LIBERIA: The Need for a Child Poverty Survey
By Francis W. Nyepon
December 7, 2009
In resolving the severe and persistent inequality that has plagued the children of Liberia, there must first be comprehensive institutional reform at key ministries such as Health and Social Welfare, Education, Gender and Development, and Youth and Sports. The rampant corruption and graft that currently abounds in all levels of government must first and foremost be stop in order for significant socioeconomic progress to be rooted in the foundation of improving the daily lives of children.
At the end of the Liberian civil war in 2003, the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) stated that there were approximately one million vulnerable Liberian children between the ages of 1-20 living in poverty. This number included forced migrants, orphans, unparented, under-parented and internally displaced, which at the time was broadcast to easily rise to an estimated 2 million by 2015 if a number of social markers were not rooted into the national poverty index. Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated in a 2008 report that only thirty percent of children in Liberia have access to adequate healthcare, sanitation, safe water and proper nutrition; thereby, superimposing major disparities between urban, peri-urban and rural children that are preventable.
The Sirleaf administration has focused like a laser beam on our country’s recovery through policies dealing with poverty reduction and gender equity, in additional to intense work on infrastructure development and economic governance. However, this author believes that there needs to be greater emphasis on capital allocation and capacity building through manpower development and a pro-poor growth agenda amongst other challenges, which deals directly with making the economy sustainable to directly benefit and impact the lives of ordinary people on a daily basis.
This author finds one area where the focus does not seem highlighted sufficiently. This area is child poverty, which deals with vulnerable, unparented and impoverished children. Customarily, the majority of Liberian children is born into poverty, and often goes to work inside or outside the home voluntarily or reluctantly by parents or guardians to supplement income or perform labor-intensive domestic chores. Unless the Sirleaf administration tackles this problem with specificity, the government is not going to be able to deliver good care and service to a population segment that usually many regard as incapable of giving meaningful answers about their lives.
To deal with child poverty in this out-of-the-box manner, this author believes that the government needs to first conduct a comprehensive national census that is specific to vulnerable, unparented and impoverished children throughout the country. This nationwide survey should be designed to shed light on the lives of children in poverty in a way that will allow the government to first address the fundamental causes of child poverty, child labor and preventable childhood diseases and basic services needed to drastically improve the squalor living conditions of children.
The goal of such an exercise is to gain a comprehensive assessment of child poverty by addressing the root causes of poverty and underdevelopment amongst children. Critical to dealing with child poverty are behavior, nutrition, hygiene, environment, water, sanitation, health and skill. To begin, workshops and programs should be conducted to evaluate the activities of a national program in support of vulnerable, unparented, orphaned and impoverished children. These workshops and programs should targets both the causes and symptoms of this endemic problem. Such workshops and programs should also bring together stakeholders in the health, social welfare, rights groups and gender sector for the sole purpose of outlining new projects and policy objectives to improve the lot of children.
These workshops and programs should first and foremost account for the diversity in Liberia’s geography, peoples and cultures by bringing together workers, volunteers, and policymakers from all sectors to tackle the social and political factors that form the root causes of child poverty in Liberia. Such workshops and programs should not employ general statistical templates from the UN that defines people and trend in low and middle income countries. Instead, it should be geared towards restoring the nutritional, physical and metal wellbeing of children many of whom are neglected and permanently lost basic family values fundamentally rooted, in many cases with their primary families.
The survey should ask specifically questions of children bearing in mind that many of them are still harboring a lot of anger, hatred, and resentment including everyday frustrations that come with growth stages of childhood, adolescent and young adult. The conclusion of the survey should be drawn primarily from the children's responses and not the parent’s. From the parents’ perspective, it is clear. Many parents and guardians will insist, and rightly so, that if the government truly wants to help Liberia’s children, then the Sirleaf administration should first focus on helping parents and guardians out of poverty. But, there has to be a division between general poverty in all of its manifestations and childhood poverty when dealing with the plight of children.
To exert change, the government needs to forceful draw attention to the subject by promoting genuine attempts that addresses the root causes of child poverty beginning with health and nutrition education for pregnant, breastfeeding, and postpartum women and their children. Notwithstanding, the government should be prepared to dismiss any perceived opposition from parents who might fear that the administration will come after them if their children are working and not attending school. To many families who depend on their children's labor for survival, this fear is a very real one which needs to first be dispelled.
It should be stated here that the Sirleaf administration have shown renewed initiative in tackling child poverty and labor through policy implementation such as compulsory primary education, which the administration rightfully promotes as the foundation for an economically viable and more peaceful Liberia. However, the government should incorporate strategies that deal with environmental sanitation, health and education including safe water and hygiene as prerequisite to effectively deal with the challenges of child poverty and vulnerable children as it is energetically endeavoring to lay benchmarks to achieving the millennium development goals (MDGs).
Liberia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world given its size, population and abundant natural resources. Yet, its vast resource-based revenues have not benefited those who need it most. Liberia is typically at the bottom of any list measuring economic activity, such as per capita income or per capita GDP, despite our wealth of natural resources and our years of independence. Nevertheless, since Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president, she has been able to do two things very successfully: First, she has stimulated the greater inflow of national funds to address the causational factors and resulting symptoms of our country’s chronic challenges. Secondly, she has demonstrated the political will to prevent national revenues from being siphoned off by graft and corruption, which oftentimes, ended up lining the coffers of corrupt government officials.
This author acknowledge that the government has made significant progress in address the issues of institutions and accountability which play a central role in remedying issues of poverty, inequality, rampant corruption and graft in Liberia. However, such a survey would provide valuable insights and a better picture of child poverty in Liberia, which could lead to more comprehensive plan of action and a roadmap dealing with persistent child poverty issues that severely influence the life of the average Liberian child on a daily basis.