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Food for Thought

It seems obvious that nutrition dictates the quality of children’s general wellbeing. Naturally, children who are left hungry because of personal circumstances are vulnerable to disease and malnutrition. Yet inevitably, they are also likely to be unable to concentrate well at school, and that is even if they are able to attend school in the first place. For across the globe many children instead undertake chores and caregiving roles for their family and siblings.

Surely the future economic prosperity of a country lies in its children’s hands? Yet what chance do children who are underfed have to make a genuine impact for good on their own society?

On the other hand, children who benefit from a decent, nutritious diet and have access to basic healthcare facilities, have every chance of thriving in later life. One immediate impact can be seen in education. For when at school well nourished children concentrate better in class. It is more likely that they will ultimately be productive and energetic members of their society. And they will help their communities to move beyond poverty.

It should come as no surprise that nutrition is enshrined in international covenants, for example, the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is also fundamental to the same organisation’s seventeen Sustainable Development Goals.

In Kenya, two hundred and sixty children from every thousand under the age of five are classed as ‘stunted’. This upsetting classification essentially means that those children are too short and look underdeveloped among their peer group. In turn, they will be physically and cognitively at a disadvantage to those around them as well as those of their age across the globe.

Economically speaking, poverty and poor diet continue to undermine poor children’s chances of a productive future.

The United Nations’ 2020 short rains assessment confirms that a number of Kenyan counties such as Mandera, Marsabit and Turkana have critical levels of acute malnutrition.

The global pandemic also hurt the poorest communities most, and children always seem to bear the brunt of such problems. While daily curfews and restrictions helped to counter the spread of the virus, they also exacerbated the conditions of abject poverty for countless already very poor people. For many families, basic food became a luxury, and many went hungry for extended periods. Schools were closed and with them went the chance for the most vulnerable pupils to enjoy a free, or subsidised, school meal. Healthcare facilities were restricted or suspended and many children faced a very bleak time.

Moreover, the impact of climate change in Kenya means long dry seasons and unreliable rainy seasons. This has led to greater food shortages as ninety eight percent of cereal and vegetable crops are rain dependent. Farmers have struggled to maintain their supplies and many herdsmen have lost their animals due to years of drought conditions.

UNICEF estimates that a sizeable majority of children go to school without the chance to have breakfast. There are 10.3 million children enrolled at primary school and a further 3.7 million at secondary school. Many of these walk long distances to attend their classes. They cannot possibly concentrate when they sit in lessons feeling hungry on a daily basis.

Yet there is an incontrovertible argument for investment in feeding children in countries like Kenya. A World Bank report exploring child malnutrition finds that for every thousand Kenyan shillings invested in childhood nutrition, over twenty two thousand shillings will be generated for the economy. What an extraordinary investment return that is.

Thankfully there is a political willingness to tackle child malnutrition in Kenya. The government’s Nutrition Action Plan (2018-22) promotes improved diet for mothers and children across the country. Moreover, UNICEF and the World Bank are collaborating with the government and several counties to address nutritional issues. The programme intends to reach over twenty three thousand vulnerable families over a five year period. Working with communities to implement programmes to tackle poor nutrition should lead to long term, sustainable solutions. 

Yet while the United Nations’ and World Bank work to address this issue, there are those unsung NGOs which already tackle child poverty and hunger as part and parcel of their missions. For instance, one UK based charity, The Langalanga Trust, presently delivers seventy two thousand school meals a year to pupils attending two primary schools in an impoverished district in rural Kenya. For many of the pupils at Ndogo and Mwega primary schools, this is life enhancing. It means that those children are receiving a reliable and nutritional daily meal in the form of a mug of uji, or Kenyan porridge, made from maize meal and beans. It is served free of charge. The scheme is project managed by one of the Trust’s scholarship alumni, Daniel Githinji. The evidence speaks volumes, the children are better motivated to attend school regularly and they pay closer attention in lessons.

Nationally speaking, ministers levy nominal fees towards school meals, and have invested in and trialled smart wrist bands for pupils to record meals taken. However, costs for these meals may backfire onto the poorest children. Will their families consistently be able to pay even the nominal charge of a few shillings? Will they buy into the notion that they are helping to support their children when in many instances they have no money?

President Ruto’s government is aiming to reach four million children with the government’s new campaign, an ambitious sounding roll out. Their problem remains finding the poorest four million children, and beyond them, those millions more who do not attend school because of their families’ abject poverty and everyday needs. Much remains to be done to ensure that Kenyan children of all backgrounds can enjoy and genuinely benefit from the basic human right of education. A simple, nutritious mug of uji is a promising start.

Constructing alliances to end child poverty

In country specific contexts, UNICEF has highlighted the importance of assembling and aligning political groups and charitable organisations to tackle child poverty. This blog examines how establishing such an alliance might be achieved and considers which stakeholders would prove most suitable to help make UNICEF’s mission to end global child poverty a reality.

Identifying the right stakeholders

A top priority for individual nations is to identify the most influential people and pressure groups which can publicise the importance of child poverty and ultimately contribute and collaborate in practical ways to address it. Starting at the top of the political spectrum, it is vital to galvanise central governments to raise the profile of the issue and firmly embed it on the political agenda. Ideally a government department that has previously specialised in tackling poverty would become a central player of any new alliance. In theory, this would provide an official lobbying voice within a central government’s decision-making bodies. Subsequent access afforded to a financial ministry, or appropriate minister of state, or civil servants could help to enshrine action against poverty on the political agenda.

The importance of data

It is easy to overlook the importance of accurate data in tackling child poverty. An independent office which researches and compiles statistics on a national scale is central to this. However, in some countries the compilation of useful, accurate data is a hugely challenging exercise. Political, financial, geographical and topographical factors can mean that data collection amounts to a general exercise in estimates. Without accurate figures central governments are unlikely to invest and commit more than token resources. Consequently, any alliance needs to be able to research and then present reliable data. It is a cornerstone in the fight against child poverty.

Other vital stakeholders

Non-political organisations are important independent bodies which can professionally contribute knowledge and expertise to help address child poverty. For example, the UNICEF backed Global Coalition to End Child Poverty is a collective group of dozens of organisations. They include religious bodies, international charities, child welfare bodies, trade unions and groups for social justice, a number of which are household names. Collectively these organisations can offer practical insights and policy advice, garnered from proven track records across the globe. Moreover, they collaborate by sharing resources, research, and data, as they formulate regional, national and international campaigns. These organisations can have a considerable impact on public opinion and generate support in a variety of ways. This can give a genuine sense of momentum and validity to any official campaign or policy addressing child poverty.

A critical dual role

UNICEF also highlights the importance of the dual way in which such groups address issues like child poverty. Naturally, civil society organisations propose, organise and direct fresh initiatives. For example, immediate help in the form of practical aid, medium term educational programmes, and long-term empowering of people to lift themselves out of poverty. However, their roles in advocacy and engaging in political debate both nationally and international are equally crucial in establishing and supporting national priorities. Essentially this action and support helps to highlight child poverty and keep it in the spotlight. It is by aligning themselves with the interests of central and local government, and with the diverse peoples of individual countries, that influential civil organisations can help to make breakthroughs in the battle against child poverty.

Research businesses and policy institutes

In depth and wide-ranging research which has been undertaken on a national scale can provide firm foundations for subsequent action. Research bodies specialise in thoroughly exploring societal issues which involve economic, cultural, military, technological or political factors and trends which have developed within a country. The fact that many organisations like these are autonomous is beneficial, although some do operate under the umbrella of central government or a political party. These businesses also specialise in advocacy and campaigning for change. They highlight the findings of their investigations among a range of communities as well as those policy makers who are considered the most influential political stakeholders. Again, if policy institutes can align the interests of policy makers with recommendations from their research, then it is far more likely that their role will be effective in galvanising change.

Enshrining an ethical, holistic overview

Local and national research can also ensure that crucial, naturally arising and socially related issues are kept under review. For example, a campaign’s sustainability, carbon footprint, effective environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics, general progress, strategic momentum, appeal and overall impact. Awareness of ESG has, for instance, revolutionised how investment decisions are taken. Monitoring and demonstrating how a campaign or organisation impacts on the society and communities in which it operates enshrines it with an important sense of ethical responsibility and authenticity. Political and business stakeholders are more inclined to embrace a new campaign if they can see that such issues are taken seriously by the core team.

A key role of engaging with children and their families

To ensure that issues surrounding child poverty at a local and national level are better understood, UNICEF advises that as a standard practice, young people and their families from a variety of cultural communities should be consulted throughout a campaign. To this end it is essential to reach out to people acknowledged to be living in poverty. Their input and responses will not only prove informative, but they should also offer genuine insight and evidence which can be used to inform strategic decision making.

The core team’s role

Initially constructing an experienced but small central team can ensure an appropriate focus on the challenge of addressing child poverty. This team needs to maintain an overarching role, give direction, promote advertising, empower action through research, and responsibly monitor the campaign’s progress, impact and direction.    

