Skip to main content
All Posts By

Chloe Hall

The shadow of poverty and cholera

An overview

Cholera is a bacterial illness which infects the intestines. It is ingested through contaminated water or food. The disease spreads where there is no clean water supply. Poor sanitation and dirty water are the perfect spawning grounds for the bacteria.  Therefore, children who face life in slums and refugee camps, and people displaced by conflicts or natural disasters are most at risk. Over the past 15 years, the vast majority of cases were to be found in regions which had the worst water and sanitation services, if any.

Cholera is curable

While cholera is a very serious disease and can be fatal, especially to children under the age of five, those who are undernourished are particularly vulnerable to the most serious symptoms. This is certainly ironic but yes, cholera can be treated, cured and, with appropriate foresight, prevented in the first place. There are vaccines available.

Where Cholera strikes

Cholera thrives wherever there is abject poverty. The disease has become poverty’s bellwether, announcing the appalling toll which the illness continues to wreak on the poorest and most under resourced communities.

Those most at risk

People, particularly children, who live in unstable circumstances, who have been displaced from their homes or have inadequate basic services and resources. UNICEF estimates that 1.1 billion people are at risk, however many cases are not recorded at all. Officially, researchers suggest that there are over four million cases every year and approximately 150,000 cholera-related deaths. This makes the fatality rate about 4%.

UNICEF’s goal

UNICEF aims to significantly reduce the threat that cholera poses by 2030.

What makes a region cholera-endemic?

UNICEF defines this as any place where cases of the disease have been found for three consecutive years, implying local transmission. However, outbreaks can occur in any communities which have poor sanitation and dirty water supplies.

Climate change also adds to the threat of cholera. Unusually heavy rainfall and consequent flooding can overwhelm and disrupt normal water supplies and sanitation services. If families and communities have to rely on unsafe or tainted water, they are at much greater risk of exposure to water-borne illness.

Symptoms of cholera

Many infected people have few symptoms. Some have mild or even no symptoms at all. The most common are diarrhoea and dehydration. After initial infection, symptoms can appear any time between twelve hours to five days.

The link between poor sanitation and cholera

Cholera bacteria remain in human faeces for up to ten days. Unfortunately, wherever there is poor sanitation, the bacteria are recycled into the immediate environment which only compounds the problem and can result in further cases of infection.

Available treatments

UNICEF and other NGOs supply orally taken rehydration solutions (ORSs). The primary components are salt and sugar. They are powdered, light weight, distributed in sachets and easy to ingest, but they need to be dissolved in clean water, and therein lies another irony. To cure cholera people need clean water. Moreover, if children are severely dehydrated, they may need emergency medical care when fluids can be supplied intravenously alongside courses of antibiotics. Zinc is also an important trace element which helps to reduce the severity of the disease.

Available vaccines

There are three orally administered vaccines endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dukoral, Shanchol and Euvichol-Plus. These need to be taken in two doses. The International Co-ordinating Group (ICG) stockpiles these vaccines and supplies them to areas where there are outbreaks. The ICG has overseen the administration of more than 100 million doses of these vaccines. Anyone who survives a bout of cholera acquires long lasting immunity to the disease.

Progress made in the fight against cholera

In the decade 2010-2019, total deaths from severe cases of diarrhoea among infant children fell by approximately 60%. Researchers point to the increased distribution of ORS formula treatments as a major reason for this dramatic change. Moreover, supplying clean water to communities also makes a huge difference. However, during the past three years, outbreaks have unfortunately been on the rise.

Danger zones

In 2022 there were cholera outbreaks in thirty countries. That amounted to a 145% rise on the previous five-year average. In the middle east, Syria and Lebanon reported cases for the first time in many years.

In south and east Africa, a cholera epidemic is ongoing. In January 2023, it was reported that Malawi was suffering its worst outbreak to date. Cholera has struck all 29 districts within the country and thousands of children have been infected.

During 2022 Haiti witnessed thousands of cases and hundreds of people died, among them many children. Infants account for 40% of cases. Community conditions in Haiti are still mired by the aftermath of the 2021 earthquake, a malnutrition crisis, political instability and clashes between armed militia gangs.

Action to help these people

UNICEF and other aid organisations are working with governments and others NGOs to help coordinate the distribution of water treatment tablets to ensure that water in vulnerable and affected communities is safe.

UNICEF and its partners are also supplying ORS sachets, zinc and antibiotics to local medical departments.

Moreover, local people are also receiving training to recognise and respond to symptoms of cholera, administer its treatment and to educate to help its prevention. Raising awareness through local media and schools is also important.

Forward planning

The top priority is to ensure that vulnerable communities and displaced refugees have access to clean, safe water and appropriate sanitation. A second priority is to make available the World Health Organisation’s oral vaccines. Likewise efficient and targeted supplies of ORSs, zinc supplements and antibiotics are essential. Local communities need to be empowered to look after their own wellbeing at the most basic level. For example, simple measures like handwashing, personal hygiene awareness including the safest possible disposal of human waste will also help to control the spread of the disease.

The statistical target

Prompt and formal treatment and educational campaigns should bring the fatality rate down from 4% to below 1%. Hand in hand with the efficient roll out of treatment is active and reactive monitoring for the disease. Accurate data relating to cholera need to be collected, collated and circulated at regional, national and local levels.

Is the end of Cholera in sight?

It is always worthwhile to plough resources into eradicating a disease which is preventable (through vaccinations) and curable (through treatments). In 2021 UNICEF issued more than 93 million zinc tablets and over 30 million ORSs. However, in societies where everyday life is unstable because of natural disasters, forced migration, or conflict, outbreaks of cholera remain a deadly threat. For the time being, further humanitarian help is vital to control outbreaks of this disease.

UNICEF and its partners are reaffirming their commitment to tackle cholera so that by 2030 it is no longer a serious threat to vulnerable populations around the world, and especially the world’s poorest children. To that end, UNICEF is focussing on fifty countries where it considers the greatest risk lies.

Important stakeholders in measuring child poverty

This blog asks which organisations are central to assessing child poverty. UNICEF has attempted to summarise the roles and influence of major bodies involved in research, analysis and publication of data relevant to child poverty. The research demonstrates that collaborative work can form the most effective basis of campaigns to raise the political profile of child poverty. Here are half a dozen important stakeholders.

1: A national office for statistics. This is usually a civil service style department which is administered and funded under a government umbrella. These departments are officially authorised to conduct research, collate data and results, carry out discrete analysis, publish findings and make evidence-based recommendations. If their research programme and findings concern the overarching field of poverty, then it may be possible to extrapolate discrete data which particularly concerns child poverty. An office for national statistics is very likely to oversee and implement a regular national census as well as surveys relating to household income and expenditure. Data generated by these activities is vital to shed light on issues relating to child poverty and should help to inform strategic planning to tackle it.

2: A government finance ministry. This is a likely source of information and data on poverty in general across a country. Official recognition, endorsement and ongoing support of such a ministry is vital for the timely funding, launch and ultimate effectiveness of a rolling campaign against child poverty.

3: UNICEF. Over the past twenty years the role of UNICEF has been instrumental in raising awareness and promoting the importance of child poverty on the global stage. One reason that child poverty is reducing on a global scale is because of the coordinated work undertaken by UNICEF. It has led negotiations with various stakeholders on a country by country basis, organised international efforts and initiatives, promoted research, data collection and analysis, fostered official discussions, helped to formulate appropriate policies, and worked behind the scenes to bring about programmes to reduce child poverty.

