Alberto Minujin, Executive Director, elaborates on key concepts of equality and equity embraced by Equity for Children in order to effectively impact children’s lives and fight against ongoing perpetual cycles of poverty. He elaborates that eliminating child poverty and achieving more equitable societies is not only an aspiration, but in fact, it is an achievable goal.
Interview conducted in August 2013 || New York, NY
Q: What are the main components of equity?
A: Equity is a measure of the extent to which a society is achieving social justice. That is to say societies are more equitable if they ensure a fair distribution of power, economic possibilities, and social achievement. We can say that equity measures disparities on that distribution. In that sense, inequity is the measure of unfair inequalities. Thus, equity and equality are two very different, but closely linked, concepts.
Equality is a more general and ethical principle. In fact, we are all equal in front of the law and therefore equal on rights, but we may also experience unequal conditions that are not necessarily unfair. This can be the case because of biological differences, or as a result of other causes that may imply differences but not inequity. Equity then is the measure of unfairness. In the case of the right to education, for example, inequity could be the measure of how many children are not finishing primary or secondary school and who are those children. Equity then is related to the extent to which the distribution of wealth, goods and services are considered fair in society.
Q: What has changed in past years with the equity focus?
A: In the 90s the debate focused around the issue of whether policy had to focus on the poor exclusively, or whether it also had a distribution component. Some argued that social policy must be narrow to target poor and excluded groups, while the market took care of the distribution. The 90s made it evident that this never happened. What has changed is that it is now very clear that the market cannot change the makeup of societies in ways that make them more equitable. The market cannot guarantee fairness. You need strong public policy to control situations and improve equity and inequality. I think that in this century more and more politicians, policy makers, and international organizations have made equity a priority. They have realized that equity is central to not only achieving goals and objectives such as the MDGs, but also an imperative as we look to provide societies that are more sustainable and a world that is fairer for everyone. This is especially important for children. Children are one of the most affected by poverty and one of the most vulnerable groups. That is why we insist that poverty reduction must start with children. It must also start with the recognition that poverty is multi-dimensional, and many dimensions that need to be measured have to do with the state of equity in the society.
When we talk about equity with respect to children and adolescents, we are talking about equal opportunity and similar outcomes. It is not just about access to services; it is necessary to have adequate conditions in the community, the family, and society in order to make the most of the facilities and services that are made available. So it is not just a matter of having access to primary or secondary education. Children and adolescents need to have the background, family support, friendly environment and the many other conditions necessary to have good outcomes. It is not automatic.
Q: How do you see the link between disaggregating research and how it plays out?
A: Today there is much more information disaggregated—by gender, for example, which is one of the main sources of discriminations. But we also see disaggregated information geographically, where the difference between one location and another can be strong. Gender, ethnicity, religion, income quintiles and social groups are usually overlapping determinants of poverty and inequity that require disaggregated information to produce policies and programs that address the needs of different groups. Observations that before were rare and difficult to examine due to the lack of information are now much more common as a result of disaggregation. We have more and more evidence and we are pushing for policies based on this evidence. Thus we face a new challenge now as more evidence provides us with more information about matters that demand our attention.
Q: Do you see this equity focus as a way to reach universality?
A: I think it is a way to do that. If you have polices that are only focused on certain groups it is unlikely that you will achieve universality. The target policies need to be linked to the idea of universality. They should be part of a more general approach to achieve universal rights and social inclusion.
Q: Do you see more quality research on more equal societies?
A: In the last few years there are more people researching and there is a big debate on the matter. With globalization it is true that the situation is improving in certain countries but inequity is also growing. There is a big debate on this, but I think the distance between countries and inequity within countries is growing as evidenced by many indicators.
Q: Do you think equity can be achieved?
A: At Equity for Children (EFC), we think that eliminating child poverty and achieving more equitable societies is not only an aspiration; it is an achievable goal. We have the material resources and we have the technological revolution that can improve the lives of people—so we can do it. However, it is not easy because there is tension giving that it implies redistribution of wealth and power. This is why it needs the mobilization of organizations and people to reach that goal. At EFC, we are working in this direction, pushing for these changes. They are not automatic. You need to have extensive agreements and political will to make a more equitable world a reality. EFC is looking to move the debate toward that recognition and in that direction.
Q: Do you think it is more a matter of pressing for rights as opposed to development programming?
A: Development in both areas are necessary; best practices and good programs, and also you need a strong movement of poor and middle class people, in particular adolescents and young people, for the realization of their rights. If we continue with the present pattern of accumulation and the concentration of wealth in the richest corporations and a very small number of people, it will be difficult to achieve the goal of reducing multi-dimensional poverty. In fact, more and more, poverty is an issue in middle-income countries and urban areas. The contradiction is more evident in these middle-income countries because you have very rich people alongside an impoverished middle class, and an even poorer lower class. And that is why when you visit any big urban city, you see clearly that sort of contrasted situation: areas of high standard of leaving surrounded by huge slums. EFC recently organized an international seminar on intra-urban inequalities and its impact on children and adolescents in Latin America. The objective was to discuss the situation and policies that can be implemented to reduce intra-urban disparities. One of the major takeaways from the seminar was that our challenge is not just one of good programs, but one of political and economic power. That is complicated to solve. I don’t have the answer on how to do that but part of what EFC is doing is initiating that dialogue.
Q: How is Equity for Children collaborating on these issues?
A: EFC is moving to be part of the movement to have a better and more egalitarian world. We have made this a priority not just because we realize that people will lead happier lives in a world that is more just. It is a priority because for us it is also a matter of sustainable development. The world cannot continue maintaining the present trend. We face serious environmental issues, pollution, clime change, a widening gap between rich and poor, stubbornly high infant and under five mortality, lack of opportunities and power, discrimination and many other problems that need to be resolved. EFC sees one big opportunity for making big changes in society with children and adolescents. We need to focus on them not only because they suffer more, but also because we think children have agency and a potential for producing a big change in the world. So EFC is promoting ideas, networking, and contributing to the debate on child poverty, equity, public policy and rights in the context of social justice.
We are working with different partners—with organizations like the ones we contacted for this project—like UNICEF, Save the Children, and also some research groups like Young Lives, Comparative Research on Poverty (CROP), International Center for Research and Policy on Childhood (CIESPI) and other universities and researchers around the world. We also have a branch in Latin America that is working diligently on child poverty in the different countries of the region. We are promoting dialogues and debates, trying to exchange ideas and experiences between NGOs, universities, and international organizations. In these collaborations we strive to disseminate as much information as possible and work to put matters of equity in the public agenda. That is our main goal, to promote a policy agenda that is fair for children.
Alberto Minujin is a professor at the Graduate Program in International Affairs at the New School, with a special focus on topics related to social policy and children’s rights. He serves as the Executive Director of Equity for Children, as well as the International Summer Field Program (IFP) in Buenos Aires, Argentina and an is active member of the Latin American Observatory (OLA). Since 2003, Prof. Minujin has coordinated several international conferences co-sponsored by GPIA and UNICEF. He is also a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, New York, researching topics of children, human rights, poverty, and monitoring, evaluation and social research methods.
In 2010, Minujin was awarded the Bicentennial Medal from the Provincia de Buenos Aires of Argentina on the occasion of Argentina’s 200th anniversary and in recognition of his contributions to the fields of child rights and social policy.