Thursday, 26 September 2013

A Broken System: Why Are Danish Children Better Off Than Liberian?

Imagine that you are the newly installed leader of your country, and that I am one of your top policy advisors. Our country is struggling with a serious imbalance of labour and lack of job training (perhaps, as with many countries, we suffer from a lack of healthcare and education professions and far too many politicians and investment bankers...) and you have tasked me with coming up with a new system to correct this problem, and guide the youth of our country into much-needed professions.

After a short time, I excited rush into your office with a solution. Doubtless expecting me to recommend better career counselling for youth, or perhaps some new online aptitude test that would sort school-leavers into suitable professions, you ask me to explain. I tell you that I have developed a system so efficient that we can sort children into their ideal future professions at birth, allowing us to provide exactly the right upbringing and educational options for them from day one. And all we need to know are a number of simple, easily determined factors.

"First," I explain, "we take the location in which the child was born. Then we examine the occupation, religion, and general socio-economic circumstance of its parents. Finally we factor in the child's gender and physical appearance, particularly its gender. With these factors alone, my new system can tell us everything we need to know to plan out this child's future for them."

"We will be able to determine exactly the quality and level of education we should give them, and the resources available: including food, so as not to waste this valuable resource on children destined for one of the less glamorous professions. We can also judge how worthwhile it will be to inoculate the child again common diseases, the level of healthcare we should make available to it if it does get sick, even whether or not we should bother providing them with sex education."

"Some children will of course be disadvantaged by the system, but that is just an unfortunate byproduct. Some other children will have the best possible education and opportunities available to them, and it is these children that we can rely on as future leaders of the country!"

Hopefully you are appalled by the very idea of such a system. To sort children at birth on such arbitrary factors is the sort of policy implemented by only the most horrific of modern political leaders: Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot all spring to mind. To adopt a system like this, for any purpose, is barbaric in the extreme.

Yet this is exactly the international system we have today. A child born to impoverished parents in Liberia simply does not have the same opportunities, educational and otherwise, as a child born in Denmark. Their education, if any, will be limited and typically of low standards with minimal resources. They may be malnourished. They will generally not receive inoculations or sex education, reducing their life expectancy dramatically (and hugely increasing their chances of contracting AIDS). Yet when confronted with this hideous imbalance, far too often we shrug it off with an "it's unfortunate, but that's just the system."

Any system that determines the entire future of newborn children by such arbitrary factors as the place of their birth or the background of their parents is a broken system. Our international system is broken, monstrously so.

In the face of a system that has been around since Westphalia, our own ability to act seems limited. However there are organisations (UNICEF, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and the IC Red Cross all come to mind) that are fighting to address this, and they require support: whether through direct donation, volunteering domestically, or even simply conscious-raising efforts. The UNMDGs aim to have universal primary education by 2015, which seems optimistic given our current circumstances. However once again we can contribute, albeit in our own small way, through reminding our own governments of their obligation to the completion of these goals.

Ultimately these measures are merely a stop-gap: with a system so flawed as to discriminate against children based on which sovereign territory they were born in, we cannot expect complete equality of opportunity. However it is a start, and a vitally needed one.

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