UNICEF has worked alongside governments and organisations in dozens of low income countries to ensure that reports and studies exploring child poverty have been undertaken, together with specific assessments, for example investigations examining conditions in urban slums or the impacts made by an individual grant from the government. UNICEF has access to an increasingly vast data bank which is important for informing planning. Much of this data is regularly updated, which enables trends to be traced and the impact of a policy or campaign to be effectively measured.

4: The World Bank. This international organisation has for many years promoted and supported poverty analysis in lower and middle income nations. It produces and updates the monetary measure of poverty, currently $2.15 per person per day. However, it has expressly documented why a multi-dimensional approach to measuring poverty is vital. The World Bank also provides a wealth of resources informing the measurement of global poverty, and in addition it publishes reports on poverty on a country by country basis.

Partly prompted by the Global Commission on Poverty, the World Bank has also adopted a policy to research and publish poverty profiles specifically for children (under 18 years of age). Its research and analysis of multidimensional poverty has highlighted the benefits of defining poverty from a lifestyle viewpoint, taking into consideration factors like rights, access to a reliable electricity supply, sanitation and hygiene, nutrition, education programmes, medical care as well as safe housing.

5: Charities, non-government organisations (NGOs), civil society organisations and research bureaux. Each of these groups of stakeholders plays a significant role in raising the profile of child poverty, and helping to keep it on the political agenda, both nationally and worldwide. They help to raise awareness and secure finance. This can be done by collecting data, undertaking research and investigations, conducting appropriate interviews with people concerned and other stakeholders, as well as by actively campaigning, fundraising and implementing new measures. They also work with media and journalists. Such contributions can help to influence and shape government policy.

Small charities can also play important roles in measuring child poverty. For example, alongside their other campaigns, they can raise awareness and help to shape discussions by regularly airing issues on an active blog, or through their online presence.

In a country which undertakes no official research into child poverty these bodies can give a lead in formulating estimates, from which it is possible to raise the profile of child poverty in terms of public awareness. Such publicity and promotion can generate political pressure and help to build momentum which can lead to a review of government policy. Charities such as Save the Children, Oxfam and the remarkable Médecins sans Frontières often catch the headlines for their roles at the forefront of interventionist humanitarian relief. Often this follows in the wake of a specific emergency, whether the result of an environmental event, war, breakdown in law and order, or economic crisis. Data and evidence from their experience on the ground, and campaigns organised as a consequence, can help to inform decision making about, and raise awareness of, child poverty.

6: The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is an outreach network which aims to connect governments and organisations to facilitate mutually beneficial exchanges of experience, knowledge and resources to help improve lifestyles for the global population. Poverty reduction is at the heart of their mission. They operate in 170 countries, fostering development research, planning and initiatives to formulate solutions to political and cultural challenges. While the UNDP promotes sustainable development, climate and emergency resilience, peacebuilding and democratic governance, it also assists in attracting aid.

The UNDP was responsible for constructing the multi-dimensional poverty index. This method of assessing poverty in general and child poverty specifically has helped to rationalise the arbitrary-seeming income-based poverty line. Together with the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), the UNDP publishes regular country specific analyses of poverty.

The importance of alliances

The above stakeholders often formally collaborate in their collective missions. Developing such partnerships is central to forming influential and respected alliances which can more readily help to advise and shape political responses to child poverty. While naturally the role and relative importance of these stakeholders varies from country to country, they are nonetheless central to achieving the goal of constructing a national pathway to tackle and eradicate child poverty.

In conclusion, thorough and effective measurement of child poverty leads to its reduction. These stakeholders all contribute to that end.

The link between child poverty and migration

What happened off Crotone on 26th February 2023?

A migrant tragedy unfolded in the early hours of the morning. At least 73 people lost their lives in heavy seas off Crotone, a seaside town in Calabria, southern Italy. Of those who drowned, a dozen were children, including a baby just a few months old, and a six-year-old boy. The 20-metre wooden boat which carried them sailed from Izmir, Turkey, had spent four days at sea on route to Italy. This is a favoured destination of traffickers who promise a safe passage to Europe in exchange for people’s life savings.

Why do migrants risk their lives to travel to Europe?

Many migrants are searching for what they hope will be something better, whether employment opportunities, higher living standards, better quality accommodation and access to good medical and educational facilities. Many are fleeing persecution, drought, natural disasters, war zones, and the breakdown of law and order within their societies.

During their journeys they may have spent quite long spells in refugee camps or holding centres. They find themselves a long way from home and they have nothing.

What does research suggest about what awaits those refugees who safely reach their hoped for destinations?

Regrettably, life in their new homelands does not often transpire to be what migrants and refugees were hoping for. Aside from facing ongoing prejudices, refugees also have to cope with challenging language barriers, day to day cultural clashes, and renewed poverty in several ways. For example, many typically end up living on, or below, the poverty line in whichever country they settle. For a family which has lost everything this is a desperately harsh reality. Moreover, many refugees have handed over their life savings to people traffickers who have promised them safe passage overseas.

This means that survivors of the Crotone shipwreck have arrived in Italy poorer than they were before they set out. And now many of them have lost close relatives who were travelling with them. Sergio Di Dato, a project manager from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), highlighted one sixteen year old survivor from Afghanistan who had lost his sister. The boy could not bring himself to contact his parents to break the news.

Why would a brother and sister have fled from Afghanistan?

The country has struggled in the face of long running political upheavals, war and natural disasters. This situation has been compounded by the Taliban who seized back political control in August 2021. They have isolated the country from the international community by implementing a series of legal reforms which have curtailed people’s rights, especially those of women and girls.

What about other factors?

UNHCR estimates that approximately two thirds of Afghanistan’s population are struggling with food shortages, drought, access to medical and nutrition centres, intermittent water supplies and unreliable sanitation. In short, poverty is affecting millions of people.

Moreover, girls are facing educational restrictions at secondary school age which will deny them life enhancing opportunities. This may lead them into early marriage.

Is the cost of living rising as well?

The average income is estimated to be a third lower in early 2023 than it was in 2020. Moreover, higher costs are curtailing millions of people from accessing health services. Some medical facilities are also understaffed and have limited resources.

Are these conditions leading to migration?

In a word, yes. Families and unaccompanied children are leaving the comparative safety of their homes in search of broader freedoms and better opportunities. This leaves them exposed to unscrupulous traffickers and other criminal cartels.

How are NGOs responding?

Some organisations are concentrating on raising awareness. UNHCR is working on the ground in Afghanistan to bring practical relief as well as advocating for the right of all children to enjoy educational services, especially girls of secondary school age. UNICEF is exploring remote options whereby some educational programmes can be presented through television, radio and online.  

What did UNICEF achieve in Afghanistan in 2022?

In the first half of 2022, UNICEF oversaw the treatment of 300,000 children (aged 6 months – five years) for acute malnutrition; supplied cash payments to approximately 100,000 families; delivered safe water to 3.5 million people; provided outpatient care to more than 17 million people; and supplied child protection services to 1.7 million children.

Will these initiatives help to reduce migration?

