Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – What’s next?

On November 5th 2014, Equity for Children hosted the U.S. launch of the latest findings from Young Lives, the University of Oxford program’s longitudinal study of childhood poverty followed by a vivid panel discussion with top speakers from UNICEF and UNDP and 60 invited students, researchers and practitioners from NGOs and international organizations.

The unique evidence, presented by Young Lives deputy Executive Director Ginny Morrow and senior policy researcher Paul Dornan on the fourth round of results, brought to light major lessons learned about policy and programming in the years to come:

  •     □  The early phase of life constitutes the central foundation for later learning
  •     □ Tackling household poverty supports education
  •     □  A greater focus on school effectiveness enhances learning and leads to later successes
  •     □ There is programming potential for schools as other purposes such as feeding programs
  •    □  Addressing gender disadvantages requires policies targeted directly at children and engaging with wider societal structures that shape  household decision-making


Young Lives is an international study of childhood poverty involving 12,000 children from four countries over 15 years.  It is led by a team in the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford in association with research and policy partners in the four study countries: Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam.  Two age cohorts were followed in each country, including 2,000 children born in 2000-2001 and 1,000 children born in 1994-1995.  The study used a pro-poor sample from 20 sites in each country, reflecting country diversity (rural-urban, diverse livelihoods, ethnicity).  Furthermore, Young Lives worked with local organizations to collect the data and collaborated with the UNICEF Office of Research in Florence, Italy. This year, Young Lives completes the data gathering in Andra Pradesh, India

Ginny Morrow reflected on the progress made 25 years after the adoption of the Convention of the Rights of the Child through a holistic approach to child development, particularly in terms of child survival and school enrollment.  In general, the economies of all four study countries grew rapidly in the first decade of the 21st century, with broad infrastructural improvements and better access to services.  However, widespread inequities still affect the poorest children today. According to the research findings, the least poor young people are now staying longer in education.  These are also typically the youths whose parents have the highest completed education.  Poorer young women and those living in rural areas were more likely to marry and give birth, thereby curtailing their education. The study further highlighted major gender differences in three out of four countries by the age of 19.  Key questions raised for policy included the need to examine why such large differences exist and what approaches might improve opportunities for children to escape poverty.

Although a focus on education is life changing, inequities persist in education among the poorer children, who also frequently suffer from malnutrition.  While improved enrollment is a great success it does not always lead to greater learning.  According to the study, households have a strong impact on the ability of children to learn and to be socially mobile.  Furthermore, high rates of chronic under-nutrition lead to stunting, which is related to children’s ability to learn later in life.  This issue particularly affects the poorest children.  There was a slight reduction of stunting rates between 2006 and 2013 but the gain is actually from among children who had the lowest risk of being stunted.

In terms of gender inequities the four countries studied show different pictures.  In Andra Pradesh, India, there is consistent evidence of growing gender disadvantage in favor of boys.  In Ethiopia, by the age of 19 more young women are in school than young men.  Economic and institutional pressures force choices for some children and youths to leave school.

Although cognitive gaps exist before children enter school, the ways in which these gaps widen varies with the impact of the school system.  This has policy implications.  Vietnam, for example, is a high performer, as school-related policies have had a more equalizing impact.  Andhra Pradesh, India, is a low performer and policies about schooling have served to widen the gaps between children.

Paul Dornan emphasized that at the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, actions should be based on mapping vulnerabilities that reflect these complexities.  The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the data revolution have the potential to increase the profile of children and their needs.

Panel discussion

Question 1: What do you think matters most for delivering the chance of a good life to children living in poverty, given the Young Lives research findings?

For Nick Alipui, UNICEF, it is critical to commit policy development to reaching the poorest and most disadvantaged first, rather than waiting for a trickle down effect.  This is both complex, due to the multi-dimensional aspects of each country’s situation, and simple.  There should be equalizing policies and affirmative action type interventions to accelerate the policies’ effects. It is critical to realize that early childhood development starts with the mother, before the child is born.  Empowerment strategies should stop looking at poor women and households as powerless victims and empower these actors instead.  Mr. Alipui further prioritized cross sectoral cooperation to address the needs of the most disadvantaged children in a holistic way.

