Southern Africa: Children first in the poverty battle
by Shirley Robinson
Reducing poverty and improving levels of social and economic well being are broadening policy and resource debates in developing and developed countries.
The Poverty Reduction Strategy's Paper (PRSP) approach forms the basis of the international community's redefined anti-poverty framework, and is a pre-requisite for access to a broader range of concessional and developmental assistance for lowincome developing countries.
The PRSP is therefore a development strategy that places poverty reduction first, in the context of sustainable growth and development. It describes a country's economic and social policies and programmes over a 3-year or longer horizon, integrated in a broader macroeconomic framework and developed through a process of extensive consultation with national stakeholders. The latter is aimed at facilitating a PRSP that is government-led, country-owned.
A Human Rights Approach
International debate is starting to recognise that poverty is not only of developmental concern. The debates are now shifting into the ambit of human rights.
More specifically, the human rights approach to poverty reduction recognises that those policies and institutions directed towards poverty reduction should be based explicitly on the norms and values set out in the international law of human rights. This context provides poverty reduction strategies, in particular PRSPs, the potential to empower the poor, rather than simply direct development efforts towards poor people.
PRSP processes have considerable significance in low-income, developing countries where children form both the bulk of the population and the majority of those that live below the poverty line.
This means that for most low-income developing countries, children are the locus of poverty, and strategies that prioritise children's rights and target child poverty reduction ensure a bias towards pro-poor growth and development policies.
For this reason, Save the Children Sweden commissioned a review of PRSPs in the Southern Africa region in respect of their focus on child poverty and child rights, and the role of civil society participation in formulating and implementing national PRSPs.
The PRSP's contribution to reducing child poverty depends on:
- Locating children and child poverty within the demographic and poverty profiles that frame PRSPs;
- Balancing economic policy choices that stimulate higher levels of economic growth and those that focus on poverty reduction and development
- Prioritising child-focused social service and support programmes that promote the right to development of all children - without discrimination;
- Recognising and providing support for particularly vulnerable and discriminated groups of children and possibly discriminated children;
- Implementing public expenditure management reforms that reprioritise resources towards child focused social service and development interventions.
Locating children and child poverty within PRSP demographic and poverty profiles are critical to their prioritisation in PRSP policies and interventions.
The Southern Africa PRSPs reviews present a mixed report in respect of the quality of the demographic and poverty profiles and diagnoses that preface the PRSPs.
A common feature is the absence of gender or child-focused demographic and poverty information and analysis. Lack of gender and child-focused information at the outset does not augur well for the prioritisation and implementation of pro-poor social development policies and intervention that favour all women and children and address their rights.
In respect of overall orientation, the Southern African PRSPs follow the prescripts set out in the World Bank 1990 World Development Report. The latter recommends the prioritisation of actions to promote economic growth, health and education in particular. The importance of good governance and social protection issues are also noted, as are gender, the environment and HIV/Aids.
However, even a cursory read leaves no doubt that the Southern African PRSPs give absolute priority to economic growth as a means to reduce poverty.
Revitalisation of the agriculture sector, particularly promotion of small and medium sized produces is the main policy intervention that the strategies prioritise in promoting pro-poor growth.
For the most part, the Southern African PRSPs make some commitment to increased liberalisation of the economy in order to stimulate higher levels of growth. For some PRSPs, such as that of Malawi, this comes of the back of significant liberalisation through structural adjustment lending programmes in the previous decade.
For most PRSPs, increased social sector expenditure is a hallmark feature and is directed towards the health, education, and water and sanitation sectors in the main. However, it is important to note that tight fiscal policies and debt relief programmes frame most PRSPs as the latter are often developed in compliance of conditional lending requirements. While fiscal policy restraint is prudent in respect of mediumterm affordability and sustainability purposes, it constrains the extent of social service expansion.
Limited social service provision and coverage may therefore be ineffective in addressing the poverty situation in many PRSP countries. A notable consequence is the continued reliance on user fees to finance social service provision. This tends to restrict access to services by the poor and exacerbate poverty itself.
Focusing on children, the Southern African PRSPs do not undertake a comprehensive review of child poverty. Neither do they consider the implications of child poverty for systemic poverty entrenchment, noting how specific interventions to reduce child poverty and address children's rights, such as education, can assist in breaking the poverty cycle in low-income countries.
While the strategies reviewed do not specifically prioritise children, they do discuss a limited range of interventions that are directed towards reducing child poverty and improving children's future opportunities. These include measures to promote school attendance, improve access to basic health services and better nutrition and raise family incomes or livelihoods.
The PRSPs reviewed do present some recognition and support for particularly vulnerable groups of children. This is welcome, but interventions are few and far between indicating a limited and fragmented recognition of the needs and rights of discriminated girls and boys.
The review raises concerns about the weak linkage to public expenditure management and budget process reforms in the Southern African PRSPs.
Public expenditure management reforms are important complementary reforms of effective PRSPs as they ensure that the expenditure and revenue-raising choices that a government makes are both affordable and sustainable.
Public expenditure reforms ensure that a country's resources are directed towards those interventions that are considered to be strategic priorities. In the context of a PRSP, this means that resources should be directed towards policies and programmes that are directed towards reducing poverty and raising the growth potential of the economy.
Indirectly, public expenditure management and good governance reforms do benefit children as they ensure that resources are directed to high priority policies and interventions. These support child poverty reduction provided that the latter are prioritised in economic and social policy choices, and that appropriate institutions are able to implement the intended interventions efficiently and effectively, directing resources to poor and marginalised groups of children.
In conclusion, the review points to a significant role for child poverty research and advocacy in the implementation, monitoring and review of the Southern African PRSP processes. Child advocacy organisations and child rights actors may play a valuable role in a variety of ways. These could include partnering with local child advocacy organisations to:
- Build local capacity on economic and development literacy to raise awareness and participation, particularly child participation, in PRSP processes;
- Undertake research and analysis on the implementation, monitoring and review of PRSP processes;
- Undertake research on the prioritisation of child policies and resource allocation to child-focused interventions in the PRSP processes. This may evolve into a Child-focused Shadow or Alternative PRSP - that is, a civil society version of a national PRSP prioritises policies, interventions and budget resources to reduce child poverty;
- Increase advocacy efforts, and their impact, regarding the importance of PRSP processes to reducing child poverty and enhancing Child Rights in the region.
It is clear that the PRSP approach has been taken up as the new trend in development planning and assistance in Southern Africa. It is therefore critical for child advocacy groups at the international, regional and local level to become a stronger voice and an active participant in Southern African PRSP processes to ensure that children's rights are prioritised and appropriately resourced in the region's development planning and resource allocation processes.
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