“Inequality is a Choice” – Our Executive Director on The State of the World’s Children

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UNICEF recently published its annual State of the World’s Children report. It shows clearly that around the world, millions of children do not have access to the building blocks they need to grow up healthy and strong. Immunisations, post-natal care, proper nutrition, and education are out of reach for many.

The Report demonstrates that as a global community we have a clear choice to make: invest in accelerated progress for the millions of children being left behind, or face the consequences of an increasingly more divided and unfair world by 2030. Without these foundations for a prosperous life, today’s children will fuel inter-generational cycles of disadvantage that will imperil their future, our future societies, and the future of our world. It will also mean that the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals will not be fully implemented.

The consequences are staggering to contemplate. At current trends, by the year 2030, 167 million children will still be living in extreme poverty; 69 million children under the age of 5 will have died from mostly preventable causes and; more than 60 million primary school-aged children will be out of school.

For children here in Ireland, the report has worrying news; children are at a higher risk of monetary poverty than adults.

Yet, this inequality – the disparities between, and within, societies – is not inevitable for children. It is the result of choices that we make as a society and as a global community.

Narrowing the gap between rich and poor is something we can achieve. As UNICEF’s new State of the World’s Children 2016 report shows, there are steps we can take to ensure that every child, even one born into the most challenging environments, receives the care and education they need to survive and thrive. It comes down to the policies we pursue and the approach that we take.

Decision-makers, Aid Agencies, and non-governmental organisations should commit to a set of principles that promote equality. These principles start with using data to identify and track the children making the least progress, and steering investments to these children first to help them catch up.

Equality is not a zero-sum game. The new Sustainable Development Goals provide that every child should advance. But increasing investment in those who start out at the greatest disadvantage is the best way to ensure that each child has a fair shot at reaching the same level. This is a proven formula to guide investment: a 2010 study by UNICEF, Narrowing the Gaps to Meet the Goals, demonstrated that an equality-focused approach can accelerate progress toward global health goals and can be cost-effective in low-income, high-mortality countries.

At the same time, it is critical that stakeholders take an integrated approach. This means addressing the overlapping deprivations and challenges that children face. For instance, when a child has no access to proper healthcare, his or her ability to study will likely be diminished.

Importantly, pursuing equality is not about spending alone. It is about taking innovative approaches to old problems and using new technologies to help direct resources to those most in need. It is also about involving their families and members of their community because those closest to children can have the greatest impact.

One of the most important lessons from the past 15 years is that approaches which focus on overall progress do not eliminate the disparities that place the poorest children at the highest risk. As a result, if we do not make a concerted effort to help the most disadvantaged, they are likely to fall behind as those who are more fortunate continue to advance.

In a few short months, the world will mark the first anniversary of the agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals. Last September, more than 200 leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York and agreed to a historic set of goals that aim to make significant advancements in the areas of health, education, poverty-reduction, and sustainability by 2030.

As governments around the world – including our own government – consider how best to meet their commitments to these goals, it is imperative that they focus on Sustainable Development Goal 10, regarding inequality.

Goal 10 has gained a new urgency. Climate change is exacerbating the risks to the most disadvantaged children. More than half a billion children live in zones where the occurrence of flooding is extremely high, and nearly 160 million live in zones with severe drought. At the same time, regional conflict and violence, as well as the ongoing refugee crisis, are putting more and more children in extreme danger and depriving them of what they need in order to thrive.

Within this challenging landscape, we must remember that inequality is not inevitable – it is policy susceptible. If we choose to take the right approach, disadvantaged children can have a chance to realise their dreams of a better life.

Peter Power is the Executive Director of UNICEF Ireland and former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs.