In a fractured world, children are often the first to fall through the cracks.

A quarter of the non-combatants killed in the Syrian conflict last year were under 18, according to a recent study in Lancet Global Health. Millions more are far from home and now missing their seventh year of schooling.

Proportion of civilian violent deaths composed of women and of children in years 2011–16 of the Syrian conflict
Proportion of civilian violent deaths composed of women and of children in years 2011–16 of the Syrian conflict
Image: Debarati Guha-Sapir, Benjamin Schlüter, Jose Manuel Rodriguez-Llanes, Louis Lillywhite, Madelyn Hsiao-Rei Hicks

Hundreds of exhausted, dispirited kids trudge daily over the border from South Sudan to Uganda, many with no adult relatives left in their lives. Vast numbers of children endure misery as part of civilian populations, whether fleeing Myanmar, bombed in Yemen or displaced in Central African Republic.

Dislocated societies, systemic poverty, kleptocratic rulers and fragile governance contribute to this shattered world for the young. They fuel the evil trade in enslaved children. They rupture cultural norms and fragment civic protection, leaving society’s weakest members vulnerable to violence and abuse. All of this threatens the gains we have made in the past two decades in health, education and child protection.

As an example of how this can play out, a few weeks ago I spent time with a desperately vulnerable community in New Delhi, India. These families in Shadipur are the third-generation of immigrants to the city who survive by searching for saleable items on the streets and by begging.

I first visited them in 2013 and befriended a young teenager called Sonam and her family. Just days before I visited Sonam this year, however, their entire community was bulldozed. They were squatters – although squatters who had lived on the same land for more than 50 years – and the authorities decided to relocate them to a new area to make way for new development.

That’s the trouble with being poor and powerless, with having to keep going within that brittle margin between just-making-it and disaster. A community that has benefited from investment in health and protection, education and self-respect, can, almost instantly, be put at risk. I’ve heard this story many times, usually through tears, as refugees from Syria, South Sudan, and others have shared with me how quickly their lives unravelled.

World Vision will continue to work with the New Delhi community as they move to a new area, helping to get kids into school and access to services for everyone else. But who will catch the millions of other children who fall into the fissures?

The good news, often unreported in an age of fear and cynicism, is that there are signs of new cooperative ventures which can ensure children have some hope when things start to fall apart.

Our own experience shows that some forward-thinking corporates are starting to go beyond philanthropy to imagine a world in which their success is partly measured in the contribution they make to a safe and sustainable world for the most vulnerable people in society.

Major credit card providers are working to add value to the cash payments which humanitarian organizations make to people who suffer as a result of hunger crises or rapid-onset emergencies. Their technology gives affected populations a new way to participate in the global financial system.

Elsewhere, DSM’s vision is taking them beyond the normal scope of “a company involved in nutrition” to one committed to bringing better nutrition to the poorest children in the world. We see the same heart within investments by Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola and others to provide clean water to remote locations; and Microsoft and other tech firms as they show leadership by providing high-tech skills training for Syrian refugee youths.

For several years, World Vision has been pleased to work with several UN Member States who want to ensure that the world’s poorest children are not left behind. This year, the government of China’s re-imagining of its Belt and Road initiative into one which supports “Every Woman Every Child” objectives in more than 43 nations – including many of the poorest in Africa – has created a huge new player in global development.

Faith communities – almost always the first line of defence at a local level for society’s poorest – are increasingly working together on a global scale to respond to hunger, protect children, reinforce families and help refugees. UN organizations, led by the World Food Programme and UNICEF, are opening up to the possibilities of working more deliberately with people of faith to achieve their mandates.

This year, the six largest child-focused agencies agreed to work together in new, measurable ways to substantially reduce global violence against children.

This collaboration of purposeful and caring corporates, governments, faith communities and civil society can help repair the cracks which our fractured world creates and through which so many children slip. It’s a sign of the progress we need to make and the spirit in which we must approach the future.