Ending Child Poverty: Key to Sustainable Development

Keynote Address by Kul Chandra Gautam RESULTS Canada National Conference, Ottawa, 30 November 2013

This evening, I have been asked to speak about ending child poverty as key to sustainable development – and Canada’s role in that context.

Let me start by reminding all of us that we were all children once. And today we are all related to children – as parents, uncles, aunties, teachers, guardians, and in many other capacities. There is nothing else in the world that unites us all – people of different countries and cultures, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, men and women – as our common aspiration for the well-being of our children.

I am, therefore, delighted to have this opportunity to share with you some thoughts on “Ending Child Poverty – as Key to Sustainable Development”.

There are three main reasons for my special delight in addressing the issue of ending child poverty in our life-time.

First, I have dedicated my whole professional life to promoting the rights and well-being of children in my long career with UNICEF. So, I always feel passionate about the cause of ending child poverty.

Second, I am proud to be associated with the RESULTS movement globally, including here in Canada. For over 20 years, RESULTS Canada has done an amazing job of mobilizing its grassroots network of passionately committed citizens to help end extreme poverty that blights the lives of millions of children around the world.

Third, I am especially inspired by Canada’s exemplary role in promoting international cooperation with a focus on human development and humanitarian assistance that includes combating child poverty.

Many Canadians have been world leaders in promoting international development, and combating child poverty, including through the United Nations.

I recall as a young student, the very first book on international development I read that made a lasting impact in my life and career was by the great Canadian Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester Pearson. His ground-breaking 1969 report entitled Partners in Development had huge impact on the United Nations, the World Bank and many others.

It was the Pearson Commission that first recommended in 1969 that donor countries should commit to allocate one percent of their GNP as total foreign aid, and 0.7% of GNP as official development assistance to developing countries by 1975.

Alas, Canada and most other OECD countries are still very far from attaining that lofty goal, but its relevance is still universally recognized.

Another great Canadian leader, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, inspired many of us around the world with concepts of participatory democracy and a just society, anti-war activism and international solidarity.

The Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC), founded in 1970, has been a pioneer among development research institutions in the world. It has helped many developing countries to find innovative and lasting solutions to reduce poverty, improve health and nutrition, support innovation, and safeguard the environment.

Canada has been a world leader in promoting child survival and development both through its bilateral aid, and through generous support to multilateral organizations and NGOs.

I have had the personal experience of witnessing and assisting Canada’s leadership for children in numerous historic occasions, such as at the 1990 World Summit for Children; at the UNICEF Executive Board; and in such Canadian-supported initiatives as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and TB; the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization; the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health; the Micronutrient Initiative; and many humanitarian initiatives to protect children from natural disasters and man-made armed conflicts.

Canada is to be especially commended for its principled leadership and creative proposals for humanitarian intervention, which Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy presented to the UN.

Now known as “the responsibility to protect”, this principle calls for intervention by the international community whenever national governments are unable or unwilling to protect their citizens against massive violations of their human rights, such as in situations of genocide or crimes against humanity, or during cataclysmic natural disasters.

This is a very important counter-weight to the conventional understanding of national sovereignty which dictators sometimes use with impunity to oppress their own people.

More recently, at the Muskoka G-8 Summit in 2010, Prime Minister Stephen Harper took the initiative to persuade his fellow G-8 leaders and other partners to commit $10 billion to mobilize global action to reduce maternal and infant mortality, by improving the health of mothers and children in the world’s poorest countries.

Canada itself pledged nearly $3 billion over five years in support of the Muskoka Initiative.

I salute such enlightened Canadian leadership and hope and appeal to Canada to once again play a leading role in shaping a new international development agenda, that aims to end child poverty in our life-time.

As the world is now gearing up to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and to formulate the post-2015 global development agenda, we look to Canada’s leadership, once again, to ensure that ending child poverty and promoting the well-being of children remains at the heart of our collective efforts.

I hope that this RESULTS conference will be a springboard for mobilizing a broad-based Canadian citizens campaign for creating a world that is truly fit for our children.