Potential allies for the core team

Natural allies include journalists, branches of the media, politicians, charities, religious groups, human rights organisations, pressure and research groups. These will all have opportunities to contribute to an evolving consensus, strategy and subsequent action as a campaign evolves. However, the core team will be aware of potential allies and these form an intriguingly unaligned group whose possible involvement may make a huge difference to a campaign’s outcome. These will include organisations and individuals who do not work directly with young people, or in the sphere of tackling poverty. For example, non-government organisations (NGOs) like a charity which specialises in health and wellbeing, or education, or sanitation, or crime prevention, or advocacy for minority rights. These organisations may well not work directly with children, or children who live in poverty, although the focus of their missions may inevitably overlap with child poverty. Nonetheless a core team should aim to embrace groups like these because their involvement can ultimately prove to be mutually beneficial.

International day for the eradication of child poverty

On 17th October 2023, people from across the globe participated in a variety of events to continue to highlight the ongoing need for co-ordinated action to bring about the eradication of child poverty. The United Nations, based in New York, staged a poignant conference and commemoration which presented an unequivocal message through artistic performances, music, and speeches. Many stakeholders participated, including people who live in poverty, children, state ambassadors, political and business leaders, activists, and charities. The message to the world was simple enough: it remains morally imperative to ‘stand in solidarity with people who are facing struggle and exclusion every day’. It is by constructing appropriate alliances which can responsibly and effectively tackle child poverty on a nation by nation basis that the aims of UNICEF and the Global Coalition can be made reality.

The Diversity of Child Poverty

Around the world poverty affects billions of children in various ways. UNICEF and the UN believe that poverty and child poverty need to be redefined to encompass the radically diverse nature of all their forms.

Contrasting experiences of child poverty

The United Nations’ Development Plan (UNDP) has for the first time included deprivation profiles within the 2022 Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). One surprising observation is that poverty profiles vary a good deal from region to region.

The benefit of generating deprivation profiles

Monitoring poverty helps to define more clearly how it affects people, and that insight helps to inform progress towards fulfilling the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to tackle and eradicate poverty by 2030.

How many people live in poverty?

The UNDP and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHDI) estimate that approximately 1.2 billion people from 111 countries live in multidimensional poverty (MPI 2022). About 50% of that figure are children.

Poverty manifests itself in contrasting ways

In a south Asian country such as Bangladesh a person who can be classified as living in abject poverty might be lacking decent nutrition, adequate sanitation, sound accommodation and fuel for heating and cooking. However, in a sub-Saharan country like Malawi, a multidimensionally poor person is also likely to be lacking local access to a reliable, safe water supply, and a reliable electricity supply.

This means that everyday life for these two people would feel quite different. For example, a lot of time and effort needs to be invested in collecting and carrying water for many people in sub-Saharan Africa, and without electricity life revolves around traditional ways of doing things like cooking, communicating, and approaching day to day routines. Children’s lives would therefore be quite contrasting.

The financial crisis continues to impact communities in developing countries

Essentially, governments are grappling with overburdened budgets, and cuts in spending will inevitably hit poor families in terms of medical facilities, educational programmes and social support. The UNDP has issued a gloomy forecast regarding 54 countries which are heavily overspent and indebted. Inevitably the populations of those 54 countries comprise more than half of the world’s poorest people. Overall, however, they make up only three percent of the global economy.

The UNDP is urging debt relief, restructuring and urgent action to reduce cripplingly high interest rate repayments on the loans which developing nations face. Otherwise, programmes to address pressing issues like the impact of climate change are likely to be abandoned and people, especially children, will suffer further hardship as services to their communities are pruned back.

How the UNDP calculates these data

The UNDP looks beyond household income and national GDP to arrive at these figures. It assesses the impact on people of basic services affecting health, wellbeing and education, alongside a living standards assessment. To draw its conclusions, the UNDP employs ten indicative descriptors such as access to adequate nutrition, decent sanitation, clean water and access to six consecutive years of school age education. Anyone who is judged to be deprived under the definitions of more than three of these descriptors is classified as multidimensionally poor.

How many people are included in the UNDP’s research?

The calculations include over six billion people from 111 countries. That amounts to about 92% of the total population of the developing world. Of the 6.1 billion, 19.1% are considered to be multidimensionally poor.

Many families experience undernourishment

The UNDP estimates that 682 million people live in a family with at least one undernourished person. The majority of these people are children.

Children in education

The UNDP calculates that 595 million people live in a family in which nobody has been able to undertake six consecutive years in education.

Many educational programmes are obliged to charge a fee for their services. The world’s poorest people cannot afford to send their children to a school where a fee is charged. Moreover, many children are also employed from a young age in a family business, for example, helping to run a smallholding, or helping with care duties for elderly relatives or younger siblings. Hence many children drop out of school.

Additional descriptors used to assess general living standards

The UNDP also employs these descriptors to help define peoples’ living standards:

  • Personal assets
  • Access to supplies of safe cooking fuel
  • Local access to clean water
  • Decent sanitation
  • Electricity supply
  • Safe housing or accommodation

The importance of cooking fuel

Approximately ten percent of the world’s population is exposed to risks associated with solid and unsafe cooking fuels. Wood and charcoal are still used for cooking by at least 850 million people. Given the huge rises in the cost of gas and electricity it is likely that more people will have switched to solid fuels.

Solid fuels are riskier than the alternatives

Indoor fumes and pollution from cooking can take a toll on people’s health, especially young children and the elderly, and for people who rely on solid fuels there is an increased fire risk.

Where do the world’s multidimensionally poor people live?

There are 579 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa whom the UNDP classifies as multidimensionally poor. That is over 50% of the global total. In southeast Asia there are a further 385 million (about a third of the global total). These two regions are home to approximately 83% of the world’s multidimensionally poor people. Over 50% are children.

The prominence of sub-Saharan Africa

This is down to dramatic changes in India’s demographic during the past fifteen years. Estimates suggest that 415 million people have lifted themselves out of multidimensional poverty in India since 2008. Hearteningly, the most marked changes were among what used to be the poorest cultural groups, including children, people belonging to lower castes, and people who live in rural parts of the country. This means that at present sub-Saharan Africa appears to be more prominent in terms of multidimensional poverty.

Where are the others?

Latin America and the Caribbean: 37 million

Arabian states: 51 million

Europe and central Asia: 1 million

East Asia and the Pacific rim: 109 million

Differences in multidimensional poverty levels within these regions and countries

Approximately 83% of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas. From the 111 nations assessed within the UNDP, 198 million live in cities whereas 964 million live in rural areas.

Within these numbers there is a particularly grim figure revealing that 593 million of the people classified as multidimensionally poor are children. On the global stage that means that about one in every seven adults and one in every three children are multidimensionally poor.

The global pandemic has reversed improvements

It is thought that the pandemic has reversed improvements in the battle against multidimensional poverty. This is because people who have limited or no access to decent nutrition and sanitation are more at risk from infectious diseases. And 470 million people are at present classified as being deprived of decent sanitation and nutrition.

The main recommendations from the UNDP’s research

Multidimensionally poor people tend to be deprived of several basic elements at once, for example, adequate nutrition, cooking fuel, decent sanitation and safe accommodation. This type of analysis suggests that relief programmes should be focussed on addressing poverty-related issues in an overarching, integrated manner, tackling these areas together.

By analysing factors like the UNDP’s multidimensional poverty descriptors, and how people in different age groups are especially affected – particularly children – policymakers can be offered useful insights when formulating action plans and specific intervention.


The UNDP report concludes: ‘Leaving no one behind means equality of opportunity and access. It means investing in women and girls, youth and the most vulnerable people. It involves mobilizing local action and commitment towards one common goal: a better future for all.’

Some of the hardest places for children to grow up

Crisis hit areas

There are several crisis hit areas across the globe where it is particularly challenging for children caught up in circumstances beyond their families’ immediate control. UNICEF lists the following countries as especially problematic: Afghanistan; Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger; Cameroon; Central African Republic; Democratic Republic of the Congo; Ethiopia; Haiti; Mozambique; Myanmar; Nigeria; Somalia; southern Madagascar; southern Sudan; Syria; Venezuela; and Yemen. That list is in addition to the migrant crisis in Europe.

This blog looks briefly at conditions in just four of these places, Haiti, Madagascar, Nigeria and Myanmar.


Ironically, for many years Haiti has been a popular stopover for cruise liners with its idyllic landscapes, Caribbean climate and cultural appeal.

Conditions in Haiti today

However, there are several deep set natural and socio-economic factors which are compounding problems facing the people and particularly children. The country is still only starting to recover from the 7.2 magnitude earthquake which devastated the region in August 2021. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands injured, among them many children. Countless buildings were badly damaged including schools, churches and hotels. Although a similar quake struck eleven years earlier, in August 2010, Haiti was still recovering from the economic shock caused by that earlier natural disaster. Recent geological events have only compounded problems with infrastructure, power supplies, and everyday services. This has all impacted severely on day-to-day life.

