NEW YORK, 8 July 2013 – “In February, to mark World Justice Day, the Secretary-General remarked that ‘we see far too many places where there are increasing opportunities for a few and only rising inequality for the many.’
These growing inequalities have many roots ― historical or geographic circumstance, long-held cultural prejudices and discrimination, ignorance of ― or inability to see ― a person’s true worth or talents.
But while the root causes are many, the damage is the same: women, children and families being left behind ― stepped over ― on the ladder of progress. Today, we live in a world where the top 20 per cent of the global population enjoys about 70 per cent of the total income and the bottom 20 per cent command a tiny 2 per cent. Two per cent.
We are hearing about some of these people today. An indigenous child denied nutrition out of prejudice and neglect. A girl forced to stay home to do chores while her brothers attend school. Families going without necessary vaccinations or health care for their children because they live in remote, hard-to-reach communities.
This is a global problem. A problem for all of us.
In this very city, we can find alarming disparities neighbourhood by neighbourhood, street by street. Some children attend excellent, safe schools, while others contend with underfunded, poor quality education ― even in the same neighbourhood.
Every child, in every society, has the right to a fair start in life.
To the degree that any society is blind to this issue of social justice, it also fails to see its future self-interest. Because these disparities create lasting divisions ― economic divisions and social divisions ― that are not easily overcome. They can reverberate through generations, at great cost to us all.
For today’s children are tomorrow’s parents – women and men who will struggle to provide a foundation of hope, health and opportunity for their own children. And they are tomorrow’s leaders ― citizens focused on shaping their own legacy for the future.
So a crucial question is this: will our children replicate in the arc of their lives the disparities that now divide – even tear – our societies?
The answer will be found, importantly, not only in the health, safety and education of today’s disadvantaged children. It will be found also in their views of the world and their societies.
Will an indigenous child in a remote community grow up with hope – or the ennervation of hopelessness – and pass it on to her son or daughter?
Will a child in a poor, urban slum believe that with hard work, he can succeed – or will he fall into the embrace of the violence that surrounds him – even inflicting it on his own children?
Will a girl without education be forced to marry young, bearing children who, in turn, begin life at a huge disadvantage?
Will they grow up believing that their society is inherently fair, that they can play by the rules and win a better life? Or will they substitute cynicism for citizenship?
Rather than viewing the principle of equity as a moral challenge to our current injustices, we should view it, instead, as an opportunity that benefits us all, an investment in economic growth, in stable societies, in resilient countries, and in real, measurable progress towards the MDGs and the goals that will follow them.
Seizing that opportunity requires investing in the health, safety and education of our people – especially those most in need.
Too often, we look at investments in the social sector as a desirable dividend of growth ― something we do in good economic times, when we can afford it ― rather than as a necessary driver of growth itself.
In fact, equity strategies spur long-term, sustainable economic growth. A 2011 IMF staff study found that, globally, a 10 per cent decrease in inequality increases the expected length of an economic growth period by 50 per cent.
Investing in the health and education of the disadvantaged pays economic dividends. For example, the World Bank estimates that improving basic nutrition can boost a poor country’s GDP by two to three per cent annually. When we invest in children’s futures by immunizing them, we invest in their ability to grow and learn, and we invest in their society’s future workforce, economy, and overall prosperity. Scaling up existing vaccines in 72 of the world’s poorest countries would not only save six million lives ― it would save billions of dollars in treatment costs and lost productivity over the next decade.
Similarly, studies show that each additional year of schooling can increase potential lifetime income by as much as 10 per cent ― and higher incomes mean more spending, more business and more overall economic growth for a society.
Equity approaches not only invigorate economic growth, they buttress more stable societies. Inequalities set in motion a downward spiral. Stagnant growth in poor areas means lower demand for goods and services ― which means fewer jobs to go around ― which means lower household income ― which means too many people struggling to survive. This not only perpetuates societal exclusion and cements divisions ― it sparks frustration, even violence.
An equity focus is also an investment in long-term resilience. In Ethiopia, the development of community-based health and nutrition programmes helped many more children survive the 2012 drought than would otherwise have been the case.
And pursuing equity also represents the best way to accelerate progress toward the MDGs. It gets us greater results, faster, from our limited development resources. Why? Because according to our studies, the greater results that come with a focus on the areas of greatest need outweigh the additional costs of reaching them. A focus on equity is more cost-effective than our current approach.
In any case, by definition, without addressing the plight of the most disadvantaged, we cannot eradicate extreme poverty. Nor can we succeed in such goals as -- eradicating polio; greatly reducing under-five mortality; or increasing access to healthcare, education, nutrition, or clean water and sanitation -- if we don’t concentrate on the areas where disease, illiteracy and deprivation of all kinds have their tightest grip.
Finally, we should never forget the role that environmental sustainability plays in reducing inequalities. Children are especially vulnerable to air pollution, toxic substances and the effects of climate change and disasters. Poor children are the most affected ― with the least means to cushion the blow.
The post-2015 agenda represents our best hope to reverse the downward spiral of inequality in so much of the world, and instead set in motion an upward spiral of inclusive, sustainable growth and human development that benefits us all.
But balancing the scales of the future in favour of equality, reaching the people being left behind and including them in progress, will require more resources and more focused efforts by all of us.
The High Level Panel’s recent report on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda was very encouraging in its clear emphases not only on the importance of eradicating poverty, but also addressing inequalities to “leave no one behind” as we debate, design and implement our targets for the coming years. We should heed its counsel.”
UNICEF works in more than 190 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments. For more information about UNICEF and its work visit: www.unicef.org