The work of UNICEF in lower- or upper-middle-income countries is often underestimated. It is believed that such states are more likely to have a genuine understanding of the importance of investing in children, and therefore, have adequate systems for providing public services and benefits to them.
Unfortunately, even such states fail — sometimes seriously — in responding to the challenges children face. As resources are scarce and public policy decisions have an opportunity cost, children need to be prioritized.
In many developing countries national security issues, difficult international and geopolitical environments, and political and economic challenges dominate agendas, making it extremely difficult to prioritize children and divert public finances towards the realization of their rights. Decision-makers tend to respond, “We will do it when we have money” — failing to recognize that sometimes money is there, it just needs to be spent differently.
In such environments, UNICEF’s role as a leading voice for children, as well as its advocacy efforts to influence public policies and decisions, becomes even more critical. We have to make stronger arguments within the wider development context for investing in and protecting children. At the same time, we must also facilitate and lead public advocacy around children’s issues to keep child rights in the center of discussion, thus exerting external pressure on decision-makers.
To see the results of this work often takes a long time and often there are insufficient resources available for this ‘upstream’ work. But, when successful, the impact of our upstream and social policy work can be enormous and can affect the lives of millions of children. This work is more sustainable and ultimately costs less than what we spend in other contexts.
As an example, in Georgia, UNICEF has been very active in the area of social policy and, specifically, social protection. For several years, we have been assessing and analyzing the effects of social programs on people, especially children. What we’ve found is that children in Georgia face higher risks of poverty than any other group no matter which poverty threshold is applied. Households with children are poorer than those without children (26 % compared to 17 % in 2013). The existing social protection systems fail to properly “see” them even though the systems were designed to support the poorest in the first place.
Since 2011, our strategic advocacy with the Government of Georgia and other partners about the impact of existing policies on children, as well as public advocacy through media and other open forums, has been on-going. We’ve highlighted specific, evidence-based recommendations to proposed policy changes and have linked our narrative to the country’s economic development, its human rights agenda and its path towards European integration.
As a result, the Government of Georgia agreed in 2013 to revise the social protection system with the support of UNICEF. The reform was based on the evidence derived from UNICEF studies, as well as on the proposed policy solutions. It will eventually affect 40 % of all children in the country and is expected to halve extreme child poverty and have positive effects on general poverty rates for all. At the same time, the reform introduces specific child cash benefits, which is unprecedented in Georgia’s history.
This is not the final stage and more work must be done to reduce the poverty and vulnerability of families and children, to ensure equality and to help communities become more resilient. The role of UNICEF in this regard remains crucial. We continue to work with governments and civil society to influence specific policies, as well as to act as a leading voice for children and to conduct public advocacy to influence decision-making processes.
Tinatin Baum is a Social Policy Specialist at UNICEF Georgia