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Health Education

How Are the World’s Children Doing?

Children have the right to learn, photo: D Sharon Pruitt/flickr

A UNICEF report titled “The Children Left Behind”, to be released today, examines the level of inequality in the education, well-being and health of children in the world’s richest countries. The countries with the least inequality were the usual lot: Iceland, Finland, the Netherlands and Norway.

While Finland, for example, tops the list in terms of having the most equal education system, it fares less well on the health front. Despite free and healthy school meals, Finnish media decried, Finnish children are still not eating enough vegetables and fruit. Switzerland, somewhat unsurprisingly, tops the list as the country with the highest level of material well-being for kids. While Canadian authorities and media reacted with shock at how badly off Canadian children are in terms of material well-being and health, the US ranks even far below its northern neighbor (near the bottom of 24 OECD countries under scrutiny). This should ruffle some feathers in the US and show how vulnerable children in particular are to societal inequality. Sadly, given the intensely polarized political environment, this important report is likely to get buried under a myriad of apparently much more urgent policy concerns.

Yet, the US, like any other wealthy nation not only owes its children a good standard of living from a moral standpoint, but also has to provide it in order to compete in tomorrow’s increasingly crowded knowledge economy in which a pool of healthy, smart and motivated young people is a prerequisite for success. Inequality, ill-health and resentment will hamper growth and make countries less dynamic and less competitive, regardless of their relative ranking in the world today.