Behind ‘Behind Beautiful Forevers’

If you have not done so yet, run–don’t walk–to the nearest bookstore (or click here) and buy Behind Beautiful Forevers, a profoundly human story of life and death in a Mumbai slum.  The book, by Pulitzer prize winning journalist Katherine Boo, tells the story of children who eek out a meager existence by scavenging for garbage, mothers who navigate corruption (or try to profit from it), and other poor slum dwellers.  Unlike other works about people suffering in poverty, the book does not elevating its subjects as suffering saints. It is a remarkable piece of work.

I bring this up now because UNICEF released its flagship annual State of World’s Children report today and this year, UNICEF focused its report on the lives and struggles of children in urban settings.

Here’s a quick video that offers some highlights from the 2012 report.


The report turns on its head the notion that all children who live in cities are necessarily better off than those in rural communities. It shows that, although disadvantaged children may live minutes away from schools and clinics, for example, they are cut off from them by poverty and discrimination.

It also calls attention to the lack of data on conditions in slums, particularly as it relates to children, and it calls for a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding poverty and inequality in cities and increased political will to improve the lives of the most marginalized.

“One of the things that struck us all is the paucity of child-specific urban data,” Mr. Aslam said. “There are many technical reasons, but at the end of the day it’s a political decision and it serves certain interests to keep the problem under wraps, to keep these children invisible, and that’s something that needs to change.

Behind Beautiful Forevers is full of anecdotes that prove this statement. The child who is found murdered on the side of the road was said by authorities to have died from TB; the public “schools” provide the equivalent no-show jobs for people who know how to work the system; the beatings inflicted on a boy unjustly accused of a crime, and other stories told in this incredible book  suggest that these are children who authorities would prefer to stay invisible.

So, read the report. Read the book.  And do what you can to support UNICEF’s effort to improve the lives of the world’s urban poor.