are so many eminent Africans who could have and should have been asked to answer the question. Do you agree?

  7. Tom Franklin

    I think Paul and Global_Teacher make interesting points. (In a similar vein, Paul, I’ve just been reading a report critiquing international aid agency humanitarian responses for ‘rushing in’ and taking charge of emergency situations, with local and national agencies playing secondary roles, and with little scope for local capacity building.)

    On the other hand, we don’t want to scare teachers off having a go at responding to difficult questions because of a fear they won’t get the response quite right. As an analogy, I used to work in an organisation which wanted to address issues of institutional racism – but one of the conclusions we came to was that people were so scared that in talking about racism they might say ‘the wrong thing’, that it was never openly discussed. The breakthrough came when people felt safer about speaking and making mistakes – and that they could talk about institutional racism even if they didn’t feel directly affected by it. So although I agree that there needs to be greater space for Southern voices, I’m not sure this should mean that others are discouraged from joining in too.

  8. Paul Hipperson

    I’m not saying we should discourage Oxfam and I’m not sure why you intimate that I am. My point (again) is that the question “Why are so many African people poor”, should ideally be answered by one of the hundreds of African intellectuals, politicians and development experts. Why wasn’t it? Does it bother you at all? Do you agree with any of many points?

  9. Amy West

    In response to your question Paul, I agree that that it can be damaging to school students if we only give a single perspective on an issue. I agree, we shouldn’t take Barbara Stocking’s response as the only response to 6 year old Thea’s question. In an ideal world, maybe the Guardian should ask more than one ‘expert’ to respond, encouraging young people to engage with multiple perspectives on the same issue. Yes, I agree, a southern voice on the situation would also be good to hear. However, in going back to the initial purpose of this blog, I want to highlight that ,above all of these issues, it is important that teachers feel more confident to discuss these issues with their students.

  10. Paul Hipperson

    Thanks Amy, I hope that Think Global and Oxfam will start exposing UK kids to Southern/African expertise and I hope they are starting to recognise that continually presenting UK expert voices to Southern/African problems, fosters and cements negative stereotypes and perceptions that they are supposedly being funded to dismantle.

  11. Tom Franklin

    Hi Paul, how would you respond, as a teacher, if a six year old student asked you directly, “Why are so many African people poor?”

  12. Paul Hipperson

    Firstly I would follow Amy’s sound advice. I am not a primary school teacher and I am not familiar with the KS1 curriculum, but I have a 7 and a 10 year old (of African heritage). I told them and I would tell others that: people are poor everywhere and the world can be an unfair place. I would also say that financial poverty is only one kind of poverty and I would say that African governments have very little money and that governments and countries, like children can be unkind and selfish to each other. To older kids I would give more detailed responses (I have a degree in African Studies, an MSc in Development Management, African family and have worked in Africa for several years). Incidentally I think Amy’s post is very good and relevant – everyone advising teachers in Global Learning must have a deep knowledge of Development issues and of other cultures, histories etc and should be able themselves to confidently answer that and other questions asked of them.

  13. Anonymous

    Really thoughtful comments from everyone ☺ thanks.

    An African response would have been good and The Guardian might want to embrace that as Tom says. Meanwhile, we can actively look for those opportunities when we have the opportunity to do so. Oxfam’s Education for Global Citizenship: Guidance for Schools has a neat set of progression through knowledge/skills etc that advises us that even very young children need to engage with different viewpoints- so we need to provide them and look for them.

    Everyone should have a chance or a voice- including the teacher who feels ill equipped to deal with such issues, and it is right that teachers if asked this question, and feel very uncomfortable to respond as is often the case in class to any big question, can tell the child that this is a very big question and you need some time to think about a response. Taking Amy’s advice, you could recognize its importance by recording it on a Class Questions poster/ whiteboard/ Question box or however you normally address these issues- to be carefully thought about then addressed within lessons- and meanwhile, this gives the teacher the chance to look for resources that might support him/her, or access support through TG or other global learning orgs/websites.

    Also, big questions are not limited to ones about poverty- I’ve had to respond to questions about terrorism, faith and evolution in KS2- often as you’re walking in to assembly!

    Despite Paul admitting he is not a primary teacher, I’d have to give him an A for his response worded for a very young child that recognises poverty in all places, and in different forms, not just financial. I liked how he used words like unkind, selfish and unfair, which are accessible even for very young children.

  14. Amy West

    Thank you Global_Teacher and Paul – it’s great to engage in these discussions, and to hear your own experiences and perspectives!

  15. Bless Edziah

    I’ve really enjoyed reading these discussions. to be frank, i also agree with the point that Paul Hipperson was making about getting views from an African intellectuals, politicians and development experts. Barbara’s comments is also useful, i strongly of the view that Barbara’s comments should have been supported by an African intellectuals, politicians and development experts. I hope to see more of that next time!


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