Addressing the causes of poverty will reduce the root factors which lead to migration. Ringfencing people’s rights and establishing access to reliable services are central to this work.

Politicians and representatives from NGOs across Europe continue to wrangle about the complexities of migration, its causes and ways to address it. They hold one another responsible for compounding the situation. Meanwhile charities and international stakeholders are continuing to deliver life enhancing services on the ground. By raising awareness about ongoing programmes, we can continue to help to improve conditions for millions of people. This in turn will help to ease factors which lead the most desperate to risk their lives by leaving their homes and undertaking dangerous journeys which too often end in tragedy.

How many people have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean?

Between 2014 and the end of 2021 UNHCR estimates that approximately 25,000 people have gone missing or drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Of those who did make it to safety, many experienced traumatic journeys and violations of their rights.

How many migrants are there globally?

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that in 2020 there were 281 million migrants across the world. In other words, 3.8% of the global population.

What will help to save lives in the Mediterranean?

A central tenet of the IOM’s mission statement is to promote ‘humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all’. In the aftermath of this disastrous migrant story, it seems like a reasonable goal to stop people trafficking and help prevent further tragedy. This sentiment was echoed by UN Secretary General, António Guterres, who addressed the Human Rights Council on 27th February. He appealed to countries to do whatever they can to help migrants and refugees. He also called for safer routes and improved rescue resources. By implementing measures along these lines and through greater political cooperation, it should be possible to end migrant tragedies once and for all.

The header image is the Gateway to Lampedusa, a memorial by the Italian artist Mimmo Paladino.

Education and Child Poverty

Around the world, robust and engaging education programmes enshrined within a comprehensive and evolving policy such as the UK’s National Curriculum should go a long way to providing opportunities for every child, anywhere. They ought to give everyone, irrespective of their financial circumstances, the chance to flourish by nurturing aspirations for the future. Hence a high-quality, all-embracing education is vitally important to fight child poverty. UNESCO expresses it remarkably succinctly, education transforms lives. With one in nine of the world’s 15–24-year-olds illiterate, it remains crucial to continue cherishing and addressing this issue. Education is, after all, a fundamental right for everyone.

How can education open up opportunities for young people?

Education helps to develop children’s awareness of the world around them. It affords context and knowledge. This is naturally empowering, but crucially children’s personal skills are also fostered by their educational pathways. Among the development of interpersonal, cognitive and emotional skills, it is the ability to think logically, sensitively and critically which is at the heart of many school courses. In theory children who benefit from a good education should acquire life skills which will be attractive to future employers, opening up opportunities and inspiring ambitions.

Education is a way out of poverty

Because education is broadening and nurtures aspirations, it is a very good way to empower people to lift themselves out of poverty. This means that by increasing literacy and science skills whole communities should benefit economically as their potential workforce becomes more skilled.

What about girls?

Gender discrimination means that millions of girls around the globe are deprived of formal education. UNESCO estimates that over 118 million girls are presently not attending school. Figures like this are sometimes cited to emphasise that girls are unfairly discriminated against within educational systems. Yet UNESCO confirms that over 125 million boys do not currently attend school either. However, huge numbers like these can appear to be misleading. For instance, of all adults who cannot read or write it is women who comprise almost two-thirds. Why is this the case?

Long term school attendance

Put simply, around the world, more girls than boys drop out of school. Amy Kerr’s blog for Poverty Child explains the destructive impact of bullying, violence, child marriage, as well as gender biases ingrained within schools and local cultures. While certainly not immune, boys are less vulnerable to these social and political issues.

What strategies are being implemented to reverse gender discrimination in education?

UNESCO has devised two policies to reverse discrimination in education, Strategy for gender equality in and through education (2019-2025) and the Gender Equality Action Plan. The implementation of these policies focuses on system-wide transformations aimed at benefitting all children in three areas: first, researching, recording and publicising detailed data, which should inform better understanding and targeted practice. Second, better legal and policy frameworks, which should enhance girls’ rights. Third, more effective teaching and learning practices, which should empower all children. Of course, addressing cultural expectations and prejudices against girls remains a politically challenging and complex matter. However, where gender inequality can be successfully addressed in schools, over time there is likely to be a cultural shift within community expectations.

The link between poverty and classroom performance

Why does poverty affect classroom performance? The answer seems to lie in the challenges arising for young people from their personal circumstances. Children who live in low-income households tend to experience greater domestic disruption than other children. Greater stress. Changes in child care arrangements and demands on stretched parents mean that children can be forced to forge their own way, to become more independent earlier than others. However, their independence – in whatever form it takes – does not naturally rationalise the importance of education in their minds.

Moreover, it is likely that children from lower socio-economic backgrounds experience less academic stimulus at home, for example, less encouragement to read, or less parental emphasis placed on routines like homework. Consequently, some children do not have consistently positive exposure to cultural expectations or the skills necessary to consolidate and improve their academic performance. Nor do they necessarily feel as much incentive or encouragement to pursue academic interests as some of their more affluent peers.

How can poverty disadvantage children in the classroom?

While these are important issues, it is not just the quality of food on the table, or the stability of a caring family which influence children’s academic outlook and commitment. Vocabulary enrichment is perhaps the single most important issue for primary school children. It is a fact that children from more challenging socio-economic backgrounds tend to encounter and use fewer words in their everyday speech. At school this can become disincentivising and impact on self-esteem. As a result, children may not want to read or wholeheartedly join in with class activities if they do not understand as many of the terms in use around them as some of their peers.

Falling behind and absenteeism

If children self-consciously feel that they may look foolish in front of others, for example, because of their literacy, then they are more likely to avoid participating academically, whether that simply means not putting up their hand to ask for help, or just not concentrating. This is the top of the slippery slope to falling behind. It all too readily develops into motivational and subsequent behavioural issues. Finally, children may resort to absenteeism, with all of its detrimental impact on their personal, social and educational wellbeing.

How do authorities and schools inclusively promote the value of education?

There are several practical enrichment steps which schools aim to implement. For instance, alongside cultural or sporting activities, they offer before school, lunch time or after school clubs with an academic focus. Children are naturally inquisitive. Some merely need an appealing insight or academic hook to spark an initial interest in a new or mainstream curriculum area. School resources such as a library, however simple, can be made as accessible as possible in terms of presentation and appeal. Classrooms can become bright, inspiring places and children can be at the centre of designing them to be that way.

The importance of reading

Above all else reading any material in any form can be presented in a positive light. This is vital because illiteracy and poverty are inextricably linked. Children need to understand that illiteracy will blunt their potential as they grow up, they need to realise that academic interests are not for a talented elite. Fostering and incentivising a positive work ethic goes a long way to ensuring academic progress. And that helps to open up those future opportunities which may prove to be life changing.

Tackling motivation and offering support in schools

There is a proven link between socio-economic status and self-esteem. If children appear to be unmotivated it is likely to be because they assume that school is not for them, that it is for high achievers. For instance, for all those children in the UK’s education system whose first language is not English, progress and success at school is always going to seem daunting. At home those children are unlikely to speak or read much English, simply because their parents do not.

