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Human development and responsible guardianship of our planet must go hand in hand

The recently published UNDP Human Development Report shows that we’ve come a long way in recognising the damage we’re doing to the planet and how intricately connected natural resource use and poverty are. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities and poor living conditions, making it clear that we don’t have time to waste in addressing the double challenge of environmental and social injustice. We now have an opportunity to change things for the better – if only we seize this opportunity together, writes Kitty van der Heijden, Director-General for International Cooperation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

United Nations Development Programme (2020) ‘Human Development Report 2020. The next frontier. Human Development and the Anthropocene’. United Nations Development Programme. Available at:

We are ruining the planet. This is the simple, yet scary message that the latest edition of the Human Development Report conveys. The 2020 UNDP Human Development Report titled ‘‘The Next Frontier” was launched in the Netherlands on 12 February 2021 through an online event organised by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and SDG Nederland.

During this event, in my keynote speech I stressed that we are in fact destroying the natural resources on which we depend – be it water, soil or a stable climate. We are entering the sixth mass extinction of species. We are using the atmosphere of this planet as the global sewer for greenhouse gases. And in a period of about 150 years, without intending to do so, we as humankind managed to change the properties of an entire planet’s atmosphere. That is quite an accomplishment for a bunch of fur-free apes.

In so doing, we are not only ruining our own future here in the Netherlands, but more importantly, we are losing the prospect of a life in dignity for the many poor and vulnerable communities worldwide that we have promised a better future. They are least responsible, and least capable of dealing with the impact, and yet this is where we are.

Over the past year, the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated multidimensional inequalities within and between countries that existed prior to the pandemic. But what the report truly shows is that inequalities and environmental degradation are not separate issues. We cannot eradicate poverty if we do not at the same time address the accelerating degradation of natural resources on which we all depend, but poor people even more so. Natural resources like forests, freshwater and fertile soils are often called ‘the only wealth poor people have’. They are essential for their survival.

Yet it is in no small part our production and consumption patterns, particularly from developed economies, that degrade and destroy such resources. Protecting the environment and combatting climate change is not a luxury. It’s not icing on the human development cake. Environmental degradation and poverty are inextricably linked. They are two sides of the same coin and they exacerbate each other. Together they are a truly toxic combination. If we do not change the way we use our planet, we will never be able to reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And meeting these is essential for just, equitable and sustainable development that leaves no-one behind.

When you look at climate statistics, you might feel like pulling a duvet over your head and going back to sleep. Nevertheless, I am still optimistic. There is hope, and I will tell you why:

  1. What is evident now was not so evident ten years ago

In 2012, I was involved in the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Around that time, the link between environmental degradation and poverty eradication was not recognised. Development experts considered the environment a separate realm. ‘Real’ development – to them – was working on health, education and malnutrition. Countries from the Global South thought that anything ‘green’ was an aid conditionality or a luxury – something you would do after development projects were completed. The environment was seen as a Western agenda.

In less than ten years, a broader understanding has developed that you cannot achieve human development without looking at durable usage of a country’s natural resources. This paradigm shift in thinking happened in a very short time span, which gives me hope for the future.

  1. We are starting to take universality seriously

Development used to be seen as a foreign policy objective, as something you ‘do and deliver elsewhere’. We have come to realise that with global challenges such as water shortages, climate change or soil erosion, none of these challenges can be dealt with through development cooperation alone. In a globally connected world, we are linked through supply chains and terrorism, through climate change and communicable diseases, through the Internet and information systems and through migration and global media. We thus need a whole-of-government approach, because our global environmental footprint impacts people well beyond our borders, our trade policies may impede or enhance people’s ability to achieve a life of dignity, etcetera. And even more so, we need a whole-of-society approach. This means including the private sector, science communities, civil society organisations, and so on, in a holistic effort to bring about global sustainable development.

Solving these issues will require looking at our policies through the lens of policy coherence for sustainable development. Our actions here in the Netherlands as part of the Global North have an impact elsewhere. This realisation will hopefully speed up and accelerate an integrated pathway towards global sustainable development.

All proposals for law in the Netherlands are subject to an SDG test. But research shows that all developed countries can still do (much) better in achieving policy coherence.

  1. The COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity for change

The COVID-19 pandemic has set back human development tremendously. Decades of progress have been undone by the lockdowns globally, but especially in developing economies where shock resilience is low. Job losses, especially in the informal sector, have led to a steep increase in (extreme) poverty and malnutrition. Children are unable to go to school, and digital education is still a dream for too many. Too many girls will lose the opportunity to proper schooling – as they are married off early or fall in the hands of sex traffickers. Gender-based violence is on the increase. And it’s important to realise that this crisis in fact originated in environmental degradation, zoonotic diseases and rapid biodiversity loss.

