Interview with Jessica Espey, Save the Children UK

Poverty and Inequality

In this interview Jessica Espey, Senior Research and Policy Advisor, talks to us about when the discussion of equity kicked off as well as what equity and equality mean for Save the Children. She further goes on to discuss the key messages used by Save the Children and the challenges the organization faces. 

Interview conducted in May 2013 || New York, NY

Q: When did the discussion of equity kick off?

A: In my personal opinion, I think it was probably 2009 that it really started to be used more commonly and I think that was partly because some of the big multi-lateral institutions like the World Bank but also UNICEF started to talk about equity and equitable approaches as a more practical way of addressing the question of equality and fair treatment and access to services. I think it was a decision that this narrows the frame of the conversation, so rather than having a broad dialogue on human rights and things that are sometimes considered to be politically contentious. It was a much more practical discussion about what does fair access to services and opportunities mean. And let’s have a conversation that is related to programming and practical approaches to development. I think that is probably why it emerged… that particular term… but I think it is rooted in the broader issue of the MDGs. When people were analyzing the limitations of the MDG framework and the fact that there was unequal progress between groups–income deciles, quintiles, and other groups– that is probably where the dialogue emerged from.

Q: What do the terms equity and equality mean for you and Save the Children?

A: I think that is such an interesting question and I’ve spent a lot of time working on this. My preferred terminology is ‘equality’, personally. I much prefer to talk about equality–that’s the broad goal, it’s the principle, it’s the right, and it definitely comes back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As I said before ‘equity’ has become more common because I think the term equity–and this is how Save the Children interprets it– is about fair treatment and access to services. It is the practical manifestation of trying to realize equality. It recognizes that not everyone can be equal because of physical differences, social differences, and so on and so forth. But equity is the way to try and realize the principle of equality in the most practical and pragmatic way. So I think predominantly equity relates to access to services and treatment, whereas equality is the overarching principle.

Q: What key messages does Save the Children use to convince policy makers to reach the most disadvantaged children?

A: I think the number one argument that we would always come back to as a child rights’ organization is always human rights — the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It’s a fundamental right and governing principle of society and something that all countries–the CRC is the most ratified convention in history– and so that is our first argument always. We aren’t naive. We know that rights don’t influence everyone, so we have tried different approaches and some of what we’ve done in our recent work is try to make a slightly more pragmatic and instrumental case that appeals to the more politically conservative types who might not be swayed by rights arguments. In that, we tried to highlight the fact that inequalities in early stages of life have very significant effects on physical and cognitive development, which has a range of subsequent effects, be it on economic growth, social cohesion, so on and so forth. Also the broader arguments around social cohesion and the fact that more equal societies tend to have better development outcomes.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for Save the Children to achieve more equality for children?

A: I would say there are probably three major challenges. The first is entrenched social and cultural norms and discrimination in all cultures in societies, which it takes generations to overcome. For example we are doing a big project in Ethiopia in changing attitudes in marriage and relationships within marriage. We started this project three years ago and we are just now starting to see tiny differences in behavior. It is really a very long-term objective. The second major barrier would be the political arguments, the resistance among some people in political circles to discuss equality, because a lot of people associate this dialogue with the question of income. They think about vertical inequalities only in common consumption and things like that, which is a very political discourse because it relates to re-distribution. I think the third thing is about the low-hanging fruit argument. If you look at the Millennium Development Goals, policy makers and politicians are eager to achieve things quickly in their short-term political cycles and if they are going to get the best results from targeting the easiest to reach and they get the highest numbers of people getting access services, they will do that. Often this is at the expense of those who are most vulnerable and hardest to reach.

Q: How did the equity lens change Save the Children’s work on the ground?

A: It has changed the work on the ground over the last 10 years but we have always been an organization focusing on children, particularly the most vulnerable children, so we have always had that approach in all of programs–in protection work, in education and so on. But in the last few years it has been more explicit, so there is a very conscious attempt now to make sure our health program is very concentrated on making sure we are supporting service in reaching the hardest to reach areas with groups. We do a lot more analysis on where the bottom decile population of children who aren’t accessing services are located. We are focusing a lot more on not just those groups that you would traditionally consider discriminated against and different cultures and countries but some of the hard and fast facts around the income differentials and the impact that has and doing a lot more mapping on where those people live so I think we are being more systematic in how we do our programming and take into account the emphasis on it.

