An age of opportunity?

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As Alphonse Allais pointed out, having money is a great help in coping with poverty. And there’s plenty of data to show that investing in basics like health and education pays dividends.

UNICEF’s 2011 State of the World’s Children Report shows progress across a whole range of indicators, including under-five mortality rates, access to clean water, and vaccinations.

The second decade of life has received less attention though, and without sustained efforts, the gains made in early childhood can be wiped out.

The 2011 report gives statistics showing that in Brazil for instance, the lives of 26,000 babies aged 12 months and under were saved over 1998-2008 thanks to various programmes.

Over the same period, 81,000 15-19 year-olds were murdered.

Global net attendance  for secondary school is roughly one third lower than for  primary school. Worldwide, one third of all new HIV cases  involve people aged 15–24. And in the developing  world, excluding China, 1 in every 3 girls gets married  before the age of 18.

The report also quotes figures suggesting that around 1 adolescent in 5 suffers from a mental health or behavioural problem.

Other, less dramatic, statistics reveal widespread problems. With 81 million young people out of work globally in 2009, youth unemployment remains a concern almost everywhere. An increasingly technological labour market requires skills that many young people don’t have, and in many countries, large teenage populations are a unique demographic asset that is often overlooked.

Yet, the report argues, investing in adolescent education and training can produce a large and productive workforce, helping the young people themselves, and can contribute significantly to the growth of national economies.

However, in Off to a Good Start? Jobs for Youth the OECD says that young people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as the average worker, yet few governments are taking proactive steps to boost youth employment.

Useful links

OECD work on education and training

OECD work on employment

OECD work on health

Putting women and children first

My mum's Norwegian! Photo courtesy of C. Olsen

You’ll feel rage but not despair, and be astonished but not surprised on reading State of the World’s Mothers 2010, the latest annual report from NGO Save the Children, with its country rankings of the health, education and economic situation of mothers, women and children, and the stories behind the statistics.

Rage at figures like these: every year 8.8 million children die before reaching age 5 and 343,000 women lose their lives due to pregnancy or childbirth complications. Practically all of these deaths occur in the developing world, where 50 million women give birth at home each year with no professional help.

Rage at families denying women and children care, even when it is available. Often, it’s because men don’t want another man to examine a female patient. Often it’s due to ignorance. An Egyptian woman tells how her mother-in-law refused to let her go to hospital because severe bleeding after childbirth was “normal”.  

Egypt is one of several countries where the birth of a child isn’t celebrated immediately. Ceremonies like  Egypt’s el sebou’, practiced by Muslims and Christians alike, recognise a grim truth: many babies do not live very long.  The first four weeks of life are the most dangerous, accounting for 41% of infant deaths.

Despite the depressing situation (57 countries have “critical shortages” of health workers, 36 of them in Africa) there’s optimism too. What astonished me is the way terms and ideas I’ve encountered so often that they’ve become meaningless suddenly become real again. Here for instance: “Increased investments in girls’ education are essential… to empower future mothers to be stronger and wiser advocates for their own health and the health of their children.”

Concretely, this is because educated girls tend to marry later and have fewer, healthier and better-nourished children. Mothers with little or no education are much less likely to receive skilled support during pregnancy and childbirth, and both they and their babies are at higher risk of death. They are also more likely to respect harmful traditional practices such as delaying breastfeeding for up to 24 hours after giving birth.

Relatively minor investments pay huge dividends – “leverage” as we’d say here at the OECD. In Bangladesh for instance, female community health workers with limited formal education and only 6 weeks of hands-on training contributed to a 34% reduction in newborn mortality. Women with a few years of formal schooling can master the skills needed to diagnose and treat common early childhood illnesses, mobilise demand for vaccinations, and promote improved nutrition, safe motherhood and essential newborn care.

Some of the techniques are incredibly simple, low tech and low cost, or even no-cost, as when mothers of underweight, preterm babies are taught “kangaroo care”. The mothers serve as human incubators, keeping their babies next to their skin for warmth, and encouraging them to breastfeed frequently. A review of 15 studies in developing countries found kangaroo care was more effective than incubator care, cutting newborn deaths by 51% for preterm babies who were stable. Up to half a million newborns could be saved each year if kangaroo care were used everywhere.

Finally, as you’d expect, the Scandinavian countries top the rankings, along with Australia and New Zealand.  At the other end of the scale, every mother in Afghanistan is likely to lose at least one child.

Useful links

The OECD Education Directorate conference on the economic crisis and early childhood education and care is here.

The Lancet monitors progress between 1990 and 2010 on maternal, newborn and child survival in light of the Millennium Development Goals.

The OECD Family Database provides data on “family outcomes and family policies” with over 50 indicators for all OECD countries on everything from breastfeeding to participation in elections. 

Doing Better for Children looks at the state of child wellbeing in OECD countries.

Gender Aid at a Glance provides statistics on Official Development Assistance focused on gender equality and women’s empowerment 

Work on gender at the OECD Development Centre

educationtoday OECD’s “education lighthouse for the way out of the crisis”.

Wikigender is designed to help participants “share and exchange information and best practices on gender equality”

The article on kangaroo care is published in the April 2010 issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology. This issue is on “Development and use of the Lives Saved Tool (LiST): a model to estimate the impact of scaling up proven interventions on maternal, neonatal and child mortality”.