In 2018, my 12-year-old son will face many things.
He will be starting high school, a milestone which he is facing with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
However, for many other children in Australia and across the world, there are far more daunting prospects. Taking care of their siblings. Collecting drinking water. Going for their third day without food.
A few months ago, I visited refugee camps in Somalia where years of below average rains have left millions of people on the brink of starvation. There I watched as hundreds of women waited in line to see one of Save the Children’s mobile health teams, each of them holding babies that were severely malnourished.
I am regularly in awe of the Save the Children teams in such places who keep going, day after day, experiencing the heartbreak of seeing so many babies so close to death.
But this heartbreak can be tempered by the look of relief and joy on a mother’s face when she is given a box of plumpy nut paste which she knows will literally save her child’s life (in just three weeks, this paste leads to rapid weight gain to restore a starving child’s health).
This look of hope on a mother’s face is being replicated around the world.
Famine in Africa was just one of many ‘mega’ humanitarian crisis that Save the Children responded to in 2017. The conflict in Yemen, the ongoing civil war in Syria and the mass displacement of Rohingya people from Myanmar also tested our global response capacity to manage multiple concurrent humanitarian crises. In total, Save the Children responded to more than 100 disasters last year.
In these situations, in the face of such huge need, I am often asked what gives me hope.
Despite the horrors of Syria, Yemen and Somalia, and the disadvantages that many kids face, including here in Australia, in 2018, our planet is now likely to be a better place for more children than ever before.
Huge progress has been made in reducing the number of children who die from preventable causes. The mortality rate of children under five has halved from twelve million to six million in the past decade.
This has been achieved by massive improvements in nutrition, immunisation, family planning and better treatment of illness and disease.
Until the 1960s, the majority of people on the planet were illiterate, however, in 2018, we expect that across the globe more than 90 percent of primary-school-age children will be enrolled in school. Since just 2000, the number of kids not attending school has declined from 99 million to around 57 million.
This progress should not only give us hope, it should encourage us to double our efforts.
There are still too many children unnecessarily suffering from violence, not getting a basic education, dying before their fifth birthday. In about 25 countries across the world, primary school enrolment is still less than 80 percent.
In places like South Sudan, girls are more likely to die in childbirth than to finish high school.
40 million women still give birth without any trained help. One million babies still die each year on their first and only day of life.
We should be outraged that this is allowed to occur, given how easy it is to prevent.
For example, by simply increasing maternal education and training birth attendants in Laos, Save the Children has seen a 17 per cent increase in women giving birth with an attendant – greatly contributing to fewer babies and mothers dying due to birthing complications.
A box of plumpy nut paste that can literally save a child’s life costs around $1.25. Each vaccination that we are performing in Bangladesh, costs us around $2.50.
LISTEN: Author Nikki McWatters talks about pulling her family out of poverty, and what it’s like living in a tent with four hungry mouths to feed (post continues after audio...)
While infant mortality and diseases like elephantiasis, leprosy, and polio are not pressing issues in Australia, severe disadvantage and vulnerability for children very much exist here at home. Despite our relative wealth in Australia, 20,000 children will arrive this year on their first day at school, not ready to learn. And we know that children that start behind, almost always stay behind.
Shockingly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids are twice as likely as non-Indigenous children to be developmentally vulnerable.
For example, in Kununurra, Western Australia, where nearly 35 per cent of the population identify as Aboriginal, one in eight kids will never get Year 12 qualifications. For the child involved, it’s a terrible loss of opportunity. For the taxpayer, each long-term early school leaver costs $335,000.
This is an unacceptable human and financial cost.
For almost 100 years, Save the Children has been at the forefront of ensuring all children, whether in Australia or overseas, have a healthy start in life, the opportunity to learn and be protected from violence. We know what works, from reducing child and maternal deaths in South East Asia to improving school readiness in Western Australia.
And if we ensure that just a little more of our increasing global wealth and political will is directed at these problems we can make even more progress.
This gives me hope that 2018 can be the best year yet for Children.
Paul Ronalds is the CEO of Save the Children Australia. Support Save the Children in Australia and overseas at savethechildren.org.au/donate or by calling 1800 76 00 11.