IHT
Children in poor nations still need world's help

By Ramesh Thakur and Manzoor Ahmed

Paris, Thursday, December 30, 1999


TOKYO - On Oct. 12, a child in Sarajevo was greeted symbolically by the United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, as the 6 billionth person on earth. Of this number, 2.2 billion are under 18 years old, and 2 billion of them live in developing countries. What happens to them will determine the fate of humankind in the next century.

There is much to celebrate. Millions of people were saved in the last three decades from preventable diseases by public health measures like immunization, access to safe water and sanitation and improved knowledge about health, hygiene and nutrition. Polio is about to be eradicated, as smallpox was in the 1970s.

In the last 40 years, life expectancy has risen more than the total previous increase in all of human history. More than 80 percent of children of relevant age are enrolled in primary school today.

Among the most significant social advances of our times is the wide acceptance of the ideals of human rights, embedded in international treaties within the UN framework. For children, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by all UN members except Somalia and the United States, is the benchmark for state conduct and social aspiration.

And yet every day 30,500 children under 5 years old still die of such preventable diseases as diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition. In developing countries, 28 percent of people do not have access to safe water, and 56 percent lack sanitary facilities, making them vulnerable to disease.

Every month, 50,000 children under 15 are infected with AIDS. One-fifth of children from 5 to 15 in developing countries are engaged in child labor in hazardous and harmful conditions.

Three out of 10 children under 5 in developing countries are underweight, and nearly four out of 10 suffer from stunted growth. Children in South Asia, where we both come from, are particularly vulnerable. More than half of them are malnourished.

In developing countries, 130 million children remain out of primary school. Most are child laborers.

The consequences of having more than one in three young people in developing countries thrust into adulthood without basic skills and knowledge are profound. Aside from being a severe waste of human resources, such a situation will lead to increased crime, violence and social unrest.

World leaders committed themselves in 1990 to specific targets by 2000 for reducing maternal and infant mortality and child malnutrition, providing universal basic education and access to safe drinking water and sanitary conditions, and protecting children in especially difficult circumstances.

With evidence mounting that the quantitative targets will not be achieved in many areas, industrialized countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are trying to move the goalposts to 2015.

Foreign aid dropped to a historic low in 1998 of 0.2 percent of the gross domestic product of the OECD countries, well below the internationally agreed target of 0.7 percent. In an ironic symmetry, income jumped and aid declined by 30 percent from 1992 to 1997.

More children today live in poverty than 10 years ago, and a larger number of children find themselves in a more violent and unstable environment.

A special session of the UN General Assembly next fall and a gathering at the same time of representatives of civil society from around the world are planned so as to forge a global alliance and start the next century with a new agenda for children.

The richest and the most powerful countries of the world can give a boost to the cause at their summit in Okinawa in July. They can make a collective millennium pledge for children to mobilize the necessary resources, and to harness and redirect scientific and technological advances, to meet children's health and development needs.

The industrial powers should work with developing countries, international civil society and the UN system to fulfill the world's obligation to children.

Mr. Thakur is vice rector of the United Nations University in Tokyo. Mr. Ahmed is director of the Unicef office in Japan. They contributed this personal comment to the International Herald Tribune.




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