UNICEF report puts children at the heart of sustainable development

20 November, 2023 By Joao Pedro Azevedo
© UNICEF/UN0199543/Noorani

In the heart of Djibouti’s Markazi camp for Yemeni refugees, a young girl carries her textbooks with unwavering determination as she walks home from a UNICEF-supported school. Her story is not unique but echoes the lived experiences of many children globally, who, against all odds, are striving for education in the face of adversity. As we stand with only seven years remaining to reach the ambitious 2030 targets set by the global community, each passing day serves as a reminder of the pressing need to drive sustainable and transformative change.

At the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Summit during the United Nations General Assembly this past September, leaders from across the globe convened, renewing their commitment to creating an inclusive, sustainable world by 2030. Following this momentum, the Summit of the Future seeks to build upon these discussions, aiming to breathe new life into the multilateral system and deliver on the promises of the United Nations Charter and the 2030 Agenda. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized the need for transformation over incrementalism, urging nations to “lift the declaration’s words off the page” and to actively invest in large-scale development. Yet, amid these high-level discussions, there’s an integral element that needs greater focus: the rights and well-being of children. Recognizing this crucial need, UNICEF published a report entitled Progress on Children’s Well-Being: Centring child rights in the 2030 Agenda. This report reveals that the true acceleration required to meet the SDGs is only achievable if children’s rights remain at the forefront of our global and national agendas.

But how can nations truly champion the SDGs for their youngest citizens? Evaluating our progress not only reveals the strides taken but also shows the acceleration necessary to chart the way forward. To better understand this progress, the report delves deep into the data, compiling over 20 years of statistics from more than 190 countries across 48 indicators. The result is a comprehensive assessment that shows that the advancement of child rights and the systematic improvement of child well-being is possible. Though not equally distributed between or within countries or across indicators, improvements are noticeable in certain areas.

Diverse progress and the challenges ahead

A significant number of countries with available data have displayed progress above national, regional or global averages. This recent progress must be contextualized, however, against distance to targets and the need to maintain and sustain achievement. Slow or fast, progress based on recent performance reflects each individual country’s initial conditions, national priorities, financing, ambition and commitments. In many low-income countries, recent progress has been comparatively strong due to a lower starting point and a firm national commitment accompanied with adequate financing. Meanwhile, many high-income countries are plateauing: In some cases, they are close to or have already met their target, while in others, finishing the ‘last mile’ is a challenge.

The principle of ‘leaving no one behind’

Across economic income groups – from low- to high-income – the principle of ‘leaving no one behind’ has become even more critical. Falling short of reaching an SDG target is not just a gap on a chart – it points to real children and communities that are being left behind. This means that in order to close these gaps and reach the targets, it is vital to identify those who are still systematically marginalized, excluded and discriminated against in society – such as girls, children with disabilities, children on the move and families living in poverty – and move quickly to strengthen the protection and fulfilment of their rights.

Disparities across outcome areas of child well-being

Across the various areas that encompass child well-being, there are significant disparities in progress. In the Survive and Thrive, substantial improvements have been noted over the past 30 years in child survival. Yet challenges remain in areas such as undernutrition, which is associated with nearly half of all deaths in children under 5. Moreover, routine immunization has declined, with the COVID-19 pandemic intensifying the issue.

Data show that school attendance does not necessarily lead to the acquisition of foundational skills, with 600 million children and adolescents not acquiring foundational reading and math despite the majority of those attending schools. The pandemic worsened this situation, likely resulting in 11 million more 10-year-olds lacking foundational skills.
The area of Protection from Harm also highlights continued rights violations. Though child marriage rates have fallen since the 1990s, 12 million girls annually are still married prematurely. Without change, another 100 million girls will suffer this fate by 2030. Furthermore, in the poorest countries, over 20 per cent of children are trapped in child labour, which restricts their access to education and infringes upon their rights.

Despite progress in the area of Safe and Clean Environment, over 2.2 billion people remain without safe drinking water and 3.5 billion lack safe sanitation services. Every day, over 1,000 children die before reaching their fifth birthday due to unsafe water. And diarrhoeal diseases resulting from poor drinking water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services result in a daily death toll of 700 children.

Finally, the area of Life Free of Poverty addresses it’s the lasting impacts of child poverty and examines access to social protection as a critical solution. Data from 83 countries show that approximately 30 per cent of children experience severe deprivation, while 15 per cent face multiple deprivations, jeopardizing their future opportunities and well-being.

Progress on Children's Well-being-Centring child rights in the 2030 Agenda

Data gaps persist. Lack of quality data is due in some cases to inadequate political commitment to solve the problem, and in others to the relative recency of the indicator and the global alignment around standards of measurement. The grey bars in the figure above also reveal the heterogeneity of the data gaps: Smaller data gaps are observed among indicators in the Survive and Thrive or Safe and Clean Environment outcome areas, while greater data gaps are observed in the Learning, Protection from Harm, and Life Free of Poverty outcome areas.

As highlighted in The 2030 Agenda: Galvanizing Efforts to Measure and Monitor Child Well-Being, there exists a discrepancy in data availability. Many indicators have rich datasets carried over from past international efforts, which may contribute to stronger data availability. Less data are available in several new areas introduced by the SDG Agenda, such as learning, violence against children, early childhood development and poverty measurement disaggregated by age. It is promising that in some of the indicators lacking trend data (dark grey), countries have at least one measure in place; however, this is not sufficient to indicate the direction of change and efforts must therefore continue to do so in the future.

This finding reflects that, in some cases, the global standard to measure these issues has just recently been achieved or, in other cases, there is a lack of political commitment to report on such issues. This is partly due to the time it has taken to establish international consensus on defining and measuring new aspects of child well-being. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize the existence of top performers across all child-related SDGs, especially among low- and middle-income countries.

The undeniable truth remains that the aspirations of the SDGs aren’t just abstract goals on paper. They represent the dreams, aspirations, and well-being of countless children across the world just like the young Yemeni girl who walks home with her textbooks through the Markazi camp for refugees. For every child in every village we must rally collectively, channeling our energies, resources, and expertise to sculpt a world where their rights, well-being, and dreams are prioritized. The future of our planet, in essence, is deeply intertwined with the well-being of every child and the commitment of every nation.

João Pedro Azevedo

Chief Statistician, Deputy Director

Division of Data, Analysis, Planning and Monitoring, UNICEF