Ending poverty starts with investing in children

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Juan Santander
Juan Santander

UNICEF Representative to Montenegro

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkans Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkans Journey series.

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Show more information on This article is a part of our Balkans Journey series.

Friends of Europe’s Balkans Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkans Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

At least one out of every three children are at risk of poverty in Montenegro. The crisis caused by COVID-19 has undoubtedly increased this number.

If children are not given the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential, Montenegro as a whole suffers. Montenegro’s children are the human capital of tomorrow, and so their deprivations define the limitations of the entire country’s development. Leaving no child behind is the only way to ensure that Montenegro expands the opportunities and freedoms of all its citizens. It is also the only way for Montenegro to accelerate its progress towards EU membership.

UNICEF’s ‘Multidimensional Child Poverty in Montenegro’ report indicates that young children up to the age of five are the most disadvantaged age group in Montenegro. More than one in every five children are not enrolled in preschool. At least three out of five are not immunised against measles, mumps and rubella on time, and more than three out of five experience some form of violent discipline in their home.

Young generations inherit poverty from their predecessors due to a lack of social, cultural and financial capital. Without access to resources and services that would enable them to acquire knowledge and skills, access opportunities, and ultimately walk away from a life of deprivation, poverty will remain a reality for families from one generation to the next. This phenomenon is a development trap for any country.

The direct input of children and parents is essential

How can we break the vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty? International best practice shows us that there are three key principles of success.

First, investment in children’s early years is crucial. Research worldwide shows that investing in young children is one of the soundest economic investments for sustainable, inclusive and equitable economic growth.

Second, we need to include everyone, especially the most deprived, in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies to lift them out of poverty. The direct input of children and parents is essential, as they best understand the problems they face and the most effective ways to address them.

Third, poverty reduction policies need to be based on solid evidence, supported by rigorous analysis of the various methods available to counter poverty and its consequences. Efforts to measure and address child poverty have traditionally relied on a one-dimensional approach based only on household income. UNICEF applies a multidimensional approach that investigates the complex ways in which children experience poverty and its impact on their health, education, safety and future human development.

UNICEF’s multidimensional child poverty analysis confirms that the early years of childhood represent a crucial window of opportunity

A strong foundation based on evidence empowers governments to select policy options that are within budget and affordable in the long term. For example, the Parliament of Montenegro’s recent decision to introduce free textbooks for primary school students and a universal child allowance for children up to six was a step in the right direction. Informed by solid analysis of the social protection system, these policies will provide families with longer-term predictability.

In Montenegro, UNICEF has supported a two-year analysis of the country’s social protection system through the use of the internationally-accepted core diagnostic instrument (CODI) tool, developed by the Inter Agency Social Protection Assessment team. The research identified a suite of options for systemic social protection reform. These will be studied more in-depth over the next few months through a cost-benefit analysis and in consultation with families and other stakeholders.

UNICEF’s multidimensional child poverty analysis confirms that the early years of childhood represent a crucial window of opportunity for investment that is especially transformative when complemented by access to quality social services for health, education and protection from violence and exploitation. To ensure that every child feels prepared for adulthood, they all must have opportunities to develop skills relevant to the digital age and have access to sports and culture.

The 1998 Nobel Prize laureate for economics, Amartya Sen, famously said that the impact of economic growth depends on how its fruits are used. Despite recognising the end of child poverty as a priority, governments sometimes postpone substantial poverty reduction investments in health, education and social protection until the country becomes richer. However, these are precisely the kind of investments that are prerequisites for sustainable and equitable economic growth that will improve the quality of life of all citizens.

Ending child poverty will result in long-term economic benefits. Therefore, these investments must be prioritised and considered affordable for the governments’ budgets at all times, but also as methods of expanding opportunities, increasing progress towards EU membership, and shoring up the economy of the future.

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