Namibia, 5 November: African parliamentarians vow to do more for children
Meeting on social protection co-sponsored by UNICEF and Inter-Parliamentary Union
By Shantha Bloemen
WINDHOEK, Namibia, 5 November 2010 – There is a growing recognition in Eastern and Southern Africa that child-sensitive protection policies are a critical way to provide a social safety net for the region’s poorest and most vulnerable children. Recently, Members of Parliament from across the region committed to pass better aimed at creating social policies that protect children.
Forty parliamentarians came to Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, for a three-day regional workshop on social protection. The Parliament of Namibia hosted the workshop with support from the Intra-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UNICEF. The aim of the participants was to build more consensus on building stronger safety nets and social-protection schemes for their most vulnerable constituents, especially children.
“A few years ago, no one talked about social protection, especially for children,” African Union Social Affairs Commissioner Bience Gawanas said at the meeting. “But now there is a movement amongst governments and civil society that realize this is not about charity. Social-protection systems challenge us [to recognize] that people living in poverty have got rights.”
Need for leadership
In a region where half the population survives on less than $1.25 per day, millions of children have lost one or both parents to AIDS and millions more have suffered from the effects of the HIV pandemic, there was agreement that governments and parliament should take urgent action to guarantee wider access to basic services such as health care and education.
“To face many of our challenges, we need strong leadership,” said IPU President Dr. Theo-Ben Grirab, who is also the Speaker of the National Assembly of the Republic of Namibia.
“When almost 50 percent of our population is under the age of 18, and many of our countries suffer high rates of HIV, poverty and unemployment, ” he added, “we need to make sure our development agenda is determined by our children’s welfare, future and inheritance.”
Improving the quality of life
UNICEF presented a case for child-sensitive social protection at the workshop, outlining a mix of components that could include social transfers such as cash transfers and social insurance schemes. This approach holds that efforts do not necessarily have to target children exclusively but can indirectly improve their welfare by benefiting their families and improving the overall quality of life.
UNICEF’s Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Elhadj As Sy, pointed to the need for more advocacy on behalf of children.
“The recent global financial crisis has further heightened their vulnerability and deepened poverty, as well as worsened economic inequity,” he said. “What we are calling for is not new. It is simply about reinforcing efforts to care for each other, especially our children, and make them an integral part of government development plans.”
‘Political will to make a change’
Many countries in the region – including South Africa, Kenya and Malawi – have comprehensive child-protection laws designed to protect vulnerable and orphaned children. In others, such as Lesotho and Namibia, legislation has been drafted and now needs to be approved by parliaments. But more has to be done to implement these laws, educate the public about them and make sure they are operational.
Jonathan Bradshaw, an academic from the University of York who is conducting research in Eastern and Southern Africa, urged Parliamentarians to focus on linking spending priorities with concrete, child-related outcomes.
“Rich countries spend 20 to 40 percent of their GDP on social security, while in this region, no country is spending even 10 percent on social security. And where there is spending, it is often highly inadequate and inequitable,” said Mr. Bradshaw.
“We have very rich countries on this continent, and in terms of economic growth it does not seem to be faltering,” noted Ms. Gawanas. “Yet it has not translated itself into improvements in the lives of ordinary people. At the end of the day, it is about the political will to make a change.”
Hurdles to overcome
The big challenge currently facing countries in the region is how to adequately finance social protection schemes, especially when many governments remain heavily dependent on donors or finances from a relatively small tax base.
“Some governments are hesitant to take up social-protection schemes because of the long-term sustainability issue,” explained Prof. Stephen Devereux from the Institute of Development Studies, an expert on social-protection schemes in Africa. “But the argument, which is backed up by evidence, is that if you invest in these programmes there is a return. If you invest in a child and they grow up healthy and are better educated, then they will be able to earn a better income, and then you are better – in the long run – able to finance these schemes.”
In a final outcome statement, parliamentarians at the workshop committed to scaling up child-centred social-protection measures and providing better oversight to hold governments accountable for results. They also committed to “addressing the current economic and employment crisis, the underlying corruption in many of our countries as well as gender inequalities, which all constitute obstacles to the achievement of child rights.”
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Meeting Outcome Document [PDF]
Meeting agenda [PDF]