Caroline Harper - Programme Leader and Research Fellow, Overseas Development Institute
David Bull - Executive Director, UNICEF UK
Ellen Wratten, DFID
Following introductions from the chair, Caroline Harper launched off proceedings with a presentation on the key findings from recent ODI research, for UNICEF UK, on the effects of economic crises for children. The research (summarised in a background note) examines a range of past crises, from the East Asian financial crisis to the Argentine crisis of 2000, in order to provide some potential policy recommendations for dealing with the current economic crisis and it’s effects upon children; both North and South.
Caroline started by highlighting some of her own personal experiences when working in Mongolia in the 1990s. She gave the example of a single-parent family, the mother of whom she was interviewing for fieldwork. When she arrived she found the mother was still at work and the children were in the house, home alone; the youngest tied to the table leg. Because of the economic strains in the region the mother was forced to work double shifts and the crèche facility at work had been cut; as such locking the children at home was her new desperate form of child-care. This example only provides a small insight into the complex effects that economic strains and crises can have upon children; affecting their care and nurture. Evidence was also provided for increased incidences of young girls and women engaging in sex work, of child mortality and morbidity, of child labour and being pulled out of education- to name just a few. Caroline then went on to provide an outline of potential policy recommendations including child and gender-sensitive social protection (from cash transfers to social health insurance); fiscal stimulus packages (that include explicit commitments on basic services and nutritional needs as well as programmes to support parents to protect and care for their children), child protection measures; labour market policies aligned with social policies; and so forth.
David Bull, the director of UNICEF UK, was the following speaker. Picking up on Caroline’s final point about this year being the anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, he highlighted children’s rights and our moral imperative to act. David pointed out that the UNCRC stipulates in articles 4, 26, and 27 that states have an obligation to help where possible, that children have the right to social insurance and that we have an obligation to meet their basic human needs. He called for the G20 to acknowledge that by some crude twist of fate, our wanton expenditure in housing and reckless investment across Northern economies has resulted and will result in drastic effects, like infant mortality, in the South; as the globalized economy transfers the effects of trade falls and market crises to households in the south through job cuts and factory closures. David also highlighted a personal experience with a young girl called Donna from Manila, whose father has recently been fired from his rope manufacturing factory as it supplied rope to the shipping industry. As a result of his unemployment this girl and her siblings can no long afford to go to school and their hopes for profitable employment after school have been dashed- unless of course social protection measures and public sector investment can be rapidly put in place to protect children and young people, such as Donna, from such experiences and negative coping strategies.
David concluded that what we need are emergency responses to this crisis but that recovery measures must not lose site of the crisis’ ‘human face’ and who is carrying the real burdens; as such child focused social protection will be integral.
Questions and Comments:
Following David Bull’s call for ‘recovery with a human face’ Richard Jolly (one of the co-authors of UNICEF’s seminal work Adjustment with a Human Face) took to the floor. He said that however interesting the background note and the speakers comments were we must not forget that what we really need, underneath all the rationale arguments for economic growth and investment, is a paradigm shift (as highlighted by Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, MD of The World Bank, at the DFID conference last week). As pointed out by Gordon Brown at the DFID conference, we need an end to the Washington Consensus and to book-balancing. This is about human cost; as such we must talk in human terms not economics.
Following Richard’s comments, there were 3 questions on the role of civil society and the tension between cash transfers and investments- when governments were forced to prioritise. CH pointed out that civil society has multiple roles; particularly getting and keeping policy on the agenda, whilst DB claimed the role of civil society was to advocate. For investments and social protection policies CH pointed out we need to look at a country’s history of entitlements and make policies context specific. DB called for an emergency response. The chair, Ellen Wratten stated that this emergency context was a huge opportunity for change- akin to the New Deal in the 1930s and that the international community had to capitalise on this.
Next Anthony Hodges (UNICEF West and Central Africa) commented that there was still a food and fuel price crisis that we must not forget. Especially since all of these crises contexts are impacting upon very fragile households with little to no margin for monetary fluctuation. Given the main transmission channels to poor households are trade and commodity prices, which are also reducing the fiscal space of governments, we must advocate for aid to close the gaps in public expenditure and keep up pressure for social investments.
Next were a batch of questions on health and social health insurance. Rob Yates (DFID) pointed out that neglecting health in the 1930s had resulted in massive social repercussions; whilst user fees in the 1990s had proven disastrous. As such we need to advocate for free services. When it is not possible to give universal health care let us push for free services to pregnant mothers and children. Following this, CH met a question on the means of financing social health insurance by referencing a forthcoming ODI study on social protection in West Africa.
Finally there were a series of questions on the practicalities of political action; firstly what were to be the mechanisms for ensuring child wellbeing (through a central fund or existing bilateral systems?); to what extent were any of the organisations present engaging with the Conservatives (in advance of their potential election); and how can we actually really bring about bold action? DB concluded that one of the key Conservative concerns was where the financing for fiscal stimulus and child welfare policies was going to come from? As such we need not only to lobby about rights but we need to phrase policy suggestions in language of and with an appreciation for innovative financing.
On 2 April 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and world leaders from the G-20 will meet to address the global financial crisis. Will the leaders address the impact on world's most vunerable children? Will their fiscal stimulus packages help keep children healthy and in school?
Help us make the case for investment in child-focused social protection.
UNICEF works in 191 countries across the world and is collecting data on the impact of the current financial crisis on children. In January, UNICEF organised a conference in Singapore on the impact of the economic crisis on children. You can find out more information here. http://www.unicef.org/malaysia/media_9876.html
To build on this, UNICEF UK has commissioned ODI, Britain's leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues, to develop a discussion paper on the impact of economic crises on children, the pathways by which they are affected and examples of how investment in children can help. The paper will look at what can be learnt from previous crises and whether social protection spending can act as a counter-cyclical measure as well as preventing inter-generational transfers of poverty and securing children's rights. This discussion paper was presented and available for the first time at the seminar.