Sri Lanka UNICEF Representative Tim Sutton - pix by Sameera Wijesinghe
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Sri Lanka recently kicked off the ‘Ara Wade, A Vote For Children’ campaign to encourage all presidential
candidates to publicly commit totackling six key issues that affect six million children.
UNICEF representative in Sri Lanka Tim Sutton spoke to Daily FT on why leadership is needed to tackle these issues meaningfully and what they hope to achieve through the campaign. Given below are excerpts:
By Uditha Jayasinghe
Q: This is a rather unusual thing to do as a UN agency during a Presidential Election campaign. Can you please explain the reasoning behind the campaign?
We are looking at political leadership to drive these issues. It’s not that Sri Lanka cannot do these things. Sri Lanka has made tremendous advancements since we signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child 30 years ago. Sri Lanka has slashed child mortality, infant mortality, all kids in schools, we have done amazing things; but that says where we are not achieving, the deprivations for Sri Lanka are large and we know where the gaps are. It’s not a question of resources, it’s a question of willpower, a question of leadership. We can’t leave children behind. Not just because they have rights and those rights are inalienable and indivisible, but because it is about the future of this country. Even in terms of economy, we are at the end of our demographic dividend, so now the dependency ratio is 6:1, which is six working people to every person who is an old age pensioner; in 25-30 years this ratio will halve. So if we are to retain even the same living standards and levels of productivity, the workers of the future need to be more productive. That we are letting 15% of our children be wasted, 12% of our children be stunted, is knocking off IQ points for children. If a child is stunted at three years old, they can never make up the losses. If our children witness or experience violence, that damages their personality, their ability to function socially, and their brain. So we cannot afford to have these things happen.
Q: Why not take up these issues with the bureaucracy rather than politicians?
We work with bureaucracy all the time. These particular issues require leadership. We have worked with Ministries dedicated to healthcare, education, women and children, met with the Ministers and Secretaries, and they have all agreed to work together to come up with a Cabinet paper to ban corporal punishment. So it’s already gone through all the Ministries, and it’s held up now, and so we are trying to push it, but our leadership should be demanding for this. I’m not commenting on leadership now, but on the role of leadership moving forward. These issues require that questions are asked, demands are made, and strategies are in place and means to monitor progress exist. It requires leadership to try new things. The Government and partners are investing in nutrition, and they have been investing for years, yet the levels of stunting and wasting of under-five year olds haven’t moved in ten years.
Q: But is this not a very complex issue in Sri Lanka, where the country has paradoxically performed well in some segments such as healthcare and education outcomes, but those same provinces also have high levels of stunting?
Many of these issues such as malnutrition are across the country. It’s endemic. Our argument is, and this is not just a UNICEF argument, this is a whole UN argument, we really need to be looking at how we address nutrition in a slightly different way. If we keep doing the same things we have been doing for the last 10 years, we cannot expect a different result.
Q: So what is the difference leaders need to strive for?
In the agenda for each of the issues, we have a series of suggestions. For nutrition we call on support and funding for the many proven solutions, where there are small things that are working, and we are saying scale those up, putting into action the multi-sectoral action plan. And this is really important, because nutrition has been addressed in very silo-ed ways. The Government before 2015 set up the Nutritional Secretariat but how can we make this apex body move faster? So we are very committed to make the multi-sectoral action plan led by the Presidential Secretariat move forward, but that requires that the leadership of the Presidential Secretariat takes it seriously. Whether that has happened enough is arguable, but that’s what needs to change. The other thing we had is increased investment into community-based care to reduce malnutrition, where we are talking about severe and acute malnutrition; there is a cure and it is funded by the Government, but it is largely kept at district level, so if you have a child diagnosed with severe malnutrition, you have to take them once a month to the district level to get care.
Q: How can these changes be made so that these services are brought to the most accessible level?
So we are saying that you have to bring the treatment and support for severe malnutrition from the district, down to the village, the primary healthcare network. How that can be done is a question of reorganisation. The capacity is there. One of the things I love about this country is that we have invested so much in public healthcare, education and protection systems, among others, but this is about how we can get these systems to really deliver for people, rather than delivering for whoever. This is something Governments go through all the time, in every country. How do we make these systems deliver? The fantastic thing is Sri Lanka has systems and capacity and workers. But how do we unleash the potential for real change?
Q: Earlier this year there was a shocking incident where a child died of malnutrition in Hambantota, which was tragic. Is there accountability if the system fails?
I think a child dying is a tragedy. It’s not a time to be blaming, but it is a time to be learning. I don’t know the details of that case, but one of the things that is happening now is that these cases are coming forward, and there is vibrant interest in them. There was the recent incident of young monks being beaten at a temple, and we put out a strong statement about that and talked to authorities, and there was action. There is the NCPA, and other institutions that are competent.
Q: UNICEF has included climate change in this list. Can you give details about the impact that global warming can have on children?
The point of talking about climate change as a children’s issue is important. When you talk about sustainable development goals – someone wise once said “sustainable” means about children, because children are key to the sustainability of them, and this is the point of climate change. Children are going to inherit the earth, and they are going to be the future leaders when the wave of climate change effects intensifies. So we really need to be looking at climate change from the children’s perspective, both as what can we be doing now as a society, to mitigating, planning and building the resilience of communities. Children are actively involved in this, as you can see from Greta Thunberg’s climate strikes. Children have a great role to play in this, and child-led activism is pushing to hold politicians to account. Young people are making a difference.
