/ 15 May 2021

International Day of Families: Fight the equity divide

A Zimbabwean secondary school student peeps through a hole in a sack that forms the wall of a makeshift classroom.
Providing safety nets to African families is a small commitment by international standards, but one that can deliver enormous gains — from lifting children out of the danger zone of malnutrition and enabling them to study to stay safe from early marriage.

This year, as United Nations Children’s Fund teams in Africa recognise the International Day of Families, it is in the context of an extensive crisis for children and their families.

Covid-19 has hit all countries hard, but the pandemic has exacerbated the problems of African families and, as always, they are hitting the most vulnerable the hardest. From the effects of climate change that is reducing food production to recurring conflicts displacing hundreds of thousands of people, the combination of shocks saw almost 100-million people experiencing crisis levels of food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020. 

Add to that the biggest decline in economic indicators ever recorded, the loss of tens of millions of jobs over the span of a year and reduced access to basic services. It becomes evident that it is harder than ever for parents and caregivers to provide for their children.

For now, in sub-Saharan Africa, the virus seems to be claiming less lives compared to what was initially feared. But the effect of Covid-19, from economic downturns and no access to life-saving services, have wreaked havoc on families and children in this region. Now is the time for the world to stand in solidarity and provide equitable access to essential services and opportunities.

Children here, like anywhere in the world, are at the heart of the families we celebrate today, and it is their ingenuity, creativity and determination that we especially want to recognise. But we cannot do so without addressing the inequities that affect children’s lives at every level – from the digital divide to income gaps and poor basic safety nets that are crucial in the Covid era.  

What is needed now from wealthier nations is more support and transformative innovations for the rapid expansion of social protection, to ensure that we navigate this storm, that we save lives and avoid undermining hard-earned development gains. Given that one in four of the world’s people will live in sub-Saharan Africa by 2050, this is in all our interests because none of us are safe from this pandemic until all of us are safe. 

This year’s theme for the International Day of Families is about addressing the effect of new technology on the well-being of families. Here too we see major inequities that affect African children the most, as well as a huge opportunity to accelerate change for families.  

Africa embraces technology. Vibrant pockets of tech start-ups cross the continent from Nairobi’s Silicon Savannah to Nigeria’s Yabacon Valley. Covid has helped highlight this potential — from deliveries of vaccines in hard-to-reach areas in Malawi and Ghana to innovative new ways of identifying recipients of cash transfer programmes in Togo.

But beyond these pockets of innovation potential, most sub-Saharan families still struggle to get even the most basic digital access for their children, with internet access rates in the order of 10%, compared with their wealthy nation peers at up to 85%. As a result, when schools closed on the African continent, learning stopped for millions of children who had no access to online learning. 

Across sub-Saharan Africa, the Covid-induced economic crisis has pushed an additional 50 million people into extreme poverty — those living on less than $1.90 a day. These are the families that need our collective support through tried and tested mechanisms such as social protection.   

In advanced economies, families have received much needed stimulus to cover the bare necessities; in the sub-Saharan African region, governments struggle to provide even a small fraction of this temporary support to families. 

All families deserve access to social protection, wherever on Earth they live. Providing safety nets to African families is a small commitment by international standards, but one that can deliver enormous gains — from lifting children out of the danger zone of malnutrition and enabling them to study to stay safe from early marriage.  

But most governments simply don’t have the resources. They need practical support to meet the vast and growing financing gaps, which begins with more comprehensive debt relief along with grants, concessional and innovative finance.

As we mark this international day, let’s make sure that all families have access to technology and social protection that enables families to weather life’s big shocks. Through smart debt relief and strong commitments of external support, we not only can but must ensure that every family in the world can move beyond this pandemic.