Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The threat of inequality to children

Migrant families pitch camp next to a railway line in Delhi, while they look for work, India. ©Raghu Rai:Magnum for Save the Children

As a group that are often the most vulnerable to poverty and its detriments, children were a central focus when the Millennium Development Goals were implemented in 2000.

The eight goal plan adopted by World leaders at the UN Millennium Summit in New York has arguably been a success, having facilitated huge progress in dealing with a number of the world's biggest challenges.

In the last decade, the number of people suffering from extreme poverty fell from almost 2 billion to less than 1.3 billion, child mortality dropped to 6.9 million (12 million in 1990) and huge improvements were made in school enrolment. 

Research from the World Bank shows that in 1981, almost three-fourths of citizens in the developing world lived on less than $2 a day – this rate has dropped dramatically to 43 percent. Their report Inequality in Focus claims that, “Progress is undeniable”, with preliminary estimates revealing that positive trends are set to continue. This encouraging assessment is backed up in part by Justin Forsyth, the Chief Executive of Save the Children who recently stated:

Despite the considerable improvements made to child well-being, the positive figures on show bely the rapidly growing problem of inequality. In a recent report Born Equal: How reducing inequality could give our children a better future, Save the Children argues that global progress masks a huge number of disparities. When broken down, national statistics on poverty reduction, hunger, child mortality show striking imbalances between rich and poor, urban and rural areas, men and women and ethnic groups.

The top deciles of populations in developed and developing countries are getting rapidly richer and the disproportionate levels of healthcare, nutrition and better access to school enjoyed by this section of society make it difficult to provide an accurate picture of whether the progress being made is benefiting those who need it most. In a TED Talk on economic inequality and its effects on society, public health researcher Richard Wilkinson describes the 'extraordinary' disparities between rich and poor, pointing at a near ten year life expectancy gap between the wealthy and the impoverished in England and Wales. Born Equal exemplifies the issue by using the case of Madagascar, where a striking drop in under-five mortality between the late 90s and the mid-2000s had been concentrated in the top wealth quintile:

“While child mortality in the richest quintile fell from 142 to 49 per 1000 live births, the poorest quintile saw less progress, with a more modest fall from 195 to 101 per 1000 live births.”

The report stipulates that children bear the brunt of inequality, demonstrating that in some cases children born into the richest households have access to 35 times (Born Equal) the resources of the poorest. Furthermore, child mortality rates are more than double among the poorest countries and stunting rates can reach levels six times higher in rural than in urban areas in countries with noticeable spatial inequalities. Notably, research from the OECD has shown that for the first time inequality has risen in traditionally low-inequality countries, such as Germany, Denmark, and Sweden (and other Nordic countries), where it grew more than anywhere else in the 2000s. Widening disparities in income have been shown to compromise a country's economic growth, damage well-being outcomes and threaten poverty reduction. On a micro level, inequality threatens the right of every child to have an equal chance to survive and thrive.

Despite the fact that children are hardest hit by inequality, little focus has been applied to the measurement of inequality among them. Born Equal not only lays out the damaging effects of inequality on children but identifies the policies and interventions that have successfully dealt with the problem up until now and then goes further by providing a number of recommendations for the upcoming post- 2015 framework that will replace the Millennium Goals. These include a call for a more equitable approach to the pursuit of development goals through the disaggregation of targets and indicators by wealth and other forms of group based inequalities. They also provide suggestions on progressive taxation and break away from other major development organisations by being the first to call for a fight against illicit flows.

The problem of inequality is transcendent throughout the world and it seems paramount that while focus is still applied to the current MDGs – the next generation of these goals must pursue equity in similar measure. Only by shifting the attention to those who have not benefited from the current program will its aims be fully achieved. Justin Forsyth emphasized this necessity when he added:

“Unless inequality is addressed...any future development framework will simply not succeed in maintaining or accelerating progress. What’s more, it will hold countries – and the world – back from experiencing real growth and prosperity.”

Robbie Lawrence
Wikichild Coordinator

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