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International Indicators of Child and Youth Well-being:What We Can Learn Together About Our Children

Indicators of child and youth well-being, also known as quality-of-life measures (Casas 1998), are powerful tools of science and policy. They allow us to monitor changes in well-being over time and to make informative comparisons among children from different social backgrounds. In many countries, policy-makers are increasingly using such information to identify areas of need, and to assess their success in improving the lives of children over time. Likewise, social scientists in the United States and other nations have been working to identify the most important dimensions of child well-being, and to develop better ways of measuring them using surveys and administrative data (Hauser et al. 1997, Brown and Harper, 1997)

Much of this work has taken place within individual countries. In recent years, however, there have been an increasing number of cooperative efforts to identify internationally valid indicators of child well-being, to gather information in multiple countries, and to analyze the data using an international comparative framework. I have been involved in several of these projects, and believe that an international approach can help the scientists and policy-makers of every country to better understand the lives of their own children, and the influences which improve their lives over time. In this brief message I review some of the international work, which is currently taking place on child and youth indicators, and identify some opportunities for expanding this work in the next few years.


International Policy


The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child identifies elements of well-being which all children have a right to, and the resources necessary to realize those rights. These include rights to adequate education and standard of living, good health and access to health care; the right to one's own culture, religion, and language; protection from maltreatment and abuse; the right to play, leisure, and participation in cultural and artistic activities; the right to express opinions and have them taken into account in matters affecting the well-being of the child; and many others (Children's Rights Working Group 1997). Each signatory is obliged to report regularly on the status of their country's children as defined in rights outlined in the Convention. This has resulted in efforts to develop adequate and culturally sensitive measures for these reports. One such effort is described below.


International Measurement


I am aware of two internationally-focussed efforts to identify a broad range of measures of child well-being. The first is the Indicators for Children's Rights Project developed by Childwatch International to identify and develop indicators of well-being related to the U.N. Convention described above. This organization, headed by fellow CRN Board member Per Miljeteig, is producing a series of national reports in up to eight developing countries. Measures and data sources are identified and developed to monitor elements of the Convention in those countries. The project has been sensitive to the need for culturally sensitive measures, and more generally to the difficulties of producing measures which are exactly comparable across countries, particularly between developed and developing countries (Ennew and Miljeteig 1999).

The second international project, Monitoring and Measuring Children's Well-Being, sought to identify internationally comparable indicators of child well-being beyond the very useful but narrow mortality and morbidity data of the sort published in the U.N.'s annual "The State of the World's Children" report. The group considered many dimensions of well-being, paying particular attention to indicators that would allow researchers to examine positive aspects of children's lives from an international comparative perspective. The group was influenced by the elements in U.N. Convention, but was not limited to the ideas expressed in that document. The primary, though not exclusive, focus of the group was on children in developed countries.

The project involved 80 experts from nearly 30 countries over a period of three years ending in fall of 1998. The final report, which is due out in 1999, will include lists of measures recommended by the project's various working groups that should be considered in future international measurement development and data collection efforts. The report will also describe important debates within the project related to the utility and limits of international comparative measures of well-being, the role of broad theoretical frameworks to guide such efforts, considering childhood as important in and of itself and not only as preparation for adulthood, and the importance of consulting children and youth themselves when defining elements of child well-being (Ben Arieh 1999).


International Data


As part of the Monitoring and Measuring Children's Well-Being project, I co-authored a review of existing surveys that could be used as potential sources of internationally comparable indicators of child and youth well-being in developed countries (Brown and Harper, 1997). I was pleasantly surprised by the richness and variety of surveys already available to support such work. These include regularly repeated surveys of youth health behaviors (the Health Behaviors of School-Aged Children), math, science and civics achievement (Third International Math and Science Study and the Second IEA Civic Education Study), socioeconomic well-being (Luxembourg Income and Employment Studies, the European Community Household Panel), and attitudes about children (International Social Survey Program). There were also a number of one-time international surveys related to early childhood, and to youth drug use.