The present political situation

UNICEF also highlights persistent civil unrest in Haiti. There is gang-related insecurity, ongoing corruption, political upheavals and forced community displacement. Moreover, tourism which has provided much needed revenue for local population has once more been severely curtailed by the latest natural disaster, having already been severely impacted by the global pandemic. For example, cruise ships were just beginning to return in 2019. Moreover, many people were already living in poverty. UNICEF estimates that 57% of the population is abjectly poor.

The impact on children

This combination of challenging conditions is naturally proving disruptive for everyone living in Haiti. For children it means interruptions to educational programmes, disruption to medical services, generally low living standards and uncertainty about the future.

Humanitarian funding for Haiti

UNICEF estimates that in 2021 it committed $24 million to Haiti in humanitarian relief programmes. That amounted to a shortfall of $98 million, or 81%, of UNICEF’s projected $122 million humanitarian appeal target. While the US and Europe, together with many other countries, donate generously to UNICEF every year, such shortfalls in funding for emergency relief programmes are further impinging on opportunities for millions of children to flourish and enjoy the benefits of basic services and a reasonable standard of living.


The island is the celebrated setting for a Dreamworks blockbuster animation of the same name. Four cartoon animals from Central Park Zoo, in New York City, are stranded in the jungle on the island.

But the reality of life on Madagascar today is harsh. It is estimated that 69% of the population live below the absolute poverty line of $2.15 per day. There are several socio-economic issues facing the general population. There are widespread health problems, a lack of medical facilities, and long-term malnutrition remains endemic. UNICEF ranks Madagascar as the fourth most impoverished country. Half a million children under the age of five are experiencing malnutrition, while almost fifty percent of children are undersized for their age. Moreover, there remains a serious issue with access to a clean water supply. According to the charity WaterAid, 12 million people do not have access to safe water. That’s from a total population of about 27 million.

The impact of climate change

Madagascar is suffering from an ongoing famine which has been attributed directly to climate change. The rainy season has been much drier than usual over the past three years and prolonged drought has left 1.5 million people without a reliable food supply, because of the devastating impact on local agriculture. Children find themselves innocently caught up in the throes of climate change.


Nigeria is a rapidly developing country with growing economic prosperity, and abundant natural resources. It has the largest economy in Africa and is ranked 31st of all 195 countries in terms of GDP. However, that is only one side of the story. This is a country with an astonishing north south divide. UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 13 million people affected by conflict in the north of the country. Over 8 million of these are children. Of this overall total, nearly 2.5 million people have been displaced from their home communities, and a further million live in areas which are difficult to access or service with power and water supplies. UNICEF confirms that there are high levels of food insecurity. Therefore, malnutrition is affecting huge numbers of people, especially children. Meanwhile the political situation is very uncertain with lengthy and ongoing conflicts affecting the northeast and northwest of the country. Unfortunately, these unstable conditions are being exacerbated by localised outbreaks of disease like malaria, yellow fever and cholera.


This is the largest country in southeast Asia, with a population similar to England’s, approximately 54 million. However, the country is continuing to experience humanitarian and political crises. UNICEF suggests that conflict, human rights violations, social unrest and violence are not only rife, but out of control. Together with the aftereffects of the global pandemic, and economic shocks of climate-related natural disasters, Myanmar has witnessed poverty levels rise while public services have collapsed. This means that over a quarter of the population, including five million children, is desperately in need of humanitarian aid. Child survival rates are falling and more and more people are finding it impossible to escape from poverty.

Political instability

The army seized political control in 2021 replacing the civilian government. Regrettably Myanmar is considered to be corrupt, has high rates of crime, especially murder, and is a significant producer of drugs such as opium and methamphetamines.

Historical humanitarian concerns about child soldiers, slavery and human trafficking

In 2012, child soldiers were found to have been drafted into the army. The Independent reported that families were resorting to selling sons to serve in the army for the sum of $40 and a can of petrol, or a sack of rice. After international political pressure, the armed services released a total of 42 child soldiers later that year, and negotiations were held for the release of more.Child labour, trafficking and slavery also occur in Myanmar. In 2017 the government officially acknowledged that it was investigating 185 cases of human trafficking.

It is hard to imagine being desperate enough to sell off a child for a few ten-dollar bills, with some rice or fuel thrown in to incentivise the deal. Moreover, traffickers exploit women and girls who have no incomes, or very low informal incomes, with promises of better working conditions overseas. Tragically most of these women end up as sex workers, or are forced into early marriage, or become pregnant.

What is being done to help people, especially children, in Haiti, Madagascar, Nigeria and Myanmar?

UNICEF has undertaken to make its humanitarian relief and support work as efficient and effective as possible. In the last two years, its Core Commitments for Children (CCCs) have been thoroughly revised and incorporated into central policies that inform and steer its humanitarian programmes in life threatening circumstances across the world. The CCCs are nurturing stronger accountability for personnel and managers, guiding planning, research, monitoring, and empowering deployment of human resources. UNICEF is establishing robust links between its development and humanitarian work in every region in which it operates. The CCCs are ensuring that UNICEF becomes a nimbler, more reactionary and reliable humanitarian path maker and collaborative partner.

Moreover, UNICEF is developing new emergency procedures; improving its risk analysis and overall readiness for future crises; improving accountability through detailed feedback procedures among target peoples; enshrining the benefits of local partnerships; and strengthening collaborative partnerships with other charities and organisations to ensure collective impact where it is needed.It is through rigorous, evidence-led and farsighted responses like these that children can continue to be reached, helped and ultimately lifted out of crises brought on by poverty across the world.



Why children’s views matter

Why children’s views matter when assessing child poverty

When it comes to defining and researching child poverty on a national or global basis, it might strike some people as counter intuitive to involve children in the preparatory groundwork at all. Yet by consulting with children and young people in a meaningful and engaging way, they are likely to feel empowered by the process and become engaged with it. Moreover, they may sense that their rights, as well as their views, are being respected. What better way is there to represent the experiences and opinions of children concerning their own circumstances. In estimating differing levels of poverty and differing needs it may in fact be of paramount importance to take into consideration the views of children.

An example of a child-centred approach to analysing child poverty

A study from 2015 attempted to examine the priorities of South African children who were living in poverty by asking them to formulate and then subsequently arrange an itemised list of commodities, services and everyday essentials onto a scale between what they considered an absolute necessity through to an out and out luxury.

Those children undertaking the surveys were first asked to compile a list of essentials for their day to day lives. The top 25 choices were selected for the comparative survey. The results are shown below in table form and contrast with sample responses from adults who were asked to perform the same exercise.

(Barnes, H. and Wright, G. (2015) Defining child poverty in South Africa using the socially perceived necessities approach. Available at:

Contrasts and similarities

Of the 25 items on the list, only six coincide in the priority ranking from both the adults’ and children’s surveys: three meals a day (1st), toiletries(1st), storybooks(5th), a computer (7th), a Play Station (10th) and an MP3 player (10th). Perhaps it is unsurprising to see the four items which coincide in first and tenth positions.

More interesting are the items with contrasting rankings, for example, adults placed new clothes 4th, whereas children voted them 8th. Does this say something about self-esteem from these differing vantages? Conversely a mobile phone was rated 4th by the children, and 8th by the adults. That result may reference universal issues of utility, practicality, cost, and a sincere desire to be connected to the world beyond home. From a young person’s viewpoint, perhaps having personal access to the internet and social media is likely to seem more important than having their own bed or room because of the broadening and aspirational appeal of a phone. A desk and a chair are ranked 6th by the adults and 10th by the children, which implies that children are happy to work anywhere that is available, convenient and reasonably appropriate.

Educational toys (2nd and 6th), and toys (3rd and 7th) are also ranked in marked contrast by each group. Once again, the educational significance and (in the latter case) the social and cultural value of these commodities should not be underestimated. These five examples speak loudly about differences in perception that children may have when it comes to assessing and evaluating what matters to them most in their everyday lives. It might also say something about their ages. There is, however, the vital matter of the children’s first-hand experience, which chimes with the positioning of school transport (1st and 3rd). For a child trying to get to school that selection affirmingly amounts to a top priority, of equal necessity to having access to a doctor. It also sheds light on the child’s perception of the importance of school, especially given the equal ranking of school equipment.

Therefore, it is little surprise, given the above, that children voted the school trip 2nd, while adults considered that much less of a necessity (5th). Another marked contrast is sports equipment (like toys, also 3rd and 7th), which, importantly, may be linked as much to aspirational motivations, as to notions about the beneficial nature of exercise.

What these results show us

Results, such as this table highlights, confirm that there can be a significant difference in the values which children and adults place on everyday essentials, fundamental services and commodities. It would be intriguing and informative to run this sort of exercise on a cross-cultural, global scale.

