A civilization should be judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable members. Will the world care for its children?
The United Nations cares. It has persistently focused on children. It has created UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund. In May of 2002, world leaders gathered for a major conference reviewing global progress on children’s issues. This special General Assembly Session on Children, is a follow-up to the 1990 World Summit for Children, setting goals, then followed in 2002 by a detailed review of the extent to which these goals were met. During November of 2002. the Un observed Universal Children’s Day. Margharita Jones of the International Humanist Ethical Union has participated in the Special Session For Children and the Working Group On The Rights Of The Child at UNICEF.
So–how are our children doing?
Not as well as they should. Globally, one in four of the world’s 2 billion children live in abject poverty in families with incomes lower than $1 a day. Today, 1 in 12 children die before the age of 5, mostly from diseases such as malaria, measles, diarrhea– all preventable. In the words of Bill Gates, speaking for the Gates Foundation which is supporting many health initiatives: Rich governments are not fighting these diseases because the rich world doesn’t have them. The private sector generally is not developing vaccines for poor countries because poor countries can’t buy them. Of the $70 billion spent globally on health every year, only 10% is devoted to research on diseases that make up 90% of the world’s total disease burden.
This, if honestly acknowledged. is a devastating indictment, from the mouth of possibly the richest man in the world, to our ears.
Disease leads to poverty, and poverty deepens disease. It has been demonstrated that where health takes hold, women, knowing their children will survive, choose to have fewer children. Literacy, equality, the environment, and economic opportunity all improve, even in the poorest countries. Health and the status of women are the key ingredients for improving the condition of all the people in the world.
Globally, the condition of children is morally unacceptable. However, all is not darkness. Some significant progress has been made in the last decades in the conditions which predipose to the health and wellbeing of children. Two fundamentals, which are the minimum needs– safe drinking water and improved sanitation are now available to nearly 1 billion more people. 2.5 billion children have been saved yearly by successful immunization programs. Polio, a success story, has been almost totally eliminated except in countries where civil wars have made children unreachable. Many more children are attending school. Travellers in some poor countries note that in countries where schools are available children greeting tourists ask for pens. For more information see http://www.childinfo.org and http://www.unicef.org.
Granting real improvements, there are serious obstacles to more rapid progress. They include wars and HIV/AIDS, a major crisis destroying families, corruption and lack of democracy. For may years now, in spite of foreign aid, far more resources and money flow out of developing countries into the economies of affluent coiuntries. The number estimated is $186 billion in 2000, a staggering sum, particularly contrasted with the comparatively small amount of 7 billion in addition to present funding needed to raise basic standards worldwide.
In spite of these difficulties, poor countries can make progress, given political will, good governance, and a deliberate decision to invest in their children. As an example, Malawi and Bangladesh have made a great effort to improve girls’ education. A poor country can also provide reasonable overall living conditions for its people in terms of health care, education and life expectancy. Some examples are Costa Rica and the Indian state of Kerala.
Some admirable efforts have been made by non-governmental organizations and UN agencies with limited budgets. Progress could be cheap. The task is to make it happen. More can be done. After all, our children are the world’s future.
Sylvain and Phyllis Ehrenfeld
IHEU representatives to the UN and the AEU’s National Service Conference