NO COUNTRY FOR CHILDREN?

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Global population is currently around 7.8 billion. While that number rises, there is no matching interest in the type of world we are creating. The questions facing our industrial edifice and consumerist lifestyle are enormous. It goes beyond plastic, which is merely tip of the iceberg. Fundamental questions about how we live; perhaps even – why we live, remain to be addressed. Nothing puts these questions in focus as much as imagining back from our children’s future does. Here’s what a commission convened by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and The Lancet said recently about the future we are gifting our children.

No single country is adequately protecting children’s health, their environment and their future, a report released February 19, 2020 by a commission of over 40 child and adolescent health experts from around the world has said. The Commission was convened by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and The Lancet and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The report, ` A Future for the World’s Children?, ‘ finds that the health and future of every child and adolescent worldwide is under immediate threat from ecological degradation, climate change and exploitative marketing practices that push heavily processed fast food, sugary drinks, alcohol and tobacco at children. “ Despite improvements in child and adolescent health over the past 20 years, progress has stalled, and is set to reverse,” former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Co-Chair of the Commission, Helen Clark, was quoting as saying in a press statement on the report available on the website of WHO. “ It has been estimated that around 250 million children under five years old in low- and middle-income countries are at risk of not reaching their developmental potential, based on proxy measures of stunting and poverty. But of even greater concern, every child worldwide now faces existential threats from climate change and commercial pressures. Countries need to overhaul their approach to child and adolescent health, to ensure that we not only look after our children today but protect the world they will inherit in the future,” she added.

According to the statement, the report includes a new global index of 180 countries, comparing performance on child flourishing, including measures of child survival and well-being, such as health, education, and nutrition; sustainability, with a proxy for greenhouse gas emissions, and equity, or income gaps. While the poorest countries need to do more to support their children’s ability to live healthy lives, excessive carbon emissions – disproportionately from wealthier countries – threaten the future of all children. If global warming exceeds 4°C by the year 2100 in line with current projections, this would lead to devastating health consequences for children, due to rising ocean levels, heatwaves, proliferation of diseases like malaria and dengue, and malnutrition, the statement said.

“ More than 2 billion people live in countries where development is hampered by humanitarian crises, conflicts, and natural disasters, problems increasingly linked with climate change. While some of the poorest countries have among the lowest CO2 emissions, many are exposed to the harshest impacts of a rapidly changing climate. Promoting better conditions today for children to survive and thrive nationally does not have to come at the cost of eroding children’s futures globally,’’  Minister Awa Coll-Seck from Senegal, Co-Chair of the Commission, was quoted as saying.

The report also highlights the distinct threat posed to children from harmful marketing. Evidence suggests that children in some countries see as many as 30,000 advertisements on television alone in a single year, while youth exposure to vaping (e-cigarettes) advertisements increased by more than 250% in the USA over two years, reaching more than 24 million young people. Professor Anthony Costello, one of the Commission’s authors, said, “ Industry self-regulation has failed. Studies in Australia, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and the USA – among many others – have shown that self-regulation has not hampered commercial ability to advertise to children. For example, despite industry signing up to self-regulation in Australia, children and adolescent viewers were still exposed to 51 million alcohol ads during just one year of televised football, cricket and rugby. And the reality could be much worse still: we have few facts and figures about the huge expansion of social media advertising and algorithms aimed at our children.’’

Children’s exposure to commercial marketing of junk food and sugary beverages is associated with purchase of unhealthy foods and overweight and obesity, linking predatory marketing to the alarming rise in childhood obesity. To protect children, the independent Commission authors called for a new global movement driven by and for children. Specific recommendations include:

  • Stop CO2 emissions with the utmost urgency, to ensure children have a future on this planet
  • Place children and adolescents at the center of our efforts to achieve sustainable development
  • New policies and investment in all sectors to work towards child health and rights
  • Incorporate children’s voices into policy decisions
  • Tighten national regulation of harmful commercial marketing, supported by a new Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“ This report shows that the world’s decision makers are, too often, failing today’s children and youth: failing to protect their health, failing to protect their rights, and failing to protect their planet. This must be a wakeup call for countries to invest in child health and development, ensure their voices are heard, protect their rights, and build a future that is fit for children.” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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