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5 ways to secure a more sustainable, safer future for every child

Sabah Khalil, 37, eats with her children at home in al-Aalam village in Fayoum, Egypt, June 29, 2021. Picture taken June 29, 2021. REUTERS/Rania Gomaa

Children everywhere are facing interlocking crises including hunger, lack of access to education and conflict — many of which exacerbate each other. Image: REUTERS/Rania Gomaa

Catherine Russell
Executive Director, UNICEF
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SDG 01: No Poverty

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • The interlocking crises of COVID-19, conflict, and climate change mean millions of children are being uprooted and pushed into poverty and starvation.
  • Disruptions in routine immunization and healthcare threaten a resurgence of life-threatening diseases like measles, while a global learning crisis risks becoming a global learning catastrophe for an entire generation of children.
  • But this can be prevented with a concerted global push to protect, support, and educate every child.

It is a dangerous time to be a child.

In Ukraine, millions of children and families have fled the violent war that has engulfed their country — and exacerbated a global food crisis.

Years of conflict and crises in Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen have shattered economies along with all the systems children rely on to survive and thrive.

The worst climate-induced crisis in 40 years is threatening 10 million children in the Horn of Africa — 1.7 million of whom could die without urgent treatment for severe acute malnutrition.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated threats to the world’s most vulnerable children – and created new risks to their lives and futures. Millions more children are living in poverty, millions more girls are at risk of child marriage, and millions more children are falling into learning poverty, lacking even the most basic skills.

Around the world today, more children are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance than at any time in UNICEF’s 75-year history.

There can be no greater measure of a society’s sustainability than the investments it makes in the wellbeing of its children.

Catherine Russell, UNICEF

The evidence is clear: we cannot meet our global development goals unless we reach these most-excluded children and invest in their potential.

Here are five ways we can get there, together.

System strengthening and humanitarian action

Currently, more than 400 million children live in conflict zones. Millions of them are out of school, without access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene. Millions are suffering from malnutrition — including its most severe and deadly forms.

The war in Ukraine has driven up food prices in places where children are already going hungry, like Yemen and Syria.

Our humanitarian response must not only meet these urgent needs. It should also help communities prepare for future shocks.

If we want to ‘future-proof’ our children, both public and private sectors need to invest in more resilient systems that help children cope, including health, nutrition, education, water and sanitation and social protection systems.

Helping families to remain stable in crises yields cascading benefits, especially for children.

Primary health system strengthening

The pandemic has made clear that well-functioning and resilient primary health systems are the foundation of our ability to respond to health emergencies.

A fully resourced primary healthcare facility — staffed by well-trained, properly remunerated healthcare workers equipped with essential products and equipment — is the first line of defence against pandemics. It is also the most effective point of delivery for other essential health services, including nutrition and immunization.

Now is the moment for global action. Investing in primary health care can achieve three goals at once: healthier children, a more equitable end to the pandemic, and a lasting legacy of more resilient health systems and more sustainable societies.

Climate resilience and adaptation

UNICEF estimates that nearly 1 billion children are already at extremely high risk from the impacts of climate change. Without urgent action, it will be every child.

Governments have a responsibility to reduce emissions and invest in mitigation strategies. But we also need to work across sectors to help communities adapt to the immediate realities of climate change.

These investments will pay off. UNICEF estimates that $1 invested in adaptation may yield up to $10 in economic gains.

This area is primed for public partnerships to drive innovation — and especially partnerships with young people. Businesses can also help by investing in new technologies and green skills building, changing energy and water consumption practices and exerting influence through operations and supply chains.

Have you read?

The global learning crisis

Even before COVID-19, more than 260 million children were out of school. Half of all children living in low- and middle-income countries were unable to read a simple sentence at the age of 10.

Pandemic school closures and related disruptions in learning are turning a crisis into a catastrophe, with serious implications for children today — as well as the future workforce.

The impact of school closures could cost as much as $17 trillion in lifetime earnings for an entire generation.

We need to bring every child back into the classroom, assess their learning, help them catch up and support their wellbeing. Every child who needs it must have access to a remedial programme focused on basic reading and maths, the foundation of all future learning.

Business can help by investing in innovative ways to reach children and improve learning. They can also invest in skills training for young people, including transferable, digital, entrepreneurial and job-specific skills.

Mental health of children

COVID-19 lockdowns and other effects of the pandemic have had a deep impact on the mental health of adolescents and young people.

The pandemic has also revealed the gap between mental health needs and access to support services. Too many young people are not receiving treatment and support. Mental health challenges remain stigmatized and underfunded.

The cost of inaction is enormous: the estimated annual loss in human capital arising from mental health conditions in children and adolescents up to the age of 19 is $387.2 billion.

We need a “whole of society” approach to promote mental health, engaging all sectors. Business can and should play a key role in promoting workforce mental health. This includes implementing policies and practices that promote the mental wellbeing of employees and their families, and challenging stigma in the workplace.

These are just five areas where we can make a difference in the lives of millions of children.

With so much evidence demonstrating the inseparable connection between the wellbeing of children and sustainable development, it is time to put children at the center of the public agenda.

Nelson Mandela famously said that “there is no keener reflection of a society than how it treats its children.” By extension, there can be no greater measure of a society’s sustainability than the investments it makes in the wellbeing of its children.

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