Remarkable Progress in Child Well-Being

Scepticism about Development Efforts Countered

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June 7, 2012

by Björn Gillsäter, Chief, Multilateral affairs, UNICEF

Development professionals are often told ‘what bleeds leads’ by fundraising experts and members of the media. Images and stories of dying children, disasters and despair tend to dominate headlines, often fuelling a general sense of hopelessness and skepticism toward development efforts, including development assistance.

In fact there has been much progress globally to be recognized and celebrated, though challenges remain. A recent report on ‘Progress in Child Well-Being – Building on What Works’ examines changes to the well-being of children over the past 20 years. It is a story of remarkable progress that has media paying attention.

In short, children are healthier, better fed, cared for and more attend school than a generation ago. This aggregate story is illustrated through country case studies, including remarkable progress concerning child mortality in Bangladesh, HIV-infected children in Botswana, child poverty in Viet Nam, schooling in Ethiopia, and nutrition in Brazil.

The report’s main takeaway is that with the right mix of commitment, supportive policies, and sufficient resources – including well-targeted development assistance – development works. Perhaps the time has come to retire the defeatist truism about blood and ink, and instead tell the story of global development as one of a glass half full?

Development professionals are often told ‘what bleeds leads’ by fundraising experts and members of the media. Images and stories of dying children, disasters and despair tend to dominate headlines, often fuelling a general sense of hopelessness and skepticism toward development efforts, including development assistance.

While remaining challenges must be acknowledged, in fact there has been much progress globally to be recognized and celebrated. A recent report by UNICEF – Progress in Child Well-Being – Building on What Works  – examines changes to the well-being of children over the past 20 years. It is a story of remarkable progress that has media paying attention.

Last year, Save the Children and UNICEF invited the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) – a prominent and highly respected research institute – to step back and look at the broad trends in changes to children’s health, nutrition, water and sanitation, education and protection. ODI was also asked to highlight the key drivers of change, and to make recommendations for how the international community can build on progress achieved.

Recently launched at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, the report brings together analysis and data from academia, civil society and international organizations to draw common findings, trends and approaches from these disparate sources.

The authors find that overall there has been remarkable progress of children’s well-being:

  • 12,000 fewer children under five die every day than in 1990;
  • From 1990 to 2008, stunting – or damage caused by malnutrition to children’s physical and cognitive development–declined from 45% to 28% in developing countries;
  • From 1999 to 2009, primary school enrolment increased by an additional 56 million children, while the number of out-of-school primary-age children decreased by 38 million;
  • There is now near parity in primary school enrolment between boys and girls;
  • More children are being registered at birth, and rates of child marriage and children labour have declined in many countries.

In short, children are healthier, better fed, cared for and more attend school than a generation ago. This aggregate story is illustrated through country case studies, including remarkable reductions to under-five mortality in Bangladesh; steep declines in the proportion of children infected with HIV in Botswana; exceptional reduction in absolute (child) poverty in Viet Nam; a dramatic rise in primary school enrolment in Ethiopia; and improvements to nutrition levels in Brazil.

Assessing multi-sectoral progress, the authors suggest five drivers of change:

First, the importance of government commitment and strong political leadership run as a theme across the report. However, such commitment must be adequately resourced and introduced to sustain momentum through changes in government.

Second, ambitious social sector policies, when adequately resourced with sufficient implementation capacity. Such initiatives are particularly successful when part of larger multidimensional investment efforts that recognize the linkages between education, health, poverty reduction, and water and sanitation.

Third, development assistance plays a key role in improving children’s well-being, particularly in low-income countries. The report finds a positive correlation between development assistance in sub-Saharan Africa with a reduction in childhood malnutrition and improvements in educational outcomes.

Fourth, improvements in child well-being have often been greatest where an explicit emphasis to further the situation of the poorest and most marginalized groups exists. Similarly, progress on gender equality has played a key role in improving children’s well-being.

Finally, new technology and innovation offer the opportunity for multiplied impact, including through greater efficiencies and accountability systems. They also offer capacity for local innovation benefiting children.

While drawing attention to the good news, the report recognizes that many challenges remain: lagging progress on nutrition, water and sanitation, and in protecting children from abuse and exploitation. Progress has also been particularly slow in conflict-affected countries, which are currently home to 42% of the world’s out-of-school primary school-age children. In fact, countries that have experienced conflict in the past two decades make up almost 70% of the countries with the highest burden of child mortality.

The report’s main takeaway is that with the right mix of commitment, supportive policies, and sufficient resources – including well-targeted development assistance – development works.

Others have reached similar conclusions. Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding—And How We Can Improve the World Even More by Charles Kenny, the Center for Global Development, was recently published to media acclaim worldwide. A UK-based think tank released an ambitious documentation of Development Progress Stories and Hans Rosling’s short video for the BBC showing improvements in human well-being over the last 200 years has reached a viewership of 4.5 million. The message is echoed in the blogosphere as demonstrated by the successful launch of Africa Can…end poverty by the World Bank’s chief economist for Africa, and by a columnist for the Financial Times who recently wrote  a piece “Reasons to be cheerful. Seriously”.

Let us keep the message that ‘development works’ central to debates on global challenges, by building on data and harnessing the dynamism of our current media environment. This will be particularly important as global leaders begin considering the so called post-2015 development framework while facing tightened fiscal envelopes. The well-being of many children will depend on our ability to demonstrate – using evidence – and communicate the achievement of results. Only through recognition of these achievements will we find the collective energy necessary to address the unfinished development agenda.

The media traction gained by increasing accounts of progress is telling. Perhaps the time has come to retire the defeatist truism about blood and ink, and instead tell the story of global development as one of a glass half full?

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