Project Syndicate (USA): sustainable development starts with children

New York- “Our house is on fire,” warned environmental activist teenager Greta Thunberg at last year’s meeting of the world economic forum in Davos. Her sharp words — a charge the adults that they are sitting idle, when the planet burns — reassured a room full of global leaders, inspired young activists around the world and stressed that it was extremely important to put children at the centre of global action to build a better future.

Climate change is happening here and now. This was evident in the recent unprecedented forest fires in Australia which burned 18 million acres and killed an estimated one billion animals. This was also reflected during a severe heat wave in India in 2019, one of the longest and strongest in the last decade. A warming planet is also contributing to global spread of Dengue fever — a viral infection carried by mosquitoes.

However, despite the fact that the time of our capabilities to prevent a catastrophe on the outcome of the global climate action does not receive the necessary impulse. As stressed by Thunberg and other young activists, it is our children will bear the brunt of this failure, since they will inherit an increasingly inhospitable planet.

Climate change is not the only area where we do fail our children. Predatory commercial marketing targeting children and their caregivers, contributes to the wide consumption of unhealthy products such as alcohol, tobacco, electronic cigarettes and sugar sweetened beverages. Global economic losses related to improper use of breast-milk substitutes — are associated with reduced intelligence, obesity, and increased risk of diabetes and other noncommunicable diseases, account for about 302 billion dollars.

Children are our most valuable resource, and they deserve to live a long, healthy and productive life. To determine how we can give them the opportunity, the world health organization, UNICEF and the Lancet recently called the landmark Commission which I headed, together with Awa Marie Coll-Sec, the state Minister of Senegal, which brought together 40 experts on the health and well-being of children.

The Commission’s report — “the Future for the children of the world?” — it is noted that the key factor is to invest in people while they are young. The facts show that hungry children have worse health, worse learning outcomes, and they earn less as adults. Children who are exposed to violence are more likely to commit violence. Conversely, children who receive adequate nutrition, proper care and a quality education, grow into healthy, productive citizens who, presumably, better prepared to educate their own children healthy and productive.

In short, investing in children today bring lifelong benefits, and even from generation to generation. This benefits the whole society. For example, the program for school construction launched in Indonesia in 1973-1979, helped boost today’s living standards and tax revenues.

The return of the investment made in children are surprisingly high. In the United States every dollar invested in the preschool program brought 7-12 dollars in social benefits per person, by reducing aggressive behavior and increasing level of education. In countries with a medium level of income for every 1 dollar invested in the health of the mother and child, can bring more than $ 11.

But we should not seek such investment because of the numbers. If we can’t protect our children’s future, what are the criteria of our humanity?

A Commission of the who-UNICEF-Lancet is calling on leaders at all levels, from heads of state and government to civil society leaders and communities to put children at the centre of strategies to achieve sustainable development. This will require long-term prospects, if the presidents and Prime Ministers will ensure that sufficient funds for necessary programs and support effective collaboration among ministries and agencies.

Each sector needs to play its part in creating a world suitable for children. For example, traffic accidents are the number one killer of children and young people aged 5 to 29 years, which implies the urgent need to take measures to improve road safety. And for 40% of the world’s children living in informal settlements characterized by overcrowding, poor access to services and vulnerability to such hazards as fires and floods — the importance of housing reform.

Some countries recognize the importance of increasing public investment in children. In New Zealand, my home country, the government of Prime Minister of Jacinda Ardern introduced the “world’s first” budget on welfare that puts people, especially of the most vulnerable segments of society, including children, in the first place. The budget allocates billions of dollars for services in mental health, child poverty and measures to combat domestic violence.

But, according to our report, New Zealand continues to throw out too much carbon dioxide — 183% of the level needed to achieve its goals for 2030 and compliance with the Paris climate agreement. Other rich countries such as Norway and South Korea, equally well help the development of today’s children, ensuring that tomorrow’s children will also be able to do it, while continuing to throw too much CO2. Meanwhile, some poorer countries such as Armenia, Costa Rica and Sri Lanka are on track to achieve emission targets by 2030, and do everything possible to ensure the health, education and security for their children.

“I don’t want your hope,” said Thunberg world leaders in Davos. “I want you panicked… and began to act”. She’s right. If we are to bequeath a sustainable future generation Thunberg and those who will follow, our leaders must act boldly and immediately. This is what constitutes legacy.

Helen Clark — Chairman of the Board of the Partnership for maternal, newborn and child (PMNCH). Former Prime Minister of New Zealand and administrator of the UN development Program.