THE BLOG
01/25/2016 08:58 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2017

Bankrupting children's lives: How the Fourth Industrial Revolution is widening inequality, why this matters and what we can do about it.

Last week, the world's leading business, government and civil society leaders gathered in Davos for the World Economic Forum's annual meeting. This year's theme - the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' - refers to those emerging technologies - from 3D printing to artificial intelligence - that have the potential to breakdown the boundaries between distinct physical, biological and digital spheres. These technologies attest to human ingenuity, and the combined power of the market and governments driving innovation. On the upside, they have the potential to lower barriers to information, generate new jobs, and incubate solutions to long-standing social challenges. On the downside, they could disrupt existing governance, production and management systems in ways that increase disparities and weaken the social cohesion on which accountable government and functioning markets ultimately depend.

The fourth industrial revolution has heralded an era of unprecedented connectivity and inequality, and its effects are far-reaching. The migration crisis is a case in point. Conflict in the Middle East may be the most obvious driver, but the combination of inequality and connectivity exerts a powerful pull for people crossing to Europe. The Syrian refugee in a Turkish camp, or the underemployed youth in the Lagos slum, not only has radically different life chances from the average EU citizen. They are also constantly reminded of that fact - tempted and taunted by an endless stream of images and messages of what others have, and what they are denied. This same mix of connectivity and inequality is a critical factor in many of the conflicts and governance crises we see around the world, from the Arab Spring and subsequent turmoil in the Middle East, to the growing challenges to established political parties in every region.

For Save the Children, these trends matter both because children are uniquely vulnerable to the disruption created by social and political change, and because childhood is a window in which we can break the intergenerational cycle of poverty and disadvantage. In 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa half the population is under the age of 18, and in these countries the population is getting younger. By focusing on children we are investing in the present to prepare for vast future potential.

Many more children are surviving past the age of five and are better able to fulfil their potential than ever before. The dramatic progress over the last quarter century in reducing child deaths and boosting education outcomes tells us as much. But the review of progress towards the 2015 development goals also highlights that millions of children have been bypassed by these gains, increasingly because of who they are and where they live. This threatens to undermine at the outset the 2030 global goals that were adopted at the UN last September. To take one example, on current trends universal primary education for girls in Africa from the poorest 20% won't be met until 2083 - a full half century after the target date.
The new 'Generation X' is Generation Excluded - the millions of children who will are failing to reach their fifth birthday, or never learn in school because they live in a conflict zone, or belong to the wrong ethnic group, or are a girl. If we want to dismantle the barriers that prevent children and youth from surviving and thriving - and allow them to reap the benefits of technological and economic development - we need to establish meaningful partnerships that boldly challenge exclusion, invest in public goods, and promote access to new technologies. Business as usual will not deliver the change that's needed in the lives of children.

Every stakeholder has a role in this change. For governments, it means fair financing for essential services and other public goods, removing cost barriers to health and education, guaranteeing a minimum social safety net, and removing discriminatory laws. For the UN, this means putting the needs of excluded children front and centre in the accountability framework for the Sustainable Development Goals, creating a new deal for refugee and displaced children that enables them to learn and be save, and challenging discrimination through the norms they promote and the programmes they run. And for business, it's about creating relevant jobs for young people, responsible behaviour on tax, lowering the barriers to new technology, investing in youth livelihoods for excluded groups, and championing campaigns to stop discrimination.

The fourth industrial revolution's challenges, in that respect, look remarkably like the social, political and moral challenges thrown up by the first. From the beginnings of industrialisation in Britain, it took over one hundred years of political struggle to create a climate in which Save the Children's founder, Eglantyne Jebb, was able to write the Declaration on the Rights of the Child. Today, we face a challenge of equal urgency and significance - by marrying the audacity of business, the legitimacy of government, and the people power mobilised by civil society, we have an opportunity to create a world in which every last child is able to survive and fulfil their potential. And it shouldn't take another hundred years.


This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark The World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting 2016 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 20-23). The theme of this year's conference is "Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution." Read all the posts in the series here.