UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, has warned that despite rapid progress in reductions of poverty and deprivation among children worldwide, disparities are still growing. The most marginalised children in some of the world’s poorest countries may actually have been left behind.

Are our best efforts failing the world’s most vulnerable children? At the dawn of this millennium, 189 countries of the United Nations signed a declaration committing the global community to the reduction of poverty, hunger, gender inequality, illiteracy, child mortality and environmental degradation. These ambitions were made tangible in the Millennium Development Goals, with corresponding targets set for 2015. These will shortly be replaced by the Sustainable Development Goals, a framework of goals and targets for measuring further advances to the end of 2030.


Since 1990, when the baselines for the Millenium Development Goals were established, UNICEF reports that there has been a 44% decrease in the global numbers of primary age children out of school; stunting (a key marker of undernutrition) has reduced by 41% and there has been a 53% reduction in the global mortality rate for children younger than five years old.

There are many other positive indicators, and every statistic about a child saved from disease or malnourishment, protected from HIV, learning safely in school, drinking clean water and brought out of oppressive poverty is to be celebrated for the change it represents.

The report provides an uplifting summary of the progress made:
A child born today has far greater advantages than she would have had a generation ago. She has a much better chance of reaching her fifth birthday. She is less likely to suffer stunting and more likely to go to school. Being educated increases the odds that she won’t marry as a child, reduces the risk of an early birth, and makes it more likely that her own children will be healthy and educated.

Situation worsening

However, the good news is thrown into stark contrast by the bad. In the time it would take an average reader to reach this point in the article, more children than you can count on your fingers will have died mostly avoidable deaths. It doesn’t take a UNICEF report to tell you what you know already: the majority of these children are in the very poorest countries on the planet.

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the report finds the risk of a child dying before her or his fifth birthday is almost 15 times higher than the risk facing a child born in a high-income nation. Accounting for population growth and without a concerted effort for change, UNICEF warns that projections based on current trends in child mortality find that 68 million children under the age of five - a figure equivalent to just over the entire populace of France - will die of mainly preventable causes by 2030.

This and other forecasts in the report suggest that the figures demonstrating improvement against targets and goals have actually obscured a worsening trend among the poorest children in many countries, where the gaps between rich and poor are getting wider.

“In setting broad global goals the MDGs (Millenium Development Goals) inadvertently encouraged nations to measure progress through national averages. In the rush to make that progress, many focused on the easiest-to-reach children and communities, not those in greatest need,” writes Anthony Lake, UNICEF’s executive director, in the foreword to the report. “In doing so, national progress may actually have been slowed."

Lake argues that the fundamental issue was a lack of ambition and far-sightedness in setting the goals. At the time it was assumed strategically unrealistic to target the hardest to reach, but subsequent evidence has revealed that investing in an equity-focused approach to child survival and development is in fact a cost-effective way to accelerate progress.

Targeting the very poorest children in the world is the best way to reduce “intergenerational cycles of deprivation and disadvantage” and improve the lives of families, communities and societies.

There has been a massive leap in learning since the Millenium Development Goals were established, not least in how to define, collect and analyse data. The report makes strong recommendations for exploiting improvements in the way data is collected and used in order to determine precisely who and where are the most vulnerable and excluded children. Measuring progress in achieving the 2030 goals, says Mr Lake, should be done “not only by statistical averages, but also by the degree to which the most disadvantaged children benefit.”

Final report card

Anthony Lake is clear that on balance the goals have “absolutely not” failed the world’s children, but he is also blunt about the need for the 2015 UNICEF report to serve as a wake-up call.

UNICEF has described the document as a “final report card” on the extent to which children have benefited from the goals. Taking all evidence into account, there are appreciable marks for effort but the recommendation can only be that the world must try significantly harder in the upcoming term of the Sustainable Development Goals.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.