Evidence for action: how data can help change children’s lives

By David Parker, Regional Chief of Programme and Planning, UNICEF EAPRO

We have seen this at the global level, and I have seen it first-hand from my work at UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre, where the ‘Report Cards’ comparing children’s well-being in industrialized countries galvanized public attention and visibly influenced national debates and policies in many countries. The team, including international experts, put great effort into obtaining high-quality, comparable data, and analyzing and presenting it in a simple and transparent manner. The power of the evidence demonstrated that the results were well worth the effort.Data and statistics are key to improving the lives of millions of children around the world. Since the launch of the first ‘State of the World’s Children’ report in 1980, UNICEF has shown that credible data – addressing important issues, well packaged and communicated – can drive significant changes in favour of children.

This was also the case during my time in China, where UNICEF has a strong record of facilitating the generation and use of data to make the case for strengthened or new policies, and help guide their implementation. For example, on field visits I met teachers and students who confirmed what research had shown, that the presence of adequate sanitation has a major impact on children’s school performance. Surveys were needed, however, to document the gaps that existed in school sanitation and identify districts where action was most needed. Later visits showed the difference that good sanitation makes to children’s attitudes and to the schools themselves.

While UNICEF’s presence in China is small in relative terms, enormous influence has been gained for children through relevant information and influential advocacy. This principle, at the heart of UNICEF’s cooperation in China, is being applied widely across the East Asia and Pacific region, as countries reach middle-income status.

Household surveys

A MICS field coordinator conducts an interview in Uzbekistan
© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1677/Giacomo Pirozzi

 

Much of what is known about the situation of children comes from household surveys, such as the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), which have been developed and supported by UNICEF. These surveys, carried out by national governments to high technical standards, capture representative information that is reported by families about their situation and how they access services. Data from household surveys enable UNICEF and our partners to understand the circumstances and living conditions of girls and boys of different age, family income, and ethnic groups: how they are born and cared for, how they grow and learn.

Such information, over time, reveals the many gains that have been achieved for children across the world. It also reveals gaps and shortfalls, and the inequalities that may in fact be increasing within countries even as the overall social development situation improves.

Disaggregated data, which is generally only available through in-depth surveys, is crucial to identify disparities and thereby enable interventions to be focused on the children who need them the most. It also helps to monitor and evaluate the progress of existing programmes and political commitments.

In East Asia and the Pacific there is a longstanding recognition of the importance of investing in education. We have worked for many years to use data to build the case for similar investments in other areas, with particular attention to health and child protection. While quick wins from ‘the right data at the right time’ are always valued, a long-term view is also critical. The most enduring investment gains come through using evidence to influence governments’ strategic plans and budgets, and the lending of international financial institutions in favour of children.

The knowledge we gain from data has made it possible to save and improve the lives of millions of children, and to keep our attention on those who are most vulnerable and excluded. Obtaining information on excluded children, such as ethnic minorities living in remote regions, can be highly challenging in logistical and financial terms. Yet this is a key way to ‘make the invisible visible’: where ‘invisible’ children – including those whose existence is not officially registered – remain most in need to be counted and reached.

State of the World’s Children 

 

In Laos, a health worker measures a boy’s arm to see if he is malnourished
© UNICEF/NYHQ2012-1891/Shehzad Noorani

 

The latest set of global data that has been assembled, reviewed, vetted and reported by UNICEF has just been released as the ‘State of the World’s Children in Numbers’. This report shines new light on the situation of children in the region.

We see continued substantial progress on under-5 mortality, but disparities persist. In East Asia and the Pacific, under-five mortality has fallen by 65 percent since 1990, the highest regional rate of progress in the world. The country with the highest rate of child mortality in this region is Lao PDR. Despite good progress, in Laos there are 72 deaths per 1,000 live births. By contrast, in Japan there are just 3 deaths per 1,000 live births.

There are wide disparities in the situation of children, across all sectors, depending on whether their families are from the poorest or richest 20 percent of the population. For example, in Viet Nam 21 percent of the poorest children are 5 were underweight, compared to only 3 percent of the richest. 38 percent of the poorest children had comprehensive knowledge of HIV, compared to 68 percent of the richest.

UNICEF and governments are using this data to improve the targeting and quality of services, and to further strengthen the capacity for reaching these children. Despite having the highest under-five mortality rate in East Asia and Pacific, Laos also has one of the greatest rates of progress in this area, with a 72 percent reduction in child mortality between 1990 and 2011.

The Lao Social Indicator Survey 2011-12 provided data which, for the first time, enabled the government analyse the situation of women and children at the provincial level. This data has been used by the Lao Government UNICEF and other partners to update the situation of children and their families and measure progress towards the MDGs, identifying provinces where extra efforts are needed.

The evidence is then being used to shape advocacy and programme responses. For example, UNICEF’s analysis of the nutrition data showed the need for increased attention to breastfeeding and to counter the trend of using breast milk substitutes. It also showed the need for greater attention to the linkages between nutrition and open defecation. We are now supporting accelerated action in these areas.

Because of UNICEF’s focus on data, we have been able to improve the lives of millions of children – in China, Laos and around the world – and will continue to do so in the years to come.

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