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.
But if children in some rich countries get an unfair deal, how are children in developing countries doing? China, for example, has done more than any other country in the world in terms of poverty reduction in the last decades. With the number of poor people having fallen by a staggering 600 million since 1981, children have undoubtedly made great strides in terms of better living conditions and access to education. China’s primary school net enrollment currently stands at an impressive 99,5 percent, yet seven million children still remain outside the system. These children have to be included. The Chinese education system, the world’s largest, also needs to become more flexible and open in order to accommodate millions of newcomers, particularly at the higher levels where competition is intense. Strains are already apparent, with a third of primary school students reportedly suffering from stress.
In India, where educational challenges are arguably even greater, an encouraging new trend is promising to inject some much-needed dynamism into the system. An Indian software tycoon, for example, recently announced that he would use $2 billion of his fortune to further education in the country. The Indian government has also passed legislation and launched a campaign this year that aims to extend education to all Indian children between the ages of 6-14. An estimated eight million children still don’t attend school, with a poor understanding of children’s rights hampering efforts to close this gap.
This new report should force both developed and developing nations to take the issue of societal equality as it relates to children more seriously. And indeed to think of it not only in terms of children’s rights and moral responsibility, but also as the most important foundation for a dynamic and successful future.