Origins of Child-centric MDGs

It is worth recalling that the well-being of children has been at the very heart of the current Millennium Development Goals.

All eight MDGs and their targets and indicators such as eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; promoting gender equality; reducing maternal and child mortality; achieving universal primary education; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and forging a global partnership for development, are quite directly related to the survival, development and well-being of children.

The preponderance of so many child-centred MDGs did not happen by accident or coincidence. Some of us, particularly those working at UNICEF, RESULTS, and the Canadian CIDA, worked hard to influence and shape the MDGs.

In this effort, we were greatly helped by the outcome of the historic 1990 World Summit for Children, co-chaired by former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. That Summit adopted a set of ambitious goals for the survival, protection and development of children.

The Summit for Children was the world’s truly first world summit and it set the tone for other Summits that followed in the 1990s. These included the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, led by another Canadian, Maurice Strong; the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, and the 1995 Copenhagen Summit on Social Development.

All of these helped build the momentum towards the Millennium Summit in 2000.

As the cause of children is one that unites people and governments more than any other cause, and as the Summit for Children was more systematically followed up and rigorously monitored than any other UN Summit of the 1990s, it was relatively easy for world leaders to agree on child-related goals as the backbone of the Millennium Development Goals.

We all hope that like MDGs, the post-2015 global development agenda too, will once again put children at its core.

After all, while many things in the world change with the times, the yearning of all human beings to see a world that is fit for their children and future generations, remains timeless and universal.

Outline of Post-2015 SDGs

We are delighted that the recent Report of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda emphasizes the role and agency of “young people”, and recognizes them as “subjects, not objects, of the post-2015 development agenda”.

The report, which has been welcomed by Canada, presents 12 illustrative goals – expanding from the current 8 MDGs. These include:

    1. 1. End Poverty


    1. 2. Empower girls and women and achieve gender equality


    1. 3. Provide quality education and lifelong learning


    1. 4. Ensure healthy lives


    1. 5. Ensure food security and good nutrition


    1. 6. Achieve universal access to water and sanitation


    1. 7. Secure sustainable energy


    1. 8. Create jobs, sustainable livelihoods and equitable growth


    1. 9. Manage natural resource assets sustainably

10.  Ensure good governance and effective institutions

11.  Ensure stable and peaceful societies

12.  Create a global enabling environment and catalyze long-term finance.

The report also identifies several cross-cutting issues of great importance that are not adequately addressed through any single goal, but are relevant for most of them.

These include: peace, equity, climate change, urbanization, concerns of young people, girls, and women, and sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Focus on Equity

The HLP report emphatically states that: “Targets will only be considered ‘achieved’ if they are met for all relevant income and social groups”.

This responds to what many have considered one of the biggest shortfalls of the MDGs – that they did not directly address the issue of inequalities and how people are marginalized based on their ethnicity, gender, geography, disability, age, race and/or other status.

Along with the transformative shift calling to “Leave no one behind”, this assertion of universal coverage is a crucial safeguard to ensure that groups which have not benefited from progress under the MDGs will not continue to be left behind.

The HLP report is one among several others that will be the basis for negotiations among UN Member States between now and 2015 when the post-2015 agenda will be finalized and promulgated by the United Nations.

Based on what is on the agenda for negotiations, we can be optimistic that the issues concerning the well-being of children will figure quite prominently in the post-2015 global development agenda.

But since ending extreme poverty by 2030 is likely to be the overarching agenda, it is important for those of us concerned with ending child poverty to ensure that the child-related dimensions of poverty get appropriate attention and priority.

According to the World Bank, the number of people living in extreme poverty around the world has sharply declined over the past three decades. The 13 years since the millennium have seen the fastest reduction in poverty in human history. There are half a billion fewer people living below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day.

Yet, we still have some 400 million children living in poverty.

And whereas the proportion of adults living in poverty has declined to one in five; children living in poverty account for one in three. In low-income countries, the situation is much worse, with half of all children living in extreme poverty.