Educational support

While home background and environment are factors that contribute considerably to motivational outlook and performance at school, it is also the quality of teaching and the daily experience at school which matter. Inspirational teachers and effective schools do not just catch the attention of children from affluent backgrounds. In addition, frequent encouragement and support can make a huge difference to children’s motivation. Many teachers go way beyond the call of duty in looking after their classes, and consequently many children benefit in terms of their overall educational experience. Moreover, individually targeted learning support programmes, as well as one to one extra help, can be transformative.

Education is central to eradicating child poverty

For decades the UN has highlighted the central importance of teacher training programmes and classroom equipment in the fight against poverty. Governments, trade unions, think tanks, pressure groups and charities around the world accept that education remains a powerful means by which people can be empowered to tackle poverty. Poverty remains a complicated set of personal and political circumstances, and bringing about its eradication remains equally complex. However, at the heart of initiatives to lift children out of poverty, and break its cycle, lie educational policy, funding and the means towards achieving the broadest possible implementation, because empowering people to help themselves is the most sustainable, long-term solution to child poverty.

Why is it vital to measure child poverty?

Measuring child poverty may not seem like a top priority when there remains so much practical, long-term work to be done to tackle extreme poverty. Nor, at first glance, does form filling, data collection and number processing seem like a particularly beneficial or effective way to reduce child poverty. Yet such research and analysis, undertaken in an effective manner, will produce data which can lead to evidence backed policy formulation and programme advancement. These in turn can open up opportunities to raise awareness of child poverty and ultimately generate financial backing to address the situation long term. In short, without officially endorsed measurement of domestic circumstances across a country, it is unlikely that policy makers and associated stakeholders will feel empowered to devise programmes to bring about widespread, meaningful change.

What does measurement of child poverty provide?

Assessing the various forms of child poverty within a country can produce vital data and information about its nature and the scale of the challenges to be tackled. Measurements can inform how child poverty integrates with the concept of poverty in general, how widespread it is, how it is affected by topography, and how it affects cultural communities in differing ways. One example is the way illness and disease impact on children who live in poverty. UNICEF aims to measure and generate data relating to a number of factors which affect children who live in poverty. This will not only help to raise the profile of the issue, but also shed light on the best ways to establish a national pathway to tackle child poverty. As a consequence, this will continue to focus policy and development planning, enabling resources and initiatives to be better targeted.

The causal angle

Generated data which relates to child poverty should not simply shed light on the actual circumstances across a country. It should also offer insight into the causes. These may already be well known, but often causes are simply assumed. Whatever reasons are suggested or highlighted by assessment and analysis will enable better informed planning and policy implementation. So, data is multi-dimensional, not simply descriptive.

Observing trends and gaining insight

Measuring child poverty also enables experts and politicians to understand whether trends are changing and, if so, to what extent they are increasing or decreasing. This means that retrospective research is vital to determine just how beneficial recent initiatives and ongoing programmes are and are likely to be in the immediate future. An interesting example could aim to review the impact of a recent or ongoing campaign. For instance, measuring child poverty over time means that it will be possible to conclude whether financial input to programmes which focus on education, healthcare and sanitation are benefitting the poorest in society, or whether in fact they are helping children who are already proportionally better off.

One holistic benefit of policy review

If households are targeted by research and subsequent legislation, does that mean that street children and homeless families would not benefit? For instance, if cash transfers were considered to be a potential short-term solution, how might they best be implemented when many people, and children in particular, do not have bank accounts? Measuring child poverty trends and collecting accurate data from a completely inclusive cross section of society will ensure that policies and proposed programmes are validated and potentially enhanced.

Reckoning the scale and contexts of child poverty through comparison-led research

The results of measuring child poverty also empower data analysts and politicians to compare regional circumstances as well as make international comparisons. Basically, analysis informs on the scale of child poverty. Within the overarching context of poverty, it also validates comparisons with adult poverty and other discrete groups within communities and across society as a whole. For instance, gender-based comparisons should prove insightful, establishing evidence for girls’ personal circumstances, for example, in educational contexts or in domestic roles.

Further insights

It is a sad fact that child poverty is often higher than any other group. Research and measurement also confirm where child poverty is at its highest, geographically speaking, and it may be possible to pinpoint whether there are certain groups of young people who are more vulnerable to child poverty and its effects. It can be used to predict trends and allow preventative measures to be addressed. 

Is data just retrospectively useful?

Simulations are an important, forward looking statistical tool. They help to estimate the potential benefit of a proposed policy. Analysis of likely costs and overall benefits are also key drivers of legislative proposals, shedding light on the potential impact of a campaign on specific communities. Such insight would certainly inform the way in which a new policy could be best designed and rolled out. It would also prompt policy makers to constantly bear in mind the target audience.

How beneficial could data simulations prove to be?

Data simulations could lead to a potentially broad-based policy shift in government circles. Ultimately, they could be instrumental in the formulation and implementation of a fundamental social protection programme. This would likely be introduced in a series of stages. Data projections and subsequent collation would ensure that essential evidence-based feedback could be readily generated and circulated to all stakeholders. This would help to shape the future direction of further planning. Data can be released through the media to society as a whole, opening up an opportunity for a more inclusive endorsement of whatever progress is being made.

The overall benefit

If people across society can see benefits and improvements in the lives of others, then it is likely that they will continue to support further proposals for child poverty reduction. Society as a whole needs to be brought on board and ultimately made a stakeholder in proceedings. The media can play a pivotal role in presenting updates and explaining the ongoing impact. So long as people believe that tackling child poverty will be beneficial to society in general, then political momentum will prompt further collaboration and progress.

Highlighting dangers facing women and children in Syria and Turkey

How many people are now displaced in Turkey and Syria?

Following the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria on February 6th, the vice-president of Turkey, Fuat Oktay, has estimated that more than a million people are presently living in official encampments. This is in a context of bitterly cold nights where temperatures have been registering lows of -9 ̊C. However, in Syria the numbers are even higher. Sivanka Dhanapala, a Syrian official speaking on behalf of the UN commissioner for refugees informed a press conference that well over 5 million people were now homeless. The UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) estimates that 17 million people are living within the overall affected area.

What has been the UK’s response to the natural disaster so far?

International humanitarian aid continues to arrive in Syria and Turkey. In the glare of harrowing media coverage, governments and charitable organisations have scrambled to be proactive in promoting, assisting and delivering relief work, and so made their own headlines. In the UK, members of the general public have generously donated over £65 million to help those who have lost so much. The UK government initially pledged a package of financial assistance of several million pounds, and aid including a 77 strong search and rescue team, life-saving equipment, medical experts, hygiene kits, tents, blankets, and loan of a Hercules transport plane. It has also made a commitment to coordinate further help with Turkey’s government, the UN working on the ground in Syria, and other international partners.

How have women and children in northwest Syria been affected?

Commentators and observers on the ground are calling the quakes a double tragedy. There were already over four million people living in northwest Syria who have lost their homes because of the ongoing war and civil unrest. Now many of these people have lost their temporary accommodation as well. The majority are children and women who have lost fathers, brothers and husbands due to the long running conflict. ActionAid has reported the comments of an emergency responder, Sawser Talostan, ‘Children do not even know the meaning of the word home because they were born in, or live in a tent, and some of them do not even know the meaning of the word school.’ Following the earthquakes there has been a complete breakdown in public services and support. Now others have lost their livelihoods and are facing more displacement. Several hours after the initial quake on February 6th people started to return to their former homes to salvage some possessions, just as the biggest quake struck (measuring 7.5 on the Richter Scale), only exacerbating the plight of many.

