Building a South Asian movement for children

Opening Statement by Mr. Kul C. Gautam
Deputy Executive Director, United Nations Children’s Fund
at the South Asian High Level Meeting on Investing in Children
Kathmandu, 22 May 2001

Excellencies, Young change makers, Distinguished participants, Ladies and Gentlemen: It is my pleasure to address you on behalf of UNICEF here in my own region of the world and in my home country. As both co-host and son of the soil, may I welcome you to this South Asian High Level Meeting on Children, focussed on the imperative of Investing in Children.

We are here to record, with pride and satisfaction, the progress that has been made for children in our region. But we are also here to acknowledge that we still have a long way to go to make South Asia a region where the needs and rights of children truly enjoy a high priority in our national development efforts. Let us critically examine the record of our governments and societies as regards our children. And, recognising the long tradition and strength of civil society organisations, the growing power and global reach of the private sector, let us review how leaders from all walks of life can creatively join together to make a real difference in the lives of our children.

We, your international partners, are here to show our solidarity in your efforts to improve the lot of children of this region. But most significantly, there are many young people here today. It is time to recognise that young people have well-considered views, that it is worth listening to them, and that they have a right to be part of decisions that affect their lives and their future-which is, after all, our common future. Ladies and Gentlemen, As we know so well, our region, South Asia, is a land of contrasts. We have within this region nuclear powers, yet there are millions of people without sanitary latrines. We have some of the world’s smartest wizards in information technology, yet we have the greatest concentration of illiterates.

We have perhaps had more women at the highest levels of political power than any other region, but we share the notoriety of tolerating the worst forms of discrimination against women-with 70 million “missing women” as so eloquently chronicled by this region’s newest Nobel prize laureate, Amartya Sen. Another series of contrasts found in the region is the plethora of micro successes and the preponderance of macro failures. We have great success stories of microcredit and innovative efforts to counter child labour and trafficking. The oral rehydration therapy against diarrhoeal diseases was invented in this region. It saves millions of child lives every year in this region and beyond. But there are also some huge macro failures. These failures cause the greatest harm to children, and perpetuate the intergenerational cycle of poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy and disempowerment. While we have around 22 per cent of the world’s population, we have 35 per cent of the world’s child deaths, 40 per cent of the world’s poor, 46 per cent of the world’s illiterates and a staggering 50 percent of the world’s malnourished children. Far too often, we in South Asia plead poverty for not being able to do enough for children.

Yet, is it really a question of poverty, or priority? We seem to find enough money to have a thriving Bollywood industry. We seem to find enough money to bail out inefficient loss-making state enterprises. We seem to find enough money for the military. But not enough for children. Today we are one of the world’s most militarised regions. Since the end of the cold war military expenditures have declined worldwide, but South Asia has had the highest growth in military expenditure compared to all other regions. In this, one of the poorest regions of the world, we continue to arm ourselves to the teeth. Our region’s military spending has gone up from 1990 to 1999, as shown in this graph using data from SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute). While military spending went down globally by minus 29 per cent in the 1990s, it went up in South Asia by 25 per cent. In the year 1999, five countries in South Asia spent close to US$15 billion dollars on the military. We say that our richest resource is our people. Yet how much do we spend on their welfare, especially that of children? We have such a rich culture, and traditions that place a premium on academic achievement and caring within the family. Yet isn’t there more that we could be doing to support children and families, to reach their full human potential?

It is now widely accepted that investment in basic education of good quality is a key to a better future-for children, for society, and for the competitiveness of every country in today’s globalising world. Yet our region has the lowest female literacy rate in the world of only 43 percent – lower than sub-Saharan Africa. One-third of our school age girls do not enrol in primary school. And half of those who do enrol, do not complete it. This is surely a very fragile foundation in which to build our nations. We did have a SAARC decade of the girl child. It is clear that we need another one. Others will take up this theme in more detail, but let me also say a few words about the development of the very young child.

There is a time-scale to brain development, and the most important years are the first years, when there is the greatest rate of development. The best investment a society can make in human development is in the earliest years of a child’s life, starting with maternal health and nutrition. A child’s emotional, cognitive, social and language skills develop exponentially in the first years of life. 90 percent of a human brain is formed by the time a child is 3 years old. Whether a child will be a genius or retarded is largely determined in those early years. Yet we do not invest enough in early child development. I hope that one of the outcomes of this meeting will be to give a big boost to early child development in our countries in the coming decade. Another area crying out for far-sighted leadership and action is HIV/AIDS. As Khun Mechai Viravaidya warned us last night the time to act is now – if not yesterday – if South Asia is to avoid the catastrophe that has befallen sub-Saharan Africa. Ladies and gentlemen, Earlier on, I asked if it was a question of poverty or priority that is standing in the way of progress. I would add to that now, is it not also a question of our mindset? Sometimes, a mindset that sees the scale and intransigence of the problem as being too overwhelming, can be far more debilitating than poverty.