The widespread phenomenon of child labour existing side by side with large number of children out of school, and high rates of youth unemployment, are all manifestation of the high incidence of child poverty.

Inadequate access to quality health care in childhood, high rates of malnutrition, poor hygiene and sanitation, all contribute to inter-generational transmission of child poverty.

If the new post-MDG sustainable development goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030 is to be achieved, a general anti-poverty strategy will not be enough.

We will need a more focused and targeted approach to poverty eradication with two specific approaches: a) promoting shared prosperity by focusing on the bottom 40 percent of the population; and b) specifically combating various manifestations of child poverty.

One might ask, does our world today have enough resources to tackle such huge magnitude of extreme poverty in a single generation?

In answering that question, let us remind ourselves that today, we live in the most prosperous of times in human history.

Last year the gross world output (GWP) or the combined economic output (GDP) of the whole world reached US$85 trillion (PPP) or $72 trillion in nominal terms, with per capita GWP-PPP at US$12,400.

And according to the Forbes magazine, the number of billionaires in the world last year reached 1,426 with their combined net worth of $5.4 trillion.

These billionaires came not only from rich countries like the USA, Germany, UK and Canada, or from the emerging economies like the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), Mexico, Turkey, and Indonesia, but from 64 different countries, including many low and middle-income nations from Angola to Vietnam.

Even my home country of Nepal- one of the poorest in the world – had one billionaire in the Forbes list this year.

At this time of unprecedented global prosperity, in which someone new becomes a billionaire every 2nd day, we have the contrasting situation of nearly 1 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day; 800 million people going to bed hungry every night; 1 billion people without access to clean drinking water, and 2 billion people without access to proper sanitation.

What an incredibly unequal and unjust world we live in!

Young children suffer disproportionately from poverty, not just in poor countries, but even in the richest countries of the world.

UNICEF has documented that the proportion of children living in poverty has actually risen in the majority of the world’s richest countries in the last decade.

Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights once said that poverty is the greatest violation of human rights in the world today. And children are the greatest victims of this violation of human rights.

It is because of poverty that nearly seven million children still die every year from causes that are readily preventable.

It is poverty that keeps 57 million children out of primary schools, the majority of them girls.

It is poverty that lands millions of children in child labour, often in hazardous circumstances, when they should be going to school.

It is poverty, debt and unemployment that lead desperate parents to even sell their vital organs like kidneys through unscrupulous middle-men to provide for their children.

And when all else fails, parents are even forced to abandon their children, sell them to brothels, and work in slave-like conditions.

Dear friends, because children bear the heaviest burden of poverty, we must make ending child poverty the world’s highest priority.

But there is no single or simple way to attack poverty. Poverty, after all, is a cumulative phenomenon involving many factors.

While we generally measure poverty in terms of income in dollars and pounds, or euros and yens, and our own local currencies, the worst manifestations of poverty are found in the physical deprivation of children – the high rates of mortality and fertility, illiteracy and malnutrition, and a life without minimal human dignity.

Tackling these problems – starting with children – brings both immediate and long-term benefits in the fight against poverty.

Healthy, well-nourished, educated children grow-up to become productive citizens, and they help break the inter-generational cycle of poverty.

That is why our efforts to immunize the world’s children against diseases that kill or cripple youngsters are a direct contribution to poverty reduction.

Our effort to expand access to safe drinking water and sanitation is an essential foundation for good health and improved productivity.

Our struggle to pursue quality universal primary education is a sine qua non for poverty reduction and sustainable development.

Now, some say that poverty has always been with us, and will never be completely eliminated.

That maybe true in the case of relative poverty, but in a $80 trillion global economy, we simply cannot and should not accept the persistence of absolute poverty as the unavoidable fate of humanity.

While we rightly lament inadequate and uneven progress, and continuing poverty and injustice in the world, we must not forget that in a historical context, there has been unprecedented progress for children in recent decades.

My former boss and mentor, Jim Grant of UNICEF, used to say that there had been more progress for children in the last 50 years – during the 2nd half of the 20th century – than perhaps in the previous 500 years.

