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No Poverty, Zero Hunger for Children in Ireland
Can We Do It?

UN Sustainable Development Goals Through the Lens of the Child

Dr. Katherine Zappone, TD
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Government of Ireland

 

 

Friday, 9th November 2018


INTRODUCTION

Colleagues from different disciplines, sectors, departments, Professor Sachs,

I am delighted to welcome you all to this morning’s event.
This is an extraordinary opportunity to imagine how the UN Sustainable Development Goals can frame policy and practice to end poverty and hunger for children living in Ireland.  
We have in our midst, as our esteemed guest, Professor Sachs, who will outline challenges that lie ahead for Ireland, and other countries, to co-ordinate, address and achieve the SDG’s across the various stakeholders in society.  

Ireland, not unlike others, has been slow to start on this.

Professor Sachs wears global glasses.  We are asking him what he sees both internationally, as well as nationally.  The extraordinary wealth of his experience, commitment, passion, travels and intellectual acumen will be a rich resource for our conversations.

I am clothed in the experience of an educator, social activist, academic, and politician.  I have been Ireland’s Minister for Children since May of 2016.    I met Jeff for the very first time in April, 2018   when I accompanied President Michael D Higgins on his trip to the United Nations. President Higgins spoke to the General Assembly about Sustainable Development.  The Hall was full. They all stood to their feet when he finished.

Afterwards, in a corridor outside the big room, Professor Sachs stood in a que to meet the Irish President.  When I heard Jeff introduce himself, I was, quite frankly, star-struck.  I had been reading his books for years.  

His work had heavily influenced our approach to ending poverty in Tallaght West through An Cosán, which has become the largest community education organisation in the country over the past thirty years.  

Jeff offered his assistance, handed me his card and I was whisked away with the President.  We went to meet Amina Mohammed, UN Deputy Secretary General.  We sat across from Amina for the conversation, and hung on the wall behind her was a big plaque listing the 17 SDG’s.  

I didn’t get past reading the first two —No Poverty; Zero Hunger—without thinking, ‘we haven’t managed to do that in Ireland, so how can we imagine it anywhere else?’

Several months later when I was in New York again, to speak to the UN Security Council, as part of our bid for a seat, I asked to meet Jeff.  In my meeting with him I said:

Ireland is the fastest growing economy in Europe.  Real GDP Growth was 7.2% in 2017, and the projection for 2018 is 7.5%.    I am part of a Government in Ireland where economic prosperity is returning with might and potency.  

Yet, the numbers of our children experiencing poverty and hunger are high.  Child poverty rates, in particular, have plateaued over the past number of years.  

Furthermore, Ireland’s child poverty target for 2020 is more difficult to reach now because we have more children living in consistent poverty than when the target was set in 2014.   

We aren’t meeting the SDGs in our own country.  And, if any country can, it should be us.  Can you please tell me what we should do?   Jeff leaned over the table and said, ‘why don’t we do a workshop about this in Ireland?’

So, here we are.

Internationally, Ireland has a long and proud record of leadership on development issues.  We have contributed to development policies and targets at the UN,  and with our partner countries throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

We hold a noble record of providing un-tied Official Development Assistance and continue to grow that contribution.  


Our recent budget represents an increase of approximately 110 million euros or 16% on the revised 2018 budget allocation.  The total amount of ODA which Ireland will invest during 2019 is now the highest since the financial crisis.  

Ireland’s contribution is also  reflected in the work of colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and in Irish Aid.

In addition, our leadership on issues of hunger and poverty at a global level reflect our background as a people, and our commitment to ensure that the very poorest and marginalised on this planet are able to experience the fruits and opportunities of development, much as we have as a nation over the past century and a half.

However, today is an opportunity to look at progress domestically on the SDG commitments we have signed up to.

Overall, while we have made some progress, the work of Professor Sachs and colleagues at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network , among others, suggests that we have much more to do as a nation to meet many of the goals and targets we are committed to.

The good news is that we have time, until 2030, to reach many of these goals, but we need to remember that achieving them, and realising the benefits they imply for Irish people and Irish society, is not automatic and will occur only through initiatives, co-ordination and actions by those of us in this room, among others, who shape public policy and choices.

PROFESSOR JEFFREY SACHS

As we undertake our considerations this morning, I want to acknowledge the interest and commitment of Professor Jeffrey Sachs, reflected not just in his presence here this morning, but also in the enormous and influential work he and his colleagues have done in this area for many decades.

One of Jeff’s most remarkable gifts, however, is the way he carries hope, with such abundance and persistence.    In ‘The End of Poverty’ (2005) he writes “a world movement to end extreme poverty is taking shape”.  

