UN Special Session on Children: Lacking Urgency

Eleven years after it last gave its undivided attention to the situation of children, the United Nations is about to review progress made since the 1990 World Summit’s commitments in health, education, nutrition, water and sanitation. Another set of world leaders will make another set of promises to children about what they will achieve. However, the promises made a decade ago have only been kept in part, with some significant failures. If this UN General Assembly Special Session on Children is to be more than a rhetorical re-run, a more rigorous attempt must be made to address the limits on real progress, review responsibilities and change attitudes.

The World Today Updated 9 September 2020 Published 1 August 2001 6 minute READ

The pledges at the 1990 World Summit were made as governments enthusiastically rushed to be part of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). All but two nations – the US and Somalia – have now ratified it, committing themselves to protecting the full spectrum of children’s rights – civil, political, economic, cultural and social – through the ‘maximum use of the available resources’.

The vision of the Convention is gradually having an influence and children are increasingly been seen as full human beings, rights-holders who can play an active part in the enjoyment of those rights. They are not, as they have so often been presented in the past, mere dependents, the property of their parents. There has been some movement towards a different child image: every child is seen as important, no matter his or her abilities, origins or sex.

There is a new ‘visibility’ of children in public policy, in governmental statistical information, and in international affairs. In 1999, for example, International Labour Organization Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour was adopted and last year a new Optional Protocol on the Rights of the Child offered them improved protection from involvement in armed conflict.

Hostile environment

However, the Convention is operating in an environment extraordinarily hostile to its vision of children. The last decade has seen prolonged conflict, genocidal wars and more than eight million children have lost their mothers or both parents as a result of HIV/AIDs. Although the expansion of world markets through increased flows of trade and finance has led to unprecedented wealth creation, half the world’s poor are now children and as population grows there are more children than ever living in poverty.

Throughout the last decade international aid, trade, and financial policies were out of line with the rhetoric and commitments to poverty reduction. Aid flows, for example, fell globally by approximately one third in real terms.

Social and fiscal policies have been ineffective in protecting children from the consequences of rapid and profound social and economic change.

Children are a disproportionate percentage of the world’s poor; UNICEF estimates that 600 million children worldwide are living in absolute poverty. Poverty is still commonly defined in terms of income levels, but this is inadequate when describing child poverty. While incomes may remain constant the cost of maintaining them may well be the neglect of children or the hidden contributions of children themselves.

The unique nature of childhood as a specific period of physical, mental, emotional and social growth and development makes children particularly susceptible to the impacts of poverty and its costs fall disproportionately on them. When livelihoods fail, they give up school, are neglected in health and nutritional terms and take up paid and unpaid labour, in particular household labour to replace parents who are seeking additional income.

Being relatively powerless, children also absorb social and psychological costs of poverty within the household and society, such as abuse from parents as a result of alcoholism or poverty-induced depression and broader familial and societal violence. Child poverty is not just a phenomenon of low income countries but increasingly transition countries and affluent nations such as the US and Britain.

Baby bulge

The issue of child poverty is intricately linked to demography, and policies must face up to this. Worldwide there is generally a fertility decline and increasing life expectancy. The world’s population is projected to age much faster in the next half-century than previously. However, the UN estimates that of the six billion people now alive more than one billion are aged between 15 and 24.

Nearly forty percent of the world’s population is under 20 years old. In some of the world’s poorest countries the proportion of children aged under 15 is even higher. Fifty percent in Uganda, forty-eight percent in Yemen, Congo, Niger and Somalia, forty-seven percent in Malawi, Burkina Faso, Angola and Zambia.

Many of these young people are about to start having children of their own and nearly ninety-eight percent of this youth ‘bulge’ will occur in the developing world. Even where governments meet economic growth targets and increase social expenditure, they struggle to keep up with the growth in numbers of those entitled to health and education.

Of the sixty million young people searching for work, about eighty percent are in developing countries and transition economies. Those in the 15 to 24 age bracket are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as adults.

More than 130 million children of primary school age are not attending school, while 166 million people in eighteen countries suffer from water scarcity and an additional 270 million in eleven countries are considered water stressed. One quarter of the world’s children, most in poor countries, remain unprotected against polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, tetanus and tuberculosis.

We cannot make the assumption that adults are the producers and children the consumers; children have less to consume and are forced to take on the role of producers. Worldwide 183 million under five years of age weigh less than they should. An estimated 120 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 work full- time, and a further 130 million part-time.

More dependents

This is not just a resource crisis where the rate of economic growth is failing to keep abreast of population increase. This situation demands a radical new approach to policy making. The adult-child relationship has to be seen in relation to the demographic crisis; for in many situations the ratio of children to adults is having profound effects.

The aging of industrialised societies and the increasing numbers of elderly dependent on falling numbers of economically active adults are key topics at present. But the fact that are more children are dependent on each adult is less discussed. The most deprived children are those who are not cared for, played with, nurtured, informed and taught by adults.

This unprecedented situation in terms of adult-child ratios is exacerbated in countries with a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. In 1999, 5.6 million people were infected with HIV/AIDS, half of them under the age of 25. Many countries do not yet see HIV prevention in children as a priority, and where they do children are often targeted too late.

Recent projections for the number of AIDS orphans estimate that there will be 219 million by 2010. In some countries in southern Africa it is considered necessary to train two teachers in the hope that one of them may survive to work many years in his or her profession.

