The United Nations Children's Fund has blamed the sorry state of affairs of children worldwide and their high mortality rate on 'failed leadership - a lack of vision, an absence of courage, a passive neglect', saying that nations have failed to meet their moral and legal obligations to realise the rights of children.

By Someshwar Singh

December 1999

Geneva: The last decade of this century has seen an 'undeclared war' on a large chunk of the world's children, says the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in its 'State of the World's Children' report released on 13 December.

Poverty, conflict, chronic social instability and preventable diseases such as HIV/AIDS have been responsible for sabotaging the development of children, the report contends.

'Each of these obstacles is compounded for women and girls by the discrimination against them that infiltrates all sectors of society in every country,' the report maintains. 'And where women's rights are at risk, children's rights are too.'

According to UNICEF, much of the blame for the sorry state of affairs of more than 600 million children lies with 'failed leadership - a lack of vision, an absence of courage, a passive neglect'.

Recounting the price of failure, the report says that every day that nations fail to meet their moral and legal obligations to realise the rights of children, 30,500 boys and girls under five die of mainly preventable causes, and even more children and young people succumb to illnesses, neglect, accidents and assaults that did not have to happen.

Every month that the full-scale campaign needed to stop the terrifying HIV/AIDS pandemic is postponed, 250,000 children and young people become infected with the fatal virus. Every year, 585,000 women die of complications of pregnancy and childbirth that could have been prevented. In the last year alone, about 31 million refugees and displaced persons were caught in conflicts that ravaged the world.

Much of the glossy UNICEF report, however, is full of case studies and information from the developing world. It is only in passing, like the glossy reports of the International Labour Organisation on worst forms of child labour published earlier in the year, that the report acknowledges that the developed world also has children in distress.

For example, the report notes that 'more than 1 in every 10 children in some of the richest nations are raised in families living below the established poverty line'. Poverty in industrialised countries is defined by a household disposable income less than half of the country's overall median income.

Thus, the percentage of children who are likely to be living in a poor family are 26.3% for the United States, 21.3% for the United Kingdom, 21.2% for Italy, 17.1% for Australia, 16.0% for Canada, 11.6% for Germany, 9.8% for France and 6.3% for Switzerland, the UNICEF report notes.

The poor are the majority in nearly one of every five nations in the world, according to UNICEF. 'In rich countries, they are increasingly concentrated in minority communities. They endure lives of hunger, malnutrition and illness and are denied their right to education, to receive good health care, to have access to safe water and sanitation and to be protected from harm.'

The number of people living in poverty continues to grow, says the report, as globalisation - one of the 20th century's most powerful economic phenomena - proceeds along its inherently asymmetrical course: expanding markets across national boundaries and increasing the incomes of a relatively small group of people while further strangling the lives of those without the resources to be investors or the capabilities to benefit from the global culture.

According to UNICEF, it is possible to improve the lot of the world's affected child-population during the course of the next generation, provided 'visionary leaders' are willing to take up the challenge.

The organisation argues that because the needs of the poor are 'most efficiently met through public services, universal access to an integrated set of basic social services is one of the most effective ways of reducing poverty in any society'.

'The services, in light of their great benefits and certainly in comparison with most weapons of destruction, are modestly priced,' says the report. 'By redirecting $70 billion to $80 billion a year in a global economy that is more than $30 trillion, the world could ensure access to the basics for everyone.'

In this context, the UNICEF report takes a dig at both the industrialised countries for having reduced their official development assistance in recent years, as well as the developing countries for not spending an adequate percentage of their annual budgets on basic social services. - Third World Network Features

The above article first appeared in SUNS (South-North Development Monitor), Issue No. 4572, 'Development: "Undeclared War" on World's Children, Says UNICEF'.