Published: 19:26, February 21, 2024 | Updated: 10:23, February 22, 2024
Stronger social protection urged for 1.4 billion children
By Jan Yumul in Hong Kong

A youth poses for a picture in a landfill while searching for recyclable material for sale in Basra on June 22, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)

Child welfare advocates have urged policymakers and donors to take more decisive steps in scaling up universal social protection for children as an estimated 1.4 billion people under age 15 have been left out globally, leaving them vulnerable to health risks. 

Expert groups noted that while there has been a modest global increase in access to child benefits in the last 14 years, the progress “has been unequal”.

The agencies noted in a joint report that child benefits are a critical form of social protection, intended to promote the long-term well-being of children

Shahra Razavi, director of the Social Protection Department at the International Labour Organization (ILO), called the situation a “crisis” and said there is an urgent need for effective policymaking to help close protection gaps.

READ MORE: UNICEF: Child poverty rates in UK worst among richest nations

She also highlighted that regional inequalities in coverage and progress “are of serious concern” as improvement in child benefit coverage is marginal in most regions and too many children are still being left behind.

According to data released on Feb 14 by the ILO, humanitarian organization Save the Children, and the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF, fewer than one in ten children in low-income nations have access to child benefits, showing a significant disparity compared to children in high-income countries.

The agencies noted in a joint report that child benefits are a critical form of social protection, intended to promote the long-term well-being of children. Delivered as cash or tax credits, child benefits are essential for reducing poverty as well as for accessing healthcare, nutrition, quality education, water and sanitation. 

Data also showed that coverage rates for children in countries that were highly vulnerable to the impact of climate change were a third lower than those in countries that are not classified as being at high risk. 

The report noted that there has been a modest global increase in access to child benefits over a period of 14 years, from 20 percent in 2009 to 28.1 percent in 2023, but the progress was unequal.

In low-income countries, rates of coverage remain staggeringly low, at around 9 percent. At the same time, 84.6 percent of children in high-income countries were covered.

Natalia Winder Rossi, director of Social Policy and Social Protection at UNICEF, noted that globally, there are 333 million children living in “extreme poverty”, struggling to survive on less than $2.15 per day, and nearly one billion children living in multidimensional poverty. 

Child benefits coverage between 2009 and 2023 showed that in East Asia and the Pacific, coverage increased from 9.2 percent in 2009 to 16 percent in 2023

With the current progress, she added, achieving the Sustainable Development Goals’ poverty targets “are out of reach”. She said ending child poverty “is a policy choice” and that expanding social protection coverage of children in the fight against poverty is critical, including the progressive realization of universal child benefits.

Child benefits coverage between 2009 and 2023 showed that in East Asia and the Pacific, coverage increased from 9.2 percent in 2009 to 16 percent in 2023.

In North America, coverage has increased from 78.1 percent to 84 percent while Western Europe, coverage has risen from 91 percent to 93.2 percent.

More marked improvements happened during the same period in the Middle East and North Africa, where the coverage rose from 22.7 percent to 32.5 percent, and in South Asia where it jumped from 9.2 to 24.3 percent.To better monitor gaps in child benefit coverage, the three organizations have developed the Global Child Benefits Tracker, which comes at a critical time as the most recent data shows that 829 million children globally are living in households where per-person incomes are below $3.65 a day and progress on child poverty reduction has largely stalled.

David Lambert Tumwesigye, global policy and advocacy lead for child poverty at Save the Children International, said child benefits support families to afford better nourishment in various aspects, and are key for enhancing the kids’ potential as adults.

Unfortunately, he lamented, many countries have not prioritized investments in social protection.

READ MORE: UNICEF 2024 report warns of risks to children amid challenges 

The three agencies appealed to policymakers and donors to attain a broader universal social protection by building systems that are rights-based, gender-responsive, inclusive and shock-responsive, to address inequities and deliver better results for girls and women, children with disabilities, migrant children, and those caught up in child labor.

They also said closing protection gaps, like filling the “financial gap” by investing in child benefits and securing sustainable financing for social protection systems by mobilizing domestic resources were key.

Strengthening social protection for parents and caregivers by guaranteeing access to decent work and adequate benefits, including those related to unemployment, sickness, maternity, disability and pensions were also highlighted. 


Contact the writer at jan@chinadailyapac.com