A nation can be judged by how it cares for and protects the most vulnerable. As our fearless curator Will Inboden pointed out, it was a welcome change when President Obama gave due credit to President Bush for one of his proudest legacies, combatting HIV/AIDs globally. It would have been easy for President Bush, when faced with the global suffering caused by HIV/AIDs, to look the other way or to do lip service to addressing it. Instead, he made it a signature initiative that saved millions of lives just because it was the right thing to do.
A related challenge presents a similar opportunity to President Obama. Millions of highly vulnerable children today are living outside family care in every country including our own. Some have been orphaned by HIV/AIDs, others trafficked or forced into labor and still others are living in institutions, on the streets or in refugee camps alone. The Obama Administration, mostly due to Secretary Clinton’s leadership, has made significant progress addressing this global challenge and could leave behind a solid legacy if it builds upon it again this year.
I recently participated in two groundbreaking events focused on highly vulnerable children. The first in November was the Way Forward Project Summit sponsored by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) which brought together African and U.S. officials and experts in this field to make recommendations for strengthening child protection systems in six African countries. The event was held at the State Department and Secretary Clinton gave solid remarks making her the first Cabinet level official to specifically address this important cross-cutting issue.
The second event in December was an Evidence Summit on protecting children outside family care. It was sponsored by USAID with participation and support from over a dozen U.S. government agencies or offices that work with vulnerable children. For the first time, a true ‘whole of government’ approach was presented that is beginning to break through the silos that typically define our government’s approach to children’s issues globally. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah drew from his personal experience in Haiti seeing the devastating toll of the earthquake on children and ended his opening remarks by noting that the most important line of protection for vulnerable children is a safe and loving family.
There remains a strong disconnect between our diplomacy and foreign assistance when it comes to children’s issues that I highlighted here. Still anyone who has worked on children’s issues for awhile knows that this interdisciplinary gathering was a welcome step forward for USAID which is not always known for its flexibility or coordination. The credit here goes to the hard-working team from the P.L.109-95 Secretariat that manages a congressional mandate to coordinate the U.S. response to orphans and other highly vulnerable children. The mandate is of the dreaded ‘unfunded’ sort, but USAID and the other offices involved have proven that hard work, commitment and a little cooperation can accomplish much. They also have shown that a relatively small amount of money directed strategically through coordinated mechanisms could go a long way in protecting children from exploitation, abuse and neglect. The social return on investment (SROI) numbers for money targeting at-risk children are impressive. There are huge benefits to children, families and whole societies by decreasing crime, human trafficking, gang violence, unemployment and poor physical, mental and emotional development of entire populations. It’s a strategic opportunity to use our limited foreign assistance dollars wisely.
There are two big challenges to launching a global initiative to help vulnerable children. Money is tight and it’s an election year. But money also was tight when President Bush launched his Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. He made it a priority and did it anyway. It may be wishful thinking to believe any progress could be made on a major new initiative for children and families in an election year. But like HIV/AIDs, this is a strongly bipartisan issue. It garners broad, passionate support on both sides of the increasingly polarized political divide. The Congressional Caucus on Adoption is the largest bipartisan caucus in the U.S. Congress. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) is one of its House co-chairs and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), who attended both the events I referenced above, is one of its most vocal Senate leaders. Many Members of Congress – both Republicans and Democrats – also are champions of the fight against human (child) trafficking. For these reasons, I will continue my wishful thinking that, even in these difficult times, we might still pull together as a nation to help the very poorest and most vulnerable. Because securing liberty and justice for all is simply the right thing to do.