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Speech by Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director at the launch of State of the World’s Children event

Mexico City, 28 February 2012

Mr. President, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I am honoured to be here – and grateful to you, Mr. President, both for hosting us and for your commitment to improving the lives of the children of Mexico. 

We have come to Mexico to launch The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World for a very good reason:  This nation, home to one of the world’s largest megacities, is already confronting the challenges of urbanization … and seeking new ways to reap the opportunities it provides.

For urbanization is inevitable, here in Mexico, around the globe, and especially in the developing world.  

Today, for the first time in history, half of the world’s people – including more than one billion children – live in cities and towns. 

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, nearly 80 per cent of the population already live in urban areas.  More than 75 per cent of Mexico’s people live in cities and towns – including 24 million children. 

Within the decade, the majority of the world’s children will grow up in urban areas.   And we can expect this growth to continue, probably throughout the century. 

Not only because people will continue to be drawn to cities for greater opportunity – pulled by the promise of jobs and greater personal freedoms – even if that promise is not fulfilled. 

And not only because people will continue to leave their villages behind – pushed by poverty, violence, or natural disaster – even if met by similar threats in the city.  

But also because most of those who come to cities, will stay and raise their families in cities. A little known and, to me, surprising fact:  Children born in cities already account for 60 per cent of the increase in urban population. 

Here is another, critically important fact.  It is the reason for our report:  In many regions, infrastructure and services are not keeping pace with urban growth – and the impact on the poorest children in cities is grave.

Hundreds of millions of urban children – those growing up in slums and shantytowns – are among the most disadvantaged in the world, deprived of the essential services that can mean the difference between life and death … between opportunity and despair. 

This may surprise some, even those who work in development.  For when most of us think of a poor child, we picture a rural child.  We don’t imagine, as readily, a girl living in the shadow of a city school she will never attend … Nor a boy growing up only a short walk from a health clinic he will never enter … Nor a family, deprived of services enjoyed by those living only streets away. 

Today in a visit to Iztapalapa, I met some of those children, and spoke with them about their lives.  None of them are now in school, but as we spoke, I kept thinking, if only they can get the education they deserve, just imagine the contributions they, and so many other children in a similar situation, will make to the future of Mexico and to nations around the world.

Unfortunately, far too many are deprived … and may never get that chance. 

Consider access to improved sanitation – so necessary to improve community health … and to save children’s lives. 

Urban dwellers generally enjoy greater access to such services than those in rural areas.  A report by the joint monitoring programme of WHO and UNICEF coming out next week will show that between 1990 and 2010, access to improved sanitation in rural areas grew faster than the population.  During the same period, in urban areas, provision of improved sanitation has not kept pace with population growth … by nearly 200 million people.

Within cities, the disparities between the poorest and wealthiest urban children can be stark.

Consider the under-five mortality rate.  In a sampling of 15 developing countries for which the most current urban data is available, we see wide gaps between the rate at which the poorest young children are dying from preventable causes – and the richest. 

For example, Cambodia.  In the wealthiest urban households, only nine in 1,000 children die before reaching their fifth birthdays.  In the poorest urban households, that number jumps to 142.  Fifteen times as many children, deprived unnecessarily of their right to live … simply because they were born poor.

Or consider education.  Children in urban areas are generally considered to have an educational advantage.  But children living in slums often lack that benefit. 

For example, in Delhi, India, approximately 90 per cent of all children attend primary school – a wonderful accomplishment.  But that statistical average disguises a grim reality.  For in Delhi’s slums, only 55 per cent of the children attend primary school.  

And many poor urban families pay more for services, even substandard services, than richer families.   Consider water, that most basic of needs.  

In many poor urban areas, from Bangkok to Nairobi, people must buy water from private vendors at a cost many times more – in some cases up to 50 times more –than those in the wealthier neighbourhoods who have access to water mains.  This not only means poor people must dedicate more of their household income for basic needs … it means they must resort more often to using unsafe water – one of the leading causes of diarrhoea, which kills so many children every year around the world.

The time has come for all of us – governments and those of us who support their efforts – to recognize the urgent necessity of bringing a sharper focus to the needs of disadvantaged urban children.  In our planning… and in our resources. 

