Image: Flickr / Chrstopher

Next year, 2014, marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations International Year of the Family. It is also the final year of the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the UN in 2000 and will involve discussions about what will take their place.

A large group of NGOs under the umbrella of the International Federation for Family Development (IFFD) is keen to see the family take its place alongside the environment and gender as a key perspective in international and national policy making.

In the following article IFFD communications director Ignacio Socias traces the emergence of this theme at local and international levels in recent years.

* * * * *

On November 7 the the United Nations released a brief statement about the observance of the 20th anniversary of the International Year of the Family in 2014. In it the UN General Assembly says it will devote one plenary meeting to the observance during its sixty-ninth session next year and discuss the role of family-oriented policies in the post-2015 development agenda.

The Assembly also urges member states to view 2014 as a target year by which concrete efforts would be made to improve family well-being through the integration of a family perspective into national policy-making.

To the ordinary mum or dad reader this may sound like typical UN mumbo-jumbo, but as someone who works with family organisations and the UN on a regular basis I assure you that it represents a significant step in the recognition of the family.

Imagine your government making laws or policy today without considering the effect on gender equity (equality of women in the workplace and so on) or on the environment. Well, the Assembly is saying that governments should treat the family as having an equal claim to consideration. It is actually a huge step.

So is the commitment to discuss the role of family-oriented policies in the future development agenda at a plenary session of the Assembly next year. At least families are not going to be ignored again, whatever happens in the end.

Getting governments to pick up the family on their radar is a major goal of the International Federation for Family Development – a large group of voluntary organisations that provide family enrichment programmes – as set out in our own Declaration of Civil Society… for the 2014 anniversary. 

Much depends on whether this happens. The many demographic, social, cultural and economic imbalances of our planet are global problems with consequences for the future. The UN Secretary-General has said in describing his priorities, that to solve these problems “the global community will need to work together in unprecedented ways.”

The future our children deserve

One of those ways will be to enlarge the concept of “sustainable development” to achieve a holistic approach to what next generations deserve to receive from us. The term was first used in a report by the so-called Brundtland Commission of 1987, which coined what has become the most often-quoted definition: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Initially, this notion was broken down into three parts: environmental, economic and sociopolitical sustainability. But a more consistent breakdown is to distinguish four domains —economic, ecological, political and cultural sustainability. The United Cities and Local Governments organisation, for example, has moved to make culture the fourth domain of sustainability, as they stated for the 2013 UN ECOSOC meeting:

“We believe that a Development Agenda cannot be successfully implemented if only three pillars (economy, social inclusion and environment) are considered. This 20th century paradigm is not useful to understand the world of today: these three dimensions alone do not reflect the complexity of our current societies. Moreover, today it is fully ack nowledged that a paradigm that aims to transform the world must provide operational tools to improve freedoms and welfare. A three-pillar paradigm fails because it lacks a soul, the values, practices and expressions providing coherence and meaning to development in cities, nations and in our existence as human beings: culture.”

In a similar way, UNESCO’s recent Hangzhou Declaration calls for a new approach toward sustainable development and advocates for placing culture at the heart of public policy:

“We consider that in the face of mounting challenges such as population growth, urbanization, environmental degradation, disasters, climate change, increasing inequalities and persisting poverty, there is an urgent need for new approaches, to be defined and measured in a way which accounts for the broader picture of human progress and which emphasize harmony among peoples and between humans and nature, equity, dignity, well-being and sustainability.”

Moreover, the outcome document of the UN’s Rio+20 Conference recognizes that “people are at the centre of sustainable development” and that there is a need for “holistic and integrated approaches to sustainable development”. It then focuses on human development, which paves the way for the recognition of culture as an important factor in creating appropriate, and therefore effective development programmes.

The crucial role of families

Sustainable development, therefore, is not only an economic concept but also has a fundamental ethical and human dimension. Culture is an important aspect of sustainable development as it refers to how we understand and appreciate natural resources and each other. This dimension should be included in the definition of sustainable development, so that it refers to future generations and the physical environment within the context of the redistribution of culture and wealth, and the eradication of poverty in the world.

Although numerous theories have been advanced to explain the causes of the global financial crisis, it seems that the lack of ethics shown by corporate greed is one of the most significant ones and the key ingredient or fuel that flamed the fire. As Robert Samuelson declares, “people took shortcuts and thought they would get away with them”, a mistake men and women have made too often in history.

This is where families come in. They provide the environment where ethical and cultural values are achieved in a natural way. The following words from a report by the UN Secretary-General go directly to the point:

“As basic and essential building blocks of societies, families have a crucial role in social development. They bear the primary responsibility for the education and socialization of children as well as instilling values of citizenship and belonging in the society. Families provide material and non-material care and support to its members, from children to older persons or those suffering from illness, sheltering them from hardship to the maximum possible extent.”

