Children with flies on their faces in famine-stricken lands are too often the face of international development. Their image flashes across our screens with disturbing regularity, whether the story is war in Afghanistan or an earthquake in India. The alternative image is laughing happy children who pull at our heartstrings so we donate funds to charity. Neither image places children in the context of their families and communities, and captures the enormous dignity of the poorest in our world as they struggle to grow food, create housing and bring up children in conditions where few of us would cope.
It is of course true that the extent of child poverty in developing countries presents a moral imperative that few would dispute. Over ten million children currently die each year before reaching the age of five, and these deaths are set to increase as the HIV/AIDS pandemic escalates. 113 million children are not enrolled in primary school – 60 percent of them are girls. Proliferating armed conflicts are killing, maiming and separating children from their homes and families.
The poor children of today will be the parents of poor children in the next generation unless we help create the conditions that enable them to go to school and access healthcare. This view leads to a new approach to tackling child poverty. It means going beyond addressing children’s immediate needs for food and shelter and into a deeper analysis of how to respect their rights. If we tackle the underlying causes of their suffering then we are on the way to ending child poverty not only for our generation, but also for future generations yet unborn.
Take the 250 million children globally who are working instead of attending school. None of us like the spectre of ragged children in sweatshop conditions and I understand why people have called for sanctions against goods produced using child labour. Yet if we probe beneath the surface, we see that most of these children are forced to work because they and their families have no other source of income. Well-intentioned boycotts in the United States against rugs produced by children in Bangladesh forced child workers into begging and the sex trade.
The real question is what can be can be done to help families forge sustainable livelihoods. If poor families are to benefit from globalisation, we need to reduce barriers to trade and investment in developing countries. The government’s white paper, Eliminating World Poverty: Making Globalisation Work for the Poor, sets out a range of policies we are pursuing to make this happen. We also worked hard to achieve agreement at the Doha ministerial meeting to launch a new round of trade negotiations focused on developing countries.
Children and women now bear the brunt of armed conflicts that divide families and communities. We are working hard to protect those who have fled to refugee camps or are displaced within their own borders. We are also tackling underlying factors through tighter controls on the trade in small arms and light weapons, security sector reform and good governance programmes. Helping to prevent prolonged armed conflict is vital to the fight against under-development that hits children hardest.
Health and education remain vitally important in the battle against child poverty. We are working to help governments build sustainable health and education systems that benefit the poorest women and children. The government is supporting the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, a major effort to ensure children get immunised against killer diseases. We have committed over £600 million to support high-quality primary education and we are working to ensure resources are available to meet commitments made at last year’s World Education Forum in Dakar. In order to achieve this, we have not only made clear progress on debt relief, but we have also increased the aid budget by 45 percent in real terms.
Children living in poverty are a blight on our conscience and a loss of hope for the future, whether they live in Africa, Asia or Europe. I am proud of our efforts to ensure they are seen and heard in the government’s international development policy.
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