The 15-year period set out to achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has come to an end. Before we head straight into a new set of 17 targets – the Global Goals for 2030 – we still have to consider how well we met the old promises made back in 2000.
At the University of Oxford’s Young Lives project we’ve been working on a report analysing the results of our ongoing study of 12,000 children born before and after the new millennium in four countries: Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam. It’s a 15-year study to overlap with the time-frame of the MDGs, providing evidence and policy advice on the most effective ways to tackle childhood poverty. So what did the MDGS do for our group of children?
Since 2000, the economic situation in all four of the countries has improved. According to the World Bank, between 1995 and 2010, per capita Gross National Income (GNI) grew by 91% in Ethiopia, 122% in India, 61% in Peru and 145% in Vietnam. And, using the MDG definition of poverty as the percentage of the population living on less than a dollar a day, overall levels of poverty have fallen in all four countries.
What has economic growth brought?
Most of the families in the Young Lives study are poor, or relatively poor. On the whole, the economic growth means they have become less poor, despite the global financial crisis and a widespread rise in food prices. Over the past 15 years, there has been a pattern of generally rising living standards, with many of our families noticing improvements in their homes and communities. They now have greater access to consumer goods, and services such as electricity, safe water, sanitation and roads, though there have been smaller gains in housing quality. Overall levels of stunting – low height-for-age which is a sign of under-nutrition – have also fallen.
Louam, age nine, who lives in Ethiopia, feels her family’s situation has certainly improved. Her village has a new road, a new bridge, a school, a health centre and a church – and some people now have mobile phones, though her family does not. “We have built a kitchen and a toilet, so we no longer have to go outside,” Louam says. “We have tap water, but no power supply.”
Yet as with the MDGs in general, progress for families involved in the Young Lives study has been uneven. Often, it is the children from better-off families who have experienced the greater gains. As a result, inequalities are more entrenched and disadvantages are increasingly concentrated among the most marginalised children.
The poorest families, who have benefited least from economic growth, face the greatest risks. These can be economic, such as rises in food prices that lead them to cut back on meals; environmental, such as droughts, that cause their harvests to fail; or health-related, such as repeated bouts of illness. And these are the families with the fewest resources to cope, throwing into sharp relief the need for social protection policies.
Hung is 17 and lives in rural Vietnam. A few years ago, his family lost its entire crop of oranges following a flood. Two years later, they lost their pigs to foot-and-mouth disease. “We had 45 pigs. They were very big and as long as a shoulder pole (yoke),” says Hung’s mother, who comes from a poor family of eight children. “I burst into tears when counting how little money we earned that year.”
Then, Hung’s brother, who has never been healthy, fell ill and needed surgery, which was both worrying and costly. Hung dropped out of school and started looking for a job, finally finding work with a construction company. He still has hopes for the future, but is reluctant to talk about them. “I’m afraid that if I talk about my dream, it would never come true,” he says. An employment guarantee scheme or health insurance might have prevented Hung from leaving school and supported him to achieve his aspirations.
The gaps are growing wider
The gap between rich and poor is growing, but so too are the gaps between rural and urban areas, ethnic majority and ethnic minority children and in India, between different caste groups. Disparities between boys and girls remain. These different forms of inequality interact and intersect meaning the same children often face multiple disadvantages: on the basis of where they live, what ethnic group they come from, and whether they are girls or boys.
So we find that the poorest children in all four countries are as likely as ever to be stunted, and that the poorest children and those in rural areas are still the least likely to have access to safe water and sanitation. The gaps began to emerge earlier than we had first imagined – children are falling behind before they have even started school, and the new phenomenon of low-fee private education is serving to widen the gulf, as well as exacerbating gender-based inequalities. The poorest children are the most likely to drop out of school after the age of 15, and girls from poor and rural families are the most likely to marry and have their first child while still in their teens.
The MDGs have been an important catalyst for change, prompting the introduction of many valuable pro-poor social interventions and policies, which have seen widespread gains in terms of nutrition, health and education. One such example is India’s midday schools meal scheme which has been remarkably successful, not only in improving primary school children’s nutrition but also increasing educational enrolment, retention and attendance.
But there is clearly still a long way to go to tackle the root causes of poverty and inequality and above all, for children, on whom future development and economic growth depend.
The next 15 years
Now the MDGs have been put to bed, the Global Goals for 2030, focus on poverty and inequality as a problem that needs tackling at global as well as regional, national and sub-national levels. But there are some key challenges that remain unsolved.
These include making sure we plan for human development and well-being across the course of people’s lives. In particular, we need to develop better policies to support the critical first 1,000 days of life. School enrolment also needs to be converted into learning success, so that the poorest children are prevented from being behind even before they start in the classroom.
The structural sources of disadvantage for women, such as their limited options in the labour market, still too easily shape their decision making. In the future, governments need to provide the skills, as well as the jobs, to capitalise on the demographic dividend of a rising youth population. Citizens must rally round to stoke the political will necessary to increase social protection measures that effectively make a difference to children’s outcomes.
The emphasis on environmental sustainability, which matters a lot for the children in our sample, with Ethiopia and Peru among the countries most affected globally by climate change, is critical. It is the probably the single greatest challenge to current and future generations of children.
By the time these new Global Goals are deemed a success or failure, the cohorts in our study will be describing their millennium childhoods to their own adolescent children. Let’s hope that the changes we anticipate are so great, their children will find these stories incredulous.