Why should people prioritise the safety of children and women in particular?

In the immediate, chaotic aftermath of a natural disaster, governments and non-government organisations (NGOs) prioritise rescue efforts, alongside establishing shelter, food supplies, a clean water supply, sanitation service, and further aid in the form of clothing and more general support. Keeping transport links and border crossings open is a further vital part of this process. Regrettably, in times of crises, when law and order break down, and when people lose their homes, possessions and loved ones, it is women and children who are especially vulnerable.

In such difficult conditions it is easy to overlook the fact that women and children can be left in extremely exposed circumstances. For example, without the safety and privacy afforded by their own homes and families, they may face sexual exploitation. For those who find themselves bereaved, isolated and dispossessed, the threat of coercion into prostitution can become a new and dreadful reality. Moreover, desperate young people can be lured into child labour, or slavery, by unscrupulous cartels which will simply ignore children’s rights for the sake of profit.

Such shady operatives can justify their actions as charitable, claiming that they are aiding the most destitute people in their societies by employing young people and paying them something. Yet these cartels are hardly better than criminals who work beyond the law, and ruthlessly exploit young people. UNICEF estimates that globally there are already 160 million children subjected to child labour. The natural disaster in the Middle East may tragically mean that this figure increases.

What about desperate families?

When families have run out of any means to support themselves and have lost everything, sometimes they are forced to contemplate resorting to child marriage. What if they simply cannot support their eldest daughter anymore? They could reason that she would be better off married, even as a child bride. Moreover, they may be promised a small financial incentive.

What about domestic violence?

Statistically speaking, strained personal relationships are another tragic outcome of natural disasters. The stresses and anxieties arising from such sudden, bewildering loss mean that children and women are more likely to be exposed to the threat of violence and abuse, often from within their own family. In many societies women bear the lion’s share of domestic responsibilities. This role, in times of crisis, becomes even more challenging. Many older children find themselves becoming child carers for their younger siblings, and wherever a mother is injured, incapacitated, or lost, they can suddenly become primary carers.

What is the impact on mental wellbeing?

These lifechanging events can take a tremendous toll on people’s mental health. It is not surprising that anyone caught up in a situation like this natural disaster is particularly prone to stress, anxiety, depression, prolonged grief and panic attacks. It is all too easy to feel abject pessimism about the future. And this is also the very moment when medical services are totally overwhelmed and disrupted.

Should more women be prominent in rolling out relief programmes?

Sabine Adi Aad, the director of ActionAid’s Arab region, argues that one way to prioritise the needs and safety of children and women caught up in the aftermath of a natural disaster is to empower more women to direct the roll out and distribution of subsequent aid programmes. Women who are instrumental in delivering support and relief will, by definition, have instinctive insight into problems and dangers facing women and children struggling in crisis hit areas. Another organisation that encapsulates this concept is Forgotten Women. They only allow women to deliver aid on the front line. This ensures that vulnerable women around the world cannot fall victim to sex for aid exploitation. By centralising the roles of women within emergency programmes, those coping with crises will immediately have advocates who can readily empathise with them. It’s an appealing proposal, and one which could benefit countless women and children in the future.

What can be done to support?

If you would like to know more about the ongoing relief programmes in Turkey and Syria, the Disasters Emergency Committee website has up to date information.

Six Facts about Child Poverty

Fact one: the number of multi-dimensionally poor children

UNICEF unequivocally finds that on a global scale approximately a billion children are ‘multi-dimensionally poor’. What precisely does that mean? Essentially, these children have limited or no access to fundamental services, rights and provisions. For example, they are unable to enjoy a formal education programme, or rely on decent sanitation services and a clean drinking water supply. Moreover, they lack healthy, nutritional diets which makes huge impacts on their physical and mental health. They also live in unsafe or insecure housing, or no housing at all. Moreover, they are unlikely to enjoy officially recognised human rights.  

Fact two: the number of children in extreme poverty

UNICEF estimates that 365 million children are living in ‘extreme poverty’. This means that they are in families or groups which survive on less income than the official extreme poverty line which, at present, is an all too arbitrary straight line drawn across global demographic income at just $2.15 per person a day. The consequences of the arising deprivation are stark: these children are twice as likely to die in childhood when compared to those from better off backgrounds. Save the Children explains that almost six million children die every year from illness and diseases which are curable. On average that’s over 16,000 a day, or about one every five seconds. The vast majority of these impoverished children live among very poor communities and conditions. Yet it is within the power of the world’s developed countries to prevent most of those deaths.

This begs the question, why don’t they do so? Financial constraints play a significant part, but insular, domestic policies and legislation programmes also tend to dominate the political landscape, that is, until priorities shift. Unfortunately, presenting evidence that the eradication of child poverty would be beneficial for everybody is more of a challenge than it sounds. Traditionally charities, pressure groups and religious organisations have focussed on presenting child poverty as part and parcel of all poverty, rather than as a discrete and vital component part. By contrast, the United Nations’ first sustainable development goal is to end poverty ‘in all its forms’. By this subtle change of emphasis, it is proving possible to endorse and incentivise action in a more focussed way. The shift from a traditional approach to global poverty is placing children’s wellbeing at the centre of direct intervention, a desperately needed improvement as facts three to six show.

Fact three: why are more children living in extreme poverty than adults?

There are twice as many children living in extreme poverty than there are adults. The arithmetic is compelling: about a third of the world’s population is under the age of eighteen, but about half of all people living in extreme poverty are children. This of course makes perfect sense if you remember that very poor families tend to be large. And the older children tend to find themselves helping their parents with informal childcare and taking on work, which is very low paid and sometimes dangerous.

Fact four: poverty leads to exploitation

Save the Children demonstrates that children who live in extreme poverty are vulnerable to early marriage, violence at the hands of gangs, child labour and trafficking. It is a grim reality that poverty leads to desperation and exploitation. The least protected in the global community face stark dilemmas in their struggle to raise even a little income. Turning to crime and black-market activity is hardly a choice for countless young people. There is something appallingly inevitable, and cyclical, about the consequences of extreme poverty.

Fact five: the global malnutrition crisis

Save the children have recently drawn attention to what it describes as the global malnutrition crisis. The situation in Somalia and Sudan, in particular, has reached a devastating point. The charity cites another halting statistic, that approximately sixty million children under the age of five are suffering from ‘wasting’. Technically that means that they have an unhealthily low weight to height ratio. Save the Children estimate that in Somalia alone there are about 513,000 young children who face the risk of death because of their undernourishment.

The key point is that malnutrition is almost always reversible, so long as there is appropriate funding from national and international communities. So, this is really a question of priorities. Where on the ever-shifting scale of political agendas does child malnutrition sit? 

Fact six: the biggest danger, child poverty is self-perpetuating

Children who live in extreme poverty have few prospects for self-improvement. We are not talking about improving things so that more children survive to adulthood. Political transformation in approach to child poverty is urgently needed to give the poorest children opportunities to thrive and not simply survive. Expectations need to be challenged, otherwise there will be an uptick in survival rates, but poverty will inevitably continue to stifle ambitions and prospects. Moreover, lack of access to opportunities, both educational and vocational, is double edged. First, it is a major contributing factor to child poverty in the first place. If children cannot enjoy a decent education they are likely to continue to live in poverty. Many will feel unmotivated to attempt to self-improve and change their circumstances because of the conditions in which they live.