A mindset that says it ‘can’t be done’, will make sure that it will not be done. And yet we can learn from our more successful neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia, and indeed from many successful development experiences in parts of our own countries, that a rapid progress in human development need not be a distant goal. The answers to the seemingly overwhelming problems are readily identifiable and eminently doable. Ladies and Gentlemen, What will it take to have, throughout South Asia, a healthy, well-educated and emotionally secure population that will bring economic prosperity, political stability and peaceful co-existence? What will it take to realise our shared dream of a South Asia free of poverty and of gender discrimination, a South Asia in which every child has the opportunity to achieve its full potential? Let me venture some suggestions. First, there is no question that we need more resources, but on a scale which is affordable to even this most populated, poverty-stricken region.

This meeting’s background paper, Investing in South Asian Children, quotes the South Asia Human Development Report, which argues that it would cost an additional $8.6 billion dollars every year over the next 15 years to provide universal access to basic social services to South Asia’s half a billion children. On average, that would mean just over half of what the region spends on the military every year. Is that really unaffordable? I would also like to quote the same report on the cost of not investing in children. Using estimates based on the income differential between people with basic education and those who are illiterate, the report argues that we are losing about 8 per cent of GDP annually, or about $47 billion per year for the region. It would cost far less to provide universal primary education than the cost of not doing so. So, yes, lack of resources is a problem – but it ought not to be an insurmountable problem. Second, we need leadership, in all walks of life. That is why I am so glad to see in this room such a wide array of partners. Government officials concerned with national budgets and investment decisions as well as with human resource development and social policy.

Corporate leaders committed to socially responsible investment for children. Civil society actors with a proven track record. Young people who are leaders among their peers. And our international development partners. All of you are here because you are deeply committed to the cause of children and because you have the influence and the capacity to make a difference in their lives. In many cases, what you have done has broken new ground, and set new standards for children. You have been what we call ‘positive deviants’. We need your leadership now to act as role models, so that these examples of positive deviance can become positive norms. Along with leadership comes commitment, sustained over time.

A lasting commitment must reflect a conviction that what it will take to make change happen, is the belief that it can happen, and that we can be the driving force behind it. We in UNICEF often overuse this quote by Margaret Mead, but it is so appropriate that I will use it again: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. It is this sort of belief and conviction that can change situations, mindsets, and the world. Since the early part of this century, when a movement for children and their rights was started by activists such as Eglantine Jebb, we have seen the evidence of this belief take shape and form, and mobilise millions. We saw it at the global level, in November 1989, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, changing ground-rules for children by moving their rights and development from the domain of a welfare agenda into binding legal commitment.

We saw it later at the World Summit for Children in September 1990, when the largest gathering of world leaders in history – until that time – pledged to achieve a set of specific goals for children by the year 2000. We saw it here in South Asia, when the Decade of the Girl Child was endorsed by the Colombo SAARC Summit in 1991. And again at the 1992 SAARC Ministerial Conference in Colombo, when member states endorsed a set of time-bound goals for children, subsequently re-affirmed in the Rawalpindi Resolution of 1996. Ladies and Gentlemen, In exactly four months’ time, a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly will convene to reaffirm the world’s commitment to children, to consider the achievements of the past decade, including in this region, and the challenges that still confront us.

I hope that we will emerge from this meeting even more strongly convinced of the imperative of investing in our children-of investing better, and of investing more. Let us not disappoint our young change maker participants here and their brothers and sisters. Let future generations not accuse us of wasting the lives and futures of millions of children, because of our lack of vision, leadership and commitment. Surely in a regional economy of $600 billion we can afford to invest a modest sum of $8.6 billion a year or an additional 1.6 percent of our regional GDP for basic social services. And surely if we demonstrate our determination with sound policies and good governance, we can expect support from our international partners as well. Let us elevate our ambitions, and hold firm our beliefs.

No longer must we accept that we are a small number of people working for a minor cause. There are always more urgent things we need to deal with, but there is no more important cause than promoting the well-being of our children, who constitute 40 per cent of South Asia’s population, and 100 percent of this region’s future. A key to our success will be partnerships, infused with the spirit of advancing a regional and global movement for children, devoted to creating a new world where every child’s right to dignity, security and self-fulfilment is achieved. We need to broaden our partnerships in this movement, and evolve new ways of working together. One very important area is that of partnership between the private and public sector, especially with the growing influence and power of corporations. South Asia has a rich array of good examples of corporate social responsibility.

Our friends from the corporate sector attending this meeting have shared with us many exciting and innovative examples of how their corporations and businesses have allocate their own resources to programmes benefiting children and women, and have adopted better practices in the workplace to make them more child- and women-friendly. Again, we look to you to help make these cases of positive deviance into positive norms. I hope that at this meeting we will make a powerful statement of our commitment to being a driving force in building a South Asian movement for children. This regional effort will be part of a global political and popular movement, a movement of international solidarity for children – the most precious resource of our region. In this effort you can count on UNICEF’s full support.

Thank you for being here, and may we leave here re-energised by the discussion and interaction of the next two days.

Thank you