We are failing the children of the world

Eight years ago, world leaders adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to make profound changes by 2030. Now, at the halfway mark, the path of progress is disappointing.

This is a disquieting reality for all of us, but especially for people living in poverty — millions of children among them.

It is time to embrace solidarity and renew the financial and political commitments needed to tackle poverty and social injustices. And it’s time to pay greater and specific attention to children everywhere, especially those at risk of growing up alone.

Children living under the most vulnerable conditions around the world continue to lack access to protection, nourishment, immunizations, schooling and an overall safe environment.

The global polycrisis in which we find ourselves today has severely hindered their protection and development. By the end of last year, over 10.7 million children had lost a parent or caregiver due to the COVID pandemic. The effects of this crisis has also led to larger numbers of refugees and migrants, many of whom are children moving alone, unable to reunify with their families.

The climate crisis, armed conflict, widespread poverty and other compounding problems increase the risk that millions more may grow up alone or left behind. In 2022 alone, SOS Children’s Villages International responded to 25 different humanitarian crises in 31 countries, to support children and families in harm’s way.

Consequently, there will be more fragile communities and families that will negatively impact children’s wellbeing. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), almost 600 million children are living in “acute multidimensional poverty,” deprived of their basic needs and rights.

Deteriorating conditions mean that millions of children continue to suffer and die of preventable causes.

Financing the SDGs is also lagging behind. Last year’s Sustainable Development Report by Cambridge University says attention on executing the SDGs has shifted due to emerging global disruptions such as COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. Donors have also reduced the amount of finance available for implementing the SDGs, creating a financing gap. According to the UNDP ICPSD, an estimated $4.2 trillion is needed, annually, to finance the SDGs in developing nations.

The competing demand for humanitarian funding versus development financing is not new. Budgets for development are often transferred to spending on humanitarian crises to ease overstretched aid finances.

Equally, civil society organizations and community-based initiatives are also suffering from lack funding and hyperinflation. Stagnation and a decline in fundraising are pressuring these organizations to scale down efforts and substantively cut the number of people they aim to reach through humanitarian and development programs.

The devastating outcomes for the children are not creating only a crisis now, but will also bring along an unimaginable lifetime of harm or hardships. Children who have lost parental care or live in fragile family environments are extremely vulnerable to sexual abuse, exclusion, child marriage and violence; without appropriate support, they risk not being able to break cycles of abuse, poverty and deprivation. The aftermath can bring trauma and mental health problems, which diminish their prospects of becoming their strongest selves.

So what needs to happen?

Investing in children always pays off now and in the long run. It has positive multiplying affects, and the return on investment is intergenerational.

Urgent and greater attention should be given to supporting children and families who are at risk. This requires investment on care solutions, which include access to social protection benefits that cover — among others — basic needs and access to health, education and food. In addition, it also requires support for caregivers and gender sensitive polices, along with comprehensive psycho-social support and strategies to mitigate the stigma and discrimination.

Global, regional and national policy frameworks and programs must consider providing safety nets for children, young people and supporting families to become resilient. This also means strengthening the livelihoods of women and their participation in decision-making both at home and outside, gender considerations in national budgets and policies and investment in social protection.

Holistic child-centered care and social protection investments should be the utmost priority and target of every leader.

New ideas for development financing are fundamental. The International Institute for Sustainable Development proposes innovative ideas, such as partnerships and accelerating to mobilization of private capital and impact investing.

Equally important is a substantial and multiyear commitment from high-income countries, multilateral financial institutions, and regional development banks. Last year’s Cambridge Report on the SDGs proposes debt refinancing, official development assistance, and a reconsideration of debt sustainability on the part of lending institutions, while also calling on developing countries to improve debt management, liquidity management and creditworthiness through tax policy reform.

Unfortunately, without the commitment of national governments to mobilize their own resources, the 2030 goals are set to fail.

A renewed political commitment to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs through scaling up programs that meet the needs of children and their families living in crisis and poverty is desperately needed. This is the daunting challenge and moral responsibility of world leaders and stakeholders in development, including the United Nations, civil society organizations, institutional donors and communities. We must all come together with our comparative advantages to reverse this situation.

Making progress toward our sustainable development goals brings the power to unleash human potential in every nation. As we accelerate the realization of these goals, a holistic and child-centered strategy must be prioritized to ensure that we all stand behind those at greater risk.

And, by supporting them, our shared future will be brighter.

Dereje Wordofa, DBA, MSC, MBA, is president of international charity SOS Children’s Villages, the world’s largest organization focused on children without parental care. Previously he served as assistant secretary-general and deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund; as head of regional policy at Oxfam; and as deputy program director of Save the Children UK.

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