Time to act on rising inequality among children

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A H'mong girl carries her brother on her back as she waits for customers to buy hand-made products in a Sa Pa resort town in the northern province of Lao Cai. Children are found being impacted by inequalities with those in the richest households having access to 35 times the resources of children in the poorest households.

All eyes will be on Bali next week as President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono hosts a meeting that will define the next global development agenda.

The UN High Level Panel for the post-2015 agenda, co-chaired by the Indonesian President, has already put ending extreme poverty at the heart of its agenda but this goal will only be realized if they ensure the world tackles rising inequality.

In drafting their recommendations, the 27 members of the panel can certainly draw on some of the success stories in Southeast Asia. The region has seen the number of people living on less than US$1.25 a day fall from 45 percent of the population in 1990 to fewer than 20 percent today. In 1990, one in 14 children in Southeast Asia died before their fifth birthday; in 2010, the number was one in 34. 

From a global perspective, the period covered by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has been an unprecedented human development success story. Since 1990, we have seen 600 million people lifted out of poverty, 56 million more children going to school, and 14,000 fewer children dying from preventable causes each day.

Such tremendous improvements to the quality of life for millions of people were inconceivable just two decades ago. Indeed, the evidence shows that political will and commitment can bring about real change to people's lives.

However, vast progress at the aggregate level, including in child mortality, universal primary education, and poverty alleviation, hides unequal progress between groups of people. In its report, Born Equal, published in September 2012, Save the Children revealed that the bulk of the improvements have actually been concentrated in the wealthiest segments of society across all regions of the world.

As such, ahead of the meeting in Bali, Save the Children argues that inequality must be placed at the center of all discussions. Within the ASEAN bloc, despite huge strides in economic growth, all eight of the countries with Gini coefficient data showed numbers either close to or above 40 also known as the internationally recognized warning level of extreme income inequality. Left untackled, this income inequality will trickle down and affect all other parts of a child's life.

In Indonesia for instance, almost all women in the richest quintile have a skilled attendant at birth as opposed to just 40 percent among women in the poorest quintile. Additionally, despite overall national improvements in nutrition indicators, Indonesian children in the poorest households have actually experienced deterioration in their nutritional status between 2007 and 2010.

How has this happened and why is the situation worsening for the poorest and most vulnerable children? Aggregate targets in the current set of global development goals such as halving the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day and a two-thirds reduction in child mortality, have led many governments and development partners to focus on the "low-hanging fruit" those easiest to reach and help above the poverty line. In many cases, this has led to uneven progress even amongst the poor, as those close to the poverty line experience improvements in their wellbeing, and resources have failed to reach the very poorest. 

Inequality is a particular concern for the wellbeing of children, who are already the most vulnerable in any situation. They are completely reliant on their parents and governments to help meet their needs as they grow and develop. This means that any rise in price of food will hurt their meals the most; any change in health budgets could see them die from preventable causes; and poor quality schools could keep them in the poverty cycle for life. In Born Equal, Save the Children also found that in addition to being most vulnerable, children are also disproportionately impacted by inequalities, with children in the richest households having access to 35 times the resources of children in the poorest households a gap twice that of the general population.

There are many things that can be done to reverse the trend of rising inequality. National social protection schemes must ensure wide coverage to quality services; health and education services must be made available in all regions and to all groups of society; and economic growth plans must maximize employment opportunities for the poor.

As demonstrated by the MDGs, global agreements can help to motivate the changes in policies and resources required. The next round of global development goals must move away from aggregate targets and set ambitious objectives to reduce the gaps in progress between rich and poor, boys and girls, rural and urban dwellers, the young, elderly and disabled, and ethnic and religious groups in all societies.

During the discussions in Bali next week, the post-2015 High Level Panel has the opportunity to ensure that all children have the same access to quality education, healthcare, social protection, nutritious food, and a voice in front of lawmakers. Because every child is born equal and no child is born to die or suffer.

By Greg Duly, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the March 22nd issue of our print edition, Vietweek)
*The writer is Regional Director for Save the Children

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