Poverty, Sustainable Development Goals

Why are economists so critical to advancing the wellbeing of children?

There are a plethora of ambitions for the wellbeing of children in the world.

We have, for example, the long-standing United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child from 1989  – the most widely adopted of the many UN Conventions; and, more recently, the UN Agenda 2030 vision and its associated Sustainable Development Goals.

All these declarations set out hugely ambitious objectives for addressing the needs, rights and opportunities of children.  All have received widespread commitment from governments and civil society organisations.  All accept and promote the powerful argument that children are critical to the future, and their well-being is critical to the well-being of global society and of the global environment.

But the gulf between the global aspirations and the reality is vast.

Progress to close this gap for children, both across the world and within individual nations, has typically been patchy, reversible, fragile and poorly sustained.  Where substantial progress has been made, it has been exceptional.

And, with the COVID-19 pandemic engulfing the world, it is widely accepted that this gulf is rapidly widening now as the well-being of families and their children deteriorates sharply.

In addition, the direct economic costs of the pandemic itself, and of the response of governments across the world to the health crisis, have been immense:  debt-GDP ratios are rising sharply to unprecedented levels, and further waves of COVID will only add to the huge burden that is being (rightly) incurred to limit the full impact of the crisis.

Restoring economic and financial sustainability will take many many years, if not decades, with striking implications for the provision of all public services –  including most importantly, children’s services –  and other measures that could accelerate progress towards the global aspirations for child well-being.

Closing the gulf looks an immense challenge.

But why was this gulf between aspiration and reality already so great before the pandemic hit? 

And what is it going to take to bridge this gap in the medium term, especially as the world recovers from the most serious global crisis of our time?

One critical explanation for the gulf and the weak progress has been the ineffectiveness of policy implementation in all its different dimensions.  Often, hugely promising policy and programmes have been identified with significant potential to make a sustained difference, but despite undoubtedly good intentions, the efforts and sustained attention required to put these ideas in to practice in such a way as to have an effect on children’s day-to-day lives have ultimately been pitifully ineffective for far too many children.

And often, the best ideas have not attracted the support of the key decision-makers in government with the power to promote the policies and with the financial resources to bring real momentum to the implementation.  Politicians have often voiced the appropriate words but failed to back the policies that might bring transformation.

How then will we secure and sustain political commitment?

We propose that one essential part of the answer lies in demonstrating the economic value of enhancing the well-being of children more rigorously and with more insight. 

Economic value is generated not merely for the children themselves –though of course this is critical – but benefit is additionally generated for the broader national society, and this benefit is vast and in many ways overlooked.  At best, it is rarely analysed with rigour and precision, or quantified to demonstrate and illustrate the nature and magnitude of the economic benefits to society.  The cost of improving children’s’ well-being is unsurprisingly immediate and the benefits flow over decades.  Understanding the channels through which economic value is generated, where the returns lie, and identifying sophisticated ways to measure these gains, is imperative.

Politicians across governments are more likely to meaningfully show commitment and respond if they see the broader economic benefits.

But there is another crucial perspective here.  In Scotland, as the Christie Commission pointed out almost 10 years ago, the failure to identify the early emerging signs of social need – and respond rapidly and proportionately to these early warning signs – leads to far greater costs to society over the long term.

Prevention is thus a key element in addressing the challenges of children’s well-being.  To the extent that we can prevent, or at least curtail, the harm that children experience in situations where they are at risk and vulnerable to a wide range of adversities, the well-being of children will be better sustained.  Identifying the pressures and stresses on families that drive familial adversity – and which in turn risks an increase in children’s experiences of adversity – is critical. Equally important is intensifying the steps to avert these trends.

Economic policy can play a critical role in prevention. In part, it is through addressing the economic circumstances of the family unit in general; in part, it is through more direct policy to protect and empower children.

Additionally, the approach to implementing potentially highly impactful policies is crucial.  Child well-being is a long term, highly complex and structural challenge, requiring holistic and systemic strategic thinking and complex ways of working.  The targeted outcomes can only be secured through relatively sophisticated collective leadership and collective working across all society and across all government.

And so, there are a range of economic perspectives that bear very directly on the well-being of children and importantly on the design of effective programmes of intervention.  The economic perspective is crucial in making the case for the best possible approaches to advance children’s well-being. 

Anecdote and advocacy have an immensely valuable part to play – as notably with the impressive movements to draw attention to the plight of child poverty today, and the provision of food to the children of families – and these efforts will need to be sustained in the light of the economic challenges ahead, and they will need to be underpinned by the highest quality analysis and evidence.

This is precisely the purpose and focus of the Institute for Inspiring Children’s Futures and the Fraser of Allander in launching the new joint Doctoral Research Centre for Children’s Well-being.  It will generate the highest quality research and evidence to drive the design of better policy and, importantly, to inform and persuade policymakers of the wisdom of effectively implementing such policies.

If you are interested to know more of this project, or indeed to apply for one of the fully-funded doctoral studentships (deadline 4 Dec 2020), please see:


Jennifer Davidson

Executive Director of the Institute for Inspiring Children’s Futures

Picture of Graeme Roy, director of the Fraser of Allander Institute
Graeme Roy

Dean of External Engagement in the College of Social Sciences at Glasgow University and previously director of the Fraser of Allander Institute.