The broad experience of the IFFD in dealing with families worldwide shows that the family is where the vast majority of people learn the fundamental skills for life, and this is confirmed by other institutions. But we also need to take into account what the UK Centre for Social Justice has said about family structure:

“[A]t the most fundamental level, family structure and family process matters: evidence shows that outcomes for both children and adults are not equal regardless of family background, and public policy should reflect this. Children growing up in healthy, married, two-parent families are more likely to lead happy, healthy and successful lives than those who have not experienced the same level of family security and stability.”

Summarizing the results of 115 different studies, a report by The Family Watch says:

“[T]hose who build stable families have a higher life expectancy, lower risks of mental illness, alcoholism and domestic violence. With regard to children, they show lower infant mortality rate, lower risk of alcoholism and drug addiction, lower incidences of engaging in criminal activities after puberty, higher academic achievements, a lower incidence of mental illnesses and fewer teenage unwanted pregnancies. Some studies also show that from an economic perspective, a stable family is the lowest cost option for both its members and the State. … Furthermore, these studies also suggest that members of stable families are more disciplined when it comes to fulfilling legal and social norms and, therefore, are the ones who best contribute towards financing social security.”

In other words, some families need more support, while others need more recognition, but they all need to be helped if they are to fulfil their irreplaceable social role. To quote Family Watch again:

“Since family stability has been in decline for decades in many countries, adults and children today are increasingly faced with obstacles not only to their material but also to their emotional well-being. They often have to cope with families that are dysfunctional, broken through abuse, separation or divorce or fatherless. This is especially true in the least advantaged sections of society and for the weakest members of them, namely, the elderly, women, the indebted and children.”

Again from our experience, this doesn’t mean that families could or should be replaced in their role. On the contrary, they should be helped and empowered in every possible way. As a recent paper on family impact policy put it:

“Governments cannot afford to fully replace the functions families perform for the benefit of their members and for the good of society. As aptly put by Bronfenbrenner in testimony before the US Congress: ‘The family is the most powerful, the most humane and, by far, the most economical system known for building competence and character’. Still, families do better in a supportive policy environment—one in which, for example, schools actively seek parental engagement; employers recognize that workers are also family members; agencies and organizations are family-centered in their philosophy and operation; and laws support family members’ roles as caregivers, parents, partners, and workers. A vital role remains for governments to supplement and complement the private investments families make. Policies and programs, along with community institutions and societal norms and values, shape the extent to which families can fulfill their functions and develop new capabilities when challenged to do so.”

Another step forward

The long-standing effort of the UN to protect human rights has empowerment at its core and has been enriched over the years with the goals of empowering the world’s women and the next generation through its work on youth issues.

Adding families to the agenda would be another step forward, provided it includes the removal of all barriers to the active participation of families in society, especially including decisions on investments in health, housing and education. Too often, the time, effort and money families invest in their children finds no social or economic incentive from the society benefitting from them, because there are no political instruments to implement it.

And this step would also help women and children, as they are part of the family. We need to realize, says the Canadian Institute of Marriage and Family, “the extent to which family breakdown has contributed to the feminization of poverty, and the fact that family structure matters in the long term fight against poverty, in particular child poverty.”

For these reasons we should aim to “promote the integration of a family perspective into policymaking at the national, regional and international levels”, which is one of the primary activities of the Focal Point on the Family at United Nations. A practical step would be the introduction of a family impact report, as a tool to assess the impact of certain policy measures on opportunities for families.

A logical consequence would be for the development agenda which takes the place of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015 to create, as a UN resolution says, “a conducive environment to strengthen and support all families, recognizing that equality between women and men and respect for all the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all family members are essential to family well-being and to society at large, noting the importance of the reconciliation of work and family life and recognizing the principle of shared parental responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child.”

If the empowerment of families cannot be separated from sustainable development, neither can families be left out of the future Development Goals. The UN Secretary-General himself has acknowledged this in a statement about the Year of the Family anniversary to be celebrated next year:

“The twentieth anniversary of the International Year of the Family, coming (in 2014) on the eve of the target year of the Millennium Development Goals, gives us an opportunity to refocus on the role of families in development… The Millennium Development targets, especially those relating to the reduction of poverty, education of children and reduction in maternal mortality, are difficult to attain unless the strategies to achieve them focus on the family … In effect, the very achievement of development goals depends on how well families are empowered to contribute to the achievement of those goals.”

Ignacio Socías Piarnau is the Director General of the International Institute for Family Research – The Family Watch. He is also the Director of Communication and International Relations of the International Federation for Family Development (IFFD), an umbrella organisation for family enrichment programmes. The above article is based on a paper available on the IFFD website: “Building blocks of society,” IFFD Papers no. 23.

Ignacio Socias is Director of the International Federation for Family Development, an umbrella organization for more than 250 Family Enrichment Centers that operates in 70 countries, benefits over 90,000...