FERGUS FINLAY: We’re on the rich list but have such a poor record of caring for children

So I’m reading a report. Unicef published it on Monday, and it says a lot of scarifying — even shaming — things about how children are doing in the rich countries of the world.

And of course, we’re on the list of rich countries. So I immediately wondered, how fair is that? We’ve been through a lot of hard times lately.

Our bubble burst, our economy collapsed. Even though we tell ourselves that we’re through the worst of it, how rich are we, really? How fair is it to compare ourselves to the countries that have oil, or huge economies?

We can’t, after all, afford to pay a modest amount for our clean water. So they tell us, anyway.

So before I started going into the report in detail, I went looking for a few comparisons.

Well, Global Finance Magazine has done a comparison of all the countries in the world, using statistics supplied by the International Monetary Fund.

They compare each country’s total wealth (GDP) per head of the population, and then factor in something called Purchasing Power Parity, to take account of things such as the cost of living.

That’s the basis on which their table is produced. It’s used in all sorts of places — the one I found easiest to read was a list prepared by Business Insider magazine (exact same data, but each country on the list is illustrated by a stunning photograph).

I was going to download the top 100, because I figured we have to be in there somewhere, but I started scrolling down through the top 30 first, just to look at the pictures. It starts with the 30th richest country in the world — that’s Japan — and then goes on to Finland at 29, France at 28, UK at 27, and so on.

I’d nearly given up, after I passed Oman and Bahrain, and Sweden and Germany. But suddenly, there was a highly familiar photograph. Temple Bar, thronged with people clearly intent on having a good time, beautifully lit in the early part of the night.

The photograph you could take of Temple Bar a few hours later wouldn’t, perhaps, show it in the same positive light.

Beside the picture is the figure of our GDP per head of the population. It works out at around €62,000 for each and every one of us.

Way ahead of the UK, incidentally, whose wealth per capita is a mere €38,000 or so.

According to this league, we’re seventh in the world.

That’s right, the seventh richest country in the world. We don’t have oil, we don’t have tanks and guns, we’re not a superpower. But we are richer than the vast majority of people everywhere.

That’s the country Leo Varadkar has inherited now. That’s the country he’s talking about shaping, talking about turning into a republic of opportunity.

So why, according to Unicef, does Ireland have nearly the highest suicide rate among teenagers? Why, in terms of health and well-being for children, do we rank 22nd out of the 40 countries they measure?

Why do one in four of our children live in what Unicef calls “multi-dimensional poverty”?

Why are we ranked 31st of the rich countries when it comes to “zero hunger” for children, and 22nd when it comes to their good health and well-being?

Unicef is sort of like the world’s policeman where children are concerned. Not in the sense of being able to enforce the law, but because there is no other organisation that can compare how one country treats its children by comparison with another. Unicef is active, under the flag of the UN, in virtually every country in the world.

It advocates for children everywhere, it provides services in some countries, and it collects data throughout the world.

It’s a sober, some would even say conservative, organisation, not given to hyperbole or exaggeration. So when Unicef says we’re not doing great, we really need to listen.

And when Unicef says we’re doing a bit better than some countries in terms of trying to tackle poverty, and especially child poverty, but lagging way behind the leaders, who are essentially the Scandinavian countries, would it ever, do you think, occur to us to wonder what they’re doing right and we’re not?

On the list of rich countries, Finland is 29, Denmark is 23, Iceland is 20, and Sweden is 17. In terms of national wealth per person, they each lag well behind us.

In terms of three key indicators of child poverty — they are the leaders, we’re the mediocre average.

We’re below average — well below — in terms of food insecurity for children, and also in terms of childhood obesity. We’re the fourth worst country in the rich world in teenage suicide.

We’re doing well in some areas — participation in pre-school education, for example, is way better than it was a few short years ago. But we know only too well that the quality of that pre-school work varies hugely from place to place. Nothing like enough investment has been made in getting that quality uniformly high.

You’re still left, after reading a report like this, asking the question why?

Some of the things it’s telling us — about hungry children, children struggling with their mental health, children growing up in poverty — these things would be difficult to swallow in some of the poorer countries studied in this report.

But in the 7th richest country in the world? Why isn’t it a scandal?

I’ll tell you why. Because these things have happened because of the choices we’ve made. The Scandinavian countries I’ve mentioned have, over the years, made conscious and deliberate choices that their countries will be the best in the world to be a new born baby or a young mum, that their countries will lead the world in top class childcare and decent health services for youngsters.

We make different choices. No matter what radio station you listened to this past weekend there was endless, wall-to-wall debate about how Máire Whelan became a judge. Or about how Mary Mitchell O’Connor didn’t (or mightn’t) become a super junior. Or about how Shane Ross sold his soul for a garda station in Stepaside.

In 20 years’ time, none of those pathetic parochial pettifogging political issues will matter a damn. They don’t matter a damn now — the Government made a hames of it and the opposition and media are making a meal of it. But that’s all it is — no corruption, no crime, no illegality. Just stupid political mismanagement, made worse as usual because no-one can admit a mistake.

But if we don’t start making different choices, in 20 years’ time our children will still be going hungry. They’ll still be afraid, still self-harming, still struggling to cope with depression, anxiety, and fear. We’ll still be offering our children a range of preventative and developmental services as if we saw ourselves as a poor country, not a rich one.

And of course, in 20 years’ time — who knows — we might have become the fourth or third richest country in the world. We might have passed out some of the oil-rich ones ahead of us. And Unicef will still be reporting our failures. Wouldn’t that be the real crime?


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