Thursday, February 15, 2007

Unicef’s toil and twaddle

I fully expected that somebody who read yesterday’s ridiculous Unicef report on ‘Child Well-Being’ would expose its twaddle in today’s papers. Here’s the Times leader:

Save the Children (from Nonsense)
Unicef’s report card on child wellbeing is tosh mixed with bias

Concerned British parents are to be commended for not pulling their children peremptorily out of school and stampeding to Norway and the Netherlands. The latest Unicef “report card” on child wellbeing in rich countries certainly gave them apparent reasons to do so. It ranked Britain 18th out of 21 OECD members in terms of its children’s material wellbeing; bottom of the table in terms of the quality of their family and peer relationships; 20th out of 21 for “subjective wellbeing”; and a dismal worst overall. Children’s charities, which are becoming dangerously political, have seized on these conclusions as evidence of a long-hidden crisis. The truth is that from its key premises to its sources and methodology this report is flawed, biased and a blatant abuse of the trust that many readers misguidedly place in documents published under the Unicef banner.

There is no new research in the report. Much of its data is drawn from a seven-year-old survey by the OECD programme for international student assessment and a six-year-old World Health Organisation study of “health behaviour in school-age children”. None of it relates to pre-school-age children. And it places heavy emphasis on relative as opposed to absolute child poverty on the ground that “the cutting edge of poverty is the contrast . . . between the lives of the poor and the lives of those around them”.

What unalloyed, ideological nonsense. Let’s punish rich and successful countries whose working classes, by global standards, are unimaginably wealthy.
“Not having the right trainers”, as one of the report’s researchers put it yesterday, is apparently worse for a child’s wellbeing than having none at all. The report acknowledges that “relative poverty” means an average family income of $24,000 or less in the US (21st out of 21 in this ranking) but just $7,000 or less in Hungary (13th). Yet it takes scant account of this in its conclusions. It also ignores data showing a 50 per cent cut in the number of British children in absolute poverty since 1998, all lifted out of misery, ultimately, by the market economy that charities’ staff rely on for generosity but abhor as a matter of self-serving personal principle.

The report’s conclusion states that “all families in OECD countries today are aware that childhood is being reshaped by forces whose mainspring is not necessarily in the best interests of the child”. This is a coded claim that “all families” agree on capitalism’s malign impact on childhood. In fact, as the report’s own figures on deprivation show, the world’s most advanced capitalist economies are its least deprived. Yet these figures, too, are way out of date.

The reason for using such antiquated data is that more recent, less attractive figures did not allow easy global comparisons. Yet even the comparisons drawn here range from unreliable to absurd. The Czech Republic emerges with the highest level of fighting among children and the lowest level of bullying. The UK, meanwhile, has data showing that 76 per cent of British children feel their parents “are always there” for them. But since no other country has equivalent data, it does not feature in Britain’s overall ranking.

Peter Adamson, the writer of this report, co-founded the staunchly left-wing New Internationalist in the 1970s. He has now invited ridicule by caricaturing the world’s most dynamic economies as Dickensian child-abusers. This report hides the truth about children’s wellbeing behind an outdated ideology that has condemned hundreds of millions of children to cruel poverty

I make no apologies for bashing this one again, because this Unicef report, and the way it was presented on, for example, the BBC News, really sums up everything that is worst about the self-lacerating, wilfully deluded, truth-distorting, anti-reality, intentions-over-outcomes element of the intellectual leftist ‘elite’ (and indeed, the Daily Mail hard right). It is nothing but an excuse to condemn capitalism - the very thing upon which charities rely - veiled in intelligence-insultingly transparent statistical nonsense.

The way the report is written is bizarre in itself. As Oroborous notes in the other post, the author tells you that this is nonsense, and then says it anyway.

This is from the conclusion:

It is best regarded as a work in progress, in need of improved definitions and better data. But in the process it is easy to become ensnared in the data and to lose sight of what it is that we are trying to capture. ….The measures used in this report fall short of such nuanced knowledge.

Findings that have been recorded and averaged may create an impression of precision but are in reality the equivalent of trying to reproduce a vast and complex mountain range in relatively simple geometric shapes. In addition, the process of international comparison can never be freed from questions of translation, culture, and custom

The areas they’ve chosen to analyse, the weighting they’ve applied in the rankings and the use of relative poverty are all entirely arbitrary. But even if they weren't, given that this is the first and only report of its kind, we can have no way of knowing if things are getting worse or better - but they want you to assume that things are getting worse.

So it isn’t arbitrary at all: it’s all quite deliberately set up to attack capitalism and the Anglosphere. It is designed to get blithering idiots to scream out on-the-face-of-it absurd headlines like: “Child poverty in the UK has doubled since 1979”. Thank you, BBC, for doing just that.


monix said...

