Suffer the little children: What are we doing today for the world’s 2 billion children?

Remarks By Kul Chandra Gautam
Dana Point, California, 25 October 2003

It is a great pleasure, and privilege, for me to be with you here today.  I am thrilled to address the 2003 World Vision Forum on a theme that lies at the heart of UNICEF’s mandate: the well-being of all children, everywhere in the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

But let me start by acknowledging and congratulating Dean Hirsch and the 18,000 World Vision staff members around the globe for your outstanding service and achievements for children.

Your mission of “working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation and to seek justice” is a noble one. Your actions to alleviate the suffering of the poor, especially children, are truly exemplary. Your outreach to 85 million people in 96 nations makes a real difference in our worldwide efforts to combat poverty and injustice. Your unique child sponsorship programme, transforms the lives of over two million children for the better.

For UNICEF, there are few other partner organizations that share our vision and mission as thoroughly as does the World Vision.

Indeed I recall fondly, the tremendous leadership Dean Hirsch provided in launching the Global Movement for Children. Its 10 point rallying call is perhaps the most fitting response to the question posed in the theme of your forum: what must we do today for the world’s two billion children?

Well, we must —

put children first – in everything we do

eradicate poverty and invest in children

leave no child behind

care for every child

educate every child

protect children from harm and exploitation

protect children from war

combat HIV/AIDS

listen to children and ensure their participation, and

protect the Earth for children.

One hundred million people, mostly children themselves, said “yes” to these 10 simple yet profound imperatives in a campaign spearheaded by World Vision, UNICEF and our other partners in the Global Movement for Children.

This message was taken to leaders of the world at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children in May 2002.

World Vision’s 31 member delegation headed by five teenagers, spoke eloquently to the Special Session. Dean Hirsch himself co-chaired a public-private partnership forum of leaders ranging from Kofi Annan, Bill Gates and Nelson Mandela to a dozen other heads of states and CEOs of civil society and the corporate sector.

Thank you Dean, and thank you all, for your commitment, compassion and contribution to make this world more fit of children.

You will recall that creating a World Fit for Children was precisely the title of the Declaration of the Special Session on Children. Its Plan of Action outlined four key priorities:

promoting healthy lives

providing quality basic education

protection against abuse, exploitation and violence, and

combating HIV/AIDS

For all of us – World Vision, UNICEF and other organizations committed to protecting the rights and promoting the well-being of children, the World Fit for Children offers an excellent, ready-made agenda for action that enjoys broad international support.

Reading your International Annual Review, I have noted that World Vision is already at the forefront of advancing the cause of children, their health, education, protection and well-being around the world.

I cannot tell you how uplifting it is for me to see so many of us gathered here, all committed to the same work of saving and improving the lives of children and women around the world.

Dear friends,

In a very profound sense, children today live in the best of times as well as the worst of times.

Why is that so?

Well, to most of us the characterisation that these are the “worst of times” is probably fairly obvious. In this world of extraordinary prosperity:

11 million children under the age of 5 continue to die every year, most from easily preventable causes like diarrhoea and pneumonia, measles and malaria.  This means a daily toll of  30,000 child deaths, or the equivalent of 60 jumbo jets filled to capacity crashing every day;

Some 150 million children under five are malnourished, many more go to bed hungry every night;

Over half a million women die each year – 1500 everyday – due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth;

120 million children of primary-school age never see the inside of a classroom, among them a disproportionate number of girls;

The proliferation of armed conflict takes a horrific toll on children. Millions of children are slaughtered, raped, maimed, forced to work as child soldiers and exposed to unspeakable brutality;

Hundreds of millions of children are direct targets of violence and abuse, discrimination and exploitation. Children have become a source of cheap labour, used as instruments of war, and sold into slavery and prostitution;

The pandemic of HIV/AIDS is wiping away many gains in child survival and development. I believe you heard from Sandra Thurman earlier this morning about this catastrophe and what we can do about it. We now have 14 million AIDS orphans. Children in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa today can expect to live a shorter life than their parents or grandparents – a phenomena never witnessed in human history before.