For Shantanu Mukherjee, UNDP, working on the MDGs gives license to look at a whole host of issues.  There is an increasing degree of interconnectedness between all development issues. Continuing to work as we have always done is not necessarily the best way of doing things.  For example, forces that keep teachers away from school are far more complex than what the education sector can address. When we move to the high hanging fruits as we are doing now, there is a need to address quality, a need to match supply and demand and a need to improve complementarity.  In order to reach all, we must act differently and think differently about how we conduct research and how we measure progress.

Question 2: What do you think are the major challenges to improve children’s rights and wellbeing in today’s complex world?

For Mukherjee, we are not in a gloom and doom situation. We are faced with issues on which we have made some progress but not nearly enough.  The first challenge is national ownership and political leadership.  Incentives vary across countries.  In Pakistan, the Prime Minister made a commitment to deliver four percent of GDP to education.  In Laos, the government wants to escape Lesser Developed Country status.  In both countries there are commitments from the government but the challenge is to translate this commitment into practice.  Intentions are not good enough.

The second challenge is to find ways to foster collaboration across sectors.  In Benin there is a need to expand access to drinking water.  With the water utility owned by the public health engineering department, there is no incentive for the department to address a young girl’s need to reduce her time fetching water so she can attend school.  The motivation for working jointly across sectors does not exist.

For Nick Alipui, major challenges are capacity and resources.  The public sector feels tremendous pressure on service delivery.  Most countries in the developing world are grappling with chronic shortages of staff, capacity and resources.  This fragmentation makes it difficult to coordinate policy and action.  Furthermore, there is a critical need for policy coherence at the planning and strategic level.  If early childhood care and development are a challenge, the orchestration of national policy should be accomplished at the level of the presidency or at a level that has convening power over all sectors.

Another challenge is the interconnectedness of programmatic problems.  Over the last 10 to15 years, children in some developing countries received repeated doses of polio vaccine. This oral vaccine required a gut reaction, but the quality of water and sanitation in the countries was so low that the vaccine was never activated until the water and sanitation teams were brought in to join the vaccine team.  Our level of ambition today requires that we move into new, multi-sectoral partnerships.  Nutrition support systems to counter stunting require, and are connected to, water and sanitation.

Open Discussion

During the Q&A session with presenters and panelists, a question was asked about available policy choices in today’s world of growing conflict and instability.  In response, the panelists highlighted the need for more longitudinal studies in conflict states.  In large multi-ethnic states, for example, eruptions are frequent and common. We need to be flexible and to engage the capacity of different actors.  Fragility and development are closely connected and the antidote to one can also be the antidote to the other.  Until the international community understands how to tackle instability, unrest and extremism, it will be difficult, for example, to develop efficient vaccines.  These situations provide a strong incentive to complete mapping for those living in unstable areas, to give out identity documentation and to track how each household is faring.

The question was raised how poverty and inequality are defined in the Young Lives study. To define poverty, Young Lives researchers looked at wealth and consumption in each country.  An audience member asked how Young Lives researchers expected to reach children who are not registered by the state.  Mr. Dornan responded that in terms of early childhood development, for example, acquiring data across countries differed and Peru offered the greatest reach.  The least access to data was in Ethiopia, where the system is almost entirely private.

Concluding remarks by Michael Cohen, Director of the Graduate Program in International Affairs at The New School, emphasized the ways in which the Young Lives study demonstrates the complexity of cumulative causation: when outcomes are not linked to individual inputs. Cumulative causation makes it difficult to say which intervention is more effective than another.  There is a lack of discussion in general on the question of effectiveness of various kinds of interventions.  Another issue raised by the study is the issue of evaluations in the long term, say 30 years out, for they are rarely undertaken.  We need longitudinal studies but we also need longterm studies in order to see how efficient programs are, to measure their impact and to look at outcomes.

Please  click here to view  the presentation.

Please click here to watch the entire panel discussion.

Please click here to view the Young Lives report on the preliminary findings.


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