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The best books on Children and the Millennium Development Goals

recommended by Richard Jolly

The UN veteran chooses books on the fate of children in the developing world and the Millennium Goals and says giving money to the poor works

Tell me about your first choice, UNICEF’s 2010 State of the World’s Children Report, Celebrating 20 years of the Convention of the Rights of the Child.

I chose this report (special edition) on child rights because I think it gives a recent assessment of the progress of children with respect to the Millennium Development Goals and also sets them in the context of the rights of the child.

Like my other four choices, it is an action-orientated document with an international perspective. It is not just theory or principles but summarises the specifics of progress with some of the challenges which remain. It is also a document linked directly to the United Nations, which, of course, set the MDGs at the Millennium Summit in September 2000.

And do you think there has been much progress made towards improving the rights of children?

Yes, important and sometimes dramatic progress, as the document brings out. There has been progress directly in implementing the rights of the child, progress in terms of monitoring the rights of the child, progress in terms of the committee which oversees the rights of the child and, at the most specific level, progress in terms of child health and nutrition, access to water and sanitation, and an increase in the number of children in education, particularly girls in schools. In all these areas there has been progress worldwide. So that is the good news.

The report does, however, bring out that this progress has been very uneven. Advance has been most rapid, often ahead of the Millennium Development Goals, in China and in other parts of Asia. Because of China’s quantitative importance in the world this gives an over-optimistic sense of the general progress in the world.

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In Sub-Saharan Africa, there has been much less progress. There is a very mixed picture in Latin America. It is also interesting that in the Middle East, where countries are often oil-rich, there hasn’t been that much economic progress over the last 20 years.

However, what I like about the UNICEF report is that it makes clear that, even in countries that are not doing so well economically, it is still possible to make important progress for children. That is what we have seen in the single most important indicator of child welfare – child mortality, the number of children under-five dying each year. This has gone down from about 15 million a year in 1980 to 12 million in 1990 and to just under nine million today. This was made possible by a series of specific actions focused on children – immunisation to tackle child health, expansion of access to water and sanitation actions and, supremely, mobilisation through the media and education to make mothers more aware of the importance of hygiene and how to tackle common diseases such as diarrhoea, and the importance of taking children for immunisation.

Your next choice is another report, UNDP, The Human Development Report 2003: A Compact Among Nations to End Human Poverty.

The Human Development Report is probably the most noticed annual report of the UN, coming out since 1990 and usually getting headline treatment in newspapers around the world. The importance of this report of 2003 is that it concentrated on the Millennium Development Goals and presented them as a compact among nations to end human poverty, particularly a compact between developed donor nations and developing nations.

What I particularly liked and think is so important about this report is that it went into the economic strategy the countries need to follow if they are to make rapid progress towards human development and the Millennium Development Goals. Often there is the idea that mostly what a country needs to achieve the goals is rapid economic growth. This is far too simple – for all the reasons set out clearly and punchily in the summary at the beginning of this report. Elements of national strategy are also clear from the many examples elaborated on in later chapters. So I think it is a very important document and again one that presents specifics on many of these issues.

The report also supplied evidence to justify a more optimistic picture of past performance of countries in pursuing UN goals. Many people start with a totally negative view about whether it is even possible to achieve the goals and of why countries or people should take seriously goals set up by the UN in New York. What difference will it make?

Well, this report shows that the UN since its early days has adopted some 50 development goals – time-bound targets for economic and social progress. Some – like the eradication of smallpox – have been fully and dramatically achieved, in spite of great scepticism when the goal of eradication was first adopted in 1966. Smallpox was killing two million people a year until the mid 1960s. Yet eradication was achieved in 11 years at remarkably little cost – $300 million in total, the cost at the time of three fighter bombers. This is the most impressive – but many of the other UN goals have had a big impact.

So the goals really are worth pursuing. How about your next book, The No-Nonsense Guide to the United Nations by Maggie Black?

This is a more general book on the UN, written by a friend of mine, Maggie Black. It is superbly done. It is a very lively little book – a good antidote for those who think that the UN must be filled with boring people and boring debates.

