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UNICEF Regional Director focuses on 'Children's Rights at the Local Political Level' in keynote speech at the International 'Child in the City' conference in Zagreb

ZAGREB, Croatia, 26 September 2012 - Keynote Speech - Child in the City Conference - 'Children's Rights at the Local Political Level'

Photo: UNICEF Croatia

This is the keynote speech delivered by the UNICEF Regional Director for Central and Eastern Europe & the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEECIS), Ms. Marie-Pierre Poirier, in Zagreb on September 26, 2012.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

I am honoured to be here participating in the 6th conference ‘Child in the City’. I congratulate the organizers, the European Network of Child Friendly Cities, the Foundation, Child in the City, and the City of Zagreb – A Child Friendly City - for this wonderful conference.

The child friendly cities initiative is now sixteen years old. From a small beginning with the founding partners, UNICEF, UN-HABITAT, the Italian Ministries of Foreign Affairs and the Environment, the Italian National Committee for UNICEF and the Instituto degli Innocenti, we have come a long way.

Today the initiative has more to offer than ever before - providing us not only with a framework for putting children at the centre of the urban agenda, in particular at the community level, but also establishing national and global networks to share knowledge in an horizontal way.

The European Network of Child Friendly Cities, with its 17 national networks and scores of municipal networks, has been a particular inspiration and I know that this conference will give us the opportunity to learn from many rich experiences.

I am also honoured to be here in Croatia, where we have a very active initiative – the Croatian Towns and Districts Friends of Children –devoted to the realization of children’s rights. Thanks to its work, 90 towns and districts are committed to child rights and 34 towns have been recognized as “Town or District Friend of Children”. Congratulations on your efforts.

“Promoting the universal realization of children's rights at the local political level”, one of the four main themes of this conference, is something very close to my heart and UNICEF’s priorities.

If we look at what is happening around us today, we see shifts that are so profound that they will affect us for generations to come. Power is shifting east from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions with the rise of emerging economies – the BRICS. Technology is ever more present in our daily lives, with mobile phones which link us and give us access to information on anything, at anytime, anywhere. And despite the economic gloom, more countries have more wealth than ever before in history. Today using World Bank data, 108 countries are now middle income.

Much of this change has a focus, no matter where you look: the city.

Today, for the first time in history, half of the world’s people – including more than one billion children – live in cities and towns. In Europe nearly three quarters of us live in cities.

Within this decade, the majority of the world’s children will grow up in urban areas. And we can expect this growth to continue, probably throughout the century.

This was the reason for this year’s focus of UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children Report - Children in an Urban World

The report found that in many regions, infrastructure and services are not keeping pace with urban growth – and the impact on the poorest children in cities is a matter of grave concern. Indeed this rapid urbanization is increasing inequalities and creating new challenges.

Hundreds of millions of urban children – those growing up in slums and shantytowns – are among the most disadvantaged in the world, deprived of the essential services that can mean the difference between life and death … between opportunity and despair. Europe may not have the extremes of poverty we see in cities in the developing world but the challenges have not gone away. One child in five in the European Union (EU-27) is living in poverty – that is over 100 million children and young people - and most live in cities.

The economic crisis is further exacerbating poverty rates, with a pronounced impact on children and young people, due to cuts in income support and child benefits, to cuts in services directly affecting them (e.g. health and education), to increasing unemployment and insecurity at work (this affects young people and their parents) and to increasing demands on social protection services. In Greece and Spain, 20% or one in five of the general population, are unemployed including a staggering half of all young people. When economies are squeezed we must make sure that children are protected and not the first to suffer. We must join together to advocate that children are not paying the price of the crisis and that budgets related to social services for children are not cutback. Article 4 of the CRC states that States Parties must realise the economic and social rights of children to “the maximum extent of available resources,” laying the foundations for the long-term realization of child rights.

A World Bank report issued in 2010 (1) advocated that “policymakers should treat expenditure on children and youth as a public investment that generates returns to society through higher economic growth, reduced social costs, and increased quality of life for all. Given the cumulative nature of human development, under investments in children and youth are difficult to reverse later in life, and the price for society is high.”  

Our colleagues at the Innocenti Research Centre state in their Report Card 10 this year on Child Poverty in the richest countries, that failure to protect children from poverty is one of the most costly mistakes a society can make.

Therefore societies must make a commitment to protect children from poverty in good times and in bad. A society that fails to maintain that commitment, even in difficult economic times, is a society that is failing its most vulnerable citizens and storing up intractable social and economic problems for the years immediately ahead.

In other words, it is more effective to invest early in life than to repair later, when poorly educated children turn into unskilled, unemployed, or unhealthy adults.

In Europe a number of children are at high risk of severe or extreme poverty, including children with disabilities, children from ethnic minorities (especially Roma), young asylum seekers and immigrants. I point to the slums that many minorities live in, including the 4.5 million Roma throughout Europe. In one EU city I know of 50,000 people who live in a square kilometer with little or no services for children or parents.

  The UNICEF State of the World’s Children report shows that we need to focus greater investment in community-based action – supporting the efforts of people living in cities, in particular in poor areas, to improve their own lives. National inclusive public policies are essential but in themselves they are not sufficient to translate the norm into realities on the ground. Families and their children do not live at the ‘national’ level, they live in communities. Local political leaders have a major role to play and an important accountability to turn national normative frameworks into quality services that are accessible to all.

Communities, people themselves best understand their own challenges. But they are all too often excluded from the planning process. That is not only an injustice and a violation of their civil and political rights as citizens. It is a missed opportunity. Communities can act as grassroots laboratories for innovative solutions, not only to their own pressing problems, but for those in other poor, urban communities.

Such innovation is a key to meeting the challenges of urbanization. Let me share a bit of my own experience. In Brazil, my last post, UNICEF has been working with small local municipalities to promote child wellbeing through local cultural, political and administrative channels. As an incentive we created the Municipal Seal of Approval to recognize and reward success. It is awarded to municipalities which make the most progress towards reducing infant mortality rates, improving pre-natal care, creating greater access to quality education and raising the quality of children’s lives in other ways.

This is a good example of the Child Friendly Initiatives and today it has spread to over 1000 municipalities in Brazil and to other countries.

Concrete results include that municipalities that have earned the seal of approval have cut infant and neonatal mortality twice as much as other ‘non seal’ municipalities and have increased access to early childhood education by nearly 15%.

The State of the World’s Children report also strongly advocated for youth participation. We see it here.

In Croatia, it is through the Children’s Councils set up within the framework of Child Friendly Cities and Municipalities Initiative that the first Children’s alternative report on the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child has emerged. This platform has enabled children and young people not only to express their views, but to influence the decisions and recommendations of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

On that note I welcome the strong presence of young reporters from Croatia and neighbouring Slovenia to cover this Child in the City conference. In this rapidly transforming world where change is the only constant, the neighbourhood along with its networks and social interactions offers a foundation for a child to grow up in a positive and supportive way.

  We can only meet the challenges of urbanization if we all work together – at every level of government, from local to national, across sectors, parents and young people side by side. Our experience at UNICEF is that the evidence shows that where there is political support at the local level and community engagement on behalf of children, in education, or health or importantly play, significant progress can be made to realize the rights of children in an inclusive, sustainable and creative manner. I trust that this conference will be an opportunity to share many rich examples of this.

I wish us all exciting days of learning from each other.

Thank You.

Photo: Office of the President of the Republic of Croatia

UNICEF Regional Director Marie-Pierre Poirier today met with the President of Croatia, Ivo Josipovic to discuss issues faced by most vulnerable boys and girls in Croatia and the world.



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