You were right that I would not agree with you but that doesn't necessarily make me a member of "the self-lacerating, wilfully deluded, truth-distorting, anti-reality, intentions-over-outcomes element of the intellectual leftist ‘elite.’"

It probably isn't possible to produce the kind of data that you would find acceptable. When dealing with people and the reality of their experience, we only have anecdotal evidence. Charles Kingsley and Harriet Beecher Stowe wouldn't effect much change these days, would they?

You can't deny the facts of drunkenness, STDs, pregnancies and violence among teenagers in the UK. It is a fact that fewer 15 year olds in Britain go into training or remain in education than in other industrialised countries. Some people think highlighting these issues worthwhile but 'worthiness' is despicable and so easy to ridicule, isn't it?

Brit said...

That's completely wrong and is not the point I'm making at all. Nobody denies that there are problems in Britain. I'm talking about the way this report is biased to pretend that the Anglosphere countries are making the world worse.

I don't object to 'worthy' intentions. Their intentions are the same as mine. I want people to be wealthy and happy too. Instead, I object to the way the 'worthies' value their intentions above actual practical outcomes. They are harmful to those intentions. they want to make the world more miserable by imposing a system that has failed every time it has been tried.

I object to the fact that the leftists insist that only they have the answers to social problems, but their diagnoses are warped by their ideology. They are not interested in actually finding practical solutions, they are only interested in justifying their ideals.

David Cohen summarised it thus: "I am a good person if I help the poor. I help the poor by arguing that people like me should be taxed more and the money given to the poor. I am a good person."

Let's set aside for a moment the fact that poverty in the US and the UK is luxury in comparison to the globe.

Charities are funded by the generosity of people made wealthy by the freedom granted by capitalism. The USA came BOTTOM of Unicef's 'relative poverty' list. Yet those nasty individualist Americans give more money to charity per capita than anybody else. The Unicef polticial approach is therefore not only wrong-headed, if it could come into being, it would be self-defeating.

Brit said...

Let me put it another way to try to clarify the point I'm making:

These are not new figures. It is a new report - a new accumulation of figures from all sorts of old surveys.

If we wanted to talk about teen problems in the UK with alcohol or pregnancies, we could have a report on that and try to find solutions. Indeed, we have done just that before.

But Unicef haven't done that. They have mashed together a load of selected figures from all sorts of different areas of life, given them a relative 'weighting' and thereby created a league table which puts the US and the UK at the bottom.

So now ask yourself: why would they do that? What is their motivation? What do they want to change?

M Ali said...

"You can't deny the facts of drunkenness, STDs, pregnancies and violence among teenagers in the UK. It is a fact that fewer 15 year olds in Britain go into training or remain in education than in other industrialised countries."

That seems to be more of a culture issue than a poverty one. And I'm not sure if teens of that age strictly count as children.

Peter Burnet said...

Monix, what is offensive is not describing the objective state of British children and pointing out serious problems, but rather the comparisons and consequent imputation that it all comes down to government social programmes and spending levels. There may indeed be a good case that the plight of British children demands action (high-profile studies like this have been around for over a hundred years) and it may even be true that the average Scandinavian child is more healthy and secure in some ways (there are advantages to the plodding herd ethos), but there are a lot of cultural reasons for that. Do you think doubling the education and welfare budgets and throwing a gazillion social workers at the problem would improve this situation, because that is what the authors of the report want you to think? If the report were addressing social dysfunctions, the state of the family, community policing and resiliency, school safety, charitable giving, etc. that might have been interesting, but attributing the situation to a baseline material poverty born of a lack of state support is very tired and surely has been disproven many times over. If you want to debate international comparisons, how about the proposition that massive state intervention in trying to cure social ills has proven far more futile and corrosive in the Anglosphere than in some other countries? Then we can argue why.

Once you reach the point where everyone has enough to eat, a place to sleep and access to basic medical care, this whole poverty game becomes very subjective and ideological. Surely it is passing strange to be going on about "poverty" in the same era where childhood obesity among the "poor" is the number one health concern.

Peter Burnet said...

BTW, look here and here for evidence nobody really thinks poverty is the issue, but we're all over the map as to what is.

monix said...

I've just re-read the report and can't find any actual recommendations for action, so I cannot comment on Unicef's motives. It has got people talking, though, about what 'well-being' means, beyond having enough calories to eat and a bed to sleep in.

I don't think throwing money at any problem is a solution. But evaluating the use of money might lead to one being found. In the UK, Education and Welfare services have to fight each other for funding. Local Authorities have x amount of money to spend on education, policing, fire services, social services and highways; every year those departments put in a bid for budget and the strongest wins the lion's share. Social services is always the loser in my county. So, maybe a few issues could be improved, if not resolved with a more equitable distribution of resources. Let's keep asking the questions.

Brit said...

Exactly - there is no one issue. There are lots of issues, which should be addressed individually.

