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Obama and childhood poverty: Learning across the north-south divide is critical to tackle childhood poverty

Written by Nicola Jones, Caroline Harper

With the loss of thousands of jobs in the US and a marked downturn in the country’s economic security in the wake of the current global financial crisis, there will be a strong temptation for the Obama administration to turn inwards and focus on domestic issues. A domestic focus is obviously important in areas of social protection and basic social services which were not only subject to serious cuts during the Bush administration, but which will also be in heightened demand as household livelihoods decline in the wake of the crisis. And it will be perhaps especially important for children, who not only suffer greater poverty rates than adults across all states, but whose vulnerability to poverty is greater than that of children in any other OECD country (22% living in poverty). Such welfare indicators are a clear wake up call to a country that typically prides itself on its role as a global leader, and there are already welcome signs that President Elect Obama intends to undertake policy action in this area, including tackling child undernutrition.

Nevertheless, as one of the leading international donors in terms of volume of aid, it will be essential that the Obama administration’s focus takes a global perspective in tackling childhood poverty. Whilst significant improvements in global child poverty indicators have been witnessed in the last half century, more then 600 million children remain in poverty worldwide and progress remains lamentably slow.  For this reason it is now imperative that we stop reinventing the wheel and rapidly learn across contexts about the best ways to help people weather shocks and stresses – across both geographical and historical divides appreciating that lessons from, for example, the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s or from several centuries ago bear relevance for today’s experience globally, including in the North, and can enable us to make faster and more effective progress. In particular, there is a need to better understand how policies and people’s coping strategies impact differently on adults compared to children with both short and long term implications. We need to correct the imbalance to date in social protection analysis, which has focused largely on aggregate household effects or on the welfare of adults), rather than on child-specific impacts to reflect children’s distinct experience of poverty.

As recent policy innovations and their transfer across national borders suggests, there is much that could be gained from a more strategic north-south dialogue on tackling childhood poverty and vulnerability. Such exchange of knowledge and experience serves as a learning and heuristic tool. It helps us to crystallise what is important in a given context and what is different and needs to be modified accordingly. Equally importantly, it helps policy developers to imagine the possible. For instance, the US and the North more generally have much to learn from southern initiated efforts such as Latin America’s experience with conditional cash transfers (now exported to New York as part of that city’s new poverty alleviation drive or child budget monitoring initiatives in Brazil and South Africa which assess the extent to which governments are increasing their investment in child well-being over time in line with their resource base. Similarly, the South has been adapting integrated child development programmes such as the USA’s Head Start and Sure Start in the UK in contexts such as India and Peru. Sharing experiences and teasing out ingredients of success can speed up our learning and help decide what to do for example in the Bronx as well as in West Africa.  

Knowledge sharing north-south is also of utmost importance for ensuring international policy coherence and dialogue. For example, in areas such as migration, it is necessary to be thinking about the provision of education and basic services for all children whether they are from Mexico, Uzbekistan, the US or Europe.   

So what should Obama be striving to do in the first 100 days in office and then beyond in order to improve child well-being?

First, we would urge that he honour his election promises to follow up on the US’ non-ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). As he recently recognised, the US shares the dubious honour of being the only country internationally to have failed to make public its commitments to children’s rights alongside Somalia. The UNCRC serves not only as an important statement of commitment to improve services, care and children’s opportunities for a voice in the community, but would also send an important signal to the world about the US’ willingness to play a more collaborative role in addressing global challenges than it has of late. Similarly, Obama’s call for a White House conference on children and youth in 2010 is much welcomed and we urge him to expand it beyond domestic policy.

Second, the Obama administration should ensure that funding for children in the US and in the South (through international donors and also through dialogues with Southern development partners – state and non-state) is not simply maintained during the crisis, but rather increased in order to prevent longer-term life-course and even inter-generational transfers of poverty. This is a challenge when populations from donor countries are suffering personally from the global crisis, but it is also critical that Obama uses his widespread appeal to shore up a commitment to global social justice –after all not only in the context of the financial, food price and fuel crisis but also in terms of climate change and threats to international security we are all inter-dependent global citizens. 

Lastly, in promoting broader international commitment to children’s rights, there should be a particular focus on how the international community is going to step up to the challenge and tackle the lamentable progress towards, in particular, Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 4 on child mortality and MDG 5 on maternal mortality, for which only a minority of developing countries are on track. There also needs to be more attention by individual donors as well as the OECD DAC to supporting longitudinal child budget monitoring efforts in order to assess the extent to which we are collectively abiding by the UNCRC’s principle of ‘progressive realisation’. This principle recognises that addressing rights deficits will be a gradual process and entail difficult decisions about priorities, but nevertheless that governments need to be held to account in demonstrating progress in achieving child well-being.