Yet for all the cruelties and injustice in the world that these figures represent, we are perhaps living in the best of times for children.

My former boss and mentor Jim Grant of UNICEF used to say that there has been more progress for children in the last 50 years than perhaps in the previous 5 centuries.

immunization programmes are protecting millions of children from deadly vaccine-preventable diseases;

Smallpox which used to kill 5 million people a year in the 1950s was eradicated during our life time. Polio which used to cripple millions, is on the brink of eradication;

There are more children in school today than ever before;

Ninety million newborns in the world today are protected from brain damage and a loss in learning ability thanks to a simple programme of salt iodization;

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has become the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in the world. Many countries are implementing the Convention diligently, and it has become a powerful manifesto for child rights activists;

Child protection issues have gained a much higher profile, and are increasingly better articulated, understood and addressed;

Many NGOs, faith-based organizations like the World Vision, and civic leaders are championing the cause of children;

At the United Nations, it is not just UNICEF or the Economic and Social Council that put children at the centre of debates. Even the General Assembly and the Security Council are taking up children’s issues, in areas ranging from HIV/AIDS to the impact of armed conflict on children.

Overall, children are much higher on the world’s political agenda. Increasingly they figure prominently in election campaigns, parliamentary debates and national legislation.

The fantastic communications capacity in the world today makes it possible to bring the blessings of science and technology to the doorsteps of even the poorest people in the most remote corners of the world.

Never before did mankind have the capacity to do so much good, to reach so many, as the World Vision’s mission statement says, to work with the poor and oppressed, to promote human transformation, to seek justice and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God, right here on earth.

Our task, ladies and gentlemen, is to help translate the potential for doing so much good into the reality of all children getting a healthy start in life, acquiring quality basic education and growing up to become responsible citizens of the world in the 21st century.

Poverty is, of course, the major obstacle to meeting the basic needs and fulfilling the legitimate rights of children. And poverty is not only found in poor Third World countries. We just heard from John Biewen the story of The Forgotten 14 Million – children living in poverty in the world’s richest country, United States of America.

If the impact of poverty is so severe, here in America, I hope you can imagine what it must be like for the 3 billion people in the world who live on less than $2 per day.

Please close your eyes for a moment, and think what would you do if your income was just $2 a day or $10 for a family of 5 – for food, for shelter, for clothing, for education, for health care, for festivals and for funerals?

Earlier this week we launched this report on “Child Poverty in the Developing World”. This was based on research commissioned by UNICEF and carried out by the University of Bristol and the London School of Economics. Analysing survey data on nearly 1.2 million children in 46 countries, the report provides the largest and most accurate survey of child poverty ever assembled.

It is, we believe, the first ever scientific measurement of child poverty in the developing world based on the definition of absolute poverty adopted at the 1995 World Summit for Social Development.

The report uses the definition of absolute poverty – which is “a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information.  It depends not only on income but also on access to services”.

The findings of this study paint a sad picture of over 1 billion children, or more than half the children in developing countries suffering from severe deprivation of basic human needs.

Taking a closer look, we see that:

Over a third of children live in dwellings with more than five people per room.

Over half a billion children (31%) have no toilet facilities whatsoever.

Almost half a billion children (25%) lack access to radio, television, telephone or newspapers at home.

Over 370 million children (20%) are using unsafe water sources or have to walk for more than a 15 minutes to get water.

Over 91 million children under five years of age are malnourished.

265 million children (15%) have not been immunized against any diseases or have had a recent illness causing diarrhoea and have not received any medical advice or treatment.

134 million children aged between 7 and 18 (13%) are educationally deprived – they have never been to school.