Q: Are there specific trends linked to climate change that you have observed in Sri Lanka?
We have talked about child marriage in Sri Lanka and we know that it exists. When I first came here we were told that it is a cultural phenomenon and linked to some communities, but clearly it is not, and we have done enough research to show that it is not associated with any particular community, but what it is associated with is poverty. What happened in the drought areas, when the worst drought in 40 years or so took place about 2017, hundreds of thousands of people were pushed into poverty. While Sri Lanka has done really well lifting people out of poverty, a large portion of those people are still very close to the poverty line, and it only takes one shock to push them back below the line. In the drought-hit areas civil society groups, Women’s and Child Affairs Ministry, and others will tell you there has been an increase in child marriage, because families cannot afford to keep their girl children. You can imagine that in some of these areas that are the most hard-up, such as the Kilinochchi District, you can see the impact climate change is going to have there. They went through a drought, and a few months later floods, some seven schools were destroyed, families were displaced, and these events are only going to become more intense. Children suffer the most in any type of natural disaster, any type of emergency.
Q: Sri Lanka has been suffering from slow growth for several years. How critical is it to improve economic development to address the issues you have listed out?
Economic development is important, but so is social development. Bangladesh for example has made enormous strides in social development, and now their economy is growing as well, because for a long time their social indicators were moving far more quickly than their economic indicators. After independence, for those first few years, Bangladesh’s social development indicators moved faster than Pakistan’s did. So it is about choices. We obviously need economic growth, but it needs to be coupled with inclusivity. This is the role that leaders need to play, because we have to make sure, partly because of the demographic challenges, Sri Lanka needs to make sure every one of its people is as productive as possible. To do this we need to pay attention to key strategic investments for children, because that will power growth.
Q: After the Easter Sunday attacks, there was a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, which even found its way into schools, with teachers going so far as to tell children not to use products made by certain companies, because they were thought to be under Muslim ownership. How can these sort of issues be dealt with?
Schools are a place where the Sri Lankan identity can be built, and I think all of Sri Lanka yearns for this identity to be maintained and strengthened. We have 90% of schools that teach only in Sinhala or Tamil, where we need to find ways to bring our young people together across communities, because we are all just people. The fears and misconceptions exist because we don’t know. So there are practical things that are happening, even things like sports and musical competitions and exchanges, but really we need to be thinking about how our education system can help build that national identity, and I know there are discussions at top levels about how we can have more integrated schools. The peace, reconciliation, and identity-building agenda is critical for Sri Lanka, and helping young people to experience all the diversity that is in Sri Lanka and to respect that. Such integration should be done in a practical and sensitive way.
Q: In terms of improving education outcomes, there is a lot of effort to promote technology and increase smart classrooms. What are your views on this effort?
It’s really about what skills young people need moving forward, and there is a mismatch at the moment. Seventy percent of employers are saying young people who are graduating don’t have the right skills. It’s about critical thinking, negotiation, creativity, and these things can’t really be taught. It’s more the ways children are taught that can make a difference. Yes, it’s great to get technology into classrooms, and there are many advocates for that across the political spectrum. All wonderful. But it’s really about what is happening in the classroom every day, and these six issues are all linked. For example, on ending corporal punishment, where we have 1000 schools in the north and northeast that have taken on positive classroom management. These schools have said we are not going to have corporal punishment anymore, and they have all these tools that are part of the program. When you go into these classrooms, you can see how these children are and the way teachers are teaching. It’s an interesting entry point into how we can change the way we teach and children learn, and how children experience their own development and acquisition of knowledge. Technology plays a part but technology is not the answer. It can support inquiry-based learning, but it’s not a replacement for good teaching.
Q: Can you sum up the point of this campaign? What is your focus?
The point of this is we are trying to work with the people to galvanise their ability to demand this change of their leaders. Who cares about UNICEF? But I hope people care about these issues and with the explanation that we are able to help provide, that these are important, and they should be demanding change. That is what the political process is. The election process is about competing visions of the future, and what candidate’s proposal is best going to meet my need? It is easy to forget children because they don’t vote, so we are trying to tell the people, and I think we are getting a good response, but it’s not about us. We are committed to what is best for the women and children of Sri Lanka.
- End child malnutrition forever, including by increasing investment into community-based care and treatment of acute malnutrition.
- Build an education system that prepares our young for the future, including by ensuring that every school places the child at the centre.
- Give every child a fair chance to succeed by ending child poverty, including through the establishment of a universal child benefit as a concrete means to smoothing disparities, eliminating child poverty, and ensuring the right start in life for all children.
- Ban damaging physical punishment against children, including by legally and explicitly prohibiting any act of physical force or humiliating action, while promoting and implementing positive methods of disciplining children.
- Create an inclusive and peaceful Sri Lanka for all, including through putting the National Action Plan on Education for Social Cohesion and Peace into action.
- Fight climate change and prepare Sri Lanka for its effects, including by prioritising the conservation and restoration of forests, wetlands and other ecosystems, and ensuring all Government ministries consider the environmental impact of future programs, while supporting climate change adaptation.