Most of these surveys are fielded in 20-40 countries around the world, and use identical survey instruments and protocols in every country. Others, notably the Luxembourg studies, take national surveys and "harmonize" them after the fact. European countries, Canada and the U.S. are the most active participants in these surveys. Countries in Asia including Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong participate in one or more of the education-related surveys. Participation from countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East (with the exception of Israel) is very limited.


International Research


There is a growing body of work which uses these surveys to examine trends in child and youth well-being from an international comparative perspective (particularly in the area of education), though overall I believe that their potential has barely been tapped in this regard. Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has led the organization of an effort to use these and other survey and administrative data to examine the transition to adulthood in countries with developed economies. Ten papers have been commissioned on a variety of topics including economic welfare, living arrangements, physical and psychological well-being, peer and school environments, educational achievement, sexual and contraceptive behaviors, criminal activity, and substance abuse (Furstenberg and Brown, 1998). In addition, six national case studies are being commissioned in an attempt to give more detail to the patterns, which emerge across the original ten papers. By drawing together results from these analyses, Furstenberg and his colleagues hope to be able to identify distinct regimes of adolescence across countries, and to relate those regimes to positive and negative outcomes in early adulthood.


Recommendations for the Future


The last decade has produced exciting new data sources that can support international comparative research on children, including the development of new well-being indicators. The project led by Dr. Furstenberg is an exciting example of what is possible using existing data. Projects like. Monitoring and Measuring Children's Well-Being, on the other hand, tell us that there are new measures and new data sources, which need to be developed if we are to be able to monitor all of the most important dimensions of well-being. In the decade to come, this field of research can be most effectively advanced by a strategy, which includes the careful exploitation of existing data resources and the development of new measures and new data resources.

Since existing international data sources on children and youth are rich in content and generally under-utilized; they offer great opportunities for new research and the identification of comparable indicators of well-being. Realizing this potential will require both easier access to the data (gaining access to these data sets is difficult to achieve in some cases) and international scholars who can work in a coordinated fashion to exploit them (Furstenberg and Brown, 1998). Early adolescence is an area in which there is considerable data available for such work.

The development of new measures which could later be incorporated into existing international surveys or into new surveys will also require the coordinated work of scholars from different countries. One could imagine researchers in half a dozen countries developing survey questions in areas like positive family functioning and positive youth development, and testing these measures in small pilot surveys in each country.

Both of these efforts require that researchers from different countries regularly interact to form common research agendas and the funding to support them. Child Research Net is one of the few places where this sort of interaction can and does take place. As a Board Member, it is my hope that the CRN web site will continue to attract the active participation of more international scholars, and that networks of scholars will develop to pursue new research on international indicators of child well-being such as those described above.


References


Ben Arieh, A. 1999. Monitoring and measuring children's well-being: a personal view of an international project. Unpublished paper. Jerusalem: Center for Research and Public Education, National Council for the Child in Israel.

Brown, B.V. and Harper, M. 1997. International surveys containing information on children and their families: an overview. Background paper prepared for the Second International Workshop Measuring and Monitoring Children's Well-Being, Campobasso, Italy June 14-19, 1997.

Casas, F. 1999. Children's rights and quality of life. Published on the web site of Child Research Net at www.childresearch.net.

Children's Rights Working Group 1997. Measuring and monitoring the state of the world's children beyond survival: children's rights work group notes for discussion. Presented at Second International Workshop Measuring and Monitoring Children's Well-Being, Campobasso, Italy.

Ennew, J. and Miljeteig, P. 1999. "Indicators for children's rights: progress report on a project." The International Journal of Children's Rights 4:213-236.

Furstenberg, F. and Brown, B.V. 1998. Internationally comparative research on children's well-being in developed countries: adventures in secondary analysis. Paper presented for the Third International Workshop Measuring and Monitoring Children's Well-Being, Kiawah Island, SC November 6-10, 1998.

Hauser, R., Brown, B.V., and Prosser, W. (Eds.) 1997. Indicators of Children's Well-Being. New York: Russell Sage.

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