Improving children’s chances: the High-Level Panel

Last week I was standing in a room which had just had a wall knocked down: you could see much of the basic framework, but the air was full of dust. The High-Level Panel appointed by the UN Secretary General to advise on what should follow the Millennium Development Goals has just published its report. Reading the report – and the commentary surrounding it – produces a similar feeling, that the dust will take a while to settle (and maybe some vacuuming). Anyway, enough twisted metaphors. Beyond being an elaborate and fiendishly difficult exercise in policy wonkery, this framework clearly matters (just as the MDGs do) in setting a direction of travel for future development priorities.

Earlier in the process Young Lives synthesised evidence from its study in a paper What Inequality Means for Children submitted to the consultation led by UN Women and UNICEF which fed into the High-Level Panel discussions. We were keen to make the point that children’s life chances and thus equality of opportunity are dependent on their circumstances, both between countries and within them. I’ll take that as a basis for a couple of reflections on the implications for children of the proposed framework contained within the HLP report (to add to a buzzing blogosphere…).

Jobs and social protection. Tackling absolute poverty requires access to jobs, and to be underpinned by social protection policies. Indicator 1c in the report identifies the importance of social protection coverage. The new proposed Goal 8 suggests the importance of jobs. The accompanying indicators highlight decent jobs (important, of course, although ‘decent’ is clearly hard to measure), and a focus on young people who are out of work and not in education or training. The damage done to young people by joblessness and a lack of skills is a serious issue (and incidentally yesterday the OECD warned about the damage of youth joblessness in richer countries, showing that this is clearly a global concern). It’s also very welcome that increasing social protection coverage (which is currently very low but increasingly quite rapidly) is highlighted (again by Indicator 1c) as a core anti-poverty strategy. What is also notable is the focus not only on coverage, but the commentary goes further (”we would like everyone to be covered by social protection systems, but not if that means reducing the quality of such systems to a meaningless level”).

Quality education and learning. The proposed framework moves beyond primary school enrolment, to focus on quality of education in what appears quite straightforward ways (Indicator 3b talks of ensuring that children are able to read and write). That is great – it builds on the clear progress that has been made already. Since the evidence on the quality of education children receive is frequently depressing, this is a really interesting and important step.

Child survival and nutrition. There is a clear focus in the framework on both. A ‘zero goal’ is proposed to end preventable infant and child deaths (Indicator 4a), and a reduction in stunting and wasting (Indicator 5b). Clearly reducing malnutrition is challenging but this does seem unambitious. Early nutritional status has very significant long-run impacts (a point the HLP argue). If you want more evidence see here, here and here.

Inequality. The on-going discussion on inequality has revolved around a number of areas. First, there is the recognition that the MDGs were not disaggregated, and that encouraged a focus on those who were easiest to help. A good fix is provided here, with a call for routine disaggregation. Second, whether or not there should be a standalone inequality goal (on income). The argument for this is that income disparities cause and reinforce social problems. The weakness in the argument is that there is no consensus on what an ‘optimal’ level of income inequality ought to be. Wherever this argument goes, income inequality is now clearly on the agenda. Perhaps most helpful would be a recognition that achieving of a goal of equality of opportunity, won’t be possible without mitigating gross inequalities of outcome. In that context, tackling high income inequalities is an important policy step towards other goals.

There is also the question of pragmatism. Should the post-2015 agenda set visionary goals, which focus global attention on important issues (even if they can’t be easily measured)? Or should it be instrumentally ‘SMART’ and so directly measure-able. Clearly there is a balance to be struck, with no easy solution. The report speaks with two voices on this. On nutrition the Committee argues:

“It is tempting to apply universal targets at a high level everywhere, but for some countries that risks becoming utopian. The Panel would like every child not to suffer from stunting or anaemia, but that can probably not be achieved in all countries by 2030.” (p.15)

But in the next breath, and in one of the major changes to the original MDG framework, the Committee suggests important visionary ‘zero goals’ on the prevention and elimination of all forms of violence against girls and women (Indicator 2a), and the elimination of discrimination against women in political, economic and public life (Indicator 2b). Both aims are right, of course, but neither seems tangible in terms of how they would be achieved at this stage. That isn’t to criticise the aim but simply to note that this second MDG framework needs to retain the visionary, as well as an instrumental, aspect.

So in conclusion, how does the proposed framework look for children? It doesn’t provide the clear steer about economic inequality that many would like and it remains to be seen how radical it is on nutrition. However it does build and (considerably) improve on the MDGs within a similar spirit. Disaggregating goals, going for zero in places, and identifying quality of education as a key issue are important steps.