Post by Anna Diofasi, Humanitas Global
UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children report, released last week, shows the tremendous advances developing and developed countries have made over the past 20 years in ensuring that children across the world survive past the age of five, attend school, and grow into healthy, literate, and well-nourished adults.
The report also highlights the improvements in data collection over the past decades that have allowed both international organizations and local policymakers to spot and respond to potential sources of crises and continued inequalities. Mobile phones have allowed for better monitoring of diseases outbreaks in countries like Uganda, and have enabled adolescents in Brazil and Haiti to alert authorities to problems in their neighborhoods.
The overall progress is promising. The aggregate data for under-five mortality rates for the least developed countries show a close to 40% reduction during the last decade, from 138 (per 1,000 children) in 2000 to 85 in 2012. UNICEF estimates that about 90 million more children lived past the age of five than what we could have expected based on 1990 rates of mortality. There are many more children in school: primary enrollment rates for the least developed countries were at 81% by 2011, representing a nearly 30 percentage point improvement on 1990 enrollment levels.
As the report’s subtitle “revealing disparities” also suggests, it is important to highlight that inequalities remain across gender and income groups as well as type of residence. Children born in rural areas often suffer multiple disadvantages compared to those born in urban settings. In Ethiopia, it is twelve times more likely that a skilled attendant is present at birth in urban areas than in rural ones. In least developed countries, urban children are more likely to be registered at birth, attend school, or have access to improved sanitation facilities than children growing up in rural areas.
These early indicators of inequality can translate into even larger disparities in income generation and overall health later in life as well as leaving a lasting legacy of inequality for future generations. While there has been great progress in improving opportunities for girls and women in developing countries, with primary school enrollment ratios of females catching up with that of males across all regions, there remain large disparities in secondary enrollment in least developed countries, creating a long-lasting negative impact for women’s ability to be employed at higher wages and participate in the labor force as skilled workers.
These disparities in the disaggregated data show that overall positive trends often hide the need for increased efforts to include certain groups within the population in social and economic development. There is need for more quantitative and qualitative analysis on markers beyond income, residence type, and gender. Social exclusion based on attributes such as ethnicity, race, religion or sexual orientation will not be revealed by the most commonly used data collection methods, even though it can lead to lower access to employment and services, lower incomes, and educational attainment.
A World Bank report on the dynamics of social exclusion shows that in African countries, groups that speak minority languages as their mother tongue typically have lower access to services such as water and electricity. Members of indigenous groups were shown to earn lower wages compared to nonindigenous populations in Latin American countries.
Tessa Wardlaw, the Chief of UNICEF’s Data and Analysis Section, was quoted as saying that “further progress can only be made if we know which children are the most neglected”. This is especially true for children and adolescents who belong to socially excluded minorities and who too often get left behind while children in more visible social groups make leaps in health, nutrition, and education.
From the substantial positive changes in indicators for children’s well-being across the board, it is clear that we are on the right track. In order to makes sure that every child counts and is counted, we must continue to be mindful of the more nuanced realities hiding behind the aggregates.