Of course, an equally significant consequence is that child poverty is also, therefore, a barrier to preventing shared prosperity in the future. Child poverty becomes self-perpetuating leading to more of the same. If a family living in poverty has more children, then they inevitably become poorer still because the overall household income is divided by a higher number and that income needs to stretch further. Therefore, this means that children living in poverty are in several ways a consequence of poverty and, simultaneously, a further cause of it. It also means that poor families living just above the poverty line are destined to fall beneath it if they have more children. This is a difficult reality to come to terms with. Moreover, child poverty also squanders potential, which disadvantages everybody in all echelons of society.

What can be done to improve the situation?

It’s all too easy to ask why we have not addressed and resolved the world’s most pressing issues, such as child poverty. The answer is not straightforward. A statistical approach such as Katharina Fenz adopts suggests that it ought to be possible to target resources at particular countries and communities to reduce child poverty by a significant amount. The eight countries with the highest rates of child poverty, amounting to over 50% of the global tally, are (in descending order): Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

If initiatives to tackle child poverty were especially targeted at these eight countries it would be feasible to reckon that over fifty percent of the global problem were being addressed in a coordinated manner. That does not mean that other countries where child poverty is prevalent would just be ignored. But concentrating for a short period on these named countries would ensure that the headline figures would drop quickly. With the momentum generated and knowledge gained it should be possible to roll out similar programmes in an efficient way elsewhere. Africa and India provide an opportunity to collaborate and focus attention onto particularly challenging areas. This is where data and its analysis can be exploited to galvanise awareness and to progress priorities and initiatives.

The two-generation approach to solving child poverty

Addressing both parental and child status when tackling child poverty is becoming a progressive methodology. For example, parents can be offered training and opportunities to study. The economic benefit is tangible whenever improved job prospects are a natural outcome of such intervention. Higher pay naturally means the chance to improve family living standards. If, on the other hand, low-income parents are provided with access to professional childcare services then the benefits for the children are also indisputable. For instance, children aged three whose parents work and use childcare services typically have a working vocabulary of 575 words. This compares to children of unemployed parents who did not go into higher education, whose vocabulary is typically only 300 words.

Moreover, parental expectations regarding the general value and utility of education impacts on the expectations of their children. This is a significant insight which underscores the importance of a two-generation approach to tackling causes of child poverty. After all, attendance at school is broadening, and can foster aspirations. If it is motivational then is it potentially transformative. 

In conclusion, empowering people, especially children, to lift themselves out of impoverishment is a top priority for addressing the injustice of child poverty. Increasing access to education and training can generate desirable aspirations at a personal level which are central to this strategy. Targeting specific communities and countries remains an important priority, and not just for UNICEF. There is a whole sector of organisations of various sizes and cultural backgrounds that operate in this way which is driving improvement across all poverty metrics.

Child labour

Child labour

UNICEF records that globally nearly one in ten children are forced into child labour. It’s an arresting statistic. Moreover, there’s an important caveat: some of those children are subjected to especially dangerous and degrading work, a consequence of child trafficking. Of the 160 million children estimated to be trapped in child labour approximately half undertake work which is harmful for their physical, moral and mental wellbeing. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF estimate that 79 million children aged 5-17 are presently subjected to hazardous work. That amounts to roughly half of all children trapped in child labour, a number not far off the entire population of Germany.

Why are children forced into child labour?

When a family faces financial ruin children are at their most vulnerable. Perhaps a parent or carer has been made redundant or become ill and is consequently unable to earn an income. Such a personal financial crisis, whether temporary or permanent, is shattering for families which just manage to scrape a living from one week to the next on what little money they have coming in. Children are likely to want to help their families, and in some cultures would be expected to do so.

How harsh is child labour?

We are not talking about some informal domestic work, or a school holiday job, which may even facilitate a child’s natural development, or instil some sense of self-esteem in a young person. UNICEF explains that child labour is much more exploitative. It’s bad enough for a child to receive a very low rate of pay. Yet such economic exploitation is only the beginning. Child labour can often mean physical and mental harm, it can lead to slavery and sexual abuse. Examples of hazardous work include handling and applying potentially toxic agrochemical substances, undertaking strenuous tasks such as carrying very heavy loads, and using dangerous tools and machinery. Moreover, these practices can often necessitate working in very high temperatures, which naturally and quickly lead to dehydration, among other health concerns.

What about the plight of migrant and refugee children?

Refugees have, in the vast majority of cases, been forced from their homelands because of natural disasters or political conflicts. If children are migrating on their own, they are especially exposed to risks associated with child labour. Trafficked children face constant threats of violence and are deprived of even the most fundamental human rights. They may be compelled to participate in illegal operations, for example, acting as drug mules or prostitutes, or be usurped into paramilitary groups. Trafficking and child labour sever children from their daily routines, their education, and their healthcare. They steal young people’s aspirations and bulldoze through their personal rights.

Unscrupulous businesses

There are also unscrupulous businesses which ignore children’s rights for the sake of profit. They may even claim that they are acting in an altruistic fashion, helping to support the poorest people in their societies by being prepared to employ young people and at least pay them something. Beyond these are societal subcultures and criminal elements who operate autonomously beyond the law, and will ruthlessly continue to exploit young people, irrespective of new legislation, ongoing initiatives and research. Sadly, young people who face desperate circumstances can easily become drawn to dishonest profiteers. Unless politicians wholeheartedly invest in rooting out illegal cartels child exploitation is likely to continue. The bottom line is simple enough: until the poorest people are provided with some financial support, some guaranteed legal standing, basic human rights and improved security, illegal practices which exploit children are likely to continue.  

What legislative steps can be implemented to stop children being exploited?

The IPO collects data relating to child labour. This research is pivotal in generating reliable evidence which can be used to draw attention to the harsh reality of child labour. The data is publicised, for example, it can be presented to political decision-makers to heighten awareness. Moreover, UNICEF and the IPO are promoting administrative strategies, for instance, one goal is to ensure that children are issued with an official birth certificate. Such legal documentation should confer unambiguous proof that a child is not old enough to work, so long as potential employers are respectful of such protocols. In addition, if it is devised and implemented in a supportive and rigorous manner, appropriate legislation should help to ringfence children’s status and rights. At the heart of this political intervention stands the issue of deprivation: tackling poverty will significantly reduce child labour. Government policies which protect and promote social development programmes in education, healthcare, gender equality and decent employment will contribute a great deal in halting child labour.

What obstacles remain?

There remain serious societal and political headwinds. For one, the challenges to ending child labour are complicated by the global scale. There are also difficulties associated with officially and accurately documenting child labour, and addressing economic circumstances on a nation by nation basis. Yet collaborating with different peoples and managing varying demographics in which cultural values place differing expectations on children is vital to halting child labour. Additionally, there are developmental trends to assess, including the widespread nature and impact of poverty, and the social implications of limited access to education, and future employment opportunities for both the adult population and young people. The ILO and UNICEF cite sub-Saharan Africa as the region in which child labour is at its highest, globally speaking. The international community needs to support countries in this area to bring about lasting change.

