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Statement

Remarks by Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director on Sustainable Development in an Unequal World at Rio+20

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 20, 2012

Let me begin by applauding the Club de Madrid…the government of Costa Rica…and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung for focusing this session on Sustainable Development in an Unequal World…and on a Rio+20 outcome that will, “strengthen the inclusion of equity goals as an integral part of sustainable development.” 

I was also glad to read, in the concept paper for this session, of your conviction “that poverty eradication and development require a new paradigm of sustainable development… because it is the ‘bottom billion’ who suffers most from a lack of sustainable development, as well as from social exclusion.” 

The ‘bottom billion’ is a useful and evocative phrase, and whenever we use it, let’s remember not only how many they are, but who they are. 

They are not simply the statistical category of “the poor.”  They are the many millions of girls and women who walk miles every day to find water for their families … they are 180 million stunted children starved of vital micronutrients … they are the millions of families who do not have access to basic sanitation facilities, making them all the more vulnerable to disease.  Those whose livelihoods and ways of life are most vulnerable to the ravages of global warming.

No one with concern for the rights and plight of the bottom billion could disagree with the urgent need for a new paradigm of sustainable development –  which the Secretary General has said should, “lay the foundations for dynamic economic growth, respect for the planet, and social equity.”

Because while everyone has a stake in sustainable growth, no one has a greater stake than children. 

If growth is not sustained … the next generation will not benefit from its fruits.  Worse, as the irreversible effects of climate change take hold, those least responsible stand to pay the highest price as glaciers melt … seas rise … lakes shrink … and coasts recede.  In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, climate change is expected to lead to an enormous increase in the number of malnourished children – as many as one million more children by 2030.

But children are not only in peril.  They are also a part of the solution.

We must do more than argue that children must reap the benefits of sustainable development – although that is, indeed, an important principle.  We must also show that equitable investment – in their health, in their education and protection – is not only right in principle but sound in practice. 

To paraphrase President Kennedy’s inaugural address – we must ask not only, as we do now, what growth will do for equity.  We must also ask what equity and investment in children will do for sustainable growth.

And evidence suggests that investing in the social sectors and in children equitably – especially in their health and their education – does indeed help break the intergenerational transmission of poverty … create more stable societies … and promote economic growth.

A recent IMF staff discussion note shows that as societies become more equitable, economic growth is more sustainable over time.  In fact, it found that a 10 percentile decrease in inequality increases the expected length of a growth spell by 50 per cent.
 
Investing – I repeat, investing – in people … in their health and in their education … is a vital part of making development sustainable.

Consider these returns on investment.

Just one extra year of schooling for girls can increase their future wages by between 10 to 20 per cent – wages which they, more than boys, reinvest back into their families, kick-starting a cycle of opportunity and prosperity.

Immunization is one of the most cost-effective childhood health interventions.   A recent study shows that if we scale up the use of five basic existing vaccines  and introduce a Malaria vaccine, we could, over the next 10 years, save some 6.4 million lives, and avert $6.2 billion in treatment costs, as well as avert $145 billion in productivity losses.

The Copenhagen Consensus, a group of leading development experts, found that vitamin A supplements yield a benefit:cost ratio as high as 100:1.  And the World Bank estimates that investing in nutrition can increase a country’s GDP by at least 2 to 3 per cent. 

In today’s uncertain economic climate, no government can afford to ignore such financial returns.  In fact, a society which short changes investments in the future capacity of its people – its health, its education, its environment, its social fabric – is a society which is sacrificing its long-term growth. 

And the benefits to society of investments in health and education – in greater stability and social cohesion … in stronger institutions and better governance – are critical for creating the conditions in which children survive and thrive … in which our planet can prosper … and in which economies burgeon in the long run.

Just as I know that this commitment to inclusive and sustainable growth is at the heart of the Club de Madrid’s work on Shared Societies so, too, is it at the heart of UNICEF’s institution-wide refocus on equity.  And I am happy for the opportunity briefly to share with you what inspired that refocus two years ago.

There is no doubt that, since 2000, progress towards the Millennium Development Goals has lifted millions of children out of poverty and given millions more a better life and greater opportunities.  Many nations are on track to reach the MDGs.  But those national averages can and do disguise the plight of the most marginalized children … millions of whom have been – and are being – left behind. 

Children living with disabilities … children from indigenous communities … those in urban slums and rural areas.  Girls.  In country after country, statistical successes are disguising moral failures. 

Across the developing world, compared to children in the richest quintile, the poorest children are twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday … nearly three times as likely to be underweight … twice as likely to be stunted … and less likely to attend primary school.
 
That is just wrong.

One possible reason for this gap is, in part, the long-standing belief among development professionals that while it would be preferable in principle to focus on the hardest to reach, it is neither practical nor cost effective. 

In recent years, though, innovations have begun to revolutionize development practices.  Today, new vaccines … SMS technology … and other interventions enable us to reach the hardest-to-reach more quickly and inexpensively than ever before.

So in 2010, UNICEF undertook an extensive modeling exercise to test the cost-effectiveness of an equity-focused strategy to reduce under-five mortality.  Our study – Narrowing the Gaps – concluded surprisingly that that an equity-focused approach is actually more cost-effective than the current approach.  
 
In countries with the highest under-five mortality rates and the worst poverty, a $1 million pro-equity investment will save up to 60 per cent more children than a traditional $1 million investment.  
 
In short: a pro-equity strategy is not only right in principle; it is right in practice.

To that end, over the last two years, UNICEF has reviewed our programs through an equity lens, and is now working, with our partners, to reach still more of the children our efforts are missing.  The almost 20% of children still not covered by routine vaccination …  The 67 million children still out of primary school … The infants who die, unnecessarily, from the complications of preterm birth or from pneumonia and diarrhea, the other biggest – and highly treatable – killers of children.

Last week, the global community came together at a conference in Washington DC hosted by Ethiopia, India, and the United States, in collaboration with UNICEF and WHO, to reach those unreached children – by rallying again around the goal of child survival.

More than seven hundred representatives of civil society … faith-based organizations … the private sector … and some seventy governments reviewed significant new modeling, based on innovations in health and education, which shows not only that it is possible to achieve dramatic reductions in child mortality by 2035 – but also that it is feasible to greatly decrease that most outrageous of inequities: the huge gap in child mortality between the poorest and richest nations. 

Almost sixty governments, and many dozens of non-governmental organizations, signed a pledge on the spot to redouble efforts to achieve that goal, through measurable benchmarks.  We expect many more to follow suit in the coming weeks and months. 
In doing so, they will renew the promise the world made in 1990 at the World Summit for Children … in MDGs 4 and 5 … and ten years ago in the General Assembly Resolution on a World Fit for Children.

The goal of 2035 represents a giant step towards what must be our ultimate ambition – a world in which no child dies of preventable causes, of treatable disease.

And with a view to increasing our efficiency and achieving ever better results, UNICEF has developed a new tool to monitor our progress and accelerate those results. 

Because results are all that matter … if children’s rights are to be realized.

If we can increase vaccinations so that fewer children die of diseases we know how to prevent … if we can provide more micronutrients so that young brains and young bodies grow strong … if we can give more boys and girls a quality education, we will give children everywhere – this generation and the next – the start in life they deserve.   And make sustainable the future of which they dream. 

 That is their right … our responsibility … and, I hope, one legacy of Rio+ 20.

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