Implications for future research and programmes targeting child poverty

When it comes to tackling child poverty, taking children’s views into account is not only morally worthwhile, but it is also potentially ground breaking. This is because it is likely to prove genuinely insightful when evaluating their needs and values, and therefore help to shape the form and goals of future assistance. If decisions about issues like these are simply taken by adults then it is highly probable that the outcome will transpire be partly at odds with what really matters to the children in question. And in turn, those children are likely to wonder how and why such a programme was designed in the first place, and reflect on how beneficial it is to them. Developing an effective campaign to address child poverty is likely to benefit from an inclusive approach which embraces the opinions and values of the people for whom it is essentially intended. In other words, alongside evidence backed views of politicians, researchers and managers at non-government organisations (NGOs), relief agencies and charities, it is equally important to take into consideration children’s opinions about their own needs and values.

Obstacles NGOs may experience in tackling child poverty

Obstacles to tackling child poverty

Across the world organisations attempting to research and roll out programmes to tackle child poverty have encountered political, economic, ethical and cultural arguments put forward to resist addressing children’s needs. This blog asks why child poverty is sometimes not promoted into the political spotlight. Here are eight reasons.

1: emotional and cultural associations

From time to time in their roles of campaigning against child poverty and implementing relief programmes, non-government organisations (NGOs) and charities like Save the Children and Oxfam have experienced political and cultural obstacles to designing policies and rolling out initiatives which are intended to tackle child poverty. A central difficulty is the emotive nature of the issue. In short, child poverty is a very sensitive matter.

A need for new approaches

At first glance this sort of sensitivity may simply seem to be uncooperative, but it is vital that its significance is appreciated and addressed for genuine progress to be made. Regrettably, it may seem all too easy for NGOs or international organisations, albeit unintentionally, to appear to antagonise political and cultural sensitivities. If there is even a hint that an organisation appears to be aiming to meddle in a political agenda, or impose what could be judged as external values in a uniform fashion across different cultures then there is little surprise that insular resentment, solidarity or even denial may be consequential. Empowering people on a national and local level to formulate campaigns to end child poverty appears to be a good way to proceed. Achieving this, however, is a hugely complex goal.

UNICEF and The Global Coalition to End Child Poverty suggest that a nuanced shift of emphasis is one possible solution. Instead of addressing child poverty per se, perhaps addressing child wellbeing may help to ease understandable concerns. A UNICEF-endorsed report concludes that ‘measures and conclusions may be similar, but it may be a more constructive way to open discussion’.

2: the overarching context

If there appears to be little political motivation to discuss, research or formulate strategies to tackle children’s circumstances specifically, then addressing in general terms the wellbeing of citizens across various communities which collectively comprise a nation may open up opportunities for some consideration of children. It is from an overarching context which focuses on people’s wellbeing that child poverty may naturally emerge as an important area of concern and so be drawn into mainstream discussions. This should open up the means to introduce new stakeholders in forming a new alliance with policy makers, in turn enabling constructive consultation, funding and planning.

3: structural issues and conflicting research programmes

From time to time organisations encounter a contrasting problem, namely, a policy designed to counter child poverty which has been enthusiastically supported in the formative stages, but lacks fully fledged research or a strong core team to coordinate its effective implementation. Perhaps different research groups have been approached to compile data but have employed different statistical methods. This could mean that any data collated would not necessarily be comparable or compatible, undermining the credibility of the initiative. Constructing multidimensional estimates of child poverty is certainly a more challenging prospect than relying on a simple financial summary based on the arbitrary poverty line of $2.15 per person per day. Appointing a single agency to oversee this vital research could mitigate potential problems. Meanwhile, assembling a purposeful, experienced and connected core team should give momentum and focus to developing, coordinating and rolling out future programmes.

4: Solutions to poverty and child poverty are very similar

If policy makers and government ministers believe that measures to tackle child poverty and poverty in general are very similar, they are likely to consider that solutions to these issues are also very similar. This means that they may see no obvious benefit in subdividing poverty as an economic, social and cultural circumstance. In that scenario, it is quite feasible that there would be little motivation to put in place initiatives to address child poverty in isolation.

However, UNICEF demonstrates that potential solutions to tackling poverty and child poverty can be surprisingly different. For example, child-centred approaches are likely to involve a questionnaire-backed consideration and analysis of the provision, support for and enrolment within education programmes and future vocational training. Ongoing and endline surveys are also vital to update progress through the production of revised data. Naturally, analysing and tackling systemic poverty will not wholly focus on child specific issues.

5: In crisis areas measuring child poverty is counterproductive

A plausible-sounding case can be made that if political and social conditions facing individual communities are fragile, or in crisis, then there is little point in attempting to collect data specific to child poverty. For example, in areas experiencing an ongoing humanitarian crisis, it is simply not a practical priority to research child poverty. Yet maintaining support for a rolling research programme which collates data on child poverty can help to clarify specific and developing circumstances and inform agencies in coordinating strategic responses to both child poverty and any ongoing emergency.

6: Prioritising child poverty only benefits children

UNICEF highlights the fact that addressing child poverty helps to tackle poverty in general. In fact an innovative way to focus on tackling poverty within society is to centralise the significance of child poverty. By addressing the circumstances, needs and rights of children, all members of their communities are likely to feel the benefit of specific policy changes. Building alliances with organisations and stakeholders whose work tackles poverty is vital and forming a coordinated agenda around child poverty helps to benefit everyone. For example, enrolling as many children as possible within education programmes will naturally lead to a better educated workforce, potentially fostering personal aspirations and opening up improved prospects.

7: Concentrating on child poverty is not the best use of resources

An argument can be made that because there are many issues facing children and young people living within culturally disparate communities in a country, child poverty is not necessarily the top priority. Perhaps healthcare or rights should be considered the pre-eminent concerns. Yet by highlighting child poverty and focussing resources on that, it is likely that support will naturally emerge for those other areas which are obviously crucial for young people’s wellbeing. An informed, holistic overview will be a likely outcome of addressing child poverty. Researching and tackling its causes can also shed light on everyone’s living standards, rights and needs.

8: The poorest households have to bear costs of research

Any research programme, policy formulation and the subsequent implementation of a new initiative need to be financed. Interested observers appreciate that such policies are not necessarily paid for by comparatively wealthy tax payers, or international donors, charities, or NGOs. If there is any suggestion that people from low socio-economic backgrounds may be obliged to fund poverty research programmes through personal taxes or even out-of-pocket expenditure, it would be vital to investigate the financing structure of policies and programmes to formulate more appropriate ways to finance direct political intervention.

Compounding the problem of poverty within communities, even with sincerely altruistic goals, is unlikely to lead to welcome, or acceptable, solutions. If the target community feels in any way resentful then such action would also be counterproductive. Before any research begins, it needs to be appropriately funded in an equitably acceptable manner, preferably through associated stakeholders. The fiscal burden cannot be borne by the poorest in the community.


Arguments and obstacles put forward against tackling child poverty arise from genuine economic, cultural, and ethical concerns. Addressing these is very important to ensure that campaigns against child poverty can be conducted effectively and in a coordinated manner. An appropriately respected core team can build constructive working relationships with researchers and key stakeholders to put in place suitable finance and a rigorous, innovative rolling programme, informed and publicised by ongoing data collection.

All discussions and planning need to be undertaken in culturally sensitive, constructive and supportive ways. Moreover, where possible the benefits of detailed analysis, research, and measurement of child poverty need to be set into a holistic context and be clearly appreciated by policy makers and other interested parties. Emerging aims and policies to address the complexities of child poverty should therefore be based on well informed agreement.

Child poverty and drought

Water usage on the international stage

The UN estimates that 72% of all water used is in agriculture. A further 16% is used by local communities for example, through domestic supplies. The final 12% is used in industry.

Water scarcity and child poverty

Of the basic necessities which are taken into account by organisations like the World Bank to help reach a multi-dimensional definition of child poverty, a safe water supply is as fundamental as it gets.

Many people are affected by drought every year

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that approximately 55 million people around the world are affected by drought every year. Some of the most vulnerable work in agriculture and its associated trades. Droughts are obviously hazardous to livestock and crops everywhere. Depending on their severity, water shortages lead to people’s livelihoods being jeopardised or wiped out. The wellbeing of families and communities can be compromised if crops fail, or animals die from thirst. At its worst, drought can lead to whole communities migrating in search of safer, more reliable water supplies.

Many people are affected by water scarcity

Water scarcity impacts on about 40% of the global population, or 3.5 billion people.

A definition of water stress

Water stress is defined by assessing when a region or community draws on more than a quarter of its renewable freshwater supply. This is an initial red line intended to trigger a roll out of appropriate measures, official alerts and messages.

About 800 children under the age of five die every day because they are suffering from diarrhoea which has arisen from being forced to drink dirty water. Approximately 2.3 billion people do not have access to basic facilities such as a toilet.

Many people face the threat of forced migration because of drought

The WHO estimates that during the next seven years, as many as 700 million people, or one twelfth of the world’s population, will remain at risk of forced migration due to the threat of drought. Across the globe, approximately 2.2 billion people, or about a quarter of the global population, do not have access to a reliable and safe water supply.

Water scarcity is becoming more commonplace

The UN considers that the effects of climate change are making water sources less reliable. Natural water storage – that is, water which is retained in the soil, or in ice and snow – is decreasing. This inevitably leads to mounting pressure points on resources, meaning interruptions to supplies. Consequently, in dry seasons widespread disruption across communities, agriculture and industry becomes inevitable.

