"Engaged children become engaged adults"

15th April, 2014 by Duncan Jefferies

Abid Aslam, Editor of ‘The State of the World’s Children’ at UNICEF, tells Duncan Jefferies why city authorities should work in close partnership with children and their communities.

Why are some cities further ahead than others on childfriendly initiatives?

Resources play a major role, but even wealthy cities, home to a country’s political, commercial and cultural elites, fail children, most noticeably the girls and boys who live in slums cut off from the housing, electricity, working toilets, schools, clinics, parks and public transportation taken for granted in better-off precincts. So clearly this is also about political will and governance. Some places have relatively participatory municipal governance, and in some cities, members of the public even get to determine how a portion of the municipal budget is spent. Other city governments, however, yield to vested interests or are too ready to accept a status quo that excludes large numbers of families from the benefits of urban life.

How can this situation be improved?

I think this boils down to partnership and accountability. When government and businesses work in partnership with people in a city’s poorest areas, and especially when children and young people in those areas are able to participate in planning and evaluating policies and programmes, we see better results for entire cities: safer neighbourhoods thanks to improved lighting, for example, or lower burdens of disease thanks to improved sanitation. Likewise, children and young people have valuable roles to play in holding decision-makers and service providers to account. Formal accountability – whether through government ombudspersons or the courts – should be made accessible to children and young people, but social accountability is also important.

What form might that social accountability take?

It takes various forms. In Brazil, under the Municipal Seal of Approval initiative, children’s councils have monitored and influenced municipal budgets and held authorities’ feet to the fire on priority children’s programmes. Members of South Africa’s Soul Buddyz youth clubs have schooled themselves in children’s rights and teamed up with TV camera crews to goad service providers to fix neglected problems. What’s also happening is that children are getting into the hang of participating, of making demands, of being citizens and enjoying the actual rights and privileges of citizens, and this then makes them more engaged adults as well.

Can children be a force for engaging businesses in their communities?

In many places they are, for example by approaching companies to sponsor sports activities. Of course, corporate social responsibility is about more than philanthropy. It’s about operating in a sustainable and child-friendly way. And it’s very much a part of everyday business – or should be. Does a company pay a living wage that allows employees to raise their children well? Does it stay and pay its taxes or flee the jurisdiction once its tax holiday ends?

Could social media enable more children to speak out?

Yes. Young people are using social media and mobile technology to express themselves, to draw attention to problems and solutions within their communities. There are tremendous opportunities but also challenges – for example, how to ensure that children are safe from bullies or predators when they go online. But what does it mean to speak out if you are not heard? This is a matter of principle: under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have the right to participate in decisions affecting their lives. It’s also a practical matter. After all, no one is in a better position to understand their needs and evaluate the response than children and young people themselves.

Is there a danger that childfriendly urban elements will suffer in today’s economic climate?

Austerity is driving up inequality and child poverty, including in high-income countries, not just in the developing world. In many places we have seen good work put on hold and even retrenchment in public spending and provision. This is troubling not only because families are hurt today but also because it takes longer to revive infrastructure and services than it does to gut them.

Some people say that the lean periods are an impetus for innovation…

That may be true. What’s needed are innovations that make it possible for children who have been excluded from services and opportunity to be included, innovations that address the needs of marginalised and vulnerable children, that are accessible and affordable for the poorest, and that do not exacerbate disparities by benefiting only the well-off.

How do you reach those people?

Contrary to what some might think, poor people in cities tend to be well organised. This stands to reason: how else to survive under incredibly difficult circumstances if not by pooling resources and filling the vacuum where municipal governance and services are lacking? So it’s a matter of mustering the will to meet them, understand their situation and include them in infrastructure development and broader efforts to reduce poverty – in other words, to recognise them as the rights-holding residents and economic contributors they are.

How can we build more of a community feel within urban areas?

Often, the most profound obstacle to the improvements we all seek is not knowing from one week, month or year to the next whether you will be forcibly evicted and your home bulldozed. Ensuring that poor people have adequate housing and secure tenure must be a top priority because this is their right but also because this is a proven way to kick-start community investment. Granted secure tenure to their homes, impoverished families start to scrimp and improve their surroundings. And their children can go to school because they no longer have to stay near home to alert their parents if a demolition squad shows up.

Photo credit: Susan Markisz/UNICEF

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