Op-Ed: Harper, Bush and Calderon shortsighted to ignore 120 million kids

August 19th, 2007

When the three North American leaders and planeloads of their officials arrive in Montebello, Quebec, for the annual meeting of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), they'll have lots to talk about.

There is, however, a glaring omission in the SPP's jam-packed agenda - one which compromises the future security and prosperity of the continent.

Children under the age of 18 make up one-quarter of the 426 million people in North America. How they grow up is important not only to their parents, it is also of vital concern for the continuing strength of the three countries. If our leaders are to promote the "full potential" of our people - as they committed to do when the SPP was launched in 2005 – how can they do so while ignoring issues relevant to more than 120 million citizens?

More than 300 goals have been articulated since the SPP project began. Of course, co-operation on handling flu pandemics or the smuggling of nuclear materials will be of benefit to all North American citizens. But Prime Minister Harper, President Bush and President Calderon can't seriously expect to talk about long-term security and prosperity if they ignore the well-being of children and youth or consider the issue incidental to their discussions.

And indeed, an examination of projects sponsored under the SPP reveals that children are incidental to this work.

That oversight is of particular concern to my organization, the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD). Over the past three years, we have been working with organizations in the United States and Mexico to develop tools and resources to assess how children in North American are doing in this increasingly interdependent and interconnected world. What we have found so far is that there are many commonalities – rising rates of obesity and respiratory problems, for example. There are also many emerging trends where a little knowledge-sharing could go a long way.

Sadly, we've also discovered that comparable data on children's welfare is sorely lacking in too many areas. And some promising initiatives have been shut down, including groundbreaking work on children's health and the environment done by the NAFTA-created Commission on Environmental Co-Operation.

There's a term for talking strategy without data – it's called guesswork.

That's one problem.

In addition, the parties seem to be coming at this agreement from the viewpoint that security and prosperity can be dealt with apart from people's daily lives. This, despite the fact that the partnership commits the leaders to "a trilateral effort to increase the security, prosperity, and quality of life of our citizens."

For example, it seems obvious that a country with increasing numbers of adults plagued by heart disease, diabetes, and kidney failure cannot reach its potential for prosperity or competitiveness. Yet there are no tri-national initiatives in place to address the epidemic of obesity which causes these diseases and affects 26% to 30% of all children on the continent. Similarly, there is no strategy to examine the fourfold increase in children's asthma over the last 20 years, nor the rise in neuro-developmental disorders caused by chemicals in the environment, and no plans to explore why Mexican children are more likely to die from cancer than children in the U.S. and Canada – even though they are equally stricken by this disease, the biggest killer of children aged 5 to 14.

So the three leaders will meet - without child welfare being on the agenda, never mind specific data. And as past experience proves, costly mistakes will be made as a result and economic opportunities will be missed - not just for the future, but today as well.

Children clearly influence the economic performance of countries. So what should our leaders be considering? How about the effect on our future joint economies – and security – when 87% of Mexican children have less than a high school education, compared to 17% in Canada and 13% in the United States? How about the impact on our families and their children's welfare when a U.S. employer moves its operations to Mexico to take advantage of lower wages? And that's just for starters.

A healthy, well-educated and skilled workforce is clearly the foundation for future prosperity and security on the North American continent. Yet, children - arguably the most important citizens the three leaders represent, for their future influence on security and prosperity, if nothing else – don't even make the Montebello agenda.

As the UN General Assembly acknowledged in adopting a definition of child poverty, "children are the agents of a more prosperous and equitable society."

It's a message the "three amigos" ignore at their peril – and at the risk of our children and the future prosperity and security of the continent.


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