Those likely to be hardest hit by water scarcity

People who live in poverty, in low income countries, and on the fringes of their societies are most commonly affected by even minor fluctuations in water supplies. When it comes to a crisis brought on by a natural disaster or political unrest, women and children are, as a rule, the hardest hit group. Responsibility for fulfilling family requirements tends to fall on women and children. For water scarcity translates into a practical, pressing need to collect water. This is a laborious task, even if water can be sourced locally, and can use up much energy and time on a daily basis. For children it may mean that they have no choice but to miss school.

Helping to establish safe water supplies

Organisations like Oxfam introduced rolling programmes to supply water storage tanks as long ago as 1976. These are obviously transformative because they can be used as a central depot and distribution centre.

Another key piece of equipment in the fight to establish safe water supplies is the testing kit. This needs to be lightweight, and easy to store, transport and use. Kits should be able to confirm that water is uncontaminated and has appropriate levels of chlorine.

The jerry can is still an important resource in the battle to provide emergency supplies of safe water. Sizes vary but an optimum measure is 20 litres, enough to permit people to carry them while providing enough water for domestic use for a few days.

Other essential equipment includes pipe work, taps, standpipes, tanks and toilets.

Further medium term help

While pumping water to many communities is a medium-term goal, installing irrigation systems for use in agriculture is also vitally important. This will not only preserve crops and livestock, it will also help to secure livelihoods.

Moreover, advice and information need to be made available to as many people as possible. One route to achieving this lies in reaching out to communities through schools.

The importance of data in controlling water scarcity

In many countries there is no established, official monitoring system in place to facilitate a water management programme. This is important to help strategic considerations and provide accurate updates. Monitoring schemes can help to balance community, agricultural and industrial needs.

What is the best way ahead?

The UN argues for a collaborative approach. There is a need to view water as a scarce resource. There is an increasing onus on the global community to introduce Integrated Water Resources Management Schemes (IWRMS). These should empower policy makers with a framework to align the requirements of various water users in light of supply and usage patterns and projected demands. They provide up to date insight to help assess levels of water reserves. Essentially, data help to control water scarcity.   

How can IWRMS control water scarcity?

Data monitoring arising from IWRMS is able to shed light on issues such as losses and leaks from water distribution infrastructure. Moreover, data monitoring enables better allocation of water resources and targeted deployment of repair and relief measures. A desalination programme may become a viable strategy which could be endorsed and focussed by findings from IWRMS. Appropriate safe recycling of grey water is a further issue which can be explored through the implementation of IWRMS. Such systems give greater control of water resources through more accurate assessments.

Other measures to address water stress

Awareness, communication and appropriate technology all contribute to the production of more accurate data relating to levels of water reserves and associated resources. This in turn can be augmented through educational programmes and media alerts, explaining the benefits of water-saving and the use of green practices, particularly within industrial and agricultural contexts. Any methods which help people to appreciate the need to promote sustainable use, conserve water and reduce waste will benefit everyone.

Sustainable use of groundwater is vital to ensure that communities in vulnerable areas can adapt to the impact of climate change and better manage the needs and demands of an expanding population.

Water relief

WaterAid describes the visibly lifechanging sense of relief when a community is supplied with a safe, reliable freshwater supply. Clean water, decent sanitary and toilet facilities together with beneficial hygiene practices are fundamental to ending the relentless cycle of child poverty across the globe. When an NGO like WaterAid oversees the installation of a well, or a standpipe, children benefit immeasurably. And not just by being released from water collection duties which support the family. Aiming to guarantee a fresh water supply, rationalise usage, pool expertise, and implement conservation measures will contribute hugely in the ongoing fight to end child poverty.

The Adverse Experiences of Child Soldiers

Armed conflict can be one of the most destructive events known to humankind. From the stone age until the present day, wars have been fought over resources, territory, power, and riches in an almost constantly recurring cycle. It damages infrastructure, topples economies, destroys social networks, and has particularly harmful consequences on children and young people regarding their well-being and development.

However, whilst wars and conflicts have always raged there has invariably always been a distinction drawn between combatants and civilians[i]; a bargain struck so that the most vulnerable of society would be granted immunity from the horrors of war. Unfortunately, this sentiment does not represent the realities of war, nor how those most vulnerable often act in the face of conflict – in particular, how children act.

Children in modern conflicts have unfortunately become intrinsic to warfare and how it is waged with the most basic laws of the Geneva Convention being violated in every major warzone as children are targeted in efforts to inflict terror on populations. This callous tactic not only poses a severe physical threat to children, as they may be killed or injured but also a psychological threat to wellbeing and life post-war. What has become most worrying in modern times is how the impacts of conflict do not always affect children as passive actors. In many countries where war is present, children are increasingly assuming more active roles in the conflicts that persist in their communities.

Children brandishing arms is indeed by no means a new development. The Spartans took boys from their family homes at the age of seven to train in the military whilst the Ottoman Empire stole children from its subjects in the Balkan states to fill out the ranks of its Janissary army through a system referred to as the devshirme[ii]. In more recent history, when the Iranian regime began to falter in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s children from the ages 12 upward were called up to fight Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the new ‘Holy War’[iii]. But in present times, the training and use of child soldiers has become more commonplace than ever.

In 2017 it was estimated that more than 100,000 children were currently being forced to play active roles in conflicts[iv] in the fifteen UN-identified countries Yemen, Somalia, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, Colombia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Sudan, the DRC, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, Syria, the Philippines, and the Central African Republic. However, these are only the recognised countries and there are many more nations where groups are suspected of cultivating children as active participants in violence and crimes across the globe; even in some Western countries where terror cells, separatist groups and nationalists lurk beneath the visage of peace.

Today most active child soldiers are enlisted in rebel militia groups in developing nations in Africa, Asia, and South America. Militia groups often rely on a steady stream of voluntary recruits to sustain their operations. But when this voluntary stream runs dry some do resort to forced recruitment – a strategy that has become particularly prevalent among those groups that operate with children in their ranks. The extent and scale of this recruitment can, and does, differ between groups as conflicts run their course as some may employ children for individual missions whereas others will utilise them throughout.

It is important to note that this is not a problem limited to young males. The role of child soldiers is played by both boys and girls; and whilst it is commonly assumed that children recruited by militia groups are automatically handed weapons and trained as soldiers, it is not always the case. Children often take up other roles within these groups such as cooks, spies, or messengers. Young girls are particularly vulnerable when recruited as they can also face the burden of sex work resulting in physical and mental damage that lasts a lifetime even when emancipated. Regardless of how they are recruited or what role they play, child soldiers are victims of war and poverty. A child enacting a role that does not send them to the front lines of a conflict is still exposed to varying levels of violence, abuse, risk, and hardship – even though it may take different forms.

But what is most worrying about the current station of child soldiers is that not all of them are taken by force from their domiciles, or even coerced. A large quota voluntarily join armed conflicts with little resistance. The reasons for this all link back to poverty and deprivation in times of conflict.

Recruitment vs Voluntary Conscription

Whilst many children are recruited by armed groups, it is not enough to simply condemn those groups responsible for recruitment; especially when it is also the case that many children voluntarily and willingly join up. Children who join armed groups voluntarily are often already experiencing the impacts of war or conflict which can push them towards fighting. Traumatisation and brutalisation are two key experiences that push some children to join up. Children can experience high levels of trauma when witnessing violence through shelling strikes, shootings, landmine explosions and other atrocities in their communities that provoke them to conscript with armed groups to fight back – whether against a civil enemy of one further afield. Similarly, brutalisation is experienced as children are targeted by warring factions and are subject to search operations, improper detention in unlawful circumstances and sometimes torture – all of which contribute to a decision to fight the perceived inducer of these experiences.

But the main contributing factor that pushes children and young people to join armed conflict is deprivation and poverty. Families who have been displaced by conflicts and who are lacking income, jobs, food, and other necessities for survival often encourage children to voluntarily join armed groups as a way to make ends meet in extreme circumstances. Employment in armed groups affords children the potential for a roof over their heads, food, and, to a lesser degree, protection from the war outside. The choice to fight therefore becomes a plea to change their position in society and improve their opportunities for growth and development – or rather, at least it is perceived that way. The reality when living and participating in armed groups is often far different.

But what if war hasn’t devastated a child’s home; why do they then still choose to conscript? An answer for this lies in the Middle East at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, in Yemen. Yemen is a country whose civil war has been ongoing since 2014 and child soldiers have become an intrinsic part of the Houthi rebel group’s (and to a lesser extent government forces too) tactics. Since 2015, there have been nearly 4000 verified child soldiers active in the region[v] – with the actual unverified number expected to be much higher. The UN says that over 10,200 children have been killed or maimed in the war since its start nearly a decade ago which has pushed many others into the fighting. But what is most concerning, however, is the unusual socially prescribed relationship young men and boys have with guns.

