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Better social protection for the world’s children is urgently needed, says UN report

Better social protection is needed for children globally.

Better social protection is needed for children globally. Image: Larm Rmah/Unsplash

Stefan Ellerbeck
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Social Protection

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  • 1.46 billion children worldwide receive no child or family – cash or tax credit – benefits, according to a new report by the International Labour Organization and UNICEF.
  • It says more than 800 million children globally are forced to live on $3.20 a day.
  • The report calls for social protection measures to be stepped up, to safeguard the future of the world’s children.

“Social protection is a universal human right – and a precondition for a world free from poverty.”

This is the opening statement of a new report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF making clear their belief that universal social protection is vital to help the world’s most vulnerable children fulfil their potential. Adequate social protection increases access to the basic necessities of life such as food, healthcare and education.

“It can help prevent child labour and child marriage, and address the drivers of gender inequality and exclusion … by tackling monetary poverty directly, social protection can also mitigate the stigma and exclusion so many children living in poverty experience – and the pain that a childhood feeling ‘less than’ can produce,” the report says.

More children are missing out

Between 2016-2020, 50 million children up to the age of 15 missed out on child benefits (paid in cash or tax credits), according to More than a billion reasons: The urgent need to build universal social protection for children. This has increased the total number of children worldwide without social support to 1.46 billion.

The absence of social protection for different populations.
Large social protection gaps remain across the world. Image: ILO/UNICEF

The report also reveals that in the same four-year period child and family benefit rates either stagnated or fell in every part of the world. This has consequently left no country on track to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 1.3 Social Protection Systems for All by the end of this decade, it warns.

“The most pronounced decline occurred in the Americas, where coverage fell by 6.4 percentage points from 63.8% to 57.4%,” the report says. “Coverage declined slightly from 84.6% to 82.3% in Europe and Central Asia. And of all regions, effective coverage remains the lowest in Africa, where the rate has barely moved since 2016, from 12.8% to 12.6%. In Asia and the Pacific, coverage has remained more or less the same and is currently 18.0%,” it adds.

Social protection coverage has stagnated or fallen in most regions.
Social protection coverage has stagnated or fallen in most regions. Image: ILO/UNICEF

Multiple crises are threatening children’s futures

Almost two-and-a-half billion children around the world need adequate social protection. “Over 800 million children are living on less than $3.20 a day, 1.3 billion children are living on less than $5.50 a day and over a billion are living in multidimensional poverty,” the report says. This is defined as being deprived of key dimensions of well-being such as health and education.

And the situation continues to worsen. The ongoing impact of COVID-19, the cost of living crisis, and disruption and displacement caused by conflict and the climate crisis are increasing the challenges faced by the world’s children. The report confirms that the pandemic has had a significant impact on children, and that 2020 saw the first growth in child poverty globally for decades.

However, most countries around the world did boost social assistance in response to the pandemic. Although the report’s authors also point out that most of the 4,000 policy measures put in place have been “short-lived”.

What’s more, only 12% of the measures can be described as being fully gender-responsive. This means that women and girls around the world were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Countries' expenditure on social protection and labour measures, by income group, 2020-2021.
During the pandemic average expenditure per capita on social protection in low-income countries was only $8. Image: ILO/UNICEF

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A call to action: social protection

The ILO and UNICEF are urging policymakers to take decisive steps to reinforce social protection systems, and expand them to protect every child at risk. They outline six steps that will need to be taken to achieve this:

  • Commit to greater levels of investment in child benefits.
  • Provide national social protection systems that also connect families to health and social services.
  • Build social protection systems that are rights-based, gender-responsive, inclusive, and shock responsive.
  • Secure sustainable financing for social protection systems by mobilising domestic resources.
  • Strengthen social protection for parents and caregivers through access to decent work and adequate benefits.
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“As families face increasing economic hardship, food insecurity, conflict, and climate-related disasters, universal child benefits can be a lifeline,” says Natalia Winder-Rossi, UNICEF Director of Social Policy and Social Protection. “There is an urgent need to strengthen, expand and invest in child-friendly and shock-responsive social protection systems. This is essential to protect children from living in poverty and increase resilience, particularly among the poorest households.”

Finding ways to promote resilient and equitable economic growth will be the focus of the World Economic Forum’s Growth Summit in May 2023. It will bring together leaders from both the private and public spheres to tackle current challenges through collaboration and collective action.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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