Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 13 December 2004

Letting down the world's children

Half the developing world's children suffer from extreme deprivation.  Hundreds of millions suffer from one or more of three present threats:  poverty, armed conflict and HIV/AIDS.   We are failing the children of today, but this does not have to be the case, says a UNICEF report published last week.

Many or most people consider their children to be the most precious things in life. It is heartbreaking then to read of the misery so many children live under.

One billion children are suffering from one or more forms of extreme deprivation, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). That's more than half the children in developing countries.  

It's an indictment on the way the global and national economies are run, that despite the emphasis on globalization and growth, the world just cannot provide for its children.

Below are some of the data in UNICEF's State of the World's Children 2005 report, released last week.

* Over 640 million children in developing countries lack access to proper shelter, including 64% of African children and 45% of South Asian children.

* One in three children (500 million) has no access whatsoever to sanitation facilities, increasing their risk to disease.

* Over 16% of children under 5 in developing countries are severely malnourished, nearly half of the 90 million of these children are in South Asia.

* About 400 million children (one in every five) have no access to safe water. In Africa, 53% of children are affected.

* Around 270 million children have no access to health care facilities.

From this depressing record, UNICEF finds that progress is "seriously off track" or behind  schedule for attaining the United Nations "Millennium Development Goals". 

These goals include reducing poverty and hunger rates by half in 2015, reducing by two thirds the mortality rate among children under five, reducing by half the proportion of people without safe water and sanitation, and combating serious diseases

The UNICEF report focuses on poverty, armed conflict and HIV/AIDS that are three major contemporary threats to children.

Poverty is the root cause of the above deprivations, preventing children from goods and services that allow them to survive, develop and thrive.

Since 1990, armed conflicts have killed 3.6 million people, an estimated 45% of which were children.  They are caught up as soldiers, displaced from their homes, suffer sexual abuse or are victims of explosive remnants of war.

As for the HIV/AIDS pandemic, it's "the worst catastrophe ever to hit the world", said UNICEF's executive director Carol Bellamy.   "It's just ripping up systems, be it health or education.  Our children's childhood is being robbed from them."

In Sub-Sahara Africa, HIV/AIDS has led to rising child mortality rates, sharp reductions in life expectancy and millions of orphans.  Prevalence rates are also rising in other regions.

When HIV/AIDS infects one or both parents, the very fabric of a child's life falls apart.

By 2003, 15 million children under 18 years had been orphaned by HIV/AIDS.  Millions more live in households with sick and dying family members.

The illness or death of a mother jeopardizes the child's access to health care, nutrition and survival.  HIV/AIDS deprives children of a family environment and make it more likely for them to be pulled out of school or live on the street.

In 1989, the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the next year a World Summit for Children was held, with leaders signing a World Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children.

These actions helped to place children's interests on the global agenda.  There have been significant advances, says UNICEF, but they are in danger of reversal.  "For hundreds of millions of children, the promise of childhood that undergirds the Convention already appears broken as poverty, conflict and HIV/AIDS threaten their lives and well-being.

"Though a childhood of love, care and protection, in a family environment, with ample scope to survive, grow, develop and participate is the right of every child, millions do not experience it.  We are failing the children of today.  But this does not have to be the case."

UNICEF says it is a matter of will to tackle the triple threats. Governments must give the highest priority to meet its responsibilities to children, for example by channeling more funds to meet their food and health needs.

Donor countries can provide debt relief and more aid, allowing poor countries to have more funds.   Action can be taken to support children orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.

UNICEF also advocates a "human rights based approach to development", with countries investing in people as citizens and supporting their capacity to hold their government accountable for its promises. 

It says this will allow countries to give attention to children living at the margins of society, prioritise goods and services essential for children, and protect them from abuse and conflict.

Are these only find words?   UNICEF was criticized by an editorial in last week's Lancet, a well-respected medical journal.  It said that the language of rights, used by UNICEF, means little to a child still-born, an infant dying from pneumonia or famine.

Child survival must sit at the core of UNICEF's work but it currently and shamefully does not, says the Lancet.  "Child health needs better leadership, improved coordination of services and increased funding."