"Achieving Child Well-Being and Equity in South Asia"
Address by Regional Director - Daniel Toole
Dhaka, Nov. 1, 2009
I am pleased to open the UNICEF Regional Conference on Achieving Child Wellbeing and Equity in South Asia, and wish to thank all of you for being here despite heavy commitments.
Why do we need to focus—yet again—on poverty? It seems to be such a familiar subject. What is new about poverty in South Asia?
There are a number of well-known facts and figures on poverty in the region. According to the recently revised poverty measure of 1.25 USD/day at 2005 purchasing power parity (PPP) of the World Bank (WB), almost 600 million poor people live in extreme poverty in South Asia.
If a higher threshold were applied of 2.00 USD/day at 2005 PPP, then over one billion people would be considered as living in poverty in this region (WB estimates). This represents three-quarters of the total population.
The last decade has witnessed the most rapid pace of economic growth for Asia. Although the incidence of poverty has declined in most countries in the region, its pace has not kept up with economic growth. There is almost the same number of people living in poverty today as a decade ago. Poverty reduction has not kept pace with economic growth: this is the South Asia paradox.
In 2006, the total number of people consuming less than 2,100k calories of food a day, the bare minimum required for basic human activity, was estimated to be 300-320 million.
Income inequality has also been increasing dramatically in South Asia. The region currently ranks among the most unequal societies in Asia, with gini indices ranging from .31 to .47.
While you are familiar with these statistics, what is less known is the extent of child poverty in South Asia. This topic seems to have remained outside the focus of poverty debates in policy-maker and donor circles, except perhaps among academics. This is because it is inherently difficult to measure child poverty, and therefore poverty measures are often directed at households rather than at children themselves.
There are now some innovative approaches to measuring child poverty, which we will hear about today, including one on child deprivation that the University of Bristol has conceptualized. There are also innovative policy approaches to reducing child poverty, as the country experiences will amply demonstrate.
And why focus on child poverty in South Asia?
First, South Asia has a large child population, more than 600 million. According to the methodology used by Bristol University, it is estimated that over 300 million children in the region experience absolute poverty–which is defined as children suffering from deprivation of more than two of their basic needs. This suggests that almost half of all children in the region are living in highly vulnerable situations.
Second, the way poverty overall and child poverty are understood and measured has changed over time. There is more emphasis now on its multi-dimensional aspects. Both income and non-income poverty matter to how children develop. This is of particular importance for South Asia, a region that experiences high degrees of social exclusion and discrimination as well as conflict and natural disaster, which compound to further exacerbate the situations of children living in economic poverty.
Third, on the background of growing income inequality and social exclusion, significant gaps are recorded in children’s outcomes. There are groups that perform consistently low compared to the dominant groups and communities. Among these are the low-caste groups and historically marginalized occupational groups, ethnic, language and religious minorities and others.
Last but not least, South Asia has recorded slow progress on the Millennium Development Goals MDGs, which are–in their majority–about improving the situation of children.
Given the evidence on insufficient poverty reduction, growing income inequality and disparities, and slow MDGs progress, there is a need for innovative policy thinking in South Asia. There is a need for a focused policy dialogue on how to address child poverty in a way that is relevant to each individual country context, while also advancing the child poverty reduction agenda at the regional level.
Why is the topic of child poverty and disparities particularly relevant at this juncture in the history of South Asia?
As you all know, the world economy has been affected by a serious economic recession. While the formal economy in South Asia has been relatively resilient, there are many “side effects” in the informal economy. Newspapers are reporting on the contraction of businesses and on sectors with rising unemployment, increasing job insecurity, and an increasing ‘informalization’ of labor. The working poor are becoming even more insecure– with risks for the wellbeing of children in these families.
Child malnutrition levels in South Asia are the highest worldwide. Close to half of the region’s children suffer from malnutrition, and these levels are expected to increase further. Severe and acute malnutrition is growing in parts of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.
There are, however, some encouraging immediate responses to the crisis–many governments are engaged in fiscal stimulus packages, social protection measures, community and school feeding programs, etc. These are part of a larger poverty reduction agenda and the acknowledged role of governments in the region.
Outlook and outcome
Given the complex situation that we are facing in South Asia, what would we like to discuss over the next three days?
• How we could better measure child poverty in South Asia;
• What are cutting edge, synergistic policy approaches to addressing child poverty, at both the country and regional level;
• How to ensure that we have a pulse on how the poverty situation of children and families raising children changes over time, particularly in times of crisis, so that we could better tailor our responses; and
• How can we factor new challenges–such as climate change–or perennial challenges–such as growing civil tensions, conflict and political polarization–into our policy action?
We are not novices in this area. South Asian policy makers in government and UNICEF and her sister agencies, as well as academics and practitioners in the field, have been researching child poverty and deprivations through comprehensive analyses of data and policies. We are eager to hear their findings and in jointly discussing the policy implications at this forum.
I would like to note that progress on this global project has been slower than anticipated since the methodology is daunting and data are far patchier than we care to acknowledge. But despite complications on the methodology, we are pleased that we have embarked on this work since this research has raised the visibility of child poverty, spotlighting the faces of children in poverty analysis.
I hope that now, given the research and analysis, we can generate concrete action points to inform policy decisions at country and regional levels;
We hope that these might, inter alia, inform the upcoming SAARC Summit in 2010, and also our discussions at other more technical levels in the sectoral areas.
I wish all of us an engaging and productive dialogue over the next three days.