Helle Thorning-Schmidt is a former Danish politician who was Prime Minister of Denmark from 2011 to 2015, and the Leader of the Social Democrats from 2005 to 2015. She is the first woman to hold either post. In 2016 she was appointed CEO of Save the Children International, the world’s leading independent children’s charity with responsibility for programmes reaching over 55 million children in 120 countries.

“What makes a nation rich?” Is it simply a case of material wealth, or is it something more? Something less measurable perhaps, but which truly enriches a country and the wellbeing – even happiness – of its citizens?

For some the answer may be as simple as gross domestic product (GDP) per capita: the higher the number, the richer the nation. For others, a country’s wealth may be measured by its possession of valuable natural resources.

My own experience of leading a nation gave me a different perspective on this question. Denmark is a relatively small country by population, the 133rd largest, but it is comparatively wealthy – the 16th richest nation in the world. Our advanced economy and our progressive tax system allows Danish governments to invest in improving the lives of citizens.

In particular, I believe that a nation ought to provide for its citizens a strong and inclusive education system, free and accessible healthcare; peace, security and cohesion backed up by stable institutions; equal rights championed by the state and upheld at a community level; cohesive communities and jobs in responsible and sustainable businesses so that parents can provide for their children, all of this funded by fair and progressive taxation – with no corruption.

As Prime Minister, I did my best to deliver on these principles. But perhaps even more important, it was not just our own citizens that we were able to support. During my time in office we used the strong economic base we established to increase the percentage of our GDP spent on humanitarian and development aid. Our wealth was used overseas to help those living in the most challenging circumstances, and while we helped those individuals and communities rebuild their lives, we also built a more stable, prosperous world with stronger trading links.

Looking around the world, it became ever clearer to me that true national wealth could not be measured alone by gold or cash reserves. Substantial material resources, if they are not shared fairly, do not necessarily make that nation wealthy. Instead, countries must enshrine the fundamentals of opportunity and access for all their citizens, especially children.

A rich country is one where every child has an equal chance in life regardless of their parentage; where they live; their gender; their race; their caste, or any other criteria you can name. A country that places equality at its core is rich because it creates stability, prosperity and cohesion. No child is subject to the lottery of fate – their prospects all but decided by the circumstance of their birth.

So now that I am Chief Executive of Save the Children International, I have gone further, turning this question around to consider what might make a country ‘poor’.

Earlier this year, we calculated that if you were to take all 65.3 million people forcibly displaced around the world and place them in a single ‘state’ then it would be the 21st largest in the world. Imagine 21.3 million refugees, 40.8 million internally displaced people and 3.2 million asylum seekers – all living in one country.

This state would possess a population three times larger than Australia. It would also experience faster population growth than any other nation – increasing at a rate of 9.75 per cent per year, meaning that at its current rate it would become the 5th largest state in the world by 2030.

But the most important statistic about this ‘imagined’ state – and this one may not surprise you – is that it would also be the poorest. It would lose far too many children to diseases we could easily prevent, have high rates of child marriage, its citizens would not be secure, or educated, and they would have little chance of working their way towards a better life.

To take just one example, early marriage among Syrian refugee girls in Jordan has risen from 12 per cent in 2011 to 32 per cent in 2014 – a shocking 167 per cent increase over three years. Globally, we know that one girl under the age of 15 is married every seven seconds, with girls as young as 10 forced to marry much older men in countries including Afghanistan, Yemen, India and Somalia. Giving birth is the second biggest cause of death among adolescent girls, second only to suicide.

An aerial view of the Za’atri refugee camp

The materially richer world, countries like Denmark, have an obligation to help these people. In making available more resources to the most deprived, I believe that you become richer yourself.

At times it can feel as though we live in dark times for International Development, with escalating conflicts and more humanitarian emergencies around the world. But past decades have seen rapid transformations with real change. Last year the world also agreed on 17 Sustainable Development goals. That we have a consensus on reaching these by 2030 is a great starting point, and through the partnership and hard work of individuals, governments, the private sector and civil society, we can meet the goals and make the world richer.

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