Acquiring and owning weapons is engrained in Yemeni culture historically[vi] and the link between gun ownership and manliness is an intrinsic part of Yemeni tradition that has stood for hundreds of years. Even before guns, men used to carry curved daggers known as jambiya as a sign of strength and manhood. Firing guns in celebration of weddings, birthdays and more is common practice and a sign for rejoice among many. But whilst traditional tribal law prohibited the use of these weapons by and against women and children, these rules have been bent and broken over the last decade, especially with young boys.

The eternal pairing of weapons and manliness has resulted in the self-arming of many young boys who visualise their coming-of-age with fantastical ideas of guns and masculinity reinforced by a needless war that only provokes conscription to armed groups. For Yemeni boys, not having a gun would lower their status in social circles and limit their opportunities for development whilst transitioning into adult life. It is therefore as intrinsic a possession as the shoes on your feet and is why the country has such a prolific gun culture. There are an estimated 2 guns for every 1 person in the country with a population of roughly 23 million[vii]. Focussing the blame onto rebel groups, therefore, ignores the systemic problem that causes voluntary conscription in the first place and ignores an opportunity to challenge the issue at its roots.

The Dar Al-Salam Organisation: منظمة دار السلام (DASO) – or ‘House of Peace’ in English – is an indigenous Yemeni non-governmental organisation (NGO) focused on conflict resolution and disarming practices. The organisation has developed over 250 grassroots peace committees across the country working with over 4000 tribal leaders to conduct multiple youth peace-building workshops across the country. The workshops aim to promote the ethos of peaceful coexistence as an alternative to war[viii] to combat the doctrine of guns and manhood among the country’s young boys (and girls, although to a slightly lesser extent). The organisation also runs campaigns to stop youth conscription into violence to prevent further young people from involving themselves in the war.

But whilst campaigning and education on disarming practices are pivotal to the country’s fight against gun culture and child soldiers, the problem persists. As a result of the war, children experience issues of traumatisation and brutality as a common occurrence whilst also experiencing deprivation and poverty. All this pushes people to sign up to play more active roles in conflict – a position only reinforced by Yemen’s deeply enshrined hegemonic gun culture. This unfortunate cycle of adverse experiences only serves to push more young people into the midst of war and conflict. But despite now having a position to earn both economic and social capital, the experiences of children in these situations are far from improved.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

The experiences we have in our early life, particularly those in childhood, play a significant role in individual growth and development. Both our physical and mental health; our behaviour and emotions; and our ability to form meaningful attachments and relationships can be drastically altered and impacted by our situational experiences both as a child and in later life.

The concept of adverse childhood experiences or ACEs is central to a discussion about child soldiers. The concept defines and encompasses the potentially traumatic experiences that some children live with between the ages of 0-17. The term incorporates various experiences, including domestic abuse, neglect, witnessing and partaking in violence; substance misuse, mental health concerns and consistent instability in the home and the community[ix].

Whilst the impacts of ACEs are significant while young, people who experience ACEs in early life often suffer from the adverse effects of it in later life – particularly with their mental and physical health. People often suffer from an increased risk of certain health conditions in later life such as heart disease and cancer whilst also experiencing greater levels of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety – of those people who are diagnosed with mental health conditions in adulthood, 1 in 3 have previously experienced ACEs[x]. ACEs are also linked to issues of toxic stress (both as a child and as an adult) which can have adverse effects on various aspects of a person’s life[xi], including a further risk to physical health.

Poverty is itself an ACE. Children living in poverty are already at greater risk of experiencing significant physical and mental health problems which negatively impact their well-being. Poverty brings with it a multitude of economic and social insecurities such as lacking the necessary resources to feed or clothe oneself efficiently, heat their home, or properly engage with wider social actors resulting from inefficient opportunities to socialise and social stigmas and labels of the poor. The effects of poverty on a child are devastating on their own but when combined with localised violence and crime, the impacts can be even greater.

Most importantly, children who experience a combination of ACEs and poverty can have their integral understanding of social interaction thwarted and often struggle to understand various emotions (both personally and when exhibited by others). This makes it extremely complicated to process thoughts and feelings both as a child experiencing ACEs and as an adult. Young people experiencing ACEs often, therefore, find it hard to form attachments with others. This can be the result of an unsafe home ensuing from neglect or abuse but can further translate into wider social interaction. When lacking attachment, people are known to struggle as we are inherently sociable creatures[xii] and this is a key contributing factor as to why some children voluntarily join militia groups or gangs. These collectives can provide children with the support and attachment missing from their lives growing up experiencing poverty, neglect, and various other ACEs in the home. If voluntary, joining an armed group like this can instil a sense of connection and attachment that is otherwise vacant in the lives of impoverished children[xiii]. However, the reality of life inside an armed group is far from this and often involves the experience of multiple other ACEs.

How do ACEs Affect a Child Soldier’s Development and Adult Life?

The ACEs that children experience whilst playing their role in warfare are proven to drastically impact their psychological and social development whilst young and leave long-lasting legacies on their mental and physical health as they grow up – some of which are gender specific.

Whilst acting as soldiers, children face various ACEs such as a loss of access to school and healthcare, poor access to food and suitable shelter, forced displacement, and separation from family[xiv]. They further witness and endure physical and sexual abuse. But the most traumatic ACE that affects children both as active and passive actors in armed conflict is witnessing, and partaking in, violence. Children in militia groups are routinely exposed to varying levels of death and injury in war. Some experiences come from the side-lines, acting as medics to injured peers, others come looking down the barrel of a gun on a battlefield. Regardless of how they may be experienced, witnessing such atrocities causes significant harm to children while still serving in armed groups and for a long period after adulthood.

The psychological distress of fighting in wars is well documented with various studies concluding a strong link between the violence experienced in combat and the diagnosis of multiple different mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[xv]. But how experiences of conflict operate in the psyche of children post-war is not as widely understood. Both adult soldiers coming home from combat tours and child soldiers in post-war situations experience psychological issues exhibited in sleep disturbances, eating disorders, aggressive behaviours, and a dramatic increase in suicidal behaviour maintained by high levels of toxic stress. Individuals are unable to turn off their body’s fight or flight response to previously experienced stressful situations and therefore exist in a constant state of stressful anxiety. This is particularly potent among children who have experienced multiple ACEs and is especially evident among ex-child soldiers.

For example, between 1991 and 2002, Sierra Leone experienced one of the worst civil conflicts in recent history that displaced over 75% of its population[xvi] resulting in both a poverty and refugee crisis. The conflict was notorious for the roles that children played throughout whether as combatants or in other positions. In 2021, the country had a Human Development Index (HDI) score of 0.477[xvii], placing it 181stout of 191 countries published on the list; and whilst health professionals in the country are justifiably prioritising their focus on the country’s high rates of infant mortality, there has been a lack of attention paid to the fragile psychological state of the country’s ex-child soldiers who were active in the 90s.

Research by Theresa Betancourt, the leading expert on Sierra Leone’s child soldiers, found that ex-child recruits in the country are experiencing high levels of trauma since the conflict ended in 2002. Of those children who had joined armed groups, 63% had witnessed violent death; 62% had been beaten by armed forces; 39% had been forced to take drugs; and 27% had killed or injured others in war[xviii]. Experiencing these kinds of atrocities at a young age can impair the development of the prefrontal cortex which affects logical thinking and memory. This can contribute to a greater risk of suffering from depression and anxiety among war-exposed youths as they disassociate their feelings from their experiences and therefore struggle to logically tackle social encounters when the feelings resurface in later life. These, in turn, impact other areas of life such as finances, attachment and social interaction – especially when there are lasting stigmas attached to their actions whilst in service.

Multiple other external stressors influence how individuals behave post-conflict. Perceived stigmas from external actors play a massive role in how ex-child soldiers perceive themselves and measure their self-worth. It also limits their opportunities to socialise as other actors do not accept or accommodate them in a way that allows them to reintegrate into mainstream society. This can ultimately result in individuals retreating to the fringes of civilisation so as not to feel judged. But this reinforces their perceptions of themselves and how they feel society views them and amplifies the potential spiral of an individual’s mental health.

But despite the odds stacked against them, the rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers back into mainstream society is possible. Evidence suggests that despite the trauma many ex-child soldiers live with resulting from the numerous ACEs they have experienced, positive developmental outcomes are achievable if the right resources and support available[xix]. There is a multitude of humanitarian aid and support that incorporates holistic trauma-led approaches to helping children after wartime that can and do help children who have actively participated in conflicts.

The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone set out a peacebuilding mandate that focussed on the demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration of child soldiers’ post-civil conflict. The agency disarmed 75,000 ex-fighters, many of whom were children and in efforts to promote peace, alongside other UN agencies, set up numerous projects to provide jobs to thousands of unemployed youths rebuilding schools, medical centres and more[xx]. Most importantly, the projects provided a safe space overseen by UN peacekeepers where young children involved in fighting could reintegrate into wider society without the stresses or stigmas that may have otherwise been present if excluded.

