The evidence is now clear, and the COVID-19 crisis has only made it more pressing that “now is the time” for universal child benefits – this was the message offered from the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) webinar on the subject last week. The speakers included Francesa Bastagli (ODI), Ariunzaya Ayush (Government of Mongolia), Nelson Marwa Sospeter (Government of Kenya), Brenda Sibeko (Government of South Africa) and Martin Ravallion (Professor of Economics, Georgetown University) and the webinar was chaired by David Stewart (UNICEF).
The discussion centred on the arguments that children continue to be massively over-represented in terms of global poverty and under-represented – almost 2/3 of the world’s children – in access to social protection and/or any form of benefits. Whilst only 23 countries have, what could be called, a “full” universal child benefit, i.e. regular and unconditional payments to all children or their guardians, the majority of other countries have opted for a quasi-universal child benefit, with targeted elements of coverage, a limited child benefit or have no child benefit at all. Thus, a combination of targeting and means-testing still dominates the mindset of many governments even though evidence strongly suggests that a universal child benefit is not only affordable but has better all-round, long-term socioeconomic impacts on both children and societies. Francesca Bastagli suggested that COVID-19 has now given many governments and policy-makers pause for thought in terms of social protection policies and schemes and how a universal child benefit could be a vital measure going forward.
Examples were given by representatives from respective governments about the positive experiences they have had with universal child benefits. Ariunzaya Ayush explained how Mongolia’s child benefit programme covers almost 100 per cent of children under 18 years old. This accounts for 37 per cent of total social protection spending and 0.7 per cent of Gross Domestic Product. It is the main source of income for many poor and low-income households and has better protected those affected by the COVID-19 impacts as well as shocks across the lifecycle. Nelson Marwa Sospeter outlined how Kenya has recently introduced universal child benefits, combined with free schooling, as a means to invest in the future as well as guarantee human rights entitlements at the most crucial stage of the lifecycle. Brenda Sibeko explained how South Africa, post-Apartheid, has used a child benefit as a form of “progressive realisation” to embracing the rights of children and embrace of social security as an ideal.
Narrow ideological debates about poverty targeting, the “fiscal space” and “austerity measures” regarding political economies and politically myopic questions about “can universal programmes be afforded?” are counterintuitive and need urgent reassessment. The continuing (emotional, physical, social and economic) costs of child poverty have intergenerational consequences. This, coupled with the widespread use of ineffective targeting schemes, continues to blight social protection systems and predominantly impact the most vulnerable demographic globally: children. Development Pathways has been vocal in its support of universal child benefits. It has also been involved in the evidencing and demonstration of how it could be used as key social protection instrument to help children at a national level as well as an affordable social and economic emergency response against economic and environmental shocks, such as COVID-19.
Universal child benefits would help improve the lives of all children, now and in the future and Professor Ravallion expressed during the discussion what so many others are now coming to realise. In the context of COVID-19, as well as going forward in meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals and achieving inclusive social protection systems, the real question is: how can we afford to not have a universal child benefit?
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