Unleashing the limitless potential of all the children being left behind
The rise of Asia, supported by China and India’s express growth, is unparalleled in both speed and scale.
These days, Asia is not only the largest producer in the world, but also the largest consumer. Moreover, seven of the top 10 countries in terms of foreign reserves are in Asia. With major financial centres in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, and Mumbai, Asia has become the net capital exporter while also being the largest recipient of foreign investment in the world.
Yet, these indicators hide a much overlooked yet vital group: Asia’s children. The continent is home to the largest child population in the world, and these children have dreams and aspirations, they need education and job prospects in the future, and they need to have their rights upheld.
Save the Children’s End of Childhood Index in the third annual Global Childhood Report 2019 ranks 176 countries around the world based on the extent to which each country protects the lives and rights of its children. As a region, Asia falls in the middle of the table, having made huge progress over 20 years, but with still a long way to go to ensure all children are happy, healthy, educated, and protected.
Save the Children found that the best-performing country in Asia and the world is Singapore. It’s the second time in a row that one of the most disciplined and organized countries in the world came in first position, and it’s not a surprise. Singapore invests heavily in primary and secondary education -- which is free and compulsory for all children -- and, while it is highly competitive, the school system is regularly ranked as among the best in the world.
It also has a very high GDP per capita (due to a small population of 5.3 million) which it invests in high quality public services like education and health care. These policies are conducive to creating an environment that protects children from the moment they are born.
In the South Asian region, the Maldives tops the table (ranked 54th out of 176 countries), followed by Sri Lanka (56th). Both place in the top third of countries globally. The worst-performing country in the region is Afghanistan (ranked 158th), where most children are missing out on the childhood they deserve. It’s also the only country in the region to make the bottom 20 globally (Pakistan makes the bottom 30).
While Save the Children has recorded tremendous improvements in the lives of children globally, the least progress was made in countries that had experienced some form of conflict which affects a nation’s overall growth and robs children of their childhoods.
The political landscape in Asia is varied, with oligarchic democracies in South Korea and Japan; pro-business soft dictatorships in Hong Kong and Singapore; vibrant yet chaotic democracies in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines; challenging democracies in Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and Nepal; military-influenced governments in Thailand, Pakistan, and Myanmar; and faithfully authoritarian states in China, Laos, and Vietnam.
Yet, all of these countries have made improvements in the lives of children over the past 20 years. This tells us that progress is always possible, and that we must put future generations front and centre of national policy-making.
Going forward, there are immense challenges if Asia wants to take its rightful place as the most powerful region in the world. More than a third of children under five in Asia aren’t getting enough daily nutrition during the critical first five years.
This means, millions of children aren’t growing and developing properly, with potentially life-long consequences for their brains and bodies. I would urge Asian policy-makers and politicians to ensure every single child gets the basic daily nutrition they need to survive and thrive.
The progress made over the past 20 years is commendable, with China and India alone accounting for more than half of the global decline in child stunting, that is, the impaired growth and development children experience from lack of nutrition.
But this progress will be hard to sustain, unless Asian countries make structural changes to their schooling systems, access to health care, and poverty reduction. We can unleash the immense potential of hundreds of millions of children being left behind, if we put their interests first. It’s been said before, but the future is Asian.
Taskin Rahman is Regional Campaign Manager, Asia, at Save the Children.