09/04/2013 20:08 BST | Updated 09/06/2013 06:12 BST

A Crisis for Children?

A decade of progress in improving the lives of disadvantaged children in industrialised countries is at risk of being lost unless governments take a more child-centric approach to policy-making and pay greater heed to the voices of young people.

Well intentioned attempts to avoid burdening future generations with the fall-out from current austerity measures may end up having the opposite effect, as more children are pushed into poverty now.

It is a conundrum that lies at the heart of the current economic debate. Take Hungary, for example. It is one of the less wealthy nations in the industrialized world, and yet its child poverty gap - the difference between the poverty line and the median income of those below it - is one of the smallest, second only to Luxembourg.

Hungary is not a one-off. Unicef's Report Card 11 - Child Well-being in Rich Countries: A Comparative Overview, released today by the organisation's Office of Research, highlights just how vulnerable children are to the vagaries of different governments' strategies for tackling the economic hardship of the last three years. See the full report here. Or a do your own analysis, through this interactive infographic.

Report Card 11 examines the state of children across the industrialized world, measuring development according to five dimensions of children's lives: material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviour and risks, and housing and environment.

The report - the 11h in Unicef's annual series that looks at poor children in rich countries - finds that the Netherlands and four Nordic countries (Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) - again sit at the top of a child well-being table; whilst four southern European countries - Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain - are placed in the bottom half of the table.

As debates continue to generate strongly opposed views on the pros and cons of austerity measures and social spending cuts, the report charts the achievements of 29 of the world's advanced economies in ensuring the well-being of their children during the first decade of this century. This international comparison, says the report, proves that child poverty in these countries is not inevitable, but policy susceptible - and that some countries are doing much better than others at protecting their most vulnerable children.

And to emphasise that, Unicef's research shows that there is not nearly as much correlation between a country's per capita GDP and overall well-being as previously presumed. The report shows that Slovenia has higher overall child well-being than Canada, and Portugal comes out higher than the United States, which is the richest of the 29 developed countries in the survey yet is fourth from bottom in the rankings, just above Latvia, Lithuania and Romania.

So whilst children's present and future is impacted upon by their country's economic health, the report also finds that their government's policies and ability to take decisions that work actively to prioritise and protect young people's lives are equally significant. All societies agree in principle that the health and the well-being of children is a priority. But there is a very hard-headed case to be made as well for the priorities that need to be attached to child well-being. If a society neglects its children, if it exposes them to poverty and neglect, then that neglect is associated with a long list of adverse consequences in later life, affecting both the individual, and wider society.

As such, Unicef urges governments and social partners to place children and young people at the heart of their decision-making processes. That is, for every new policy measure considered or introduced - particularly at this time of economic crisis - governments explicitly have to explore the impact and effects on children, families with children, adolescents and young adults.

To do this effectively, it is vital to monitor and measure the effect of economic policies on children, and in particular more data - and crucially more up-to-date information - is needed about children's developmental well-being in their earliest months and years, when the foundations and scaffolding of later development take place.

Last, but most certainly not least, Report Card 11 has a section on subjective well-being, where children rate their own life situation, as well as relationships with parents and other relatives. This subjective view asks young people what they feel, as opposed to what they have. It is a controversial indicator but one that gives some interesting results. Unicef believes that giving children that voice, listening to what they say, and acting on it must be a central tenet of policy for all governments. Only then can they understand and measure the full impact of their actions on children, and by extension the future of their societies.