Good afternoon. Thank you, Cokie, for your kind introduction and serving as our moderator this afternoon.
Before we begin, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the terrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, and remember the young lives lost. Over the past few days, I have felt — as I imagine many did — the particular anguish of a parent who sends his children off to school every day. And I have felt an even deeper desire to protect them from all that is violent and hurtful in our world.
“This is our first task — caring for our children,” the president said on Sunday evening at the Sandy Hook interfaith prayer vigil. “It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right.” The truth is — no child should ever have to face such adversity.
And every child — no matter where they live, no matter the circumstances into which they are born — should have the opportunity to survive and thrive.
So it with this profound sense of our shared responsibility that we welcome you to the launch of the first-ever U.S. Government Action Plan on Children in Adversity.
It is a pleasure to be joined by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D.-Calif.), tireless advocates for vulnerable children around the world. And also by Kay Warren, a leader of many talents who has lent her passion and experience to speak out on behalf of children everywhere and help ensure they are part of loving families.
Today, we have with us brave individuals who have faced adversity as children, including Cynthia and Noah Styffe and Emmanuel Jal — whom we have the privilege of hearing from in a few moments.
This action plan represents the work of more than seven different agencies across the government — and remains one of finest examples of interagency collaboration and coordination we’ve seen in recent years. The list of those who contributed to the effort is long, but I would particularly like to recognize:
- Ambassador Luis CdeBaca, ambassador-at-large for the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
- Ambassador Susan Jacobs, special adviser for children’s issues at the State Department
- George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services
- Alan Guttmacher, director of the Eunice Kennedy National Institute for Child Health and Human Development
This is not just a government effort. Partners from across the faith and academic communities supported its development, including:
- Kent Hill, senior vice president at World Vision and our Agency’s former assistant administrator for global health
- Dr. James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics
- Dr. Robert Block, past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics
- And, of course, Dr. Neil Boothby — whose steadfast leadership as the U.S. Government special adviser for children in adversity brought this plan to life.
Today’s action plan is an unprecedented approach to coordinate the efforts of more than 30 government offices within seven agencies in 100 countries and to unite them with a common purpose, with three core objectives:
- Every child survives and gets healthy food,
- Every child grows up in the protective and nurturing embrace of a family, and
- Every child is safe from violence and exploitation.
We’ve always known that achieving these goals is within our power, but today — for the first time — we have a real, evidence-based, results-oriented plan to get us there. It is a plan that doesn’t just describe our aspirations, but outlines specific and achievable outcomes we must deliver. And it is a plan that doesn’t just describe the challenges we face, but cites specific scientific studies that underpin our learning and inform our new approaches.
The truth is that science around child development has long informed efforts to care for children in our own country, from studies on early childhood education that sparked the movement towards universal pre-K and the Head Start Program to the landmark Bucharest Early Intervention Study, which found that children living in institutions have severely compromised IQs — and that children removed from such institutions by the age of 2 and placed in family care caught up in brain activity by age 8.
At the same time, the consequences of malnutrition and toxic stress on a child’s life-long potential are becoming increasingly clear — taking shape before our eyes in MRI and PET brain scans of children.
Today, we have the science, we have the data, and we have the passion to transform the way we work on behalf of children across the world.
We know that this effort begins by ensuring that all children have the opportunity to celebrate their 5th birthday — one of the most powerful milestones in our lives. Yet, today, 6.9 million children die each year from preventable causes. And a further 200 million children in low- and middle-income countries fail to reach their development potential.
To help end this reality, last June, USAID joined UNICEF and the Governments of Ethiopia and India in launching a call to action in child survival.
As a result, more than 160 governments — including our own — signed a pledge to end preventable child death, and have been joined by nearly 200 civil society groups and 220 faith-based organizations. More important, the movement has inspired local calls for action and change, as governments themselves are taking ownership of this mission.
Countries with the highest rate of child mortality — like Nigeria and DRC — made real commitments to reinvest in child survival and plans are underway in Ethiopia and India for local calls to action.
The call to action highlighted several important steps we need to make as a global health community to ensure strong beginnings for all children — from equipping community health workers with affordable technologies to save lives at the moment of birth, to ensuring mothers living with HIV/AIDS have access to the testing and treatment they need to help achieve an AIDS-free generation, to helping more farmers grow — and more children eat — the nutritious foods that nurture productive minds and prosperous communities.
We know the foods you eat and the immunizations you get as a child matter. But we also know that the care and protection of family matters just as much.
For USAID, strengthening families remains one of our most important priorities — whether that means providing cash transfers in times of hardship or linking families to support networks.
In Burundi, we’ve developed a three-year randomized impact evaluation to explore how village savings and loans associations and family counseling could reduce poverty and nurture families. Results from the mid-term evaluation are in — and it is already clear that these combined interventions led to a 20 percent increase in the amount the household spends — a key indicator of welfare. And cases of harsh discipline — like hitting a child with a stick — fell by 64 percent.
Challenging at the best of times, we know how much more difficult it becomes to preserve supportive families in times of crisis or conflict.
In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, we implemented emergency family tracing programs to reunite children with their parents. And this past year in the Horn of Africa, when the worst drought in 60 years sent tens of thousands of families fleeing, we helped establish a single database that multiple partners across different refugee camps could use to identify and reunite separated and unaccompanied children.
Ensuring children set out on the best path in life is only half the battle. We also have to protect them along the way.
Earlier, Cokie shared a clip from the president’s speech at the Clinton Global Initiative where he spoke passionately about the need to fight human trafficking — which he called one of the great human rights struggles of our time.
He shared the story of Marie, a trafficking survivor in the DRC, who sought help at a transition center that USAID supports for young women and girls who have been exploited as child soldiers or sexual slaves. With Marie’s permission, President Obama shared her story with millions of people in order to help spur a global movement against human trafficking.
Marie’s story of suffering and abuse represents hundreds of thousands that happen every day around the world.
Across the world today, 5.5 million children are engaged in force labor. Roughly 300,000 children serve as soldiers for rebel and government forces. And terrifying large numbers of children — 150 million girls and 73 million boys — have experienced rape or other forms of sexual violence.
But Marie’s story of resilience and courage also represents thousands of incredible stories we are making possible every day — from setting up safe, child-friendly spaces in refugee camps, where children can receive on-site food and water and join classes and activities, to changing community attitudes about the stigma of rape through door-to-door outreach.
To help make more of these stories possible, we have launched three separate grant competitions at USAID to harness the power of science and technology and the creativity of problem-solvers everywhere to:
- End the enduring outrage of human trafficking
- Prevent and respond to atrocities, and
- Make all voices count.
Each of these competitions is designed to surface new solutions that dramatically accelerate our ability to prevent suffering and advance opportunity and dignity — whether it is a new mobile app to help locate children and reunite them with their family in a crisis or a new monitoring tool that helps governments remain accountable to their citizens.
Like most people, I was pulled into this work because of a strong desire to help make the world a better place — a desire that has grown deeper with each passing day I have watched my three children grow.
In development, we like to talk about the importance of data and concrete results — and this action plan is one of the finest examples of how we can harness these tools to better execute our work. But the reality is that many of us come to this work not because we are inspired by a grounding in hard analyses, but by the shared desire to help change the world.
That is an incredible and meaningful thing.
And so while we know that our future prosperity and our security are intimately tied into the results we deliver for children today, we also know that we have within our power today to ensure that all children survive and get healthy food, all children grow up in a family, and all children are safe from the violence and terror that sometimes erupts in our world.
And that is the most valuable mission of all.
Cross posted from USAID