Later on in that same work, after expressing his judgment that existing poverty strategies are not yet designed with enough rigor or ambition to enable countries to achieve the Millenium Development Goals, he declares, “Still I am not despairing.”    In his most recent publication, “A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism” he asserts that “the United States is failing to secure the benefits of affluence and rising global prosperity.”

In the current Trump era, still he insists: “This book is offered in the hope that it will make a contribution toward a wiser, more peaceful, and more prudent American role in the world.”  

In his current role, as Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, he brings together, with great effectiveness, the key data on the progress and challenges facing all UN member states who signed up to the SDGs in 2015.

His recent SDG Index and Dashboards Report  marks an important contribution as it offers an empirically based progress report for all states, including Ireland, and sets out the nature of the challenge that lies ahead between now and 2030.

The report’s overall conclusion, that no state is currently on track to achieve all of the SDGs by 2030, is a telling conclusion and one which should serve as a wake up call for all of us.

CONTEXT
Our focus today, on SDG #1 No Poverty and SDG #2 Zero Hunger, through the lens of a child, is important.


It reflects a commitment in the current Irish Programme for a Partnership Government that:
“…Government must ensure that no child is left behind in the economic recovery, and that every young person is enabled to reach their full potential. No child should have to live in poverty and no family should have to face homelessness.” (p105)

Of equal significance, the Programme for Government  commits itself to  two key ingredients that hold the potential to assist us in meeting the SDG poverty and hunger goals for our children.   In my reading of Professor Sach’s work, I think he would agree.  Those components are this:

Firstly,  we are designing and implementing a progressive (new) conceptual model for Irish growth.  We call it a ‘Social Economy’ model.  We describe it this way, in the Programme for Government:  

Economic and social progress go hand in hand.  Only a strong economy supporting people at work can pay for the services needed to create a fair society. It is equally the case that higher levels of public investment in social and economic infrastructure, skills, childcare, and community empowerment are needed for more inclusive, fairer and sustainable patterns of economic growth (p. 32)

My translation of this—and I was instrumental in helping to  shape this section of the programme—can be stated this way:    

As a country, as a nation, as a Government, we will invest in ways to enable more and more people to participate in the creation of wealth in regulatory and social conditions within which that wealth can be fairly distributed, and their labour properly remunerated and protected.  

Thus, this is distinct, though complimentary, to increasing economic and social equality through greater fairness in our re-distribution of wealth.
This should include progressive taxation and equitable distribution of common economic resources across persons, regions, and—through capital expenditure and early years spending—across generations.

In other words: let’s find ways to establish the conditions for more people to create their own wealth; wealth that can be shared with others.  Both elements are essential, as limiting ourselves only to finding ways to distribute wealth more fairly means that economic and social power is still more in the hands of those who govern, than the governed.  

Secondly, our Government committed itself to:
Introduce budgets that will involve at least a 2:1 split between public spending and tax reductions.  

Again, I was instrumental in shaping that commitment, particularly the ‘at least’ description of the ratio.  The current government believes, and has acted on its belief, that we need to invest more in public services than tax reductions.  
This holds potential to level the playing field, to reduce inequalities and, thus, poverty and hunger, by ensuring those with less get more, and, increasingly, in a more targeted way.  At the same time, those with more are also treated fairly.

They will also benefit, but more modestly.   Public analysis of budget 2019 suggests that the ratio of public service spending to tax cuts is 10:1!—10 euros invested in public services for every 1 euro invested in reducing taxes.

These two ingredients, in my view, coupled with our political commitment to children, reflect the “mixed economy” approach that Jeff writes about in many of his works.  Business and government have complementary roles in the creation of a social economy oriented towards efficiency, fairness and sustainability.

Recent developments in Ireland also provide us with an opportunity to give greater attention to the domestic SDG agenda.

The 2019 Budget finally brought the State’s finances into balance and signalled a fiscal recovery from the deep economic crisis of a decade ago.

I believe this signals a new opportunity for Government to address with greater vigour our commitment to ensuring that all children benefit from our economic recovery, and the related SDG commitments we will discuss across the morning.

Giving greater attention to these issues is important as, put simply, our current record on child poverty, hunger and homelessness is far from ideal and notably out of alignment with the objectives and ambitions we have set for ourselves in the SDGs.

The headline figures from the Central Statistics Office  and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government remain stark:

•    Almost 1 in every 5 children in Ireland lives below the poverty line (19.3% in 2016); and children carry a higher risk of poverty than that faced by any other age group.

•    1 in every 4 children in Ireland experiences enforced deprivation; and children carry a higher risk of deprivation than that faced by any other age group.

•    1 in every 10 children in Ireland lives in consistent poverty, that is experiencing both income poverty and deprivation; and again the risk of consistent poverty is higher for children that it is for any other age group.

•    At least 1 in every 10 children in Ireland is measured as experiencing food poverty.