More generally across the world, UNICEF, commissioned by the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, provides psychological support during this transition period. They run courses on sensitisation and reconciliation efforts so that children can cognitively process what they have experienced and begin to live with the trauma they may possess.[xxi]. Furthermore, once children have completed these courses, some programmes attempt to reunite them with their families so that they can receive the love, support and attachment that is so desperately needed to promote stability and good mental well-being.

There are also many other NGOs acting to combat the impact of ACEs on ex-child soldiers. The Children and War Foundation is a non-profit organisation that helps children in communities that were previously affected by war. They have developed numerous study-proven interventions and support groups for ex-child soldiers to discuss their experiences and develop coping strategies in life after war. War Child is another agency that does similar work but also additionally runs multiple rehabilitation programmes for children suffering from drug addiction as a result of doping in armed militia groups that aim to reduce their reliance on using and instead focus on positive growth outcomes.

It must be noted that the rehabilitation of ex-child soldiers is highly gendered and whilst the above services are available for both genders, young women and girls face additional challenges when reintegrating back into wider society – especially when they have been victims of sexual abuse. 1 in 6 children in war zones are victims of sexual abuse; of that statistic, 98% are young women[xxii]. With a lack of state systems to report the crime, social stigmas, and the fear of retaliation by the perpetrator; young women can often feel extremely isolated when conflicts resolve and, like other ACEs, the impacts of the abuse can have long-lasting negative effects. UNICEF runs programmes the world over for child victims of sexual abuse. These include support for safe and accessible reporting, reliable medical support, and gender-based violence recovery sessions where both physical and mental well-being support is available for survivors living with the impacts of abuse and exploitation.

The Bigger Picture

What becomes clear is that condemning those who recruit child soldiers is not a complete solution. Children, in many instances, will fight voluntarily. And whilst in some cases this may be a desired position of status, such as for young men in Yemen; in many instances, the life of a child soldier is thrust upon its participant as a result of wider social processes. War itself alongside vulnerability, insecurity, deprivation, and poverty are all key push factors for the voluntary conscription of children into armed groups. When this is combined with the forceful nature of militia recruitment tactics, it produces a recipe for a cycle of abuse that will continue unless addressed as a whole.

The work that is being done by the UN and various other NGOs around the world to help ex-child soldiers confront the adverse experiences they encounter whilst fighting is pivotal to their rehabilitation and assimilation back into wider social practices. But if we are to prevent children from fighting in conflicts in the future, then we need to eradicate the root societal causes as well as address the post-conflict fallout whilst condemning and fighting the groups that recruit in the first place. But in a world order where ‘the original sin of humanity is its inability to live at peace’[xxiii]; will this ever be a plausible and encompassing solution?

[i] Singer, P.W. (2005). Children at War. Pantheon Books, New York.

[ii] Alvarez, J. (2020). Devshirme, the recruitment of Christian children by the Ottoman Empire to become soldiers and officials. LBV Magazine Cultural Independiente. Retrieved from:

[iii] University of Chicago. (2011). The Graphics of Revolution and War: Iranian Poster Arts Exhibition. University of Chicago Library, Chicago.

[iv] Mulroy, M. et al. (2020). Begin with the children. Child soldier numbers doubled in the Middle East in 2019. Middle East Institute. Retrieved from:

[v] Nasser, A. (2023). Child Soldiers in Yemen: Cannon Fodder for an Unnecessary War. Arab Center Washington DC. Retrieved from:,have%20been%20recruited%20since%202015.

[vi] Root, T. (2013). Gun Control, Yemen-Style. The Atlantic. February, 12.

[vii] Abdullah, K. (2010). Yemen Gun Culture Harms Stability, Helps Militants. Reuters Online. Retrieved from:

[viii] Dar Al-Salam Org. (2023) Education for Peace project. منظمة دار السلام. Retrieved from:

[ix] CDC. (2023). Fast Facts: Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention CDC. Retrieved from:

[x] NHS. (2023). Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Attachment. Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust. Manchester.

[xi] Center on the Developing Child. (2023). What are ACEs? And how do they relate to toxic stress? Harvard University. Boston. Retrieved from:

[xii] Young, S. (2008). The neurobiology of human social behaviour: an important but neglected topic. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. Sep; 33(5): p. 391-392.

[xiii] AACAP. (2017). Gangs and Children. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Sep; 98. Retrieved from:

[xiv] Betancourt, T, et al. (2020). Stigma and Acceptance of Sierra Leone’s Child Soldiers: A Prospective Longitudinal Study of Adult Mental Health and Social Functioning. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Vol. 59; No. 6: p. 715-726.

[xv] Applewhite, L., Arincorayan, D., Adams, B. (2016). Exploring the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences in soldiers seeking behavioural health care during combat deployment. Military Medicine, Vol. 181; No. 10: p. 1275–1280.

[xvi] Betancourt, T. et al. (2011). Sierra Leone’s Child Soldiers: War Exposures and Mental Health Problems by Gender. J Adolesc Health. Jul; 49(1): p. 21-28.

[xvii] UNDP. (2021). Human Development Index: Explore HDI. UNDP Human Development Reports. Retrieved from:

[xviii] Harvard T.H. Chan (2011). Life after death: Helping former child soldiers become whole again. Harvard School of Public Health. Retrieved from:

[xix] Betancourt, T, et al. (2020). Stigma and Acceptance of Sierra Leone’s Child Soldiers: A Prospective Longitudinal Study of Adult Mental Health and Social Functioning. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Vol. 59; No. 6: p. 715-726.

[xx] UNAMSIL (2005). Sierra Leone – United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone – Background. UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Retrieved from:

[xxi] Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict. (2023). Questions and Answers on the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers. UN. Retrieved from:

[xxii] Fairfield, C. (2021). One in Six Children Living in Conflict Zones at Risk of Sexual Violence by Armed Groups. Save the Children. Retrieved from:

[xxiii] Singer, P.W. (2006). The New Faces of War. American Educator, Winter 2005-2006.

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Can reading help to defeat child poverty?

Save The Children has published a report into the promotion and benefits of reading for all children, irrespective of geographical and cultural background.

Reading helps children to develop literary skills, improve cognitive skills and it can fire their imagination. Reading can often be entertaining, educational and engaging. It can become an important hobby, enrich a young child’s vocabulary and instil a sense of critical and emotional awareness through empathy. Moreover, reading is broadening because of its cross-cultural insights and potential.

Reading really can help to empower children in the battle against poverty

Remarkably, researchers suggest that reading for just half an hour each week can improve children’s mental wellbeing, enhancing self-esteem and confidence. In the long term, reading may even help to stave off symptoms of mental illness like dementia. There is little doubt that good literacy is potentially life-enhancing. Reading from a young age can boost future employment prospects. Good literacy from a young age can ultimately open doors to higher education which in turn can lead to better paid jobs.

How young should children begin reading?

Researchers believe that it is never too young to experience a child’s picture book. These are designed to be eye catching. Their storylines are often inspirational and introduce exciting, amusing, and poignant themes. In short, they help to stimulate cognitive development. So, certainly before school age it is beneficial for children to experience simple text which will help to enrich their vocabulary.

Save the Children estimate that around the world about 50% of all 3-6 year old children do not have access to preschool learning. That amounts to approximately 160 million children. Therefore, NGOs and charities are working with local communities to raise awareness of the significance of reading. Ideally, parents should be supported in encouraging their children to begin to read. If a young child enjoys looking at a book, then as she develops she is likely to embrace further opportunities to read more sophisticated material.

A lack of age-appropriate material

Early readers are in short supply in many communities. Regrettably, recent research from USAID undertaken across eleven sub-Saharan countries revealed that the biggest shortage of children’s books, written in local language, is in pre-school literature. For instance, in Nigeria, of the 500 spoken languages only six were represented through young children’s books.

Save the Children worked in four regions to attempt to increase access to high quality children’s books. In Bhutan, Cambodia, the Philippines and Rwanda, the charity has worked alongside publishers to promote and increase supplies of high quality children’s books, written in local languages. Unsurprisingly follow up research has demonstrated that an increased availability of appropriate books has led to improved levels of child literacy.

The most important catalyst

Parental interest and support for young child literacy is very important in raising reading standards. Since across the developing world many children do not spend long in class, and therefore do not spend long practising and developing reading skills at school, it is very important to promote reading to children as a leisure activity beyond a formal educational curriculum.

Steps to nurture an interest in reading beyond school

NGOs and charities have experimented by establishing community-based reading clubs, book buddies and book banks, where children are able to borrow and exchange reading material. Save the Children has set about promoting the benefits of children’s reading through parental workshops. The charity has also rolled out Literary Boost, a literacy programme designed to support and foster reading skills in under resourced areas.

Literary Boost led to improved letter recognition, greater fluency and confidence with basic reading, and deeper understanding of a story.

