A call for early investments in children and quality social services
Suva, 26 September 2012 – Early investments in children and the quality of social services that support families can reap the greatest economic benefit. This was the message that government representatives took away from discussions in Viet Nam on reducing poverty and disparities for children in East Asia and Pacific.
Investing early in children’s nutrition, education, care and protection, will have long-life benefits on both their development and a country’s GDP growth. For example, reducing stunting through affordable micronutrient supplements can increase a child’s future earning potential by 20% over their lifetime.
“In the Pacific, we tend to believe that all children have enough to eat. But in the Solomon Islands 30% of children under-five are stunted, meaning that physically and mentally they will not fulfill their potential. This is very shocking for me,” said Ethel Sigimanu, Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Women, Youth and Children and Family Affairs. “The good news is that the solutions are affordable and feasible. Expanding preventative health measure for women and children should be a national development priority.”
Reducing neglect and abuse is another high-impact investment. Child maltreatment has immediate and life-long impacts on brain development, physical and mental health, school retention and academic achievement. In Vanuatu, the cost of responding to child abuse was calculated at US$4.25 million by year. In contrast, the cost of prevention is calculated at only $1.56 million.
In East Asia and Pacific average spending on child welfare systems is the lowest globally. Limited budgets and cultural beliefs that child welfare is solely the family’s responsibility contribute to underfunded social welfare systems. Fiji is one country that bucks this trend, with a small but child-focused social budget that provides social funds, child maintenance and scholarships for disadvantaged populations.
As Fiji’s Permanent Secretary for Social Welfare, Govind Sami, notes “Providing cash assistance to families in need is a start, but it is not enough. Many families will need the support of trained social workers to deal with issues of dependency or just to acquire the life skills needed to provide for children in their care. For Pacific Island Countries who are beginning to build their systems, investing in trained child welfare workers at the local level is a critical first step.”
The two-pronged strategy of providing direct assistance to families while investing in the quality of services is highly relevant to education and health. Cash transfers, such as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia Programme, which target the poorest, have improved child health and increased school attendance. Often the amount of money provided is small but just enough to provide families with a cushion against shocks and crises.
Greater investments in quality of education can help to keep children in school, and providing trained health workers at community-level increases the uptake of preventative services such as immunization and pre-natal care.
For Ministries of Finance, effective costing and planning by the social sector ministries is the key. “It is not enough to just ask for more funds,” states Filimone Waqabaca, Permanent Secretary of Fiji’s Ministry of Finance. “Instead Ministries should have clear plans and standards for schools, health centres and protection services, know what these will cost, and provide evidence of their impact on children. Once these are clear, financing can flow from there.”
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