A Billion Brains: Smarter Children, Healthier Economies
A Billion Brains: Smarter Children, Healthier Economies
High Level Meeting on South-South Cooperation for Child Rights


One billion children, nearly half the world’s children, live in Asia and the Pacific. Investments in the cognitive capital of these one billion brains - by securing their health, education and welfare to help ensure they grow up to reach their potential - is not only a human right but a critical economic and social investment for sustained growth and inclusive societies.

Asia and the Pacific is a vast region – of promise and persistent challenges, too. Dramatic improvements between 1990 and 2012 saw the proportion of the region’s population living on less than US$1.25 per day fall from 53 to 14 percent. While many of the Millennium Development Goals were met, huge challenges remain. In terms of national averages, nearly all primary-aged children now complete school and students at all levels of education benefit from increased gender parity.

However, coverage of the poor and geographically remote areas is still very low. In 2012, almost 600 million people were still living on less than US$1.25 per day, over 20 million children were not enrolled in primary school, and more than one-fifth of under-five children, 75 million, were underweight. In addition, 1.2 billion people in rural areas, and 480 million in urban areas, still lacked access to basic sanitation.

The High Level Meeting series on South-South Cooperation for Child Rights in Asia and the Pacific began in 2010 as a forum initiated by UNICEF to:

  • Facilitate exchange of good practices, knowledge and expertise amongst countries in developing and implementing policies, programmes, and services for children and their families, especially the most vulnerable.
  • Support governments and other partners to include the promotion of child rights in international cooperation activities.
  • Enhance political commitments and leverage resources for addressing socio-economic disparities and realizing the rights of all children in the region.
  • Foster stronger South-South and horizontal cooperation among governments, leveraging the range of technical expertise and experience in the region.

Towards a Solution

Since the first meeting, hosted by the Government of China in 2010, the High Level Meetings on South-South Cooperation for Child Rights in Asia and the Pacific have proven to be an effective and sustainable forum for senior leaders at the ministerial level to discuss opportunities and challenges in the region in promoting child rights and welfare.

The third and most recent High-Level Meeting (HLM) was hosted by the Government of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur on 7-8 November 2016, under the banner “A Billion Brains: Smarter Children, Healthier Economies.” The theme was anchored in evidence that shows that the most successful countries moving forward to 2030 will be those whose leaders recognize now that the future of inclusive social development and equitable economic growth depends more than ever on investments in children.

The overarching objective of the third HLM was to foster South-South exchange and technical collaboration in the social sector for the benefit of children. Regional organizations have made good progress in economic and legislative dimensions of trade facilitation and this progress could and should be replicated by progress in the social sector, with a move towards common policy frameworks, standards and legislation in areas such as public health, education and child protection.

Through the presentation of quality research papers and insightful panel discussions that fostered South-South learning, senior government ministers and officials from nearly 30 countries showed how child-sensitive investments can deliver significant returns – for children, for communities, and for nations. Specifically, governments and partners looked at challenges and solutions in strengthening social protection systems, promoting universal health care coverage, and preventing violence against children.

An important innovation to this HLM was the direct inclusion and contribution of young people. This was accomplished firstly through using a U-Report, a Youth Poll undertaken via a social messaging tool allowing children and young people to share their views around the themes of health, violence and social protection. These views were shared with policy makers at the HLM. Secondly, a Youth Innovation Challenge gathered over 660 submissions from young people on their ideas to improve the lives of children with a focus on the same areas. Sixty-six participants were shortlisted for participation in remote mentorship, from which three winners were selected during the HLM.

Results of the HLM series are documented in three areas – the first is in influencing and contributing to the regional agenda and priorities of inter-governmental bodies. Issues tabled at the Delhi HLM influenced subsequent regional discussions and priorities, as demonstrated in the 2014 South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit Declaration by Heads of States. The Declaration takes a strong focus on the themes of health, education, youth, women and children, social protection and migration, and provides specific, regional level, policy guidance in each area. Secondly, specific country results have been achieved, e.g. as a result of the HLM, the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security (DCY- MSDHS) of the Government of Thailand established a Child Friendly Cities Initiative, piloting this in ten municipalities in the country. Thirdly, the HLMs promoted the increasingly strategic use of South-South cooperation as a modality for sustainable development by initiating and sustaining dialogues and relationships among countries in the region. In order to sustainably achieve development goals in the region, such as expanding early childhood development, preventing violence against children, ensuring universal health coverage, and making social protection available to all, South-South cooperation is proving to be an essential framework and tool.

The third HLM produced thematic papers on its three key themes: social protection systems, universal health coverage, and preventing violence against children. In addition, it resulted in policy recommendations comprising a five-step agenda for maximizing investment in child development:

1. Focus on building cognitive capital of nations. Adjust the prevailing development paradigm to better reflect the social and economic returns of investment in children.

2. Increase understanding of child poverty and track vulnerability to hazard and exclusion.

3. Build universal, child-sensitive social protection. Plan comprehensively, addressing exclusion as well as current programme fragmentation with a forward-looking, progressive perspective.

4. Prioritize domestic resource mobilization for early childhood investment and child sensitive social protection and build political support for financial investments in children’s cognitive capital, making the case on economic efficiency as well as human rights grounds.

5. Benefit from the experience of other countries in building integrated, child-sensitive social protection and leverage the SDGs, existing institutions and fora of national as well as international collaboration.

As in previous HLMs, these are expected to inform and influence national and regional debates and priorities. Several segments of the HLM proceedings and outcomes are linked to the institutional processes of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), strongly contributing to national leadership, sustainability and replicability. It is foreseen that the HLM will be sustained in the future and further contribute to regional initiatives towards achieving the SDGs for children. The conference has strategic importance for the region as a whole, particularly during 2016-2017 as roadmaps are being created for achieving the SDGs.

UNICEF’s unique position allowing it to mobilize and engage high-level ministerial participation and the leadership of governments and partners in using principles and modalities of South- South cooperation were significant value-additions. Increasing South-South cooperation amongst countries in Asia and the Pacific reflects not only their growing trade and economic ties and common cultural and historical contexts, but also their increasing interconnectedness in achieving development goals.

Contact Information

Ms. Wivina Belmonte, Deputy Regional Director, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) East Asia and the Pacific | Mr. Philippe Cori, Deputy Regional Director, UNICEF ROSA

Countries involved


Supported by

United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Asian Development Bank, ASEAN, the European Union, The Pacific Island Forum, SAARC and the World Bank

Implementing Entities


Project Status


Project Period

9/2010 - 2020

Primary SDG

17 - Partnerships for the Goals

Primary SDG Targets

17.6, 17.9

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