Global Cooperation

Why we need to rebuild our social contract with the world's children

In 2024, we must get back on track with our SDG commitments to children.

In 2024, we must get back on track with our SDG commitments to children. Image: UNICEF/UNI444234/Andriantsoar

Catherine Russell
Executive Director, UNICEF
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Global Cooperation

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • 2023 has been one of the worst years for children with 1 billion now living in countries at extremely high risk of climate change and 460 million living in conflict zones.
  • In 2024, public-private partnerships, the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the growing leadership of children and young people could change our course for the better.
  • There is hardly any collective mobilization in the world with returns and outcomes worth so much to an entire generation of people.

As we end 2023, three major milestones will make 2024 a pivotal year for rebuilding the pathway to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for children around the world.

Firstly, the SDG Summit convened by the UN Secretary-General told us the world is off track when it comes to meeting most of our critical global goals and recommitted countries to an expedited plan of action.

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Secondly, COP28, for the first time, emphasized the unique and disproportionate impacts of climate change on children’s health and wellbeing with 1 billion children now living in countries at extremely high risk.

And thirdly, we ended 2023 recognizing that this has been one of the worst years for children, with 460 million living in conflict zones, where they face not only clear and present danger to their lives, but an uncertain future where the trust between children and the systems that nurture them has been broken.

It is time to rebuild that trust and repair our pathways to the future. We must begin with a renewed social contract for children.

Collaborative approaches

At the beginning of 2024, as I find myself reflecting on the kind of world that today’s children will inherit, I do so with a deep sense of hope. While a perfect storm of fragmentation and polycrisis endangers the hard-won gains that we’ve made for children in previous decades, I also recognize that positive forces – in particular, new ways of building public-private partnerships and coalitions, the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the growing leadership of children and young people – could change our course for the better in 2024.

UNICEF’s Global Outlook 2024 puts a spotlight on how far we could go together, through a collaborative and partnership-driven approach. This is critical as organizations, businesses, and governments co-create solutions to connect more children to basic services, quality learning and affordable healthcare. It is equally critical in the broad sense, as economic fragmentation threatens families’ livelihoods, children’s growth and youth employment.

Our new social contract for children towards the SDGs must be rooted in economic solidarity, market collaboration and a shared commitment to invest in future skills to safeguard children’s rights and futures. We must prioritize children in trade policy formulation to ensure more equitable access to essential goods and services. Debt restructuring can balance economic imperatives with social investments (more social protection, more affordable and quality basic services and reaching the children who are farthest behind) to future-proof an entire generation against the next global shock.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies have the potential to improve outcomes for the world’s fully digital generation of children. Whether it is intelligent and personalized tutoring, diversifying access to learning or better nutrition through improved crop yields, AI can help us crunch numbers at the last mile.

During a recent visit to India, I watched how community health workers use a mobile app, the POSHAN Tracker, to log details that help the community keep track of children’s nutrition. UNICEF has supported partners to develop a drone emergency response prototype in Guatemala that can help in climate emergencies and UNICEF is investing in open source, AI-powered solutions to address digital risks to children through its venture fund.

We have the opportunity at this early stage to design an AI and technology revolution that is equitable, inclusive and safe for children. We know the significant risks unchecked technologies could have on children’s wellbeing and the challenges when it comes to regulation and accountability, for children’s privacy and data and from algorithmic bias.

Despite this, a majority of national AI strategies and ethical guidelines do not sufficiently focus on children and their needs. Neither governments nor technology companies have strong processes for engaging people, especially children, to develop policies and products in a collaborative way. But this can – and must – change. Now is the time to work together to ensure that AI policies resonate with children and their experiences, truly serving their needs and hopes.

We have two pathways ahead of us: one with increased global collaboration and partnerships, which can amplify the benefits of technology, trade and innovation through sharing of knowledge and equitable growth; and another that is less united, less affluent and must grapple with the consequences of climate change, resource conflict and protectionist policies.

By envisioning these diverging future paths, policy-makers, business leaders and stakeholders can anticipate challenges and harness opportunities to forge a more secure, equitable world for children. These benefits will have a ripple effect through their families, communities and, in time, economies.

Building on past successes

There are many successful examples from the past of this collaborative approach. For instance, when the global community came together to halve the mortality rates of children under five between 2000 and 2021; or the more than 2 billion people who have gained access to safely managed water and sanitation services since 1990.

Global cooperation has led to steep reductions in child mortality rates
Global cooperation has led to steep reductions in child mortality rates Image: Our World in Data

I reflect on the sheer fortitude and collaboration it took to make these things happen and reflect equally on how little it costs to invest in this future. The UNICEF integrated annual programme budget for 191 countries, across a portfolio of nutrition, education, health, emergency response, social protection, child protection, water and sanitation, and cross-cutting programmes, is just over $5 billion each year – for comparison, the municipal budget of New York City is $95 billion.

There is hardly any collective mobilization in the world with returns and outcomes worth so much to an entire generation of people, both in material terms of outreach numbers and the immeasurable value of a healthy, skilled, and empowered future.

With the Summit of the Future in 2024, we must unite and double down on our actions and investments placing children, their interests and their voices at the centre of negotiations about our shared futures. For business leaders, integrating children’s rights into the core of their sustainability and ESG strategies is not only essential to enhance the social footprints of their companies while respecting the rights and wellbeing of children today; it is instrumental to shape the future of those who will inherit and run the world tomorrow.

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