Programmes like Literary Boost help teachers too

Across the globe many teachers are not specifically trained to develop children’s reading and literary skills. Therefore, they need support and training to help effectively convey principles of literary education to young children. In Rwanda, for example, a manual was produced to advise teachers how they can teach reading skills in the most practical and effective way, given that Literary Boost is designed to target these five reading skills:

  • Recognition of the alphabet and commonplace words
  • Awareness of phonetics and pronunciation
  • General fluency and accuracy
  • Vocabulary enrichment
  • Understanding context, characterisation, and themes

These key skills address the fundamental components of reading and help to ensure more accomplished literacy and comprehension.

Did Literary Boost make a uniform cross-cultural impact?

As Literary Boost was implemented it became clear that it improved child literacy, irrespective of local contexts. The programme was rolled out at twelve community sites in developing countries, ranging from an urban setting in Indonesia to another in rural Ethiopia. In each one, children’s literacy improved.

Researchers conclude that reading and writing practice and development need to be conducted in a language which the children concerned understand and speak at home. While this may sound like common sense, it is important in schools where children speak different languages to make reading as child centred and specific as possible. Rich cultural contexts in classrooms are always challenging for teachers, especially in big classes.

Does speaking a minority language disadvantage children in terms of literacy?

Sadly, minority languages can marginalise a community, politically, economically and educationally. Those people who live in a linguistic minority are also disadvantaged as they attempt to find appropriate education for their children. Because children develop linguistic and literary skills through practice and everyday use, the more opportunities they have for speaking, reading and writing the greater the likely benefit. Self-esteem and confidence are also linked to developing literacy skills. If in school some children speak, read and write a different language to the one they speak at home, then they are unlikely to keep up with peers who operate in just the one language.

Moreover, opportunities for practice are most overtly beneficial to young children when they are enjoyable. Hence the undisputed links between children enjoying reading as a hobby and developing good literary skills. Research from the Literary Boost programme reveals that the more time a child can devote to reading in and out of school, the more positive the impact on their literary key skills is likely to be.

It is not just in developing countries that initiatives like this operate. For example, in the UK, Save the Children designed Families Connect, another programme which is intended to help parents when they read stories with their children.

The purpose of school reading assessments

In principle, assessments inform teachers about two important aspects of their reading schedules. First, they shed light on the developing skills and progress of each child within a particular class or year group. Second, they enable regular, evidence-led adaptation of programmes to cater better to the needs of individual children. Moreover, formalised data from schools can help to inform and shape policy makers’ decisions about revisions to the curriculum.

Conclusion: when a reading policy and programme are most effective

Save the Children’s experience is conclusive. They have found that targeting better literacy rates is most effective when they achieved an alliance between teachers, parents, and policy makers to improve opportunities for children to read. The broader range of stakeholders concerned the more impact the programme is likely to make. Essentially an acknowledged culture of reading, funded by educational budgets and steered by adaptable policies will ensure that more children learn to read well from an early age. For those children the future will be more exciting and aspirational as a result, because ultimately reading can help to empower people in the battle to defeat child poverty.

All children need to be represented

It has long been reasoned that, globally speaking, all children matter, but sadly not every child is taken into consideration when it comes to collating data and surveying statistics on a national basis.

Some children tend to be omitted from national surveys

Regrettably, surveys tend not to be as inclusive as might be intended or presumed. For it is likely that strategic efforts to research the personal circumstances of those living on the fringes of their cultures will not reach far enough towards the periphery of society. For example, families which happen to live as squatters, or in unregistered slum housing, tend to be overlooked or not consulted. In other words, the poorest and most vulnerable children may not be fully represented in surveys of child poverty. The more apparently chaotic nature of domestic situations, the less chance there is of formulating an appropriate survey to assess the situation. UNICEF’s collaborative work alongside the government in Egypt presents an interesting example. This saw the development and successful use of a specifically tailored survey to assess the scale of child poverty within urban slums and unplanned housing.

Why might some people not be included in surveys?

For one thing, it is not always administratively easy to consult with people who live in unofficial or unregistered circumstances. Nor might it be considered safe for researchers to reach out to consult a representative sample of these people. Statistically it is likely to be difficult to establish precisely what would comprise a representative sample group, wherever accurate census records do not exist. For example, in Madagascar there was no officially sanctioned census conducted between 1973 and 2018. This means that for decades many people’s living conditions and circumstances were officially unrecognized. Moreover, the people in question might not have wanted to participate in a national statistical survey.

Why people might be suspicious of statistical research

There are many people who remain undocumented members of their societies, who naturally fear officially registering with authorities because they believe that the process might compromise their personal safety and wellbeing. Although data research into child poverty is a broadly anonymous process, it might appear to be otherwise to the most vulnerable people who live on the edge of society and who do not want to risk formal contact with state officials or state appointed organisations. If people intended to benefit from the findings of research remain suspicious of it then it’s findings and any subsequent policy decisions are likely to be intrinsically flawed.

People who live beyond the reach of researchers

People who live in an area that could be classified as a war zone, or where breakdowns in social order are thought to present high risks to researchers, are likely to be omitted from a mainstream consultation. Yet these are the very people whose status will likely fall into low socio-economic groups of which a high proportion would probably be classed as impoverished. If these people do not feature in consultations, then the statistical findings will not be representative of the reality across the country.

Nomadic peoples

People whose lifestyles are traditionally nomadic whether through their cultures or through their trades are also likely to be underrepresented in national surveys simply because they are not easy to locate or consult. Limited resources mean that researchers are unlikely to be able to monitor and sample nomadic peoples.

Street Children

Many children continue to live on the streets. Some are orphans, some have been abandoned, some have run away.  It is not an easy prospect to conduct surveys which consult with them and represent their circumstances in accurate analysis. This is partly because of the unknown numbers involved.  There is also a moral issue regarding the right of a child to give consent to data collection and representation, if no appropriate adult is available. Therefore, it is vital that the beneficial purposes of research surveys and the anonymous uses of data are carefully and sensitively explained.

Other children beyond the scope of national research

For a variety of reasons, some young people live in fairly informal households, in which children themselves act as the head of their family group. If research is conducted through a representative sample of households and schools these children are unlikely to be represented on a survey. There are inevitably some children who are removed altogether from their societies at the hands of child traffickers. These are essentially beyond the reach of any research programme, however comprehensive and exhaustive.

The scope of UNICEF’s Strategic Development Goals

There is a purposeful emphasis that arises within the SDGs in relation to children and child poverty, namely that no child should be left behind. This notion is important in informing the nature of research into child poverty. Innovative and all-embracing methods of data collection need to be rolled out and estimates need to be produced without excluding any of the groups cited above. Acknowledging these limitations in statistical research is an important milestone in achieving more representative data to inform strategic planning to counter child poverty.

Missing numbers

Household and school based surveys are inherently useful in assessing and clarifying levels of child poverty, preparing the ground for appropriately targeted legislation and relief campaigns. Without them much of the success in reducing child poverty on a global scale would have been impossible. However, it is vital to build in fail safe mechanisms to the research which ensures that the poorest and most vulnerable children are formally represented and taken into consideration. Sampling frameworks may have missed many millions of people and children from their data. In 2016, problems like these prompted over 175 organisations to write an open letter to the UN Statistical Commission on SDG indicators, arguing for the potential benefits of more culturally specific data collection and analysis to ensure that countries acknowledged and represented all children in their assessments of child poverty. Organisations like UNICEF have championed that sentiment ever since.

The benefits

While no data research can be one hundred percent accurate, and while accessibility may continue to be problematic, culturally sensitive research surveys can afford more than an overarching sense of the uncounted child populations who live in conditions like those cited above. Moreover, they can help to shed light on particular challenges they face. By consulting and engaging members of local populations more appropriate surveys can be designed and a deeper appreciation of target areas should be the result. Representatives from local communities will naturally contribute accurate knowledge of their social environments.

ATD Fourth World in Antananarivo, Madagascar

Prior to the 2018 census, ADT Fourth World reached out to local communities in Antananarivo. Through local knowledge they ascertained that a majority of households living on a refuse dump in the north of the capital were unregistered with the state. By collaborating with households, ATD Fourth World was able to undertake mapping research which clarified circumstances of people living in the area. For instance, approximately 70% of those living on the dump were younger than twenty, and a majority did not have official documentation such as a birth certificate. Because local people were warmly engaged in the research, the process actually helped to bring people together, and garnered a sense of identity as well as information about common challenges which they faced.

Technology and its ethical use in research

Satellite imagery as well as mobile and GPS technology could potentially be employed to identify migrant and homeless groups. As mobile phone use continues to spread, there remains an ethical concern regarding data collection and observation which could expose some populations to political dangers. It goes without saying that vulnerable populations need to be overtly protected.


The 2016 open letter from those 175 organisations succinctly summarises the need for better research into child poverty and living conditions:

‘The post‐2015 global monitoring framework must establish mechanisms to integrate household-based data with additional information on children temporarily or permanently living outside of households… The post‐2015 global monitoring framework offers an opportunity to do more and better on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable children – ensuring, first and foremost, that they are no longer invisible.’

Essentially all children matter, but they will only benefit from research and new political initiatives if they are represented in bespoke surveys designed to aid them.