It gives you a very good account of the politics but also of the practical impact of the UN. Many people have a view that the UN is mostly about the Security Council, about ending wars with possibly a few humanitarian actions thrown in on the side. What this little No Nonsense Guide to the UN shows is that the UN covers a much broader canvas. It covers development goals and the UN’s many development agencies, such as UNDP and UNICEF and specialised agencies like the ILO, WHO, UNESCO and the FAO. These deal with world issues of employment and wages, health and health policy, education and culture, food and agriculture. Maggie Black explains in just two or three pages the roles and effectiveness of each. It is by no means a general sales book for the UN – the author is very critical on certain aspects of the UN and she presents very interesting data on how the UN is often misunderstood.

When I recently looked at it again, I saw the interesting data on vetoes in the Security Council. These are often seen as the nasty and disruptive work of the Third World or of Russia – being disruptive towards democratic efforts of the United States and the United Kingdom. In fact, Maggie shows that, since the 1960s, by far the most vetoes have been cast by the US, with the UK next on the list.

The next book by Joseph Hanlon, Armando Barrientos and David Hulme has the provocative title, Just Give Money to the Poor.

This is the most recent of my book choices – only just published. It argues the case for making financial transfers to poor people in developing countries, as an efficient and effective way towards reducing poverty. This, of course, is linked to the first Millennium Development Goal, the commitment to halve the proportion of people living in poverty by 2015. The book shows that the last five to ten years, social transfers (as they are called or sometimes social protection measures) have been adopted more and more by developing countries and have become something of a fashion among aid donors. Brazil, for example, has a system of transferring money for poor families and children, the Bolsa Familia. This is well described and analysed here. President Lula has combined this with pensions for older people.

What is interesting is that well over 100 million people in different countries are now receiving some form of social protection. Often this is linked to conditions which poor families must fulfil, very positive conditions. For instance, in Mexico social protection measures require that mothers, to be eligible, take themselves and their young children for regular health check-ups or, if they are pregnant, to go to a clinic three times for check-ups. And in Mexico and other countries children must attend primary school if their families are to get the social protection transfers. This book gives evidence to show that such measures of social protection can work. Indeed, one of the good things about this book is that it argues along the lines of the provocative title – Just Give Money to the Poor. It gives the evidence to show that it is often more effective than more complicated systems which often fall prey to bureaucracy or corruption.

Your final choice is The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen.

Professor Amartya Sen is a giant in development and a giant in economics and philosophy, winning the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998. The brilliance of the book is that it deals in general with the whole question of inequality in countries in different situations.

Professor Sen has a very subtle mind and is a brilliant economist and philosopher. He does not over-simplify the complexity of issues of judging inequality and taking action. He deals with the views of the late Harvard philosopher Rawls who argued that you can’t take action on inequality in any particular situation unless you have a vision of what perfect equality would mean in the world. And that, of course, is almost always a recipe for being unable to do anything about inequality because it is so difficult.

Yet without underplaying the difficulties, Amartya Sen reaches step by logical step the liberating conclusion that, even though we may never be able to define perfect equality, you can get democratic agreement on extremes of inequality for which there is a need for some sort of action. So what I like when I think about children and the Millennium Development Goals is that in this book we have the most robust defence of action along the lines of the Millennium Development Goals or along the lines of tackling the unnecessary deaths of millions of children in the world. These are examples of extremes of inequality in the world today which governments have decided are unacceptable. Sen has provided in this book the economic and philosophical justification for these and other actions proposed in the other four books I have selected.

September 23, 2010

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Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly

Sir Richard Jolly is co-director of the UN Intellectual History Project and former Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, holding senior positions in UNICEF and the UNDP for over 20 years. He is author of a 16-volume history of the UN’s contributions to economic and social development since its beginning in 1945, of which the final volume has just been published as UN Ideas That Changed The World. Three of the earlier volumes were recognised as outstanding academic books of the year.

Richard Jolly

Richard Jolly

Sir Richard Jolly is co-director of the UN Intellectual History Project and former Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, holding senior positions in UNICEF and the UNDP for over 20 years. He is author of a 16-volume history of the UN’s contributions to economic and social development since its beginning in 1945, of which the final volume has just been published as UN Ideas That Changed The World. Three of the earlier volumes were recognised as outstanding academic books of the year.