Thursday, 15 February 2007

Unicef report may be flawed, but there is still much to worry about

The Unicef report on child well-being in rich countries caused an instinctively sceptical reaction in me, partly because of the known left-wing bias within the UN agencies and partly because of its reliance on relative income measures. As I commented to Cicero earlier today (I have since rectified the typos!):

I fail to understand how a poor child in Britain is worse off than an even-poorer child in Slovakia, simply because the British child is able to see a Porsche from her window rather than a clapped out Lada.
Having said that, I’ve decided it’s best to read the report before spilling too much virtual ink. Sadly (sic.), I’m about to disappear off to Cape Town (where the temperature is in the 20s and the sun sets late over the sea) and so won’t have time to read it and write about it until it is quite stale, so I’m going to make a few observations based on the very informative annex, which has the 40 separate indicators which led the report writers to their conclusions.

Having reviewed these, I remain very sceptical of the relative poverty issue. Furthermore, many measures are based on subjective reporting (“aspiring to low skilled work”; “finding their peers kind”; “agreeing with the statement that…”) and others are probably based on surveys that may not be entirely accurate (reports on how many books are in a house or how many educational tools – did the children consider the family computer an educational tool? Or a toy?).

Nonetheless, perhaps a third of the measures were clear, objective measures based on official statistics in which we ought to have at least some faith. The following stand out as cause for real concern:

· Above average infant mortality
· Above average number of births with low birth weight (they say “birth rate below 2500g” but I am inferring what they meant!)
· Below average immunisation against DPT3 and Polio, and significantly below average immunisation against Measles
· Above average number of overweight 13 and 15 year olds (according to BMI).
· Significantly below average participation in education among 15-19 year olds
· Below average number of 15-19 year olds in either education or employment
· Significantly above average number of children living in single-parent and step families
· Significantly above average adolescent (15-19 year old) fertility rate

(For statisticians among you, ‘Significantly’ refers to more than one standard deviation difference, which puts the UK into the bottom quintile).

No matter how you cut it, that means that the UK’s children are less healthy and dying more often than peers in less wealthy societies including the Mediterranean countries, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Malta. They are not undertaking as much further study and are more likely to expect to work in unskilled employment – not a good place to be with a billion Chinese yet to join the global labour market. Traditional family structures are more fragile (though I hesitate to draw any conclusions from this).

I do not believe it follows that the solutions must be more Government intervention in family lives or massive statist structures institutionalising childhood. But there is clearly room for improvement in our public health and education, currently subject to two of the largest Government departments. A more thorough immunisation programme, better sex education and improved technical educational opportunities for non-academic school leavers would be a good start.

One thing is for certain: despite the instinctive scepticism and lingering doubt of myself and many liberal-minded colleagues, this report leaves no room for complacency.


Kit said...

Of the 8 points you raise 6 are life-style choices. What is a liberal to do?

Tom Papworth said...

While there are elements of choice here, I'm sure that there are also areas of government failure:

1) immunisation programmes should be boosted

2) better education and higher incomes will lead to lower obesity

3) education would be more popular among 15-19 year olds if the present system wasn't failing to teach many 5-14 year olds basic literacy and numeracy

4) education and employment may be a choice but, along with self sufficiency, they should be the only choice for most 15 to 19 year olds.

5) sex education needs to be boosted.

There is a lot for a liberal to do. However, taking fat boys into care ( or otherwise nannying the individual should not be part of it.