Consider these examples:

Over a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in Asia alone in the past half century. In China 400 million people were lifted up from absolute poverty in a single generation. India is rapidly following a similar trend.

The Republic of Korea has seen its per capita income increase from $100 to $17,000 in our life time.

Innovative schemes, such as micro-credit for women are benefitting millions of families and are having a very direct impact on the status of women and the well-being of children.

When I started working for UNICEF in the 1970s, 17 million children below the age of 5 used to die annually. Last year UNICEF reported that less than 7 million died.

This is a remarkable testimony to the continuing progress in child survival and success of many health interventions.

Smallpox which used to kill 5 million people a year in the 1950s was eradicated during our life time.

Polio which used to cripple millions is on the brink of eradication. Deaths due to measles, one of the biggest killers of children, declined by 95 per cent in Africa in the last 10 years.

There are more children in school today than ever before, and gender disparity is rapidly declining at the primary school level.

Thanks to the heightened sensitivity created by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, issues such as child labour, trafficking and abuse of children, children in armed conflict and other violence against children are being systematically exposed, and action taken to address them.

Whereas UNICEF and Save the Children were the only organizations primarily dedicated to child survival, protection and development until the 1980s, today many NGOs, private foundations, faith-based organizations, public-private partnerships, and civic leaders are championing the cause of children.

Overall, children are much higher on the world’s political agenda.

Increasingly, they figure prominently in election campaigns, parliamentary debates and national legislation.

The fantastic communications capacity in the world today makes it possible to bring the blessings of science and technology to the doorsteps of even the poorest people in the most remote corners of the world.

Child-oriented programmes are benefitting from this information and communications revolution.

But much of this progress has bypassed the bottom billion people in the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Civil wars and conflict, and the pandemic of HIV/AIDS have exacerbated the fight against poverty by weakening the economies and social fabric of many countries in Africa.

We all thought there would be an era of peace, and a huge peace dividend, following the end of the cold war. But regrettably, ethnic conflicts and tensions spread following the collapse of the Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia.

Some of the progressive safety-nets of social protection found in the former socialist countries were dismantled as part of the “shock therapy” during these countries’ economic transition.

As a result children – and the elderly – are often worse off today than during the Soviet times in some of these countries.

In many countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, the debt crisis, hyper-inflation, extreme inequality, and economic mismanagement has led to the deterioration in the situation of children.

In the Middle East, the Arab Spring showed us both the great hopes and deep frustration of the younger generation. This oil-rich region has not been able to translate its vast wealth and resources into peace and poverty reduction.

When faced with grinding poverty and unemployment at home, many young adults migrate to cities and faraway lands in search of jobs. Remittances by migrant workers have become the life-line for many families and countries, like my own Nepal.

But migration is a mixed blessing. While it keeps many families and nations afloat from financial bankruptcy, it also leads to family separation, neglect of children, and weakening of the emotional bonds between parents and children, so crucial for child development.

Harnessing migration for development in a win-win manner in which both labour-sending and receiving countries benefit, must be a prime concern in the post-2015 global development agenda.

We all agree that environmental degradation caused by human activity leading to climate change is one of the greatest challenges of planetary proportions facing humanity today.

But in an unequal world, the exhortation by environmentalists for conservation and preservation of nature may sound hollow to the poor who are struggling to eke out a meager living, while the well-to-do continue to squander natural resources to maintain their profligate living standards.

A model of development that allows the rich to generously fill their swimming pools, water their golf courses, drive their gas-guzzling vehicles, but preaches to the poor not to cut trees to meet their essential needs for fuel or fodder is hypocritical and indefensible.

What we need is a more balanced approach that puts greater responsibility on the well-to-do to moderate their consumption patterns and to support the legitimate human needs of the less fortunate.

As the Brundtland Commission on environment and development said three decades ago, we must pursue a development approach that helps meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Each year, at least three million children under the age of five die due to environment-related diseases, including diarrhoea, caused by inadequate and unsafe water, poor sanitation, and unsafe hygiene.