What else is UNICEF doing to help eradicate child poverty?

UNICEF and organisations like ILO continue to publicise and lobby. They state that people around the world need to engage energetically and wholeheartedly in confronting the causes of child labour. They must resist settling for second best practices or, worse, the status quo. By envisaging the better world that we would like to see around us, UNICEF believes that we can finally end child labour and fulfil a central target of the United Nations’ 2030 seventeen Sustainable Development Goals, namely 8.7, which urges that we collectively “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.”.

This sounds refreshingly ambitious. Yet an overwhelming majority of people around the world would sincerely subscribe to these ethical principles. It is a question of priorities. UNICEF, the IPO and the United Nations are in the vanguard of championing children’s rights. They continue to lead the fight to stamp out the exploitation of children, and they remain determined to enshrine these fundamental tenets in galvanising and shaping collaborative global thinking, planning and effective action.

Defining child poverty

The far-reaching benefits of a common, multi-dimensional definition of child poverty

The issue of defining child poverty is a surprisingly knotty one. It is a challenge not made easier because the concept of poverty is also an emotive one. Conventionally it has demanded a consideration of financial means, but definitions have only recently begun to look more broadly at available resources, services and freedoms. This is a vital step forwards since poverty is about much more than a lack of income. Definitions need to consider the extent to which people’s basic needs are below their means, whether people have access to a variety of fundamental services, such as rudimentary healthcare and education, and the extent to which they enjoy personal and cultural freedom. Having access to a reliable electricity supply is another fundamental factor.

Future prospects, freedoms and aspirations

Moreover, researchers need to assess employment prospects and whether people have access to meaningful opportunities for work. There is also the question of the level of social protection and support available, and the stability of the local community. However, beyond economic factors, a definition of poverty needs to encompass political circumstances, for example, the extent to which people enjoy social, religious and gender specific freedoms. To what extent do they feel able to speak out for themselves and negotiate with representatives of those in authority? Additionally, what aspirations do people living in poverty hold dear?

The arbitrary nature of a calculated poverty line

Charities and pressure groups still tend to cite a seemingly arbitrary poverty line. This is an estimated economic point below which it is considered impossible to obtain necessities for everyday living. The numbers published, of course, amount to something of a moveable feast. Originally, in the early 1990s a dollar a day became a yardstick by which global poverty could be measured. Subsequent official attempts to update this definition have led to the publication of the latest headline figure of just over two dollars a day. One concern is that definitions like these are based on one currency and therefore the economy of one nation, the relative value of which is constantly fluctuating because of a vastly complex web of domestic and global factors. This makes the processes of formally estimating poverty levels based on the value of the dollar seem less helpful.

Issues arising from a headline figure

Despite some impressive research in the formulation processes, the headline figure unintentionally invites a rather lazy response from people and organisations alike, because by its nature it relies on a very specific figure without conveying any simultaneous insight into personal lifestyles and living conditions. In September 2022 The World Bank revised and republished its monetary quantification of abject poverty. It categorically establishes its ‘new, extreme poverty line’ at $2.15. This crudely means that anyone living on less than this amount of money spends their life in extreme poverty.

In total the World Bank estimates that 648 million people, or about a twelfth of the world’s population, live at this level. Nonetheless this stark, official calculation begs an important question. What about all those people who live on $2.16 a day, or $2.17, etc. What about the hundreds of millions more who live on or just below $3 a day? They would in theory be fifty percent wealthier than their counterparts who find themselves just below the new extreme poverty line. Yet does an extra dollar a day make all the difference? Moreover, the World Bank makes deductions based on the new poverty line. For example, in a bullish statement it lauds trends in poverty reduction made since 1990: ‘the world has made impressive progress in reducing poverty’.

A multi-dimensional approach to defining poverty

The World Bank, however, does acknowledge the importance of a multi-dimensional approach to defining poverty. It devotes a good deal of space and energy into commending an overarching assessment. So, it seems disappointing that the bank insists on headlining with a misleadingly precise-sounding monetary value, simply supplying eighteen links to other pages where important factors and analyses are cited. Many readers would simply not invest the time to look beyond the headline figure. Essentially, defining poverty needs to prioritise and embrace consistent presentation, emphasis and, above all, evidence-based information.

What makes poverty statistics influential?

Suffice to say that whatever poverty line figure is put forwards, the methodology produces a very low income value. However, any headline figure, however eye-catching, masks a far more complex set of circumstances. In dismissing such statistical approaches as highly limiting, Don Mathews has neatly pinpointed one reason that poverty statistics enjoy such influence, that is, to justify governments’ financial planning. A baldly statistical emphasis fails to shed light on specific social complexities that contribute to the notion of living standards.

The need for a holistic approach

So, a more holistic approach to defining poverty, and with it child poverty, is preferable. Increasingly, experts have argued that poverty needs to be viewed through the eyes of the people in question. For example, we should be assessing what their aspirations are, and to what extent they consider that they enjoy personal freedoms and rights. It may be a mistaken approach simply to judge situations through western eyes.

In building a robust, multi-dimensional definition of poverty and child poverty, we need to challenge lazy assumptions and expectations. While this is not an easy prospect it is vital in attaining a meaningful definition and the benefits which can arise from it. Moving away from a reliance on headline statistics and sound bite descriptions also requires a concise and embracing verbal explanation. Another hurdle concerns people’s conceptions of poverty relative to their own circumstances and societies. For instance, a child living in poverty in the UK may still look considerably better off than a child who lives in sub-Saharan Africa, simply because of the level and quality of services available from the state.

Another statistical issue: revising figures promptly

UNICEF presents an unequivocal argument that globally speaking, the majority of people in poverty, are children. Their headline figures are shocking: ‘Across the world, about 1 billion children are multidimensionally poor, meaning they lack necessities as basic as nutrition or clean water.’ UNICEF concludes that although a third of the world’s population is made up of children, they comprise up to half of those trying to live on less than $1.90 a day. Of course, this figure clashes with the latest World Bank revision, and such inconsistencies are naturally unhelpful in defining and then devising strategies to reduce poverty. Imposing monetary benchmarks only shifts people in a narrowly statistical sense, but certainly not in terms of their actual circumstances.

A further numerical inconsistency

UNICEF goes on to deduce that 356 million children are presently living in absolute poverty, another socio-economic overarching term which also clashes with the World Bank’s tag. Addressing poverty inconsistently does not change the fact that these children experience the poorest living standards, develop the fewest skills for later life, and earn the lowest wages when they become adults. Moreover, UNICEF starkly presents the bottom line: these poorest children are twice as likely to die than their better off peers. Future collaborative efforts to reduce child poverty would surely benefit from the common use of universally accepted terminology and methodology.

Undoubted progress

UNICEF chairs the Global Coalition To End Child Poverty. It too celebrates the fact that over the past thirty years administrative and co-operative strides forward have been taken to address and reduce child poverty. There are encouraging data, leading to the affirming claim that child poverty has been reduced by over fifty percent since 1990. This statistic means that malnutrition has been reduced, safe drinking water has been made available to many more people, education has been expanded, and fundamental healthcare services have been established alongside better sanitation. Because of this life expectancy is improving in diverse communities, and children may even have improved employment opportunities.

