UNICEF report says NZ failing tamariki and more resources needed

By Jessica Tyson

UNICEF New Zealand is calling for significant investment and policy change to address deeply embedded and "terrifying" childhood trends in obesity, suicide and a declining proficiency in reading and maths.

It comes following the release of comparative data today as part of UNICEF’s Report Card, which ranks New Zealand 35th out of 41 OECD countries in child wellbeing outcomes.

Aotearoa also has the second-highest obesity rate in the OECD, more than one in three children are obese or overweight and only about 65 percent of 15-year-olds have basic proficiency in reading and maths. 

UNICEF New Zealand Executive Director Vivien Maidaborn says the poor grades show New Zealand is failing its children. 

“The Report Card gives New Zealand an F for failure when it comes to wellbeing outcomes for children. This is a woeful result for a country that prides itself on the great outdoors, academic achievement and the international success of our sports teams. It is time to be alarmed and activated about the inequality of opportunity, health and wellbeing in New Zealand.” 

New Zealand’s youth suicide rate is the second-worst in the developed world at 14.9 deaths per 100,000 adolescents. This rate is more than twice the average among the 41 OECD countries surveyed.

“New Zealand’s high suicide rate is influenced by a constellation of other factors, such as colonisation, the bias of teachers in schools which excludes children, socio-economic background, poverty, cultural influences and inequality,” Maidaborn says. 


Deputy chief executive Brandi Hudson says if the Māori culture is not respected tamariki are more likely to feel a sense of hopelessness.

“If you don’t feel like you’re included in the community and you can’t see or hear yourself in the community that you live in and this is our land, what does this do to your self-esteem? You go to education facilities and they butcher your beautiful Māori name that comes from your tupuna, that’s been given to you by your whānau for hope, for the aspirations you have in the future", she says.

"We’ve got teachers out there that still don’t get those basics right, including having no idea of the history and the aspirations of our iwi. It significantly affects self-esteem and I’m fairly confident that’s one of the major reasons why kids feel the sense of hopelessness. ”

Cultural leaders have solutions

Hudson says the solutions to improve the wellbeing of Māori children come specifically from iwi and cultural leaders.

“We have all of the solutions. We just need significantly more resources to work with the government to make sure that those interventions, that those initiatives are executed to a very high standard," she says.

“You would have seen that those who provided the services to Whānau Ora really put a lot of pressure on the government to increase resources so that they could repeat the great things that were working for us.”

Maidaborn says the government must invest in the solutions and approaches that young people want.

“We need to reimagine Aotearoa by heeding the advice from child rights experts – and especially Māori leaders and academics – to make New Zealand the best country in the world to be a child.” 

Maidaborn also highlighted New Zealand’s long-standing commitments to both UNDRIP, a declaration with a particular focus on the survival, dignity and wellbeing of indigenous peoples, and UNCROC, a convention aimed at protecting the rights of children.

“Right now, New Zealand is failing in both commitments,” she says. 

Response from the prime minister

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the government accepts all of the report’s recommendations: to consult with children, ensure an integrated approach to child wellbeing, and plan for the future.

“That work is all underway, with 6000 young people contributing to our Child and Youth Wellbeing Strategy, the historic Child Poverty Reduction Act 2018, and the alignment of our goal to halve child poverty in a decade with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.

However, she says the report underscores the government’s work to break the cycle of child poverty.

“The report itself acknowledges in many cases data was missing or was several years old, largely painting a picture of the previous government’s underinvestment in our families, says Ardern.

“The report pre-dates our progress in rolling out the $5.5bn Families Package, setting child poverty targets, lifting 18,400 children from poverty, and improving seven out of nine child poverty measures.”

Key findings:

NZ second-highest rate of adolescent suicide

Lithuania has the highest rate of adolescent suicide – a leading cause of death among 10-19-year olds in rich countries – followed by New Zealand and Estonia. 

In most countries, fewer than four in five children report being satisfied with their lives. Turkey has the lowest rate of life satisfaction at 53 per cent, followed by Japan and the United Kingdom. The Netherlands, Mexico and Romania have the highest rates of life satisfaction. Children who have less supportive families and those who are bullied have significantly poorer mental health. 

NZ second-highest rate of child obesity

Obesity and overweight rates among children have increased in recent years. About one in three children across all countries are either obese or overweight, with rates in Southern Europe also sharply increasing. The United States has the highest obesity rates at 42 per cent, followed by New Zealand and Greece at 39 per cent and 37 per cent respectively.   


Only about 65 percent of 15-year-olds in New Zealand have basic proficiency in reading and maths. On average 40 per cent of children across all OECD and EU countries do not have basic reading and mathematics skills by age 15.

Children in Bulgaria, Romania and Chile are the least proficient in these skills. Estonia, Ireland and Finland the most proficient. In most countries, at least one in five children lack confidence in their social skills to make new friends. Children in Chile, Japan and Iceland are the least confident in this area.