Sometimes you wonder how much evidence is needed on the damage that inequality does to child development, before policy responds accordingly and with the necessary urgency. The process to identify a post-2015 successor to the Millennium Development Goals provides an important opportunity to make the shift at a global level, and a recent roundtable discussion brought together a group of academic, civil society and UN thinkers to consider the evidence and begin to draw out policy implications. This post summarises some of the key points from that evidence, and some subsequent thoughts on post-2015.
On 18 July, UNICEF UK hosted a roundtable discussion with Save the Children and the Young Lives research group based at the University of Oxford, with the same title as this post. The aim was to present new research findings from Young Lives, with a range of expert views, and to start to draw out some implications for the post-2015 agenda. Young Lives is “an international study of childhood poverty following the changing lives of 12,000 children in Ethiopia, India (in the state of Andhra Pradesh), Peru and Vietnam over 15 years”. The full note on proceedings is well worth a read.
I discussed the first paper, which was presented by Jo Boyden, the director of Young Lives. [Full disclosure - I've accepted the kind invitation to sit on the Young Lives International Advisory Board.] The paper, jointly written with Stefan Dercon (now DFID’s chief economist), is called Child Development and Economic Development: Lessons and future challenges.
The paper provides an overview of Young Lives findings that relate to economic growth and to inequality, covering a great deal of ground in the wider research literature also. I can’t begin to summarise the wealth of material here – read the paper! - so I’m just going to draw out three main elements of the argument.
First, children’s development:
is highly dependent on how they understand their relative social position, relative competence, and potential to access opportunities for personal, social, and economic advancement. Moreover, these are not for the most part individualised processes, but are experienced as part of a family group, peer group, and community (Boyden and Crivello 2011; Ridge 2002; Woodhead 2004). (p.14)
Probably the most commonly cited – and still powerful – single finding with which to illustrate the importance of this group experience is this 2004 World Bank paper (subsequently published in 2006 in the relatively inaccessible American Economic Review). Karla Hoff and Priyanka Pandey looked at the performance of a group of school pupils in Uttar Pradesh in solving mazes, and tested the effects of announcing individuals’ caste, and segregating groups on the basis of caste. When there is no announcement of caste, caste is irrelevant to performance. An announcement in front of other group members, however, had significant implications for performance.
Hoff and Pandey’s figure 3 shows the impact of announcement, when looking at changes in performance from the first round of mazes to the second: “Among subjects whose scores worsened (Δ ≤-1), the fraction of the low caste was 30 percent in the control condition, but 60 percent when caste was announced. Among subjects whose scores improved by 5 mazes or more, the fraction of low-caste subjects was 65 percent in the control condition, but 27 percent when caste was announced. Thus, the announcement of caste shifted weight in the top tail of the distribution of learning scores from low- to high-caste subjects, and in the bottom tail from high to low-caste subjects. (The relative frequency of Δ is shown on the right-hand side vertical axis of the figure.)”
Studies on Young Lives data extend the existing knowledge of how child nutrition affects intellectual progress (‘cognitive outcomes’), and extends it to psychosocial (non-cognitive) outcomes such as self-esteem and educational aspirations. On top of the human implications – do we actually need anything on top of these? – the work of Nobel economist James Heckman and colleagues has shown how such results can be instrumentalised to make a powerful case for early-life interventions to reduce the human capital’ and yield important economic growth benefits.
A second important element of the Boyden and Dercon review is the finding that, in each of the four Young Lives countries (Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam):
the same households and children tend to be repeatedly disadvantaged; rural children, children of ethno-linguistic minority communities, and (in India) low-caste children, as well as those whose mothers have no/low education, experience discrimination, powerlessness, and social isolation and are at increased risk of doing less well across a wide range of indicators in education, health, and subjective well-being. (p.20)
These patterns of systematic marginalisation and exclusion result in (again systematic) differences in households’ abilities to respond to shocks (whether, for example, in the form of the death of a parent, extreme weather events or conflict) – and, in turn, in further (again systematic) inequalities in child development.
Given this, the third point should come as no surprise. Despite substantial economic growth in each of the four Young Lives countries over the decade from 2001-2010:
there is very little evidence that growth by itself is addressing the relative disadvantage of some groups in comparison with others; and indeed in some cases, at least, it may well be exacerbating inequality, as in the well-being gaps between rural and urban children in Peru (p.29).
Growth, and the donor funds and focus associated with the Millennium Development Goals, has “offered the financial space for governments and families to invest more in their children, even though patterns of progress remain distorted by uneven provision and entrenched inequalities” (p.31). Even for the prospects of continuing on the current path, expanding important services such as access to drinking water, the threats to both the medium-term growth outlook and to donor funding streams are clear.
current growth processes in most developing countries are not characterised by the economic structural transformation and job creation that are required to ensure equity and offer the children of today the job opportunities to which they aspire. Labour-intensive growth tends to be relatively equitable; yet many countries have experienced ‘jobless growth’, which is typically far less equitable. (p.32)
Finally, a focus on economic growth is insufficient to address major elements of child development and of human existence that the Young Lives project allows researchers to study:
While it is possible to see how growth can support nutrition, health, and cognitive development through effective service delivery in terms of water, sanitation, education, healthcare, and the like, facilitating the development of non-cognitive skills is far less straightforward and cannot be assumed to follow as a direct consequence of economic improvements. Children’s sense of pride, perseverance, emotional stability, self-efficacy, and inclusion is not dependent solely on access to good-quality services; these competencies and states of mind are also a reflection of the degree of social trust that children experience, the quality of their relationships with others, their sense of self, and their sense of social identity. (p.33)
With this analysis in mind, the same group will meet again in October to focus on the implications for the post-2015 successor to the Millennium Development Goals. I’ll close this post with just one thought on these.
The work of Branko Milanovic and others, including Isabel Ortiz and Matthew Cummins at UNICEF, confirms in pure scale terms the greater importance of between-country, as opposed to within-country income inequality (arguably the only inequality we can even begin to measure with any precision in these dimensions and over time – although of course, we don’t know the half of it). The appeal of global inequality targets such as that put forward by Sakiko Fukuda-Parr is clear, albeit that their political feasiblity is a separate question.
The Boyden and Dercon review, however, confirms that the human development salience of within-country – if not within-community – inequality, may be greater. It is these inequalities, perhaps above all where they exist between identifiable groups, that are seen to colour the self-perceptions and the progress of children. For a given average level of ‘development’, a distribution with more marked inequalities is likely to result in lower progress, at both the individual and the macroeconomic level. How could we fail to aim policy precisely and carefully against such outcomes?
Within-country inequalities must be centrally addressed in the post-2015 framework; the remaining questions relate not to whether, but how best, to achieve this.
Edit: Paul Dornan of Young Lives has also blogged on this today, including a graph of school enrolment inequalities in Vietnam which is striking despite their predictable nature.
Edit 2: Ricardo Fuentes Nieva also blogged on this over at Duncan Green´s FP2P, focusing on the politics of inequality, while Keetie Roelen from IDS focuses more on the policy response – not least, her own important contributions with Rachel Sabates-Wheeler on the inequality impact of different approaches to social protection.