Facebook and the new lottery of life


A young woman enjoys social networking by using her mobile phone devices in Jakarta on February 11, 2012. In Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 17,000 islands -- some without even landlines -- 40 million Facebook users and 20 million tweeters comprise the world's third-largest Facebook community and fifth-biggest on Twitter. (BAY ISMOYO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
March 5, 2012

Kate Roberts is the vice president for corporate marketing for PSI. She was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2007.

In the lottery of life, the chances of a child being born into relative prosperity are only about one in ten. His or her chances of being born into abject poverty are roughly three in ten, according to a 1999 study by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

That was when there were only 6 billion people. Now, we are past 7 billion.

This perspective should be kept top of mind for those who are in a position to shape economic and social policy agendas. Intellectual capital, after all, shapes the world around us, and is not a unique quality possessed by the privileged.

Untapped intellect is squandered when a child born to an impoverished family doesn’t celebrate her fifth birthday because she died from a preventable disease. It is inhibited when, assuming a child survives, she doesn’t receive an education. And it is invalidated when gender tips the scale in favor of her male counterpart.

Let it be noted that this fact is not lost on the world’s youth.

In 2009, the UNFPA found half of the world’s population was under the age of 25. In 2011, the organization found more than 1.8 billion are between the ages of 10 and 24. In the information age, this group is no longer relegated to cheering from the sidelines of history — they are fanning the winds of social, political, and economic change from the Americas to the Middle East, as they continue to grapple with persisting inequities that benefit a privileged few.

Those lucky enough to be born into a world where entrepreneurial prowess is rewarded and nurtured are launching global corporations and entire industries from their garages and dorm rooms.

Mark Zuckerberg, for example, is preparing to take Facebook public in an IPO that could value the company at roughly $100 billion. The monetary value, however, is dwarfed when one considers how this social networking site has altered the course of humanity. (Disclosure: The Washington Post Co.’s chairman and chief executive, Donald E. Graham, is a member of Facebook’s board of directors.)

Facebook was an undeniable force in electing the United States’ first African-American president in 2008. Users of Facebook and Twitter, among other social networking platforms, helped fan the flames of a revolution that spread like wildfire across the Middle East and ultimately changed the futures of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Social media users have raised millions in donated funds for victims of natural disasters, and the platforms have exposed—through photos, video, and first person accounts— inequities around the world.

Last year, according to the United Nations Department of Public Information, nearly 9 million children died before their fifth birthday from pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, and malnutrition among other causes—all of which are largely preventable or treatable. Today, across the world, according to the humanitarian organization Care, more than 60 million girls under the age of 18 are married—a situation that puts them at a greater risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, experiencing life-threatening conditions during childbirth, and missing the opportunity to achieve a higher level of education.

How many children never had an opportunity to make their impact on the world, as Zuckerberg was able to, simply because they drew the short stick in the lottery of life? And what can be done to build a more equitable world that ensures no matter where a child is born, she is able to reach her full potential?

In January, more than 200 Young Global Leaders and Shapers joined forces with 2,800 leaders from the most powerful companies and organizations around the globe at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting to answer these difficult questions.

There was a general consensus among those present that the greatest opportunities for dramatic gains in economic progress and human development are linked to nurturing the minds of youth and protecting their health. Governments, foundations, nonprofits, the private sector, and civil society all have a role to play in funding, developing, and promoting more equitable programs and policies that allow for a greater distribution of wealth and opportunity.

We cannot turn our backs on the millions of children who have the potential to create the ideas, products, and opportunities that will help move all 7 billion of us forward. Youth today have proven their ability to be architects of a more just and equitable world. Now let’s give them a chance to get to the drawing board by advocating for the resources needed to protect children’s health and provide them with every opportunity to succeed.

The future course of human progress will be determined by our ability to ensure the right conditions exist for every child born in the developing world to survive childhood and be provided with tools to reach beyond the poverty barrier and snatch a winning ticket.

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