The Progress of Nations: The Industrial World

Commentary: Beyond basics

By Peter Adamson

Since 1980 UNICEF has attempted to monitor the progress of the world's children by publishing basic statistics on child well-being for each country. The core indicators used have included the under-five mortality rate, the percentage of children malnourished, the percentage of infants immunized, and the proportion of children reaching at least grade 5 of primary school.

These measures continue to be valuable and will continue to be used. But when the most obvious of needs have been met for the great majority of a nation's children, say 80% or 90%, then the emphasis must shift away from aggregate national figures and towards the kind of disaggregated monitoring that will help to identify those who have been excluded from the progress that has been made. In short, the task should be one of monitoring for disparity reduction.

Indicators and values

For the majority of children in societies that have moved beyond basics, new criteria by which to judge progress or regression are also necessary. In all such societies, new challenges and new concerns are evident. In some cases, the new concerns may in fact be long-standing problems that are simply assuming a higher profile as more common or basic problems are reduced in scale or severity. In other cases, they may be genuinely new problems arising out of, or associated with, the very processes of modernization and economic advance that have allowed 'old problems' to be overcome.

Either way, the process of monitoring remains important for informing policy and allocating available resources efficiently. Similarly, comparisons between nations remain useful - both to show what can be achieved through the pursuit of different policies and priorities, and to act as a spur to national pride and performance.

But in moving beyond basics, the monitoring of progress inevitably becomes more complex.

All indicators are statements of values, carrying with them implicit messages about what is considered good or bad, positive or negative, to be encouraged or discouraged. If the indicator used is the rate of child survival, or adequate nutrition, or access to primary health care, then the implied value judgements, although certainly present, pose few problems because they enjoy a high level of acceptance in all societies. In other words, there is a broad consensus on the meaning of progress and therefore on what it is that ought to be measured. But beyond such basics it is possible, indeed desirable, to imagine a much greater degree of diversity in concept and definition of progress, in underlying values, and therefore in choice of what it is that should be measured and by what means.

Photo: Mounting problems, both old and new, face children in the industrialized world.©

Furthermore, the selection of indicators is commonly influenced by available policy options or technologies, and here, too, complexity increases as the basics are left behind. The choice of national immunization levels as a leading indicator of progress for children, for example, is determined not only by a widely shared assumption that preventable disease is a bad thing but also by the availability of low-cost vaccines that are equally effective in almost all social and cultural settings. The same cannot be said for many of the possible indicators that might be selected in societies that have moved beyond such basics. A popular indicator like the percentage of children growing up in solo-parent families, for example, does not rest on the solid ground of broad consensus either in the value judgements that underlie it or in the policy options that might be available for acting on it.

New measures

It was to consider such issues that a group of 35 experts from various disciplines related to child well-being came together in Jerusalem earlier this year. Sponsored by several international organizations,* the meeting was the first in a series that will attempt "to develop more appropriate indicators that permit comparison of the condition and well-being of children in developed industrial societies."

At this initial four-day session, much time was spent in the discussion of conceptual frameworks, although many of the participants accepted that the minefield of cross-cultural value judgements had already been crossed by the 10 years of negotiations leading up to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child - drawn up by representatives of many nations and since ratified by almost all governments.

Even so, finding specific and measurable indicators that reflect the Convention's principles proved to be a task fraught with problems, both conceptual and practical. Not the least of those problems was the fact that suggestions for specific indicators were constantly bumping heads against the low ceiling of data availability. Even though economically advanced societies are generally well documented, their wealth of data is not always nationally representative or available in internationally comparable form. Even a relatively straightforward measure, such as the percentage of children who smoke cigarettes, can be confounded by the fact that different countries track the problem using different reference years, different age groups, and different definitions of smoking.

These are just some of the problems that confront the Jerusalem initiative as it works through two more sessions towards its final recommendations, due in 1998, on a set of internationally comparable indicators for monitoring the well-being of children in more economically advanced societies. To maintain the momentum of that search, and to widen participation in it, an Internet forum will soon be established.

In the meantime, these pages present data on several of the child well-being indicators that were considered in Jerusalem and for which reasonably up-to-date and internationally comparable statistics are already available. The indicators chosen - the proportion of children living below national poverty lines, the proportion of young people at each level of literacy, teenage fertility rates, teenage tobacco use, youth suicide rates, injury death rates, and the percentage of children growing up without fathers - are at this stage determined almost entirely by the availability of internationally compatible data.

Quality of life

In future, as the Jerusalem initiative proceeds, it should be possible to begin publishing cross-national comparisons of progress or regression for children based on other indicators, or on clustered sets of indicators relating to particular areas of concern, and to provide the kind of additional context and analysis that will make such data more useful. Those indicators might well include measures of children's mental well-being, risk behaviours, use of time, quality of family support, hope and confidence or fear and anxiety about the future, residential stability, quality of domestic and neighbourhood environments, the presence of violence or the threat of violence in children's lives, crime by and against young people, availability of leisure and recreational facilities, the quality of life of disabled or chronically ill children, and some measurement of social exclusion.

Such a list is itself indicative both of the complexity of the process - and of the need for it.

* The meeting was sponsored by: the National Council for the Child (Israel); the JDC/Brookdale Institute (Israel); the European Center for Social Welfare Policy and Research (Austria); the International Youth Foundation (United States); and the Institute for Families in Society, University of South Carolina.

A report by Progress of Nations editor Peter Adamson on the Jerusalem initiative - an attempt to draw up indicators for monitoring and comparing the well-being of children in more economically advanced societies. The initiative is sponsored by foundations and universities in the industrialized nations.

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