Poverty reduction begins with children

Now some say that poverty has always been with us, and will never be completely eliminated. That maybe true in the case of relative poverty, but in a $30 trillion global economy, we simply cannot and should not accept the persistence of absolute poverty as the fate of humanity.

Poverty is a denial of human right and human dignity.  And poverty reduction involves more than crossing an income threshold. It is about providing people with the basic capabilities to live in dignity.

It means more than lack of basic services and amenities. It means insecurity, powerlessness, exposure to violence and discrimination and exclusion from the mainstream of society.

It also means not having a voice to influence decision-making, living sub-humanly at the margin of society and being stigmatized.

Poverty in early childhood can prove to be a handicap for life because child development is a succession of events for which there is seldom a second chance.

Biological and intellectual growth cannot wait until a family escapes from poverty.  Early childhood is the most opportune moment for preventing or breaking the poverty cycle.

Impoverished children become transmitters of poverty, as parents, to the next generation.  In a vicious cycle, malnourished girls grow up to become malnourished mothers who give birth to underweight babies and perpetuate the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Similarly, illiterate parents cannot guide their children in their studies, repeating the cycle of ignorance, illiteracy and poverty.

For UNICEF, and I trust for World Vision, it must be clear that  poverty reduction must begin with children.  Poverty cannot be eradicated unless the basic capabilities of children are developed and safeguarded from the moment of birth.

Giving children access to a package of basic social services of good quality is one of the most effective and efficient steps in combating poverty.  Ensuring access to basic education, primary health care, adequate nutrition and safe water and sanitation is not only a fulfilment of human rights, it also contributes to renewed economic growth.

Investment in children today is the best guarantee of equitable and sustainable development tomorrow.

But where can we find the resources to combat poverty? Can the world really afford to eradicate poverty?

At the United Nations we have been doing some homework on what would it take to eradicate the worst forms of poverty.

At the turn of the millennium, the largest gathering of world leaders in history met at the United Nations in September 2000 and came up with a Millennium Declaration.

It contains a set of specific, measurable Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Poverty eradication is the ultimate goal, but the measures to be used for that are not just increasing income but also reducing infant and maternal mortality, providing universal primary education with gender equality, combating HIV/AIDS and malaria – all through national action and international cooperation.

Last year at the Monterrey Conference on Financing for Development, the Secretary-General of the United Nations provided an estimated cost to reach the MDGs. Besides massive efforts by developing countries themselves, it was estimated that in terms of external support, it would cost approximately an additional $50 billion  per year, or a doubling of the current level of foreign aid from all donor countries to have a fighting chance to achieve the millennium goals.

Now $50 billion is a lot of money. But consider that in the context of the $2 billion a week that the US is spending right now in Iraq. Consider it in the context of the $87 billion dollars that is proposed to be raised for the reconstruction of that one country alone. Consider it in the context of the $800 billion and counting of worldwide military expenses annually.

Friends, it is not that the world does not have enough resources, it is more likely that leaders of the world – and we the citizens – do not give enough priority to combating poverty.

When the world cares, resources can always be found. Remember in 1999 there was a huge scare that when the year 2000 came, computer systems that were not Y2K compliant might crash, elevators might stop, dams might burst, electric grids might explode, and Armageddon might arrive.

Governments, private companies and individuals found the resources to make themselves Y2K compliant. Hundreds of billions of dollars, unbudgeted previously, were found even by the poorest countries and companies.

Somehow 30,000 children dying everyday – 10 times as many as died on 9/11 at the World Trade Center does not seem to us as enough of an emergency or tragedy. 14 million children being orphaned due to HIV/AIDS alone does not seem to shock us into action.

What is especially disheartening is to know how little it costs to save human lives and provide the basic necessities.

Let me share with you a few examples.