This means addressing the shortage of reliable, usable data about children in slums.   What data exist on urban areas are often general, based on averages that can mask disparities.   To identify the children in greatest need, and to overcome the barriers they face, we must disaggregate this data – breaking it down so we can see what services are needed, by which children, and where.

As our report also shows, we need to focus greater investment in community-based action – supporting the efforts of people living in slums to improve their own lives.  Communities themselves best understand their own challenges.  But they are all too often excluded from the planning process.

That is not only an injustice.  It is a missed opportunity.   Communities in slums can act as grassroots laboratories for innovative solutions, not only to their own pressing problems, but for those in other poor, urban communities, in other countries. 

For example, in Mumbai, a group of determined slum dwellers persuaded government, railway authorities and international development lenders to relocate some 20,000 households away from the dangerous railway tracks where many children had been killed. 

This is impressive in and of itself.  But through a global network called Shack and Slum Dwellers International, the Mumbai citizens group is now sharing their experience and knowledge with slum dwellers in Nairobi and Kampala who face similar challenges.

Such innovation – in community programmes like these, in government programmes, and in both advocacy and policymaking – is a thread that runs through this report … and a key to meeting the challenges of urbanization.

One of the most compelling examples is Oportunidades – a pioneering cash-transfer programme that began in Mexico 15 years ago and has become a model for the world.  The programme now reaches millions of families in urban and rural communities, helping them afford to send their children to school, and to pay for health care.   In urban areas alone, Oportunidades serves around two million families – and 4.5 million children. 

The impact on their lives is nothing short of inspiring: From increasing their food consumption … to decreasing anemia in infants.  From raising school enrolment to decreasing the prevalence of child labour.  And from lifting people out of the most extreme poverty … to giving them hope for a better future.

Such an equity-focused approach to development is not only fair -- the right thing to do.  It is also the most effective and sustainable approach – the smart thing to do.  For excluding children and their parents – wherever they live – not only deprives them of the chance to reach their full potential.  It robs their societies of the economic growth a healthy, well-educated population can provide.

To build stronger cities – and more equitable societies – we need to invest in children.  An excellent example is Mexico’s 2012 federal budget.  Not only does the budget dedicate 20 per cent of its discretionary spending to benefit children; it also includes an annex that identifies specific expenditures for education, health, nutrition, and child protection.  The next step will be to establish monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, to track those expenditures and the results they achieve in the lives of children.  
 
Finally, and perhaps most important, we can only meet the challenges of urbanization if we all work together – at every level of government, across sectors, side by side.

Last year, I visited a poor urban community in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where local residents had built new sanitation facilities in an effort to improve the quality of their lives … and to save – literally – the lives of their children. 

Someone pointed out that from where we were standing in that terrible slum, we could see up on the hillside the road that I would be taking to go to a meeting in the Prime Minister’s office.

The contrast was striking, and the lesson even more so.  Solutions to the challenges of urbanization cannot come only from the top down, nor can they come only from the ground up.  They must spring from new partnerships that join both sides – and a renewed commitment to improve our cities by government, by UN agencies, by civil society, by the private sector, and by communities themselves.

UNICEF is fortunate to be working with so many partners – here in Mexico and around the world – to make cities safer and healthier places for children.  

For example, UNICEF and UN-Habitat have worked together for 15 years on the Child-Friendly Cities initiative, which puts children at the centre of the urban agenda.  More recently, we and UN-Habitat collaborated with UN-Women in launching Safe and Friendly Cities for All – a community-led initiative to reduce violence against children and women in poor urban areas.  I’m very pleased that we are joined today by my colleague from UN-Habitat, Director Cecelia Martinez, who is helping lead this effort.

Urbanization and its inequities is one of the greatest challenges we all face in this time – and we must not fail to meet it.   By making cities fit for children, we will not only make them better places for the children, we will make them better places for all. 

So we look forward to working with the government and people of Mexico to meet this challenge.  And now, it gives me great pleasure to present to you, Mr. President, Estado Mundial de la Infancia 2012: Niñas y niños en un mundo urbano.  Gracias.  

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