Still … it may also be the best opportunity we ever had to address the planetary (or climate/environmental) crisis. Never before in the history of mankind has the public sector globally poured in this much money in relief and recovery programs to combat the impact of COVID-19. Never ‘waste a good crisis’, the old adage goes. If we use these resources well, we can keep global warming within the 1.5˚C limit (compared to pre-industrial levels), as well as the SDGs within reach.

The alternative is simply too horrifying to contemplate. If we do it wrong – if we return to the old, wasteful and polluting economy – the planet and mankind will suffer the consequences. Not just for the next 10 years, but possibly for the next 10,000 years.

Thus, the message of the Human Development Report that we must act now to combat both poverty and environmental degradation is crucial to keep the dream of a life in dignity for all humankind alive. The realisation of that dream depends on all of us.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the authors:

Ms. Kitty van der Heijden is Director General for International Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her responsibilities include development cooperation policy, implementation and funding. Central themes are gender, sustainable economic development, and climate policies.

Between 2014 and 2019, Ms. Van der Heijden has served as Vice President and Director Africa and Europe at the World Resources Institute in Washington. She served as the Dutch Ambassador for Sustainable Development from 2010 until 2013 and as Ambassador for the Millennium Development Goals in 2009. Before that she held several other policy and managerial positions at both the United Nations and Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Other positions Ms. van der Heijden has served in include a position as non-executive member of the board at Unilever NL (2014-2019), and Advisory Board positions at ‘Pathways to Sustainability’ at Utrecht University (2018-2019), the Global Commission on Business and SDGS (2016-2017), SIM4NEXUS (2015-2019) and Global ‘Planetary Security’ Conference (2015-2018). She was awarded the Viet Nam Presidential Medal of Friendship in 2009 and the Dutch National ‘Green Ribbon’ of Honor in 2013.

Ms. Van der Heijden (56) holds an MSc degree in Economics from the Erasmus University Rotterdam. She enjoys family time, nature walks and kick-boxing.

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When children have children: Can postponing early motherhood help children survive longer?

In 2010, approximately 34% of young women in developing countries – some 67 million – married before reaching 18 years of age. An additional 14-15 million women will marry as children or adolescents every year in the coming decades. Child marriages lead to pregnancies and childbirths at an early age, which can have negative consequences for the health of both mother and child. Does the age at which motherhood takes place matter, and can postponing motherhood into adulthood help increase the chances of children surviving beyond five years of age? My study of teen pregnancies amongst Bangladeshi girls shows that age does matter, and it matters quite a lot.

Baby feet and mother's hand

Globally, in developing countries excluding China, one in three girls will probably be married before they are 18, according to UNFPA figures from 2012. Bangladesh has the highest rate of child marriages in Asia (and the third-highest rate worldwide); two in three women marry as children or adolescents in this country. This exceptionally high rate of child marriages in Bangladesh persists despite a minimum legal marriage age of 18 years for women, and it leads to more teenage pregnancies and a care burden for young women. A survey interviewing 72,662 Bangladeshi mothers in 2001 showed that 10% of interviewed women had their first child between the ages of 10 and 14 years, and another 69% of them had their first child between the ages of 15 and 19 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Age at which Bangladeshi women have their first child

Bangladeshi women age of first child
Figure 1: In total, 72,662 Bangladeshi women who gave birth in at least two different points in time were surveyed for the Maternal Health Services and Maternal Mortality Survey of 2001. This figure shows which fraction of these women gave birth for the first time at a certain age. Source: Trommlerová (2020).

In general, we know that adolescent childbearing is associated with negative health outcomes for both mother and child. The mother faces an increased risk of premature labour, labour-related complications, and death during delivery (Senderowitz, 1995). She  may also suffer an injury, an infection or a serious health limitation, such as an obstetric fistula or perineal laceration (UNICEF, 2001), due to giving birth. These problems are caused both by physical immaturity and poor socio-economic conditions of young mothers, including a lack of access to sufficient antenatal and obstetric care (WHO, 1999).

The child of an adolescent mother is at a higher risk of a low birth weight (Restrepo-Méndez et al., 2015), which is mainly associated with poor maternal nutrition of adolescents during pregnancy (UNICEF, 2001). Low birth weight is, in turn, a frequent cause of death in the first year of life of infants (McCormick, 1985, Sohely et al., 2001). Apart from biomedical reasons, there are additional channels that link adolescent pregnancies to higher mortality in early childhood. These include insufficient access to maternal health care services and lack of experience in taking care of children.

A better understanding of the link between adolescent childbearing and young children’s survival chances is important as scientific evidence can drive policy changes, particularly in enforcing the minimum legal marriage age in Bangladesh. It can also inform the advocacy of changes in cultural practices. Thus, the central question is: Can postponing motherhood of teenage girls help their children to survive beyond infancy or childhood?

