On International Day of Families

Making the case for equity and social protection for all families

By Marie-Pierre Poirier and Mohamed Fall
Esther, centre, a mother of four children, prepares maize to feed her children in Kibande in Northern Burundi.
15 May 2021

Dakar and Nairobi – This year, as our teams across Africa recognize the International Day of Families, it is within the context of the most extensive crisis for children and their families for a generation.

COVID-19 has hit all countries hard. But the pandemic has exacerbated a series of compounding challenges for African families, and as always, they are hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. From the increasing impacts of climate change that are reducing food production, to reoccurring conflicts displacing hundreds of thousands, the combination of shocks saw almost 100 million people experiencing crisis levels of food insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2020. Add to that the biggest decline in economic indicators ever recorded, the loss of tens of millions of jobs over the span of a year, and reduced access to basic services – and it becomes evident that it is harder than ever for parents and caregivers to provide for their children.

Governments need practical support to meet the vast and growing financing gaps, which begins with more comprehensive debt relief along with grants, concessional and innovative finance. 

For now, in sub-Saharan Africa, the virus itself seems to be claiming less lives compared to what was initially feared. However, the impacts of COVID-19, from economic downturns and lack of access to life-saving services, have wreaked havoc on families and children in this region. Now is the time for the world to stand in solidarity and provide equitable access to essential services and opportunities for all children and their families.

Children here, like anywhere in the world, are at the heart of the families we celebrate today, and it is their ingenuity, creativity, and sheer determination that we especially want to recognize. But we cannot do so without addressing the glaring inequities that impact children’s lives at every level – from the digital divide, to income gaps, and the lack of the very basic safety nets that have become so crucial in the COVID era. 

International Day of Families

Now is the time for the world to stand in solidarity and provide equitable access to essential services and opportunities for all children and their families. 

What is needed now from wealthier nations is more support and transformative innovations for the rapid expansion of social protection, to ensure that we navigate this storm, that we save lives, and avoid further rolling back of hard-earned development gains.  Given that 1 in 4 of the world’s people will live in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050, this is in all our interests, and we know that none of us are safe from this pandemic until all of us are safe.

This year’s theme for the internationally marked day is about addressing the impact of new technology on the well-being of families — and here too we see major inequities that impact African children the most, as well as huge opportunity to accelerate change for families. 

Africa embraces technology. Vibrant pockets of tech start-ups cross the continent from Nairobi’s ‘Silicon Savanna’ to Nigeria’s ‘Yabacon Valley’. And COVID has helped highlight this potential – from deliveries of vaccines in hard-to-reach areas of Malawi and Ghana, to innovative new ways of identifying recipients of cash transfer programmes in Togo.

But frankly, beyond these pockets of innovation potential, most sub-Saharan African families still struggle to get even the most basic digital access for their children, with internet access rates in the order of 10 per cent, compared to their wealthy nation peers at up to 85 per cent. As a result, when schools closed across the continent, learning completely stopped for millions of children in the region who had no access to online learning.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, the COVID-induced economic crisis has pushed an additional 50 million people into extreme poverty – in other words, those living on less than $1.90 a day. These are the families that need our collective support through tried and tested mechanisms such as social protection.

In advanced economies, families have received much needed stimulus to cover the bare necessities, while in the Sub-Saharan African region, governments struggled to provide even a small fraction of this temporary support to families. We must start to reduce this glaring inequity – all families deserve access to social protection, wherever on the globe they live. Providing safety nets to African families is a small commitment by international standards, but one that can deliver enormous gains – from lifting children out of the absolute danger zone of malnutrition, to getting them back to learning, and enabling them to stay safe from early marriage.

But most governments simply don’t have the resources available domestically. They need practical support to meet the vast and growing financing gaps, which begins with more comprehensive debt relief along with grants, concessional and innovative finance.

As we mark this international day, let’s make sure that all families have access to both technology and social protection that have enabled global families to weather life's big shocks. Through smart debt relief and strong commitments of external support, we not only can – but must - ensure that every family around the world can move beyond this pandemic. 

Written by Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa, and Mohamed Fall, UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa.