Unicef: putting our money on adolescents

Unicef: putting our money on adolescents
21 June 2011

New international evidence suggests that the UN’s Millennium Development Goals are wrongly skewed in being aimed at children aged 0-5 to the disadvantage of adolescents.

According to the Unicef’s annual State of the World’s Children report, almost 1.2 billion (or 18 per cent of) the world’s population are between 10-19 years of age. Most of these children live in developing countries and have benefited from efforts to improve the UN Millennium Development Goals during their lifetime. Much of this effort is funded by international donor agencies like the World Bank and the UK Department for International Development, who have supported the UN’s approach to improve the wellbeing of young children.

However, much of the efforts to improve the lives of people in developing countries over the last few years has focused specifically on the health and wellbeing of children aged 0-5 years. In fact, at least three out of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals target younger children, and make no reference to adolescents. These include the reduction of child mortality rates for those under five, improvement of maternal health, and improvement of universal primary education attainment. Others focus specifically on heath indicators rather than a set target population.

The targets set by the UN Millennium Development Goals in 2000 focused on young children primarily because the health indicators for young mothers and children under five were very poor, and this had a direct effect on reducing the world’s overall population development. Designed by Unicef and other international organisations, they were established to address the declining health of women and young children’s health as a means of reducing global poverty.

While there have been some improvements in outcomes children aged 0-5, particularly in the reduction of child mortality, the long term impact of these efforts are now questionable. Indicators show that almost 20 per cent of all adolescent children today suffer from mental health problems like depression. Other problems commonly experienced by adolescents include increasingly low educational attainment, unemployment, and substance abuse.

Arguing for a switch of priorities, the report argues that investing to improve the lives of younger children alone hardly seems judicious in this current economic climate, as they are in need of resources when they get older as well. A life-cycle approach to child development is suggested instead. Children in their first decade of life are typically less healthy than older children, more vulnerable to death, disease and under-nutrition, and as a result, prove to be a greater risk if not looked after in adolescence. Thus, a complimentary investment made in their later years as well is needed to sustain the resources invested in their earlier years.

The report says there are five reasons why adolescents are an important focus. First, it is their right, under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to receive resources equally, and with no discrimination, as do younger children.

Second, investing in adolescents ensures that the progress made for children since 1990 will be sustained. The biggest indicators of progress made for children’s outcomes by the UN children’s fund are a 33 per cent reduction in the global mortality rate for under-fives, the real elimination of gaps between boys and girls signing up for primary school in several developing countries, and the improvement in children’s access to primary school.

Third, adolescents represent an opportunity to fight poverty because they occupy a pivotal age group that can potentially pass the burden of poverty and inequity to the next generation if it is not addressed. For example, poor adolescent girls are more likely to give birth to children who will grow up to be poor adolescents. This is particularly true for adolescents with low levels of education, who currently represent a large proportion as almost half the world’s adolescent population do not attend primary school. Thus, a focus on adolescence as a critical transition period into adulthood needs to be a priority.

Fourth, adolescents are subject to increasing unemployment rates, as they are disproportionately represented in many developing countries where economic and political challenges are pressing. Thus, adolescents in these countries will need to be better skilled and educated to address such challenges when the time comes.

Last, adolescents tend to have the greatest needs, but little attention is paid to them. For example, with regard to, adolescent children are at a greater risk of sexual exploitation than adults and young children. Thus, a stronger focus on adolescent development should not be compromised.

While the reasons for focusing on adolescents are clear, an estimate of the financial returns expected for these investments are not. The evidence put forward by the report make it difficult to hypothesize what the returns on improving the lives of these young people might be. Despite making an argument for the investment opportunity, proof of its efforts are absent from the report and so it is difficult for policy makers with tight resources to make the right decisions.

The State of the World’s Children 2011, “Adolescence; An Age of Opportunity” United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) February 2011, New York.


UN Millennium Goals

There are eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for 2015. They have been agreed by all countries and leading development institutions to help meet the needs of the world’s poorest people. Targets include reducing extreme poverty, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, providing universal primary education and reducing child mortality.

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