Today, over half of the world’s poorest citizens are children – and they are entering poverty and child labour at an unprecedented rate. In the time it takes you to read this page, over a dozen more children aged 5-11 will have been forced into child labour. By the end of the day, there will be 10,000 new child labourers – and one more billionaire.
This cannot be our legacy. We have an urgent, moral imperative to staunch the rapid flow of children entering poverty and child labour, and it can be done with shared investments in social protection for the world’s most marginalised children.
Social protection is the right of everyone from birth, yet 74% of children worldwide, and 90% of children in low-income countries, live without it. Adequate and reliable social protection can accelerate an end to child labour by preventing the kind of extreme poverty which forces children out of school and into work. This has been proven time and again – no more so than in wealthy countries, most of which have benefited from social protection and public services for over a century, and which still do today. Well before the pandemic, social protection was given the lion’s share of government budgets across the member states of the European Union; during the pandemic, spending on additional social protection measures reached an average of $847 per capita in high-income countries.
Despite the hard evidence that social protection has worked in donor countries, the amounts afforded to social protection in aid are shameful. In 2017, ODA to social protection represented just 0.0047% of the GNI of the OECD/DAC countries, in stark contrast to social protection forming 40% of all government expenditure domestically. In 2020, bilateral ODA to social protection actually went down – despite donor countries knowing the critical role of social protection during the crisis. In the face of this decrease, the international financing institutions stepped in with one-off emergency loans. Positively, this enabled many lower-income countries to research and trial pathways to deliver emergency social protection programmes, creating a unique – if fragile – basis on which more permanent programmes may be built in the future. Given the scale of effort undertaken and the political will demonstrated by lower-income countries to provide new social protection programmes, it would be an incredible backwards step for the international community to fail to seize one of the few opportunities in the COVID era to get the Sustainable Development Goals on track.
Social protection which covers all life stages is critical in the fight against inequality, and income protection including cash transfers for adults plays an important role in ending extreme poverty. However, interventions which directly target children can be lifesaving when maternity and protections from birth are taken into account, and transformative in ending child labour and enabling education. While child-centred social protection programmes in low- and middle-income countries have almost always taken the form of targeted and conditional cash transfers, the rapid rise in child poverty and child labour combined with weak data makes a universal approach to child benefit more timely than ever. Universal social protection which gives children the strongest possible foundation should include support to mothers during pregnancy and to parents/guardians for at least four months after childbirth, alongside a cash benefit for each child which supports every stage of their childhood – through to the end of upper secondary education in line with the commitment to deliver 12 years of quality education for every child. These direct social protection measures should work alongside in-kind schemes such as school feeding programmes, immunisation programmes, and quality public services including health care; and with legislative changes to increase the duration of compulsory education and to increase the working age.
The financing gap to provide this historic level of support for every child in every low-income country is $53 billion a year. This is the equivalent to just two days of last year’s COVID relief spending in G7 countries. This gap can be met by governments in low income countries allocating a ring fenced 6% of their domestic budget, and external financing equivalent to just 0.073% of the OECD/DAC countries’ GNI. This external financing element should also include contributions from a new global social protection fund, designed to accelerate the implementation of social protection floors and programmes in low-income countries, and provide reliable resources to help maintain them.
Child benefits work. They end child labour and increase school completion rates. They help grow the economy and increase employment. They are ambitious, but affordable. And without them, not only will child labour and child poverty continue to increase, the world’s poorest children will continue to be thirteen times more likely to die.
The globalisation of social protection is an historic idea whose time has come. It is critical now for financing, policy-making, and social protection to work together as one: adequately and fairly financed social protection for children must be recognised as central to ending extreme poverty and child labour, and legislated for and protected as such.
Governments must commit to implement and finance a universal child benefit (UCB) and maternity benefits to ensure no child is left behind.
- For low-income countries, 6% of domestic budget must be spent on child-focused social protection, potentially through a ring-fenced tax worth 1% of GNI, reallocated domestic budget, the elimination of illicit financial flows, and/or ending harmful tax breaks for multinational corporations.
- Donor governments must increase bilateral and multilateral ODA for social protection, ringfencing 0.073% of GNI to LICs by 2030.
Basic income and income protection for adults play a critical role in supporting children’s development and combating child labour; governments must continue to implement social protection measures which support citizens throughout each stage of life. Efforts should be made to redress the balance for marginalised groups which currently receive no social protection coverage.
Governments must commit to establish a global social protection fund to serve the following purposes: o Accelerate the implementation of social protection floors and social protection measures in low-income countries by providing technical support and funding to research and build infrastructure, taking advantage of the knowledge gained and systems introduced during the global pandemic.
- Provide ongoing funding to LICs as part of donor efforts to close the financing gap to deliver social protection throughout each stage of life, with efforts to redress the balance for groups currently under-served by social protection, including children.
Governments and the international financing institutions must not implement or force austerity measures in the wake of the pandemic, especially in countries which have yet to establish and implement all social protection floors, acknowledging that such measures unfairly target women and children.
Read full report here.