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4 ways business can build resilient and sustainable societies for our children

After a devastating earthquake in June 2022, children attend class at a recently established UNICEF-supported community-based education (CBE) centre in Gayan District, Paktika Province, Afghanistan.

After a devastating earthquake in Afghanistan in 2022, children attend class at a UNICEF-supported education centre. Image: UNICEF/Naftalin

Catherine Russell
Executive Director, UNICEF
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Society and Equity

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, pandemics and conflict.
  • Business can build more resilience across learning, healthcare and global supply chains.
  • Collaboration is key to advancing the Sustainable Development Goals.

Each day around the world, we see that a crisis in one place can impact lives, organizations and economies thousands of miles away. From deadly pandemics to climate disasters and conflict, fragility can spread between communities and beyond borders.

But so can strength and progress if we tackle this confluence of crises together. And it will take all of us – business, government, philanthropists, civil society, NGOs and organizations like UNICEF – working hand-in-hand to find sustainable solutions for a world in crisis.

We believe that this starts with rapidly increasing investment in children and the systems they rely on – especially education, health, climate adaptation and essential supply chains. Investing in children can deliver the highest return for their future and the future of our planet. We know how to get the job done.

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For more than 75 years, we've been on the ground in countries around the world, providing children with lifesaving services during humanitarian emergencies and support for their longer-term development. We are helping to strengthen health, education and protection systems and supporting children and communities build resilience to climate shocks. Today, our organization is one of the world’s largest providers of vaccines and has the largest field presence for children’s education.

Now is the time to strengthen our combined efforts so we can do more and accelerate progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through increased investment in the following key sectors and programmes, we can help deliver the solutions our children and our world need.

1. Tackling the learning crisis will change the trajectory for millions of children

We are in the middle of a global learning crisis made more acute by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past two years, children and young people have suffered profound learning losses which could severely impact their futures as well as that of the global economy. Nearly two-thirds of 10-year-old children are now estimated to be unable to read or understand simple text – a figure known as learning poverty. Basic literacy and numeracy are the building blocks of children’s education and the foundation for further learning and employment. If this trend is not reversed, companies around the world will soon face shortages in skilled labour and struggle to fulfil the demands of their customers.

But we can turn this around by investing in quality education for all children. Together with our partners, we are aiming to halve the rate of global learning poverty by 2030, an ambitious goal set out in the Commitment to Action on Foundational Learning.

We are working to close the digital divide and give every child equal access to quality, tailored digital learning to complement face-to-face teaching. As part of this effort, UNICEF, UNESCO and our partners launched “Gateways to Public Digital Learning,” at the 2022 UN General Assembly to ensure that all children can learn through high-quality, public digital learning platforms. We also developed and launched the Learning Passport, a digital learning programme bringing accessible learning technologies to learners at home, in school and on the move. And through collaborative initiatives like Giga, Ericsson and UNICEF are working to connect every school in the world to the internet.

2. Investing in climate adaptation pays dividends

The devastating impacts of climate change and environmental degradation are an ever-present threat to children. The number of climate-related disasters has tripled in the last 30 years. Approximately 1 billion children – nearly half the world’s children – live in countries now classified as at extremely high-risk to the impacts of climate change.

Leaders from the private and public sectors can achieve more, together, by investing in building resilient communities and protecting children from the impacts of climate change. Every $1 invested in climate adaptation, for example, can result in up to $10 in net economic gains.

Our Healthy Environments for Healthy Children programme is accelerating the prioritization of children’s environmental health by promoting multisectoral action, in collaboration with governments, the private sector and civil society. We're also inviting public and private sector partners to join us as seed investors in a soon-to-be launched multi-sectoral climate partnership for children that will pilot across Eastern and Southern Africa to equip 21 million people to deal with climate shocks.

In addition, our Today and Tomorrow initiative is an integrated climate change finance solution that combines funding for immediate climate resilience and risk prevention programmes for children today, with an innovative use of risk transfer finance provided by the insurance market for cyclone disasters tomorrow.

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3. Strengthening health systems and ensuring everyone has access to primary healthcare

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how quickly an infectious disease outbreak can cripple our businesses, economies and societies. Strong and resilient health systems are our best line of defense against disease outbreaks and future pandemics. The world urgently needs increased investment in health systems so that we are better prepared for health emergencies. Investing in child health programming, in particular, is the best preventive medicine for societies, economies and businesses now and in the future.

We urge donors, governments, and private sector partners to:

  • Provide financial and political support to reverse the backsliding in essential immunizations for children.
  • Expand early detection and treatment of wasting in children, while also addressing the underlying causes of malnutrition.
  • Ensure quality primary healthcare for the hardest to reach and most vulnerable communities, including those impacted by environmental hazards and humanitarian emergencies.

Strengthening health systems and expanding access to primary care will also accelerate progress towards achieving the SDGs. We're already working with partners like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Rotary to make this happen. We are urging partners to join us in this effort so that we can drive sustainable change at global scale.

4. Building smart and resilient supply chains

The past two years have shown that global supply chains cannot sufficiently withstand major shocks such as disease outbreaks, conflict, severe climate events and energy shortages. Systemic weaknesses in national supply chains are widespread. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, up to 50% of countries experience annual vaccine stock-outs due to ineffective national supply chains.

Now is the time to build on investments made during the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen supply chains. This should start with supply chain digitalization, including using technology to deliver end-to-end visibility and introducing product traceability and verification systems.

We're calling for public-private, global-local collaboration at all stages of the supply chain and across key commodity and service groups to make supply chain systems more resilient and effective.

Building a resilient world together

These are just some of the ways partners can collaborate with us to scale solutions for children and the planet. Success is dependent on expertise, innovation and thought leadership from the international community, governments and the private sector working alongside communities.

We can’t get to a more sustainable and resilient world alone. It takes you. And us. Together.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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