Building on previous knowledge, I looked more closely at the impact of adolescent childbearing on the mortality of young children at different ages between 0 and 5 years. The goal was to separate the effect of having a child at an early age from the fact that poorer (and, frequently, less healthy) mothers tend to marry younger and might therefore have less healthy children. The idea is the following: if children born to young mothers suffer higher mortality in early childhood due to biological factors, such as physical immaturity of mothers and the resulting low birth weight of their children, then we should observe different mortality rates not only between children born to adolescent and adult mothers, but also among siblings born to the same mother in her adolescence and adulthood—that is, in different phases of her life.

It turns out that children born to young mothers (child brides in Bangladesh) are more likely to die in the first year of life than their siblings born later on. This is true irrespective of how rich the household is (left graph in Figure 2). Only in poor households, these negative effects extend up to the child’s fifth birthday (black and blue lines in right graph of Figure 2).

In the two graphs below, we see how much lower the probability of death for an infant or a child is if the mother is older than 10-14 years. The age of the mother is displayed in five-year age groups on the horizontal axes. Different lines indicate different income groups (poorest Quintile 1 – black; Quintile 2 – blue; Quintile 3 – green, Quintile 4 – red; richest Quintile 5 – yellow). The percentage of increased risk of early childhood mortality per age group is shown on the vertical axes of the graphs. The left graph depicts infant mortality (up to one year of age) while the right graph shows child mortality (between one and five years of age).

The graphs show that up to one year of age, the income of the family does not really matter (left) while between one and five years of age, a higher income can help outweigh the negative effect of teenage pregnancies (right). The downward trend observable in the left graph is universal for all income groups and it indicates that all children have higher survival chances in the first year of life if their mother is not a teenager. In the right graph, a similar downward trend is observable only for the two poorest income groups, which means that only in poorer families, children of ages one to five have worse survival chances if their mother is a teenager. The three richer income groups show no downward trend (and their slightly upward trend is statistically not important) which means that in richer families, the mother’s age does not really influence her child’s survival if the child managed to survive the first year of life. The graphs are based on my study of adolescent childbearing among Bangladeshi women.

Figure 2: Infant and child mortality effects of maternal age for five different wealth quintiles

Child mortality Bangladesh
Figure 2: Dash-dotted lines mark the average mortality rate to benchmark the effect sizes. Source: Trommlerová (2020).


These results confirm my idea that the effects of adolescent pregnancies on child survival in the first year of life are of biological nature because they are universal. Possibly, they are related to the immaturity of young girls’ bodies and to low birth weight of their children. Beyond infancy, these negative effects remain only in poorer households, which is consistent with the notion that richer households are able to counteract a biologically induced, worse starting position of children born to adolescent mothers by compensatory investments in child health. However, these investments do not become effective until the children reach the age of one year old.

Finally, the estimated effects are substantial in magnitude: for instance, the survival chances of children born to mothers aged 20-24 years are 56% higher in infants’ first year of life and 24% higher when the child is aged between one and five, when compared to their older siblings who were born to young mothers (aged 10-14 years). These effects either persist or become even larger when comparing adolescent maternal age (10-14) to older ages (25-29, 30-34, etc. up to 45-49 years). Importantly, these results remain true also when I exclude older women or first-born children from the sample.

To summarize, I have shown that infants and children have a much better chance of survival when their mothers are adults. The postponement of motherhood into adulthood could help prevent around 12,900 infant and 18,700 under-five deaths annually in Bangladesh, as rough calculations explained in my paper show. These effects can be directly attributed to the practice of child marriages.

This article is based on a recent paper I authored, see here.

Main reference:

S.K. Trommlerová (2020). When Children Have Children: The Effects of Child Marriages and Teenage Pregnancies on Early Childhood Mortality in Bangladesh. Economics & Human Biology 39, 100904.

Other references:

McCormick, M. (1985). The contribution of low birth weight to infant mortality and childhood morbidity. The New England Journal of Medicine 312(2), 82-90.

Restrepo-Méndez, M.C., D.A. Lawlor, B.L. Horta, A. Matijasevich, I.S. Santos, A.M. Menezes, F.C. Barros and C.G. Victora (2015). The association of maternal age with birthweight and gestational age. Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology 29, 31-40.

Senderowitz, J. (1995). Adolescent Health: Reassessing the Passage to Adulthood. World Bank Discussion Paper 272. World Bank, Washington DC.

Sohely, Y., D. Osrin, E. Paul and A. Costello (2001). Neonatal mortality of low-birth-weight infants in Bangladesh. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 79(7), 608-614.

UNFPA (2012). Marrying Too Young. End Child Marriage. United Nations Population Fund, New York.

UNICEF (2001). Early Marriage – Child Spouses. Innocenti Digest 7. Innocenti Research Centre, Florence.

WHO (1999). The Risks to Women of Pregnancy and Childbearing in Adolescence. WHO, Division of Family Health, Geneva.

About the author:

Sofia TrommlerováSofia Trommlerová is a postdoctoral researcher in economics at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, Spain. Her main research interests encompass family economics, gender, child health, development economics, and economic demography. In 2017-2018 she was a postdoctoral researcher in development economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.