Portrait of 9-year-old Sofia outside her family’s home in Colombia. © 2023 Laura Reinhardt / World Vision

How investing in children will realise the promise of the Sustainable Development Goals

Children make up 46% of the populations of aid-receiving countries and are critical agents of change in their communities. Yet, World Vision’s new report reveals that only 12% of development assistance is child-related.

We know that investment in children transcends generations with huge returns for societies, so why do children continue to be left behind in development funding?

The 2030 deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is fast approaching. Yet progress has stalled, and some areas, decades of gains have been thrown into reverse. Children’s rights are in crisis, with more than 1 billion children living in multidimensional poverty, experiencing limited access to health services and education and without their basic needs being met.

Spending on children is minimal

In Putting Children First For Sustainable Development, World Vision uses Ernst & Young Australia’s analysis of the amount of Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding that directly or indirectly targets children. Despite the multiple crises facing the world’s children today, our research finds that globally just 12% of ODA relates to children. Broken down, this means that only 5% of the approximately $207 billion annual global ODA investment is spent on programmes specifically for children, while another 7% is allocated to broader programmes that benefit children.

Children are a barometer of poverty. Children’s well-being reflects the overall situation of family, community and society where they live. Children are especially vulnerable to shocks, trauma and crises, which increase the likelihood of poverty being passed from one generation to the next. To break cycles of intergenerational poverty and achieve truly sustainable development children must be put at the centre.

When ODA is spent on children, whole communities benefit

Quantifying, for the first time, the economic benefit of investing in children, our research finds that for every US$1 spent on child-related programmes, there is a return of US$10 in wider benefits. Investment in children creates real-world benefits, including direct impacts on health and wellbeing, education, living standards and increased opportunities alongside indirect benefits that come from empowering children, their families, friends and wider communities. These indirect benefits account for around US$3 of the $10 return on investment.

For investment in children to be most impactful, children’s whole lives must be taken into account. Children do not live in silos. Education, safety, health and nutrition are all interdependent, and only a cross-sectoral approach that includes investment in transformative accelerators will generate the progress towards the SDGs we want to see.

We are calling on all ODA-contributing countries to:

  • Increase child-related investment: A minimum of a 10% increase in child-related investment by each ODA-contributing country each year has the potential to double the impact of current funding.
  • Consider children in all diplomatic and development policies and strategies: Children should be a priority for funding and key political policies.
  • Be accountable to children: Young people should be consulted as part of donor policy-making processes and participate in national and global forums discussing development issues.

‘Leave no one behind’ has to include children too

A key principle of the universal values underpinning the SDGs is to ‘Leave no one behind’. This calls on all of us seeking to progress the SDGs to take an intersectional approach, considering all the barriers and persistent forms of discrimination that marginalise or exclude individuals and communities.

In the UK, civil society organisations have been challenged by politicians and the wider public to work together more by taking increasingly intersectoral approaches to our development programming and advocacy and redressing historic power imbalances. The leave no one behind agenda provides a strong framework for working together and ensuring the voices of groups that have been marginalised are heard by the UK government when it comes to UK ODA spending.

Including children in the leave no one behind agenda does not mean prioritising them over other groups. It means recognising that, just as people are left behind because of their gender, disability, religion or sexual orientation, they are also being left behind because of their age. This is true for the youngest and the oldest in society.

It also means recognising that the risks of exclusion are even greater for those facing multiple barriers. It means building upon the gains we have already made, towards a comprehensive inclusion agenda that truly serves the people most in need of support. If children continue to be left out, we cannot achieve the SDGs.


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