Reflecting on research at UNICEF Innocenti: 3 Numbers that show the value of research on social protection

UNICEF Innocenti’s Chief of Social and Economic Policy reflects on two years of research.

When I am asked why I do research, what difference it makes, and especially in an institution, like Unicef, that does rather than thinks, my answer is 1.68.[1]

This number has contributed to change the lives of many children and youngsters in Venezuela. It is the benefit-to-cost ratio of investing USD 211 million in 500,000 children annually over seven years in a social development program through music. The number resulted from an ex-ante evaluation projecting the socioeconomic (reduced school dropouts, reduced victimization, and increased tax revenue) and personal (discipline, school achievement and employability) benefits of the program against its costs.

It is not important whether you are familiar with ex-ante evaluations, simulations or cost-benefit principles. This research did two things everyone can understand. First, it proved that a youth orchestra is not just a music project. It can be a pretty effective massive social development program. Second, it demonstrated that children armed with violins rather than guns have better chances in life.

Let me give you another number: 16. These are the years I had been working on poverty and equity before joining UNICEF. Those years gave me ample opportunity to cover many issues: the (surprising) interconnections between poverty and inequality; the mutual links with conflict; how machismo can affect poverty; or how social transfers affect behavior among the poor; which are the most effective interventions to reduce poverty; or how best to measure this complex phenomenon.

But it has been working for UNICEF that I have focused on the specific vulnerabilities of children and adolescents; that monetary poverty can be a dreadful proxy for children deprivations in some settings; that standard measures do not fare well in emergencies; and that while we invest so much time thinking whether we should equally weigh indicators in our indexes, governments are instead calculating political costs and benefiting of introducing a new poverty number that will hold them more accountable.

The bottom-line is that working for UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti has allowed me to incubate fresh ideas that I might not hatch in other places. Intellectually, this is critical for a researcher. Innocenti has incredibly inspirational vibes. Florence hosts our office in premises that 600 years ago—this is not a typo—emerged as the first dedicated caring center for abandoned and abuse children in history. A dedication that inspires many of us day after day. I was enthused to work on understanding the equity effects of fiscal policies specifically on children or how different genocides––no two are alike––can affect the long-term wellbeing of surviving adolescents. These are just two examples of the many incredibly interesting and relevant themes and challenges we work on at Innocenti.

A final number: 34. This is the number of researchers I have co-authored a piece of research with in these last two years. Some 26 are researchers I did not know before when I joined UNICEF. Thanks to them and Innocenti, I have developed my own evidence-based voice against injustices to children. Please keep listening!


Jose Cuesta speaks at the 2018 Public Finance for Children workshop in Florence, Italy.

More UNICEF Innocenti research by Jose Cuesta:

 

[1] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13504851.2010.517187?scroll=top&needAccess=true

 

Presentation: UNICEF Innocenti - Fiscal Policy & Equity in Uganda + Equity in education finance for children
Presentation: UNICEF Innocenti – Fiscal Policy & Equity in Uganda + Equity in education finance for children

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