The final years of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first century saw unparalleled global interest in the survival and development of children. This interest reflects commitments made under the terms of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to support and protect all young people below the age of 18, as well as efforts in line with the Millennium Development Goals to reduce child mortality, eradicate poverty and hunger, and attain universal primary education and gender equity. It responds also to growing disquiet about the fact that children and young people today seemingly confront unprecedented levels of insecurity and risk (UNICEF 2011). The improvement of children’s life-chances is thus a legitimate goal of development in itself.
At the same time, there is increasing awareness that childhood experience is crucial to the adults that we become, and therefore it is increasingly recognised that enhancing the position of children is intrinsically connected with a broader process of developing economies and societies. Moreover, there is mounting global consensus that economic growth is essential, but not sufficient, for the realisation of this human potential. Thus, investing in children is not only the right thing to do for their survival and quality of life: it is also vital for creating and sustaining broad-based economic growth. This review essay summarises current research into child development that investigates what promotes and what threatens children’s growth and security. It examines how the well-being of children affects and is affected by wider societal (especially economic) development; whether and in what ways children have benefited from economic growth; and which policy directions can help to make economic growth deliver advantages for poor children in developing countries. It uses evidence from Young Lives and a wider literature across several disciplines to illustrate the core arguments. Thus, while much of the discussion focuses on the Young Lives study countries – Ethiopia, India (Andhra Pradesh), Peru, and Vietnam – our conclusions are applicable more broadly across many other contexts.