In the third instalment of a Webinar series that took place on Thursday 4 June, organised by the UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti, a panel of experts reflected on the global economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and the potentially dangerous consequences that it will have for the future of children and their families. The panel included Natalia Elena Winder-Rossi (UNICEF), Dominic Richardson (UNICEF), Ulrika Lång (SIDA), Dr. Gordana Matković (Center for Social Policy), Ugo Gentilini (World Bank) and Dr. Joan Nyanyuki (African Child Forum).
The panellists highlighted a range of vulnerabilities, including how children will face intensified food and nutrition insecurities, as many will miss out on school feeding during the pandemic. Furthermore, due to being taken out of their school environment, children may be more likely to be exposed to abuse and exploitation. Many children lack access to health services, and with existing health systems facing significant strains, infant mortality rates are likely to increase as a result.
Importantly, the panellists emphasised that now, more than ever, it is imperative that well-designed social protection schemes are put in place.
Innovative thinking is required on how to design the most effective responses, and Winder-Rossi highlighted the insecurities of the “missing middle” who live on low and insecure incomes and do not access any formal means of income support through the labour market. Many workers who live on middle incomes are active in informal and invisible forms of work, including the care economy. She emphasised that, at a minimum, recovery packages should include investments in social protection that protect families – including the “missing middle” – for the duration of the crisis with a longer-term vision for expansion.
Development Pathways has highlighted the challenges of the simplistic dichotomy of “poor” and “non-poor” in designing social protection schemes, and how addressing the “missing middle”, which often comprises the majority of the population, has become even more crucial in light of the pandemic.
The impacts of social protection as an economic stimulus have been well-researched, and Richardson referred to evidence on the multiplier effects of social protection. Gentilini further emphasised that “what goes into social protection goes into the economy.” It was highlighted that, without a social protection stimulus package, economies will face significant challenges to bounce back, and the risk of social tensions in society increases.
On the role of Universal Child Benefits, the panellists argued that a Universal Child Benefit should be a key component of a larger set of services that promote child health, education and nutrition. On the question of how to guarantee the right of children to access social protection universally, it was argued that a Universal Child Benefit should be progressively realised, in order to ensure it is financially feasible. For example, an initial child benefit could potentially address the first 1,000 days of a child. Subsequently, other lifecycle schemes could be put in place that are accessed by older children. Development Pathways has supported UNICEF Sri Lanka in exploring options for the progressive realisation of a Universal Child Benefit, including an option to implement a scheme for children below the age of five years in 2020, and grow the scheme over time by not removing any children until they reach their 18th birthday.
The dangerous consequences of COVID-19 for children highlight the essential role of social protection as part of a wider set of public responses to ensure the protection of children and mitigate their insecurities. A child benefit, that is accessible to all children (aged 0 to 17 years) is the most effective and equitable option for countries to ensure that families with children can access minimum income support. Recognising the fiscal constraints of many countries, a Universal Child Benefit is difficult to implement in the short term as a response to the impacts of COVID-19. However, as Nyanyuki emphasised, the political commitment to universality needs to be there.
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