This is the major environmental issue for the poor, as is the need to fetch water and fodder from long distances, and the lack of separate toilets for girls that prevents or discourages many of them from going or staying in schools.

As we deal with high profile environmental issues of global warming, industrial pollution, deforestation, and the need to preserve our planet’s bio-diversity, let us not forget that effectively combating absolute poverty is the only way to make the poorest people of the world stakeholders in our great global crusade to protect the earth for our children.

As we can see, ending child poverty is not only a matter of fulfilling a child’s human rights, and unleashing the development potential of our nations and the world, it is also of vital for protecting the earth for our children.

We all agree that tackling poverty is important, but why does it necessarily have to start with children?

There are many reasons why I believe strongly that poverty reduction must indeed begin with children.

Consider this: 80 percent of human brain is formed in the first 18 months of a child’s life.

Whether a child will grow to live up to his or her full human potential, or the child will be condemned to be a slow learner, and poor achiever in life, is largely determined in the first few years of a child’s life, before the child enters school.

The damage caused by malnutrition, infection and poor child care in early childhood often lasts for the whole life, and it cannot be easily reversed later.

That is why most developed countries invest heavily in early child development.

Impoverished children become transmitters of poverty, as parents, to the next generation.  In a vicious cycle, malnourished girls grow up to become malnourished mothers who give birth to underweight babies and perpetuate the intergenerational transmission of poverty.

Many of us become numbed by the big figures we use in our discourse – the millions of children in poverty, the billions of dollars needed to tackle some problems, in a world economy measured in trillions of dollars.

So let us think in more simple and modest terms that we can relate to. Let us think of our own children in our own communities, and imagine how we would feel if we had to face the consequences of grinding poverty in our own daily lives.

Please close your eyes for a moment, and think what you would do if your income was just $1 a day or $5 for a family – for food, for shelter, for clothing, for education, for health care, for festivals and for funerals?

How can we not make fighting such degrading poverty our individual, institutional and collective priority?

We can do many things to combat poverty and promote the well-being of children at remarkably low-cost. We can eradicate the worst manifestations of poverty in our life-time, if we really commit ourselves to that noble task.

It is often not money that is the main constraint, but lack of vision, leadership and commitment which retards progress.

As Mahatma Gandhi said so memorably, “The world has enough for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed.”

I believe all of us attending this conference share a common vision – the vision of a world in which all children have a joyous childhood: where they can play, learn and grow, where they are loved and cared for, where their health and safety are protected, and where their gender is not a liability – a world in which their human rights are protected and fulfilled.

Right now, that world remains a dream for tens of millions of children.

But it is a dream that I really believe can come true within a single generation, if we can help generate strong political commitment, sustained public action and genuine community participation, including the participation of children and young people themselves.

The world is two billion children rich, but many of them sadly still fall out of our reach, growing up unhealthy, uneducated and unprotected.

We need to double, triple and quadruple the scale of our programmes, and the intensity of our commitment, if we are to end child poverty in our life-time.

With such commitment we can build a world in which all children can enjoy a childhood of playing and learning, where they are loved and cherished, their safety and well-being are assured, and where they can grow to adulthood in health, peace and dignity.

As the old African proverb says, “it takes a village to raise a child”. And raising children to their full human potential is not just our family duty, but is the ultimate mark of our great human civilisation.

Whether a child is born in a poor family in Cameroon or an affluent one in Canada, whether it is a girl in Nepal or a boy in Norway, they all have a right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing, education and other necessary social services.

For this right to be realized, we must ensure that no child lives in degrading poverty and that child development is the centre-point of all human development.

I hope we can send a powerful message from this RESULTS conference in Canada to our political leaders and parliamentarians, to our corporate leaders and religious priests, to school teachers and ordinary citizens that we now have a unique opportunity to end child poverty in the world, and to make extreme poverty history in our life-time.

Dear friends,

Never before did humankind have the capacity to do so much good, to reach so many people, to work with the poor and the oppressed, to empower them, and to promote justice and human rights for all, as we do today.

Let us commit ourselves today to seize this historic opportunity.

Thank you.