Helle Thorning-Schmidt is Chief Executive of Save the Children and former Danish prime minister
The story of Save the Children began in Trafalgar Square, London, almost one hundred years ago. At a time when most British women did not even have the right to vote and Europe was still struggling to recover from the First World War, a young woman called Eglantyne Jebb stood in the square to demonstrate against the Allies’ blockade of Germany. The blockade, she argued, was causing thousands of children to starve to death, and it was all of Europe’s responsibility to protect them.
For this passionate act of defiance, standing up for the children of Europe, Eglantyne was arrested. Expressing public dissent toward the blockade was tantamount to treason. Yet the judge in her case was so impressed by her courage, and the rightness of her cause, that he paid the fine levied against her out of his own pocket. This money could be considered the first donation to Save the Children, which Eglantyne went on to found.
We have made some amazing progress for children since then. At the time Save the Children was founded, around 30 children in every 100 died tragically in their early years. Today, it is less than five. It was also the case that only 30 children in every 100 would ever learn to read and write. Today, world literacy rates are around 85%. But despite all these big steps forward, many millions of children have still been left far behind. In fact, we know this is the fate of at least 700 million children, which is the central finding of our new report ‘Stolen Childhoods’.
Some 26 million children in Europe are at serious risk of poverty and social exclusion
This report - the first in an annual series - takes a hard look at the events that rob children of their childhoods. These ‘childhood enders’ represent an assault on the future of children and include poor health, conflict, violence, child marriage, early pregnancy, malnutrition, exclusion from education and child labour. We have used these factors to construct a unique tool - the End of Childhood Index – which ranks 172 countries based on where childhood is most intact and where it is most eroded. It shows which countries are succeeding, and failing, to provide conditions that nurture and protect their youngest citizens.
The majority of these children, of course, live in disadvantaged communities in developing countries. All the countries in the bottom ten of the rankings are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Also unsurprising is that European countries occupy all of the top ten places. Yet although the children of Europe are some of the world’s healthiest, best educated and best protected, we should not forget that some of the most deprived children live here too. Last year, Save the Children revealed that some 26 million children in Europe are at serious risk of poverty and social exclusion. Among them are the extremely vulnerable children who have been forced to flee to Europe from the world’s poorest countries, in many cases on their own, and are all too often subject to abuse and exploitation even inside our borders.
This is what drives Save the Children now. A determination to reach the hardest-to-reach children, who have been excluded or left behind by progress - whether they live in Somalia, South Sudan or Sweden. All children deserve a childhood of love, care and protection, so they can develop to their full potential. As Save the Children, we’ve made the promise to do whatever it takes to make this happen. This is the modern-day manifestation of our almost hundred-year mission. Yet in contrast to the lone voice of Eglantyne Jebb, heard in Trafalgar Square all those years ago, the whole world has now come together in support of the most vulnerable children too.
In 2015 world leaders gathered at the United Nations to sign up to the Sustainable Development Goals. This amounted to a global commitment that all children will enjoy their rights to health, education and protection - in short, their right to childhood - and a promise that those who are furthest behind, the most excluded in society, would be reached first. This pledge is the most far-reaching and universal guarantee to the world’s children we have ever seen the international community make. It is a historic opportunity that we cannot miss.
All of these pressures on the EU create a temptation to reach for quick-fix solutions
As a champion of human rights and a major development and humanitarian donor, the European Union has a great responsibility to ensure that we don’t. But worryingly, in recent times it has been confronted with some big challenges that are testing its ability to meet this responsibility. The increase in the number of arrivals of refugees and migrants to the EU, terrorist attacks and conflicts in its neighbourhood has led to an increased focus on security and defence. The start of the negotiations for the UK to leave the EU will dominate EU politics and the EU faces a crisis of trust among its citizens amid a background of growing inequality and rising Euroscepticism.
All of these pressures create a temptation to reach for quick-fix solutions, or to focus only on what’s best for one country at the expense of others. Yet just as Eglantyne pushed back against the logic of the Allied blockade, today too the answer has to be more cooperation, not less, and more determination to work together to uphold Europe’s role as a force for good in the world.
We must stay focused on tackling the root causes of poverty, conflict and exclusion that are the driving forces of most of the troubles that beset our continent; investing in children, the next generation, must be a big part of the solution. That means working determinedly towards the Sustainable Development Goals and building a world where every last child, whether within or outside the EU's borders, can survive, learn and thrive. By investing in children we are investing in a more equal, stable and prosperous world: a world that would finally resemble the bold vision of that one courageous woman arrested in Trafalgar Square.
The EU should consider austerity's impact on children
Jana Hainsworth is Secretary General of Eurochild
The European Union claims to be a global champion of human rights. But when it comes to getting its own house in order it has some serious challenges.
Arguably it is the EU’s own macro-economic policies and surveillance tools that have at best endorsed, at worst encouraged, austerity across member states. In 2010 the EU introduced much tighter budgetary surveillance, in particular across the eurozone, setting strict limits on government deficits and public debt. This is reinforced through the European Semester process, the EU’s macro-economic coordination mechanism whose recommendations to member states have often been interpreted as a green light to cut public spending.
According to UNICEF, children have been disproportionately impacted by austerity. Spending on family benefits has shrunk across most EU countries since 2008. Studies by the OECD also show a worrying trend towards falling education expenditure. In more than two-thirds of OECD countries spending on primary to tertiary education as a proportion of government budgets fell between 2005 and 2014. Health, social security and local community budgets have all been affected, limiting governments’ ability to stem the rising tide of inequality.
Across the EU today an estimated one in four children is growing up in poverty. The experience of poverty in childhood is particularly damaging, often affecting life-chances and being transmitted to the next generation. It is not just about a family’s reduced financial means: poverty limits participation in society and lessens a child’s chance of developing their full potential. We require strong political commitment from our national leaders to change that.
While some of the blame can be laid on over-zealous interventions from the EU institutions, another part of the EU has been fiercely defending social investment and efforts to tackle child poverty. In February 2013 the European Commission adopted its Recommendation on ‘Investing in children: Breaking the cycle of disadvantage’. This encourages member states to address child poverty and social exclusion by implementing multi-dimensional strategies, and to use the available EU structural funds for this purpose.
A recent assessment of its impact unsurprisingly reports that progress is modest and “insufficient compared to the scale of the problem”. This is perhaps due to the inherent contradictions between macro-economic and fiscal policies and the real investment needed to reverse growing inequalities and child poverty. Ultimately it is an issue of political prioritisation of children and their rights.
Two recent developments offer glimmers of hope. The first is, of course, the Sustainable Development Goals. In contrast to their predecessors (the Millennium Development Goals) these are universal. The EU should not lose the opportunity of aligning its post-2020 vision with these global commitments to a better world. The second is the European Pillar of Social Rights - a new initiative of the Juncker Commission. Whereas previous commissions have made attempts to strengthen Europe’s social dimension, this is the first time an initiative is championed by the President. If it works it will bring social outcomes, including efforts to reduce child poverty, to the front and centre of economic policy. In the future, EU member states should be judged not only by their fiscal discipline, but also by their social standards.
Time will tell if these initiatives turn the tide of rising inequality and entrenched child poverty in Europe. We firmly believe that the long-term prosperity and stability of Europe depends on it.
This article was first published in Europe's World print issue number 35. Read more on the issue and order your copy here.
IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr - Lucélia Ribeiro