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Financing the SDGs: how can we reach the children who are furthest behind?

The potential gain of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including for the furthest-behind children, is extraordinary. Fulfilling every child’s right to survive, learn and be protected would help give all children the chance to realise their aspirations and potential.

At this year’s World Bank IMF annual meetings, Save the Children is asking a key question: what financing is needed to turn the ambition of the SDGs into a reality? Our new policy brief Financing the Sustainable Development Goals – putting the children who are furthest behind first aims to spur debate on what financing that prioritises tackling inequalities looks like in practice.

That debate got going at our event on building human capital through investing in children, which brought together the World Bank’s Senior Vice President on the SDGs, Mahmoud Mohieldin; Putri Gayatri, Youth Ambassador and local activist in Indonesia; Dr Subandi from the Indonesian Ministry of National Development Planning and Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi from Power of Nutrition. Chaired by Save the Children CEO Kevin Watkins, the panellists and audience engaged in a lively discussion on how to increase quality finance that benefits the most deprived and marginalised children.

The SDGs’ strength lies in their preamble – the pledge to consider no goal or target achieved unless it is achieved for those who are furthest behind. This is what sets the Goals apart from former development agendas, and what requires unprecedented political action, financing and commitment. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development estimates that achieving the SDGs will cost between US$3.3 trillion and $4.5 trillion per year in developing countries alone. And those estimates don’t even cover the full ambition of the SDGs, or the cost of driving convergence between those furthest behind and their more advantaged peers.

Our new research shows that prioritising the world’s most deprived and marginalised children is critical to achieving the SDGs. On current trends, more than 4 million children will die before their fifth birthday in 2030. Financing the SDGs requires more resources for sustainable development, whilst prioritising the most deprived and marginalised groups. Without that, the SDGs quite simply won’t be achieved.

Our policy brief and the panel discussion highlighted three main priorities for action:

1 Public financing is critical for success

Investing in the furthest-behind children requires spending that prioritises those social sectors that girls and boys need to live full and healthy lives: universal health, education, nutrition, social protection, and child protection systems and interventions. Evidence and experience show that public finance is the most appropriate, equitable and impactful source of funding for these sectors.

Panellists at the event agreed that the bulk of financing has to come from tax, with effective aid complementing domestic resources. Mahmoud Mohieldin emphasised, however, that increasing public financing is not only about raising taxes: a whole package of reforms is needed to mobilise domestic resources. Our new briefing highlights the importance of:

  • broadening the tax base
  • increasing the tax take through progressive taxation
  • tackling international tax evasion and avoidance.

Panellists also argued that financing development is a smart and economical investment. Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi estimated that spending on nutrition now can save economies $3.5 trillion for tackling malnutrition crises in the long term. Coordination is key to success – investments in health, agriculture and social protection all address nutrition targets. To avoid inefficiencies, governments and development partners need to finance cohesive strategies.

2 Put the Leave No One Behind pledge at the heart of financing policies and action

Action to raise resources for development and ensure coherence are important, but not enough. Looking at regional spending levels, there can sometimes be an inverse relationship between where public spending goes and where needs are highest. To achieve the SDGs for every last child, tackling inequalities needs to be front and centre of any financing strategy, budget and resource allocation. This should be the focus for every stakeholder – donors, governments, multilateral development banks.

Discussion at our event highlighted the potential of the World Bank’s human capital project and index, launched this week, to be a great accelerator for fostering spending on health, nutrition and education. It shows the Bank’s commitment to the SDGs and its goal of ending poverty. However, the index underplays the importance of inequalities – this must be addressed in its future iterations.

Investments change if tackling inequalities is prioritised. As the great Amartya Sen, who has shaped the discourse on human capabilities, has elaborated in his thinking on marginalisation and disabilities, it is not enough to provide the same amount of finance for development for any group of people. Driving convergence requires taking the (often higher) costs of persistent inequalities into account – and providing more resources to counteract them, on top of expanding the amount of financing available for development.

3 Ensure children and young people can act as partners for change

Youth ambassador and activist Putri Gayatri

Youth ambassador and activist Putri Gayatri, who has been advocating for better action on child health and education in Banjaran, Indonesia, shared her experience of how inequalities deprive children of their chance to fulfil their aspirations and potential. Her friend got married at the age of 15, and as a result had to leave school without finishing her education. Child marriage affects 1 in 9 children in Indonesia per year, and has  devastating consequences for girls’ education, health, and future prospects.

Dr Subandi outlined the impressive progress that the Indonesian Ministry of National Development Planning has already achieved on strengthening the social sectors, tackling violence against children, and reducing stunting. But there’s more that the government, partners like the World Bank, and NGOs can do to tackle the reality of child marriage: increasing social spending, raising awareness of the devastating impact of child marriage, and campaigning against it.

Young people know about how their chances and opportunities are often denied – and what strategies are needed in response. Putri Gayatri’s words have stayed with me: “People say children are the biggest asset of the country, but action feels quite different.” To achieve the SDGs for every last child, young people need to be treated as partners for change.

Change starts here

Those are the three priorities: public financing, tackling inequality and partnering with young people. If we get them right it can be the start to achieving the SDGs for the most deprived and marginalised children.

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