Thursday, 15 February 2007

Children's wellbeing: New UN report

Not everything that's important can be measured; and not everything that's measurable is important. And of course, not everything the UN does is worth a damn. (Or indeed, is anything the UN does worth a damn? Discuss that one in the comments section if you like.)

Those opening remarks are made in the context of a UN report on 'children's well-being' released overnight and splashed all over this morning's news. It begins with this highly questionable assertion: "The true measure of a nation's standing is how well it attends to its children." You can discuss that one in the comments section too, if you like.

Already the usual suspects have emerged to make hay from the survey. Director of the Public Health Association Gay Keating, for instance (the text is from a literal transcription of her radio interview this morning):
We really devalue our chooldren... We've forgotten that chooldren are important.. We really aren't looking after our kuds... Too many of our chooldren don't get to adulthood. We kool them off!
What's the "we," white man? I didn't kill those kids. Did you?

But what about the report? There are certainly elements here that are important:
  • "Only 82 per cent of Kiwi infants are now immunised against polio by the age of 2, compared with the OECD average of 94 per cent."
  • NZ is at "absolute bottom on the proportion of young people who were still in fulltime or part-time education aged 15 to 19 in 2003 - only 67 per cent against 82.1 per cent in Australia and an OECD average of 82.5. Far more young people continued in education in this age group in central and northern Europe - 89 per cent in Germany, 90 in the Czech Republic and 94 per cent in top-ranking Belgium."
  • "New Zealand's teenage birth rate has now passed Britain's, moving us up from third to second-highest among developed countries."
But not everything that's important can be measured, so in all such surveys, proxies are used as substitutes for the real thing. Take for example what the report titles "Relationships." NZ children are badly off in this respect, says the report. Why?
Asked "how often do your parents eat the main meal with you around a table?", only 64.4 per cent of Kiwi 15-year-olds answered "several times a week", compared with an OECD average of 79.4 per cent. Only Finnish youngsters eat with their parents less often.
Not everything that's measurable is important. This is not important.

And how about this?
New Zealand scores even worse - worst in the developed world - on the number of children under 19 killed in accidents and injuries, including violence, murder and suicide.
Now that doesn't sound good, does it. Are you sure? Without the report in front of me it's not possible to see how the accidents/injuries/violence/murder/suicide ratio is made up, but I suspect many of these could be considered 'adventure' deaths -- part of the 'cost' associated with living in an outdoors-loving country. New Zealand children are more active than, say, the English; probably spend more time having adventures outdoors than, say, the Dutch or the Beligians; and despite the best efforts of many government agencies, NZ children aren't yet completely wrapped up in a nannying, cotton-wool culture as they are in, say, England, or the States, where warnings and worry about every damn thing abound.

And what the survey wouldn't measure, for example, is the number of children turning themselves braindead by sitting inside fiddling with their Playstation -- which is bound to be higher in places like, say, the States. Or places where you can't go outside all winter, like Canada, or Scandinavia.

And how accurate is the report anyway? Says welfare researcher Lindsay Mitchell, not very.
First, some of the figures are hopelessly out of date, and second, some are quite dubious.
So if Mitchell can be believed -- and I believe her -- it's not very accurate at all. As an example, Mitchell takes issue with this assertion:
On average, 95 per cent of the children in developed countries live in homes where at least one parent is in paid work. New Zealand fell slightly below the average when these figures were gathered in 2000, with only 93 per cent of children living with a parent in paid work. Only six countries, including Australia and Britain, scored lower.
Get that? "Only 93 per cent of [New Zealand] children living with a parent in paid work." But these figures were produced using estimates, notes Mitchell, and using census figures -- and UN reports calling for more government meddling are just the sort of thing census advocates advocate such figures should be used for -- she suggests that the figure could just as easily be 79 percent. Or even 71 percent.

And does this report really call for more government meddling then? You don't think the conclusion is a coincidence?
The Netherlands topped the report issued by UNICEF, followed by other European countries with strong social welfare systems - Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
So despite some interesting reading, perhaps this report should be filed with the failed report on the cost of building materials released yesterday by Councillor Richard Northey -- which neglected to take into account the different exchange rates for different currencies [Duh!] -- and with most stuff produced by the NZ Qualifications Authority -- whose latest confession is that they might have neglected to mark some of last years exams.

Just file them all under "Not Achieved," I say.

UPDATE: Everyone loves bad news. Looks like the glass is half-full in British and American newspapers as well. See:
Is Britain the worst place to grow up? - The Scotsman
British kids bottom of UN welfare league table - Daily Record (Scotland)
British children unhappiest in the Western world - The Times
UNICEF: US, British children worst off - Miami Herald (AP)

LINKS: A great place for kids. Oh really? -- NZ Herald
Dubious UNICEF statistics - Lindsay Mitchell
Annan UN disgrace - Not PC (Dec, 2006)
What's with the 'we'? - Not PC
Excusing the bash - Not PC (July, 2006)
Bad maths put house contrast way out - NZ Herald
Non-marking of NCEA papers seen as one-off incident by NZQA - Radio NZ

RELATED: New Zealand, Politics-NZ, Health, Education, Building, Housing

1 comment:

  1. The Scotsman quoted...
    Is Britain the worst place to grow up?

    This is unbelievable. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit,... As typical, UN comes up with irrelevant report one after another. The US Congress is right in demanding that this bullshit body (UN) must be reformed.

    Britain the worst place to grow up? While portions of the populations of the third world countries are fleeing in massive numbers into developed western countries like Britain to find a better life, because they are the best to live & bring up children, we haven't witnessed any mass migrations from Britain (or any western country) into a third world country. Perhaps the proponent of this UN bullshit report are keen to migrate to the reclusive Ata Island in the Kingdom of Tonga, which is currently uninhabited. It is faraway from civilization. The proponents of this report could bring up their children over there in Ata that might be a better place in their view and also, it makes King George Taufa Tupou 5th, happy that there are residents in the island.


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