The world is gearing up for the 2015 target date of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At the same time, work has started on a new framework to guide priority efforts for human progress – including the eradication of poverty in all its forms.
Collectively, we now have another opportunity to set the course for a global sustainable development agenda. That brings many priorities and concerns different people will want to see included.
It will come as no surprise that the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is making the case that children are at the heart of what sustainability requires.
Those of us immersed in all things “post-2015” speak about integrating the main dimensions of sustainable development - social, economic and environmental, underpinned by the principles of human rights, equality and sustainability - as the cornerstone for a new agenda. We hope it will take a people-centred approach, in which future human progress is led by and accountable to those whose lives are at stake.
We see children at the centre of this because they are both the makers and the markers of healthy, sustainable societies. They are the canary in the coalmine - the earliest warning we get when things go very wrong.
They are the first to suffer the adult sins of omission (neglect of their needs) and commission (violence and other violations of their rights). Children’s nutrition, health, safety, education and other rights are inextricably linked to future economic growth and shared prosperity, to a safe environment and more stable societies. We neglect these rights at our peril.
Evidence shows that how a child develops in the first 1,000 days of life will have lifelong implications for that child, and for society as a whole. Safe, healthy and well-educated children make up the foundation for society to thrive.
A lack of investment in child nutrition, health, care and education can lock individuals and their families into cycles of poverty for generations, and can be an entrenched barrier to their countries’ future progress.
Take stunting, for example. Dozens of countries report up to 40 percent of young children still suffering from stunted growth, with six countries exceeding 50 percent, according to the World Bank’s Global Monitoring Report 2012.
Preventing childhood stunting can help break the cycle of poverty and increase a country’s GDP by at least 2 to 3 percent annually, avoiding billions of dollars in lost productivity and healthcare spending. Childhood deaths and stunting are warning signs of failing, unsustainable development.
Exposure to violence also has life-long implications – from brain injury and physical trauma to depression and development delays. Children exposed to violence can often turn to drug abuse, criminal, violent and other risk-taking behaviours later in life.
Because their bodies and brains are still developing, children are also more vulnerable to environmental pollution and the stresses of climate change. They are physiologically less able than adults to adapt to heat and other climate-related extremes. The effects on children of scarce and contaminated water and food are well-known.
Children today will shape and determine the societies in which they live. When a child is in poor health, has compromised brain functionality due to poor nutrition or trauma, does not receive a quality education, or does not feel safe at home, school or in the community, that child will be less likely to fulfil his/her potential as a parent, employee or entrepreneur, consumer or environmental protector.
Denying the individual child his or her rights deprives the entire human family of the benefits that derive from those rights.
Lastly, children are not passive recipients of development. They are the group with the most to win or lose from its success or failure.
At a recent U.N. Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals in June, a young woman called Ralien Bekkers spoke on behalf of the Major Group on Children and Youth. She challenged governments to “Talk, listen and work together with us for the challenges of our futures…We must become partners and allies for sustainable development.”
She pointed to examples of young people who are coming up with innovative solutions to major global challenges: an 18-year old Indian-American student who built an energy-efficient 20-second cell phone charger; a high school student in the U.S. who invented a fast and inexpensive cancer detector; and a 19-year-old boy from the Netherlands who has proposed a system to help clean plastic from the oceans.
We need children and young people to be empowered, supported and motivated to address the challenges we face globally and in our own societies. And they will only be able to meet those challenges if we invest in their health, nutrition, safety and learning opportunities today. Our common future depends on them.
Richard Morgan is the senior advisor on the Post-2015 Development Agenda at UNICEF Headquarters in New York. UNICEF has recently released a position paper: Sustainable Development Starts and Ends with Safe, Healthy and Well-Educated Children.