•    The latest figures for September recorded 3,829 children as homeless.

These figures are hard to ignore.  Indeed, to do so is to fail in our moral and ethical duty to these children and to their futures.  They set an important context for many of our considerations and discussions later this morning.

INCLUDING NO HUNGER AND ZERO POVERTY IN OUR DOMESTIC AGENDA FOR SDG’S

What will assist us in having a new conversation today?  Are there avenues for quantum leap of thought?  I know only too well how slow socio-economic change can be.  But I am also aware that moments come, when circumstances are rich, and the collective will is generous and strong.  I hope that this morning is one of those moments.  

I invite you to join me, to be mindful of our intention in the present, and to begin again.

In his book, “The Price of Civilisation”, Professor Sachs proposes that a Mindful Society can provide the Path to Prosperity.    So, let us be mindful.    

I wish to suggest three ideas that may help us.  

Actually, Jeff says, in “The End of Poverty” that “the beauty of ideas is that they can be used over and over again, without ever being depleted.  

Economists call ideas non rival in the sense that one person’s use of an idea does not diminish the ability to use it well.  This is why we can envision a world in which everybody prospers” (p. 41).

 

IDEA 1 – SDG Targets for Domestic Change

Many of the targets outlined in the first two Sustainable Development Goals hold particular relevance for children and young people in Ireland, given their stated aim and the Irish data I have just mentioned.

As a reminder, included within the targets of Goal #1 and Goal #2, we have committed to:
•    reduce by at least half the proportion of men, women and children living in poverty in all its dimensions according to national definitions by 2030 (target 1.2)

•    implement nationally appropriate social protection systems and measures for all, including (income or living standards) floors (from target 1.3)

create sound policy frameworks at the national, regional and international levels, based on pro-poor and gender-sensitive development strategies, to support accelerated investment in poverty eradication actions (from target 1.5b)

. by 2030 end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round (target 2.1)

While achieving these goals is of relevance for all of society, missing them, or partially achieving them, has pronounced implications for children and their development.


Conversely, as we know only too well from the research literature on early childhood care and education, and indeed from much of the research of Professor Sachs and colleagues working on poverty issues, achieving these SDG targets carries significant benefits for children and for society; benefits which substantially outweigh the costs of their achievement.


IDEA 2 – A New National Programme

There is a need for us as policy makers to begin to think about these Goals and Targets in societal terms rather than in narrow Departmental or Sectoral terms.

Over recent years Government, through, for example, the Action Plan for Jobs, has demonstrated that much progress can be made on major issues and national challenges in a context where there is broad cross-government and cross-stakeholder involvement in policy development and policy action.

Standing back from the SDG targets, it is remarkable how cross-cutting most of them are.

Reducing poverty, among children and others, is certainly an issue for the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, but it is also an issue for the Department of Education, the Department of Health, and my own Department among others.

One striking example of this springs to mind, especially in light of the Irish People’s recent decision to repeal the 8th amendment of the Constitution, and for law to be implemented to regulate the termination of pregnancy.    Allied to the implementation of this law will be free access to contraception.  

Furthermore, it takes place in the context of a major policy commitment to significantly increase early years spending.  This not only ensures that people are empowered to choose whether to become and stay pregnant by increasing contraception availability.  
It also provides socio-economic support to enable and increase the choice to parent.

It seems to me that these changes will build the conditions for a gender-sensitive approach to the reduction of child poverty and child hunger.

We must measure and monitor this!  Indeed, this shows the connection also with SDG number 5: gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.

Similarly, the targets on hunger, and access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food are key issues for the Department of Health, and they are also key issues for the Department of Education, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Rural and Community Development, and my own Department among others.  

It is exceptionally challenging, however, at present to find an appropriate and effective policy home for officials and political leaders to work together to reduce children and young people’s hunger.   The walls of our departments and ministerial offices do not yet have enough permeable material to allow for this.

For example,  budget 2019 included an additional €1m for the school meals project to roll out a new “Hot School Meals Pilot Programme” where hot dinners will be provided in up to 36 DEIS schools to some 7,200 children.

This investment is on top of the school meals programme that funds the provision of food to some 1,580 schools and organisations, benefitting 250,000 children at a total cost of 59.3 million in 2019.

Schemes within these programmes are part-financed by the departments of education, social protection, and Employment affairs.  Other schemes are operated by local authorities, local groups and voluntary organisations.  
Some schools have kitchens, others do not.

My own department is examining potential investment in capital grants for kitchens in early years and childcare centres, and three meals a day for full-time providers within the most disadvantaged areas.  This would cost an estimated 8.2 million euros.

There is no one place to stand, however, to invest systematically in the roll out of a healthy meals programme for children and young people who need it, from early years to second level.  Achieving the ‘No Hunger’ goal for our children does not seem possible, without a national, cross-government programme to do so.