Q: Does Save the Children address political and economical power dynamics?

A: Absolutely. That is where my work fits in which is more on the policy and research side than it is the programming side. What we are endeavoring to do in our team is first understand the metrics-who is where, who is the most marginalized group, why? And then to really take a step back and look at what are the structural drivers of this? That has led us into some really interesting work. Right now we are looking at three different types of inequality. We’ve been looking at global inequalities, within country inequalities, and between country inequalities. So we are taking a much bigger step back and doing more work with institutions like the World Bank and trying to engage at that level and thinking about the structural barriers for example in global inequality. So now, interestingly enough, I am developing a piece of work on illicit capital flight which has been quite a jump because now we are looking at things like if there are acute income differentials between countries, what are the major barriers to that and what is prohibiting LDC’s (lesser developed countries) development? And we have really gone from the very micro all the way up to the macro, so it’s been a big shift. That is just in my team at the moment. As I say, the work continues on this much more practical equity approach and all the work we’ve done in the past and the Born Equal report. We are really looking at the structural drivers of different types of vertical inequality and then also on horizontal inequality. So gender and age and so on and so forth. We continue to do a lot of work on socio-cultural norms, and how religion and culture and so on affect people’s ability to access services.

Q: Does this work mean that Save the Children will enter the debate on macro issues?

A: We are ultimately a child rights organization and that’s our lens. We are not going to do things that cannot be traced back to children, that ultimately doesn’t have very strong recommendations and implications for what we do… So, for example, with the illicit capital flight piece what we are trying to demonstrate is that expenditures, the revenue that you could generate from improving these kind of things, like tax havens, is ultimately about expenditures on children and how you could use that money more effectively on allocating to the most marginalized groups. We are definitely approaching everything from a child’s right lens and relating it back to our core business but we are trying to engage to a certain extent. I think Save the Children can play quite a unique role. Some of these debates are really quite political and abstract and they get confined to the likes of the World Bank and so on but actually if you put a human face on some of these conversations, as we know so well from Richard Jolly, and UNICEF’s amazing work on this, you can actually really make change with policy makers. That is my objective in this work.

Q: Are you taking Peter Townshend’s ideas on international taxation?

A: Absolutely. I was at ODI previously and we worked quite a lot on those ideas. At Save the Children we are currently focusing on the potential revenues that could be generated through better regulation of corporate tax reporting, through beneficial ownership regulation, a crack down on tax havens and greater financial transparency. In the past we’ve campaigned on an FTT, but have also done research on inequality and domestic tax structures, see for example our report Born Equal which has 7 country case studies examining vertical and horizontal inequality trends and direct / indirect policy measures.

Q: If you could promote more equity and equality for children what would you like organizations to do more of?

A: It’s really difficult… there are so many things we should be working on. I am very interested in the question about–this is my current interest and focus, ask me in 6 months and it might change– about the debate about inequality of opportunity and inequality of outcome. Whether if you just look at equality of opportunity, if you just make sure that everyone has equal access to services and there are the right laws and so forth, is that enough? I would argue that we need to look at more at inequality of outcomes, at intergenerational transmission of poverty, how parental circumstances impact on outcomes of the child. How income and consumption differentials impact on children and that is really what we were trying to start to do with “Born Equal” and I think that is really important. All too often people just focus on equality of opportunity and I think everyone, most people in the world today, agree with the philosophy of equality of opportunity but few are convinced that you need to look at the other side. I would like us all to be doing that.



She is also managing much of Save the Children’s research work on what comes after the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015. Current research projects include a study of policies to mitigate horizontal and vertical inequalities, and a study on social sector spending in IDA-recipient countries. Jessica was formerly a research officer at the Overseas Development Institute. Her research was predominantly focused on the visibility of gender and child rights within ODA, as well as national planning and budgeting processes. Jessica has published over 25 reports and journal articles. She has an MSc in Political Economy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and an MA Hons in History from the University of Oxford.


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