Cities for Children: In Colombia, Neighborhoods Can Mean Life or Death

More than one billion children live in cities around the world.  Africa and Asia are urbanizing at a break neck pace. By the middle of the century half of all African children will grow up in cities, as they already do in Latin America. Given these trends, the Sustainable Development Goals rightly put urbanization back on the list of global priorities. But how well does this ‘‘New Urban Agenda’, as outlined in the SDGs and on the table for Habitat III, address the needs and rights of excluded children in the world’s burgeoning cities?

Rough estimates put the number of children living in slums globally in the hundreds of millions.  They grow up without the basics needed for survival and development: clean water and sanitation, good nutrition and health care, quality education, or safe homes and communities. An urban agenda focused on infrastructure, transportation and green initiatives alone will not deliver the inclusive and resilient cities this generation of city-dwellers needs. Just as important is investing in children’s access to basic services and equitable outcomes in health and education.

For Alberto Minujin, Executive Director of Equity for Children, “Truly inclusive cities will aim to reach all children from the day they are born, with an explicit focus on reaching children excluded due to poverty or discrimination. Right now, children’s living conditions vary completely depending on the neighborhood in which they grow up. We cannot imagine the SDGs will be achieved unless these inequities are central to cities’ planning, policies and budgets.”

A long overdue first step is making excluded, urban children visible.  The SDGs can improve this by holding governments accountable for accurately measuring the number of urban children facing deprivations of basic rights. However, as well as the numbers of children facing inequities, cities must strive to understand the extent of deprivations these under-served children are facing, where the gaps between have and have-nots exist, and why.

A new initiative in Colombia is helping cities to understand and address these intra-urban inequities. In Bogota, Medellin, Cali and four other cities, Equity for Children, in partnership with Como Vamos and Fundacion Corona, has empowered children and youth, families and communities to measure and analyze young children’s quality of life– and to advocate with their local authorities to make changes in policies and funding. This has been done by collecting data on living conditions for children aged zero to five, tracking the policies that affect them, and analyzing these variables together with local groups in each neighborhood.  Government agencies were invited to participate and hear citizen feedback on policies affecting young children.

The participatory monitoring,  Informe Primera Infancia Como Vamos, covered one-third of all young children in Colombia and has drawn back the curtain on issues that were invisible before. For example, 60 percent of child deaths in cities could have been prevented through simple measures such as vaccinations and treatment of infections. In Bogota, young children living in the under-served periphery community of Sumapaz were five times more likely to die than children living in the central neighborhood of La Candelaria, where basic services are more widely available.

For Natalia Escobar Santandar, Director, Como Vamos Manizales, “This has been a new way to see an issue that is important but often invisible. In Colombia the information on young children has been very poor.  Cities were not designed for children and the information shows that.  On the other hand, we have seen remarkable progress in some places. In Manizales, our child mortality rate is the same as the United States. This shows that local governments can make a huge difference in children’s lives.”

The quality of early childhood care and education is vital to interrupting inter-generational cycle of poverty, but again, Informe Primera Infancia found wide disparities in access to public child care across Colombia. In Medellin,  65 percent of young children accessed free care compared to only 26 percent in Bogota. Moreover, in under-served communities, half of all families use unregulated private daycares and nurseries. Open discussion of this situation has prompted improved monitoring by municipalities and citizen groups on the quality of life for the youngest children.

Underscoring this initiative is the potential cities have for reducing the inequities experienced by children.  The adage ‘think global, act local’ rings true with the new urban agenda;  while national governments have accountability for delivering on SDGs focused on health, education and poverty, it is cities that will have the money and capacity to make this a reality. In OECD countries, 70 percent of public investment is raised and spent at the local level; for developing countries the figures are lower but expected to rise with economic growth.  Mobilizing this growing pipeline of urban resources and directing a generous share to reducing inequities for urban children is essential if we are to achieve Goal 11’s vision of inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities.



This article appeared in the Huffington Post on September 16, 2015.




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Equity for Children participated in the series of talks organized by MUNA-UNICEF Argentina to promote the exchange of knowledge and experiences among municipalities on various topics related to the rights of children and adolescents.

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