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Global shock – the impact on west and central African children

Dakar, Senegal, 6 November 2009 - The cumulative effects of the global financial and food shocks on West Africa’s children have been pieced together at a series of meetings of experts convened by UNICEF.

The region has some of the most vulnerable children in the world and under 5 child mortality remains at a stubborn two out of every ten births.

There is scant real-time evidence of the impact of the crisis on communities in the region, but lessons from past events, survey results and indications from specially commissioned economic modeling have been given at a four day workshop.

It is feared that improvements made since 1990 could be reversed and it is clear that many more children are getting less nutritious food and fewer are going to school.

The discussion involved partners from several west and central African countries as well as academics from think-tanks in Europe, Canada and the region. The intention was to highlight social protection options such as social benefits and ways of supporting education efforts to ensure that children do not suffer a lifetime disadvantage because of the cumulative shocks. 

Children bear the brunt of the crisis
Even in Ghana, a country with relatively good performances, an estimated 235,000 children have slipped into poverty due to the crisis, reversing the positive trend observed in recent years.

Hunger is on the increase, and 265 million of the world’s 1.02 billion people undernourished are in Africa in 2009 – a steep increase compared to 2004-2006. Nutritional surveys conducted in the Central African Republic, Congo, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone reveal a worrying deterioration in the nutritional status of children, especially in urban areas.

Malnourished children are more vulnerable to diseases. “With less purchasing power, households revert to less nutrient rich foods” said UNICEF Nutrition Regional Adviser, Felicité Tchibindat.

Linkages between malnutrition and child mortality mean that the progress in reducing child deaths may be compromised. And, in the long term, it means that their potential, both personal and economic, is jeopardized.

These trends may be compounded by pressure on social budgets. Education public spending is declining in Cameroon, Congo and Senegal in 2009 compared to 2008. “West and central Africa is home to about 25 million out-of-school children and on average 40% of the children work”, warned Dina Craissati, Education senior advisor at UNICEF Headquarters.

“Pressure on budgets both for schools and for households means that more children will drop out or won’t go to school in the first place. It also means more children will work”.

Learning to fly in a reduced fiscal space
In this context, UNICEF and public policy experts underlined the need for a sustained investment to protect the returns of past and ongoing social interventions, and some made the case for even more spending.

“Studies undertaken in Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Ghana have shown that the monetary poverty and food deprivations have increased up to 10 percentage points and that deprivations in terms of schooling and access to health services have increased by up to one percentage points” said John Cockburn, Economics Researcher at the University of Laval (Canada).

And he went on to add, ‘The study in Burkina Faso has shown that a policy response consisting of cash transfers could absorb the impact of the crisis on child poverty”.

Another policy option discussed was removing user fees that act as barriers to the access of the poorest to health care. Studies have shown that this measure, when coupled with actions to address other health costs such as travel and drugs costs, could prevent an estimated 233,000 deaths annually in 20 sub-Saharan countries. But case studies were highlighted to show that such changes needed to be introduced in a phased and coordinated way to avoid chaos within public health systems and ensure that all costs are still met.

Working towards free education for all is another valid policy option to ensure more children get access to basic schooling. “With a big part of the population living in poverty, it seems crucial that no child should be excluded from quality schooling because of financial reasons”, said Yumiko Yokozeki, UNICEF Regional Education Adviser. In Côte d’Ivoire, the 20% poorest children are 1,5 times more at risk of being out-of-school, than the children of those in the 20% richest.

But with reduced domestic revenues and credit crunch, what are the options to maintain critical efforts to address child deprivation of rights?

For Anthony Hodges, UNICEF Regional Social Policy Adviser, the agency needs to look at more efficient budgeting for children and to advocate for targeted social protection schemes that help overcoming barriers of access to basic social services by the poorest.

For more information, please contact: 
Martin Dawes, UNICEF West and Central Africa
Tel +221 338 69 58 42, Email: mdawes@unicef.org

 

 

 

 

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