Avoiding complacency

While such progress sounds reassuring, it is vital to remember that huge numbers of children remain in multi-dimensional poverty. Huge disparities persist, and naturally these guarantee that hundreds of millions of the poorest children are being left further behind. Political initiatives like UNICEF’s Sustainable Development Goals are bringing governments together on the international stage to address child poverty. The ultimate, and rightly ambitious, aim is to eradicate multi-dimensional child poverty within the next decade, meaning that children will have what they need not only to survive but to fulfil their potential and hopefully thrive. Achieving that efficiently and effectively would be aided by organisations and governments adopting a consistent, embracing overview, which relies less on statistical headlines and uses uniform terms coherently to reinforce descriptions of personal circumstances.

Making Christmas feel like Christmas

The John Lewis Partnership has teamed up with Action for Children, aiming to make a lasting difference to young people in care across the UK. This year’s Christmas advert adopts a refreshingly new style for the company’s traditional festive campaign. Their commercial, titled ‘The Beginner’, introduces Ellie who represents one of 108,000 children in the UK care system. Sad faced, she arrives at her foster home just prior to Christmas Day where she is warmly greeted by her new foster parents. As a first impression she notices a skateboard in the hallway and the cast on her foster father’s arm. In fact, he is battered and bruised from repeated attempts to master some fundamental skateboarding moves, a hobby he understands means a lot to Ellie, whose sole possession appears to be a well-loved board.What the advert doesn’t reveal is that a young person goes into care in the UK every seventeen minutes. That amounts to approximately 30,000 each year. Moreover, Action for Children, suggests that 60,000 children referred to social services each year were referred the previous year as well but, for a variety of reasons, were not offered any support. For some young people, receiving vital help from the state is a very slow process.

Media impressions of Christmas

Conventionally, the media tend to promote generic impressions of Christmas, with families gathered around a strikingly decorated Christmas tree, opening neatly wrapped presents, heartily eating and drinking fine fare, and generally enjoying a carefree time away from life’s more usually hectic routines. Perhaps there are red and green knitted stockings draped over the soft furnishings, a roaring fire with a pet dog stretched out in front of the fireplace, and ornate decorations completing the festive scene. However, for many families and children this impression of Christmas time is a far cry from the harsher reality of 2022. This begs two questions, how many children experience a less than happy Christmas? And, what can we do to make Christmas feel like Christmas, irrespective of material and commercially driven impressions and expectations?

Christmas can be stressful

The answer to the first of these questions is difficult to determine but suffice to say that it is probably rather more than you would imagine. There are several important socio-economic factors which frame individual family contexts. Ironically, for many parents Christmas can prove to be a stressful time. There are deadlines to be met at work, shopping to be bought, meals to be prepared, presents to be organised, cards and messages to be sent, relatives to be visited – sometimes hundreds of miles away – and housework to be completed. Perhaps we can stand aside from the hype for a few minutes to think about what might make a genuinely happy Christmas, especially for children classed as living in poverty. One where materialism does not take centre stage, one where overindulgence is rendered irrelevant, and one where overspending to keep up with expectations doesn’t land families in debt. After all, financial stress and hardship are leading causes of anxiety and depression, and the impact of these mental health conditions can deeply affect children.

The link between poverty and mental wellbeing

Official figures confirm that child poverty in the UK is increasingly widespread. However, Christmas can prove to be a difficult time and not just because of the financial constraints imposed by hardship. Poverty and mental health issues are indisputably linked. For example, anxiety and depression are more prevalent among young people whose personal circumstances mean that they are eligible for free school meals. Moreover, statistically speaking, children whose families face hardship are less likely to attain good examination grades than their peers. This fact can naturally undermine their self-esteem and prove to be educationally demotivating. Consequently, the festive season with its material expectations is likely to present additional sources of stress to young people who may already feel socially disadvantaged. So, while for a majority of children Christmas can be an exciting and even a magical time of year, for a sizeable minority it might prove to be divisive, isolating, and it can even undermine self-confidence.

Challenges arising from Christmas school holidays

Beyond the financial and material associations of present giving, the school holidays can also become disruptive because daily routines inevitably alter. Most young people do not mind staying in bed later, nor going to bed later. However, a lack of routine can become disruptive and counterproductive. There can appear to be no obvious sense to each day’s shape, and some young people may simply drift through the holidays. Others have no choice but to take on huge responsibilities during the school break. For example, there may well be a younger sibling to look after during the day, meaning that the school pupil in question fulfils the role of a young carer. Others may be obliged to look for temporary work to help support their family. Perhaps this transpires to be informally arranged and consequently the experience might transpire to be exploitative. These types of change to everyday life can leave young people vulnerable to all sorts of external pressures and commitments. Moreover, given the short days and prevalently chilly, wet weather, there may be limited opportunities to spend time outside, which can lead to a sense of boredom, frustration, or just feeling pent up.

Domestic abuse can become more prevalent at Christmas time

Moreover, there are additional issues facing many young people during the festive season. For instance, some children live in the shadow cast by domestic violence, which is documented to peak at this time of year. At Christmas people tend to consume more alcoholic drinks than usual, and that fact, alongside financial worries and expectations, can intensify domestic tension leading to increases of violent incidents at home. Children are naturally sensitive to family dynamics and can unwittingly find themselves caught in the middle of parental arguments. These can quickly spiral out of control. If you, or somebody you know, is experiencing domestic violence and associated relationship breakdown, help is available at: www.nationaldomesticviolencehelpline.org.uk.

The most important gift this Christmas

Given these issues and pressures it is remarkable how resilient and positive many young people are when coping with their individual circumstances. We can all make a difference to young people’s wellbeing simply by bearing in mind what really matters at this time of the year. I really like Christmas. It can often be a reflective and relaxing time and there are opportunities to spread some happiness and positive sentiments among family and friends. Even in a secular society the idea of a midwinter festival which marks the passing of the shortest days of the year and anticipates a new year, spring time and sunnier days to come, seems instinctively appealing. The festive season does, of course, also offer an opportunity to reconnect with children, as families spend more time together. Lasting, affectionate connections can be rebuilt. Perhaps the most important gift that adults can give a young person is time, alongside sincere attention and love. There is a danger of prioritising a long list of chores which inadvertently side line children.

Planning Christmas together

Moreover, planning together for a simple Christmas time avoids the prospect of over-expectation, and enshrines the notion that little things matter a good deal. Young people have been exposed to Christmas advertising since the beginning of October. That commercially led, drawn out anticipation can be concluded in a matter of minutes as presents are hurriedly opened. Perhaps Christmas could be approached in a more measured manner, wound down gently, and lasting memories could be formed by establishing new family traditions. For instance, something as simple as a walk to look at the festive lights, or a game of charades, or reading excerpts of a traditional story, like some short passages from Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

Making a difference at Christmas

Given that young people learn from what the adults around them do, it ought to be possible to demonstrate what really matters. For example, volunteering for a couple of hours may prove to be affirming and inspiring for a young person, engendering a broader sense of perspective. Or, where possible, planning a small donation to a charity together. For example, Barnardo’s Christmas appeal aims to tackle child poverty by providing food, warm clothes, bedding, and generally spreading a sense of Christmas spirit. Contributing in ways like these could help to offer young people a life changing gift that will empower them to navigate through the material associations of the festive season and nurture an appreciation of thinking about others, no matter what their own circumstances.