4 opportunities for business to help children overcome challenges

  • Now is the time to harness the creativity of public and private sector partnerships to create a cross-pollination of ideas and solutions to challenges children face today.
  • Four urgent issues to address for children and young people involve learning, vaccines, mental health, and climate and water.
  • We must never forget to engage with young people themselves – their ideas, experiences and articulation of their needs are key to ensuring solutions reach the most marginalised.

These are difficult times for the world’s children and young people. The socioeconomic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are compounding pre-existing crises, including climate change, conflict, and barriers to learning and earning opportunities.

We are at a critical point where we must collectively act to achieve a truly equitable, inclusive and resilient recovery from the pandemic. This means ensuring that no child is left behind, and that all have access to the essential services and support they need to thrive. But we can only achieve these goals for children by working together.

Now is the time to harness the creativity and leadership of public and private sector partnerships to create a true cross-pollination of ideas and solutions for the challenges facing children today. If we start by tackling these four urgent issues for children and young people, I believe we will be well on the way to forging a resilient recovery and better future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the global education crisis. More than 156 million students are still affected by nationwide closures alone, in 19 countries. The first day of school – a landmark moment in the life of a child – has been indefinitely postponed for 140 million children globally. The impact of school closures and the digital divide on children’s and young people’s education, health and wellbeing at critical developmental stages has profound repercussions for each child, their family and the economy.

Through our Reimagine Education initiative, we are working to address the global learning crisis and transform education by giving children and young people equal access to quality digital learning services. This means connecting all of them – some 3.5 billion by 2030 – to world-class digital solutions for learning. One of the ways we’re working towards this goal is through Giga, a UNICEF-ITU global initiative to connect every school to the internet and every young person to information, opportunity and choice.

Reimagine Education is also supported by Generation Unlimited (GenU), which aims to ensure that the largest generation of young people in history is prepared for the transition to work, making a livelihood and engaged citizenship. Through GenU, we have a strong public-private youth partnership in 47 countries, which will rise to 60 by the end of the year.

Together, we can create opportunities for young people to play a part in reimagining education and their futures. We are urging the private sector to support children by:

  • Join UNICEF and GenU as we Reimagine Education, with products and services in education and job tech.
  • Target investments and innovation to help us modernise education and provide access to digital learning content and platforms, as well as to lower-cost devices.
  • Support our efforts to build a $5 billion donor-backed bond to finance last-mile infrastructure and school connectivity.

1.3 billion children live in countries at high risk from disasters linked to climate change, making school closures and learning loss the new norm unless urgent action is taken. These same countries are already in a learning crisis with 60% of children unable to read a simple text by age 10, according to UNICEF’s new report

Image: UNICEF

Equitable access to diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines – a critical way out of the pandemic – is more urgent than ever. The richest economies in the world need to urgently prioritise sharing vaccine and other necessary supplies with low-income countries and increasing support for equitable vaccine delivery in these countries. We need vaccine manufacturers to issue more IP licenses and technology partnerships, to scale up COVID-19 vaccine production capacity and make it more geographically diverse.

Over 5 billion doses of vaccines against COVID-19 have been given around the world, yet developing and emerging economies still have millions of frontline workers yet to receive a single dose. The longer the virus continues to spread unchecked, the higher the risk of more deadly or contagious variants emerging. The inequities are stark: for example, as of 1 September 2021, 1.8% of people in low-income countries had received one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 63.1% in high-income countries.

Key actions are urgently needed from our private and public sector partners:

1. Strengthen resilient health systems by ramping up investments across health, nutrition, water and sanitation, education, child protection, and social protection.

2. Countries with surplus COVID-19 vaccines should immediately donate doses to lower-income countries, as well as the syringes and protective equipment required to deliver them safely.

3. Lift export and import restrictions affecting vaccine components, ingredients and manufactured doses to get the global supply chain flowing.

Mental health has proven to be the shadow pandemic we cannot ignore. Children’s lives everywhere have been turned upside down, disrupting comforting and familiar patterns like going to school and playing outdoors. Lockdowns have deprived adolescents of the social and peer connections that are so crucial at this time of life. Many children have been stranded behind closed doors, exposed to violence, neglect and abuse, without the support they would normally find in school, and with their extended families and communities.

Even before the pandemic, children and young people carried the burden of mental health risks, with half of all mental disorders developing before age 15, and 75% by early adulthood. The majority of the 800,000 people who die by suicide every year are young people, and self-harm is the fourth leading cause of death among 15–19 year olds, with higher rates among adolescent girls. It is estimated that, globally, one in four children live with a parent who has a mental disorder.

We need more companies, partners and colleagues to join us through key actions:

1. Recognize the whole-of-society approach to promote, protect and care for mental health.

2. Increase investment to significantly expand mental health and psychosocial services for young people, and to expand access to universal parenting programmes.

3. Fund innovative mental health solutions like online counselling and using digital platforms to create peer-mentor systems, so young people can help and support each other. We need to scale-up promising solutions like this.

4. Create public-private partnerships to advance research into adolescent mental health.

Children and young people are facing the devastating consequences of the climate crisis and water insecurity, yet they are the least responsible. In August, UNICEF released the first comprehensive analysis of climate risk from a child’s perspective and the results are stark. Almost every child on earth is already exposed to at least one climate hazard, such as heatwaves, air pollution, water scarcity or cyclones.

Approximately 1 billion children – nearly half the world’s 2.2 billion children – live in one of the 33 countries classified as “extremely high-risk” to the impacts of climate change. These children face a deadly combination of exposure to multiple climate and environmental shocks, and high vulnerability due to inadequate essential services, such as water and sanitation, health care, and education.

We need more companies, partners and colleagues to join us through key actions:

1. Increase investment in climate adaptation and resilience in key services for children – including water, sanitation and hygiene systems, health, and education services.

2. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 to keep warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

3. Provide children with climate education and green skills, critical for their adaptation to and preparation for the effects of climate change.

4. Include young people in all national, regional and international climate negotiations and decisions, including at COP26.

5. Ensure the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is green, low-carbon and inclusive.

As we celebrate UNICEF’s 75th year, our collaboration with partners remains essential to support children and communities in the short term and to building resilience and lasting development in parts of the world that have seen too little progress. For this, flexible, un-earmarked funding remains critical.

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

Platforms such as the World Economic Forum that play an essential role in creating space for public-private collaboration and catalysing multi-stakeholder action are needed now more than ever, along with the innovation, expertise and scale of the private sector.

Above all else, we must never forget to engage with young people themselves. Their ideas, experience and articulation of their own needs will be key to ensuring solutions are relevant and reach the most marginalised children and youth. We cannot build their future without them.

Maria Flores

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