Could it be possibly as simple as that?

Therefore, I believe we need a comprehensive policy/programmatic approach to the challenges we face in meeting the Goals and targets of SDG #1 and #2; particularly in the context of meeting them for our children.

There is significant merit in a Cross-Government National Programme to reduce the poverty and hunger of our children.

And, given the SDG context, we may also wish to incorporate a wider set of views and input from stakeholders throughout Irish society and leverage this as a means of further enhancing our focus on achieving all of the SDGs by 2030.

 

IDEA 3 – Comprehensive measures for poverty reduction

I think that we need more comprehensive measures of our efforts to reduce poverty/children’s poverty; that our current means of measurement ‘misses’ important and fundamental work that is ongoing in reland.  

My conviction in this regard comes from my praxis over decades of developing an intergenerational model of community education, and from being the Irish Minister for Children.

Just this week I attended an event in Dublin City Civic offices that was celebrating the growth of GoCar.ie (just like rent a cycle, but you rent a car).  500 vehicles are on the road now, representing a 500% growth in the past two years!  The young man responsible for this growth is Darragh Genockey.  

Some thirty years ago his mother attended one of our first courses in community education, then located in our home in the Dublin mountains.  She had left school before finishing her Leaving Certificate.  She is now Deputy Director of An Cosán, and Darragh is her son.  

A graduate of Trinity College Dublin: a member of the Student’s Union while he was there, and now a successful business man.  He himself says that the work of An Cosaán, now located in Jobstown, helped to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty in his family.

A month ago, one of our Independent Senators, Lynn Ruane, published her memoirs, People Like Me.  She got back on the education path as a young, lone parent with two children, by attending one of our intensive ‘back to education’ courses.  

She went on to get a job in community work, attended the access programme at Trinity College, become the first TCD Student’s Union president from Tallaght, and is now a well-known Senator.  Her mother is a member of the An Cosán board, and continues to reside in Killinarden in the family home.  

There are many more stories like these; they are all evidence of breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty.  The government investment in this work, and the community and voluntary investment in this work, is not included in an explicit measurement of progress on the poverty front. I think that this needs to change.  

Our picture of the path to prosperity, the conditions that level the playing field, and the benefits that flow from the costs is incomplete.  

We are missing something integral to evidence about poverty reduction here.

In my portfolio as Minister for Children, I have had the opportunity to secure significant public investment in high quality, affordable childcare and early learning.  The annual investment has increased by 117% since 2015.  

As most of you are aware, the Irish government subsidizes the cost of childcare and early learning through direct payments to private and not-for profit providers.  Our policy is to provide the highest level of subsidization to families with the lowest incomes.  

With Budget 2019, we will be able to ‘poverty proof’ the scheme by ensuring that families at or below the relative income poverty line will benefit from the highest subsidy under the scheme.

I think it is important that we have measures in place that capture not just changes in family income or welfare payments, but that also incorporate the impact of public investment in services.

Although they may not directly change the income in people’s pockets, these investments impact positively on people’s living standards and well-being.

Whether it is continued investment in the affordable childcare scheme and early childhood care and education from my own Department; enhanced state provided medical card provisions for children from the Department of Health, or the provision of a kitchen in all DEIS schools which provides hot meals for all children attending those schools, these are important initiatives targeted at increasing the well-being of many of the most disadvantaged children in our society.

They clearly contribute towards achieving our targets under SDGS 1 and 2, but we do not yet always have ways of measuring this contribution.

Where we make sensible and strategic investments like this, I believe it is important that we have progress indicators that accurately reflect them and the improvements they are delivering.

As an illustration, I recently directed my Department to request assistance from the ESRI to assess the impact on children and child poverty of non-cash benefits like those associated with the affordable childcare scheme, the ECCE scheme and medical card provision

Placing a value on these positive and targeted policy developments, and incorporating them into the calculation of child poverty, reduces the rate of child poverty among those aged 15 years or less by 5%.   I think that this is hugely significant!

That research also found that these initiatives are important in lifting the income of many low-income working families from below to above the poverty line.

As we make real policy efforts to address the SDG goals, and improve the well-being of children most disadvantaged in our society, it is crucial that we have methods to track this progress.

CONCLUSION

I very much look forward to Professor Sachs contribution now.  I am still star-struck!

Further, I have no doubt the diversity of people and backgrounds in the room will add to the richness of our discussions and debates.  

In ‘The End of Poverty’ Jeff speaks about a process named ‘analytical deliberation’.  He defines it as:

The process of finding a cooperative approach to complex problems, by building a consensus around a shared vision and understanding of the challenges (p 222).

That sounds like a good way to proceed.      

ENDS//