The Convention on children’s rights coincided with the end of the Cold War, but the children of the 1990s have not benefited from any peace dividend. An estimated two million of them have been killed by conflict in the decade, twice that number have been disabled and twenty million made homeless.

Giving rights

Child poverty, a young generation entitled to equitable provision of basic services, the HIV/AIDS pandemic and intractable conflicts causing instability and insecurity are global problems. In the context of increasing globalisation it is necessary to ask who is responsible for upholding children’s rights.

The Convention is the most widely governments were charged to implement it at precisely the time that their ability to do so was being rapidly eroded by a number of different pressures. The 1990s saw the capacity of individual governments to bring about change increasingly constrained by cut-backs in resources, the competitive pressures of globalisation and the growing power and resources of giant corporations, whose wealth far exceeds the gross domestic product of many small and medium size countries.

A wider group of actors and institutions whose policies and activities influence the wellbeing of children should assess this impact and take greater responsibility.

There are expenditures, policies and legislation which explicitly target children, for example, public provision for primary health and education, day-care centres, and regulations about exploitative labour. However, broader economic and social policies, the effects of which are largely mediated through their impact on the family’s situation also affect children. Fiscal and monetary policies, international trade and investment policies designed to open up markets also have an indirect impact which must be considered.

Whilst it is essential that all those with an influence on children’s lives and family livelihoods take on greater degrees of responsibility for fulfilling children’s rights, the primary responsibility continues to rest with governments – states parties. Article 4 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child regarding resources says: ‘States Parties shall undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognised in the present Convention. With regard to economic, social and cultural rights, States Parties shall undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international co-operation.’

The Convention here acknowledges that there are resource constraints which make it necessary to formulate realistic goals for basic services and family support for each country. This requires the strengthening of the state’s ability to generate revenues to support expenditures on children. It also requires governments to make child-friendly budget choices – not always a sufficient priority. The government of Zimbabwe, for example, spent $70 million per month in 1999 on its involvement in the Congo civil war – seventy times the amount allocated to the prevention of HIV/AIDS.

The role of the State as guarantor that children’s rights are met is not just about what central government itself can do but also about its role in enabling families, the private sector, local authorities, non- governmental organisations and community organisations to play their part. The resulting mix of activities will differ between and even within countries.

Global players

The responsibility of the whole international community, including UN agencies and international financial institutions, to strengthen governments’ capacity through enlightened international cooperation is explicit in the Convention. More must be done to secure adequate resources, through debt relief, aid and investment. Greater efforts must also be made to regulate trade and investment to prevent the further undermining of services to the poor. We must also explore more legitimate and accountable frameworks of global social and economic governance.

The legitimacy of the global institutions is increasingly challenged as the world becomes more globalised. Governments are not seen to have developed inter-state institutions which oversee and regulate global markets for the good of the public. This would require measures to reform both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank so that the Bank’s efforts to support poverty reduction are not undermined by the IMF’s insistence on fiscal austerity.

As the roles of the World Bank, IMF and now the World Trade Organization have expanded in the last half century, the influence of UN bodies on economic and social issues has declined.

This imbalance needs to be corrected. There is greater potential for UNCTAD, UNDP, ILO and UNICEF to play a greater part in the design of more equitable forms of development. Mechanisms for greater democracy in global governance are essential if international cooperation is to become more effective.

Another obvious group of influential players at the global level are the multinational companies. While the development of global trade rules to secure the interests of the multinationals has made progress, there is no corresponding commitment to secure the rights of the child and the responsibilities of large companies to promote and protect them. Yet their influence is vast. Angola is now well known as the worst place in the world to be a child despite more than $4 billion in oil revenues last year. Companies must use their power and leverage to ensure that this money is used by governments to guarantee children’s rights to survival and development.

The United Nations Development Programme estimates that only 0.2 percent of world wide investment in health related research and development is directed towards pneumonia, diarrhoeal diseases and tuberculosis. Yet these are the most prevalent childhood illnesses in low income countries, affecting one in five children.

For multinational companies operating in low and middle income countries, responsibility to children should include: proper treatment of the workforce - including those children who may be working; delivering benefits to economies and communities – buying materials locally, paying local taxes and supporting civil society discussions on how revenues are spent.

Some companies are increasing their efforts to tackle problems which face children today. Responsible approaches to child labour, working towards promoting and upholding human rights in countries where they operate, pushing forward discussions on transparent reporting of oil revenues are examples of important initiatives, but more can be done.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), both large and small, are essential to this partnership. They can change the language of debate as they have over debt relief; they can drive through significant reform as with the international campaign to ban landmines.

They have as yet untested potential to monitor and enforce global agreements – not through criticism and confrontation, but with constructive partnerships on, for example, measures to implement the new convention on the worst forms of child labour.

Pushing for pace

The preparatory process for the special session and the drafting of the Outcomes Document has often lacked a sense of urgency and desire to learn the lessons of the last decade. The US government delegation has repeatedly challenged the status of the UNCRC and there has been a reluctance to approve standards and adopt wording already agreed in Cairo and Beijing.

Commitments to provide more resources for children and ensure their effective use at the national level and references to trade measures and regulation which could bring benefits to children are missing. Similarly absent is any reference to the protection of children’s rights during both short-term and long-term economic and financial crises when their access to basic services and family stability can be put at risk.

The Outcomes Document must go beyond existing commitments, encourage states to greater efforts and support them with concrete assistance. It should increase the pace of implementation of the Convention on children – to do otherwise would contradict previous commitments to it by both the General Assembly and member states.