If, for example, we identify that teen drug abuse is a worsening problem in the UK, we need to address that issue seriously and try to find solutions that work.

But the more I look at this report, the more stupid it gets. For example, British teenagers are apparently exposed to the most 'risk'; yet in another part of the report they are shown to be less likely to die in their teens compared to other countries.

This report lumps everything in together - young children and teens, education and wealth - without any reference to national culture, with the aim of making a political point. It works against serious solutions to the real problems.

Brit said...

Poland has the second lowest 'risk' to teenagers (the UK has the worst), but the 7th worst health and safety among teens (worse than the UK).

This report is an insult.

Peter Burnet said...

But without agreeing with any particular thing UNICEF said, is it not a mistake to respond in indignant ideological denial and insist that because of our higher GNPs, our kids are automatically better off? The notions of individual responsibility and freedom are goods in themselves, not guarantees of this or that higher ranking on every social index. At some point the answer has to be : "Maybe, but the overall downside of state-directed economies is so great and ultimately destructive that we aren't going to follow that route."

Of course, then you would have to put up with guys like David and me reminding you that this is exactly why free societies have to be built on principles of private piety and/or reverence and broad notions of intra-community responsibility.

martpol said...

Peter asks: " it not a mistake to respond in indignant ideological denial and insist that because of our higher GNPs, our kids are automatically better off?"

Exactly. The report says neither that all of our social ills could be solved by abandoning capitalism, nor that those ills are worse than in other countries. It simply says: developed countries have problems too.

I have a great deal of respect for UNICEF, which operates as both charity and agency of the UN, in circumstances which are often extreme and horrifying.

Considering that it expends the vast majority of its resources on programmes and emergency relief in developing countries, alongside global campaigns for education, protection against HIV and other issues affecting the poor, one can hardly accusing them of prioritising bashing the rich. A quick glance at their website is enough to confirm that.

I agree with Brit, though, that it is a rather strange and unreliable concoction of different reports which doesn't necessarily help anyone.

Brit said...

It simply says: developed countries have problems too

Yes, I think most people are aware that developed countries have problems too. Some of them are even unique to capitalist countries. For these problems, you need specific solutions that take into account the fact that they are capitalist countries. If you are genuinely interested in solving them, that is. This report has no interest in solving anything.

Gee, I am even aware that some teenagers get drunk and use drugs and contract STDs even in Britain!

That isn't what this league table is for. This league table took already existing stats and combined them with other, arbitrarily selected stats to make a political point.

I have nothing against Unicef. This wasn't written by 'Unicef'. It was put together on their behalf by Peter Adamson, a hard left pundit.

Peter Burnet said...

I've got plenty against UNICEF. Despite all those moving pictures of African kids being given bowls of porridge or check-ups, the organization under Carol Bellamy (who was replaced in 2005) became so politicized and so focussed on jetting from one conference to another to promote statements of Children's Rights or lobby for this or that resolution, etc. that even The Lancet turned on it and accused it of ignoring the actual health and welfare of children.

Here are the eight "millenium goals" that UNICEF has equated with its mandate:

Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Goal 2: Achieve universal primary education
Goal 3: Promote gender equality and empower women
Goal 4: Reduce child mortality
Goal 5: Improve maternal health
Goal 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability
Goal 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development

There is nothing about protecting kids from political oppression, promoting family cohesion or lots of things we know full well are key to childrens' basic health and welfare. More to the point, how do you fit high profile studies comparing the relative happiness of kids in Sweden and the UK into those objectives or expertise?

Brit said...

In that case, I do have something against Unicef.

That is a perfect example of the self-defeating habit of trying to legislate problems out of existence instead of trying to solve them.

martpol said...

Hang on, Peter. Those are the Millennium Development Goals of the UN in general, signed by all its member states 7 years ago. They were agreed to be the key priorities for human development in the 21st century.

See here for the full picture of UNICEF's focus.

Peter Burnet said...


But UNICEF itself says they are all one big happy seamless web, and I agree with them.

Maybe UNICEF should do a big international study to confirm this. Or better still, host a conference.

Oroborous said...

The UN Millennium Development Goals in a nutshell: "Be like No. America and Western Europe."

That's good advice, but putting it into practice turns out to be very tricky.

Many cultures like oppressing women and children, and see no need to change one iota.

For instance: Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, the Sudan. The list goes on for pages.

Harry Eagar said...

Hmmm. I drank alcohol as a tot. Well, I started when I was 16.

I do not think of that as a negative. I enjoyed it.

Hey Skipper said...

This morning I heard on item on the BBC World Service about a recent spate of handgun violence in the UK.

The tagline was: "A recent UNICEF report put Britain at the bottom of the league tables for child welfare."

No context, no explanation, no apparent relevance to the report.

But, somehow, completely predictable.

Brit said...

Yes, that is the standard level of journalism at the BBC.