Shortchanging Children: Time to Change the Picture

June 30, 2023 – I have always liked mosaics – the way the pieces come together to form a picture that seems to just pop out. I think people who work on puzzles must feel the same way when they are searching for the exact piece to allow the picture to emerge. 

Yet sometimes the picture that emerges is not what we want to see.  This is the case when looking at the disturbing findings in the recent reports on the financing of services for children. Despite the well documented impact of COVID, the damage that children and families are experiencing through endless years of conflict and the rapidly changing impacts of climate and environmental degradation, the needs of children are being shortchanged.

Let’s just look at the findings from two of these important reports:

Too Little Too Late is an assessment of public spending on children by age in 85 countries.  The headline findings point out the “inadequacy and incoherence, imbalance and inequality” in the funding spent on children.  Authored by a team from UNICEF Innocenti, Colombia University and University of York, the report noted that for the majority of children worldwide, public support to meet their needs is too little and comes too late in the lifecourse.  Compared to higher income countries, social protection and human services are “the missing element”(1).

Falling Short: Addressing the Climate Finance Gap for Children Released by partners of the Children’s Environmental Rights Initiative coalition, this timely report provides the “first ever” child focused review of international climate finance, assessing 591 project proposals, covering a 17-year period from 2006 to March 2023.  The study found that only 2.4 % of climate finance from key multilateral climate funds (MCFs) can be classified as supporting projects incorporating child responsive activities. These findings are particularly alarming given UNICEF estimates that one billion children are at extremely high risk of the impacts of climate change(2).

Inadequate funding for children is felt across sectors.  The picture that children are being shortchanged emerges across several other reports: from education financing to support for children with disabilities, from lack of adequate funding for nutrition to the need to address the child care crises.   What is the most concerning is the cumulative impact that these multisector shortfalls can have on the developing child.  Moreover, these impacts are compounded when families face material hardship and when the basic needs of children cannot be met year after year, particularly starting and continuing throughout early childhood.

Earlier this year, UNICEF Innocenti released the 2023 Global Outlook which highlighted the prospects for children in the “polycrisis.”    Despite these multiple realities, stories about the conditions of children and families rarely make the front page. And when they do, they too often disappear the next day.  

The one ray of hope which emerged during COVID is that people are capable of caring and responding in times of crises. Communities rallied, families helped each other, organizations raised awareness and responded to need where they could.    While the road ahead is full of challenges, people at the local, national and international level, in every corner of the world, are working on behalf of children and families. Remembering this reinforces the possibilities for change, it provides a sense of agency.

Every step taken matters: talking about the conditions of children, creating better programs, providing children with a good education and decent health care, highlighting the impact of climate change,  helping families raise their voices and their wages, supporting  caring communities.  It all counts, it all matters.

Now is the time to strengthen our resolve, to be persistent, and insistent, that all children have a right to a healthy future.  It is still possible to change the picture.  Let’s not let time run out.

 By Joan Lombardi

Joan Lombardi Ph.D. is a longstanding champion for children and the Chair of the Global Policy and Advocacy Group of the Early Childhood Development Action Network.