What now for children, as we face the prospect of a double dip recession?

By Caroline Harper and Hanna Alder

Britain is on the brink of another credit crunch. Crippling debt, tumbling markets and stagnant inflation have all sent the eurozone into a state of absolute economic turmoil (again) and now the possibility of the long-predicted double-dip recession looms closer than ever. And what a grim prospect it is.

Much concern of late has been directed towards the youth demographic – or the ‘lost generation’ as they’ve been fatalistically dubbed – and rightly so. The latest unemployment figures put the rate for young people (16-24 years) at a staggering one million, which not only impacts on their immediate earning power, but has implications for their future employability, range of opportunities and earning potential over the life-course as they compete with the annual influx of graduates and schools leavers, in addition to the other 2.6 million unemployed adults.  The young face multiple challenges, and this includes the very young. As experience from previous crises shows, the outlook is also bleak for children, so what better time to reopen the conversation on the importance of considering the impacts of economic crisis on children than the anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child?

The UK signed the Convention 20 years ago. Among other things, the Convention guarantees children the right to a standard of living that enables them to develop fully and to fulfil their potential. Currently, more than 1.6 million children in the UK are living in severe poverty and the possibility of the UK fulfilling its promise to end child poverty by 2020 is looking increasingly remote.   Rising prices for food, fuel and rent, falling benefits, frozen wages and reduced local authority services affect families in disproportionate ways, with children potentially being the biggest losers in the end. Globally, the situation is considerably graver with child suffering and ill-being remaining alarmingly high, particularly in developing countries. Every year, 9.7 million children under the age of five die, most of them from preventable disease and undernutrition, and the World Bank estimates that failure to address the global economic crisis will result in another 200,000 to 400,000 annual deaths.

Children’s emotional, physical and developmental well-being is highly dependent on the nurture and care they receive from their parents. Financial pressures that leave parents stressed, overworked and time- and resource-poor have important implications for family dynamics, all of which affect children in disproportionate and lasting ways, given the particular and multidimensional ways in which they experience poverty and ill-being. Increases in child mortality and morbidity, child labour, child exploitation, violence and other forms of abuse, alongside declines in school attendance and the quality of education, nurture, care and emotional well-being, can all be traced to times of economic crisis, and are likely to have long-term and often lifelong and even intergenerational consequences. Importantly, action to mitigate these effects can be taken, but only if the impacts of crisis on children are recognised and policy enacted to alleviate children’s suffering.

The implications of Europe’s current crisis could well take the form of further cuts in basic services at the domestic level, and cuts to official development assistance, both of which would have serious consequences for children in Britain and elsewhere. The new generation of technocratic leaders, with their willingness to implement drastic austerity measures, is perhaps the most likely to take the axe to ODA, though it shouldn’t be assumed that other leaders won’t follow. For the UK ODA may have been ring-fenced for now, but whether or not this remains the case is yet to be seen given the obvious budget constraints.  

Attention to potential policy responses – particularly those that address areas of care, nurture and protection from abuse and violence – is absolutely vital, now more than ever. The survival, protection and development of all children, whether in Britain or elsewhere, and their potential to lead quality lives ultimately depend on governments prioritising their needs and ensuring that the environment can sustain their basic human rights as they grow to adulthood. The stark reality is that if we don’t, the future of many of today’s children hangs in the balance.

These issues and more relating to children in times of economic crises have been investigated in a theme issue of Development Policy Review, which is being launched at a public meeting at ODI on 7 December 2011.

18 November 2011
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