The Progress of Nations: Convention of the Rights of the Child

Resources for rights: A UNICEF view

When countries ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, then child rights become state responsibilities. And for the first time in an international human rights treaty, those rights and responsibilities now include economic rights such as the right to health care, nutrition, and education.

Professor Dasgupta has argued that "a need becomes a right when a society becomes capable of meeting that need, and when the need itself becomes basic to that which is required for human flourishing or well-being." UNICEF categorically disagrees with this statement. As far as UNICEF is concerned, rights exist independently of needs and all rights are equally sacrosanct.

It will nonetheless require many billions of dollars in investment to translate these rights into realities for the nearly 200 million children of the developing world who are malnourished, the 30% who do not complete even four years of schooling, and the estimated 20% who do not have access to basic medical care.

Recognizing this, article 4 of the Convention obliges countries to "undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international cooperation."

This means that all ratifying countries agree to give these rights a first call on national resources. It also means that the more economically advanced nations, if they have ratified the Convention, may assist in the guaranteeing of these rights wherever resources are lacking.

But how is this to be monitored? How can a society - its citizens, its media, its non-governmental organizations, its politicians - know if such rights are being fulfilled to the maximum extent of available resources?

The practical basis of any such evaluation can only be international comparison; a country with a child malnutrition rate of 40%, for example, cannot claim that it is guaranteeing its children's right to nutrition to the maximum extent of its available resources if a country with far fewer resources has a much lower rate of child malnutrition.

The following pages synthesize such comparisons by setting out National Performance Gaps in health, nutrition, and primary education for almost all countries. In each case, a country's actual performance is compared with the average that could be expected for that country's level of economic development. The gap between the actual level and the average level is the country's National Performance Gap (NPG), and can of course be either positive or negative. Although subject to the limitations of the data, the NPG is the only internationally comparable long-term measure of the extent to which countries are fulfilling their responsibilities in these key areas of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Aid for the Convention

The phrase "within the framework of international cooperation", which commits more economically advanced nations to support children's rights wherever resources are lacking, presents a more difficult monitoring challenge.

For three decades, a fixed point in that framework has been the agreement that the industrialized nations should give at least 0.7% of their GNPs in official development assistance - a target accepted almost 30 years ago but currently met by only four countries.

But even if the target were to be reached, what role is there for aid when it is clear, as Professor Dasgupta and others have pointed out, that most developing countries could guarantee their own children's rights from their own resources if the task were to be given priority?

In practice, the answer is that aid could still have a very particular role to play. Many developing countries could only guarantee

their children's rights by bringing about a considerable reordering of

spending priorities - transferring resources, for example, from urban hospitals to rural clinics, from universities to primary schools, from subsidizing airlines to subsidizing staple foods, and from meeting the expectations of politically powerful élites to guaranteeing the rights of poor majorities.

In some countries, this change is unlikely to be made because the poor are not adequately represented in the decision-making process, and because the government does not have sufficient commitment to protecting their interests. In others, there is a significant degree of political commitment, but an even greater degree of political difficulty and opposition from vested interests.

Allocating aid for the specific purpose of guaranteeing children's rights, as a contribution to the framework of international cooperation referred to in the Convention, could therefore be an important source of practical support to those countries that have demonstrated a clear commitment to child rights. As a former chairperson of the donor nations' Development Assistance Committee has said: "Aid can help bend priorities towards the poor."

Specifically, aid-funded programmes could help countries to go to scale with the low-cost strategies now available for fulfilling children's rights to adequate nutrition, primary health care, and a basic education. In this way, aid could help to make it more politically practical for many developing countries to fulfil their obligations under the Convention.

Even then, aid is only one of the timbers in the framework of international cooperation; others, such as trade agreements and financial arrangements, bear a much greater weight of responsibility. Such matters may seem to have little to do with the rights of children, but the connection is tangible to UNICEF staff in dozens of developing countries who have witnessed the running down of schools and health centres, and the withdrawal of subsidies from basic essentials, as a result of debt and structural adjustment programmes.

The framework of international cooperation, which is still so largely determined by the industrialized nations, is in fact an important determinant of whether the rights of millions of children are met or not. And though it will no doubt seem preposterous to some that international financial arrangements should take account of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF's view is that this is not nearly so preposterous as watching millions of children pay with the loss of their rights to health, education, and their normal physical and mental growth, for the economic mismanagement of the world into which they were born.

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