The number one killer of children in Africa is malaria. Malaria kills a child in Africa every 30 seconds. Some 50 percent of hospital admissions in Africa are due to malaria. It causes the loss of 1 per cent of Africa’s GDP. People infected with malaria become anaemic. Children cannot concentrate on their studies and drop out of school. Adults become lethargic and their productivity goes down. It is estimated that the loss of income due to malaria in that poor continent amounts to $12 billion per year.

Now among the various measures to prevent malaria is the use of insecticide treated bed nets. Use of new and improved bed nets can reduce child mortality by upto 25 percent, and it can reduce morbidity by upto 50 per cent.

The cost of a long lasting mosquito net is now about $5.

At present less than 5 percent of African families use mosquito nets.

What would it take to provide bed nets to all families in Africa to protect people from malaria?

Sub-Saharan Africa has a total population of about 600 million or about 100 million families. If each household were provided 2 bed nets it would cost about $1 billion.

Is $1 billion to protect a whole continent from its deadliest disease too much?

Compare that with $1 billion per day in farm subsidies that the US, Europe and Japan spend now year around. Or compare the $5 per bed net for each African with $900 a year that Europeans invest in the protection of each of their dairy cows.

Surely we are not talking here about lack of money, but lack of political will.

Let me give you another example – this time of a success story, at bargain basement price.

The number one cause of mental retardation in the world is iodine deficiency disorder. The best and cheapest solution to tackle that problem is for people to consume tiny amount of iodized salt with their meals every day. It costs just a few pennies per person per year to iodize salt for human consumption. Since virtually everybody in the world consumes salt regularly, iodising all the world’s salt seemed to us a good and affordable idea.

In 1990 the World Summit for Children endorsed the goal of universal salt iodisation. At that time about one billion people in the world consumed iodized salt. Most of them were North Americans, Europeans, Japanese and Australians.

UNICEF and our partners launched a massive salt iodization programme throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe.

Last year we estimated that 3 billion people in the world had access to iodised salt – in other words 2 billion more people now consume iodised salt, compared to 1990. As a result, we estimate that 90 million newborn children are protected every year from brain damage and learning disability.

How much did we spend to reach 2 billion people?

In terms of external assistance, less than $300 million. I am sure the advertising budget of most of the Fortune 500 companies would be considerably higher than that.

I could cite you many more examples of extremely low-cost and low-tech interventions — such as oral rehydration therapy against diarrhoea that kills 2 million children every year; immunization against vaccine preventable diseases that kill 3 million; antibiotics against respiratory infections that kill another 3 million; and  provision of vitamin A and other micronutrients that would protect the health and enhance the productivity of hundreds of millions.

And there is the age old practice of breastfeeding that hardly costs anything extra but can protect millions of children from death and malnutrition.

So as you can see, we can do extraordinary things to promote the well-being of children at remarkably low-cost.

It is often not money that is the main constraint, but lack of vision, leadership and commitment which retards progress.

We can eradicate the worst manifestations of poverty in our life time, and build the foundations for a world fit for children if we commit ourselves to that noble task.

In the larger scheme of things, the resources needed are modest and affordable. With modest amounts of external support, even the poorest countries of the world would be in a position to afford basic social services for their peoples – especially, children.

I believe World Vision  and UNICEF share a common vision, the vision of a world in which all children have a joyous childhood : where they can play, learn and grow, where they are loved and cared for, where their health and safety are protected and where their gender is not a liability – a world in which their human rights are protected and fulfilled.

That world remains a dream for tens of millions of children.  But it is a dream that I really believe can come true in less than a generation if we can help generate strong political commitment, sustained public action and genuine community participation.

All countries, even those at low levels of income, can achieve the realization of children’s rights and universal access to basic social services.  The pursuit of social and economic human rights does not have to wait until rapid economic growth is achieved.

On the contrary, investments in children today will help lay a solid foundation for sustained and equitable economic growth in the future.

No country has ever sustained rapid economic growth with high levels of illiteracy, malnutrition and morbidity.

Countries that have successfully achieved sustained and equitable growth are those that have simultaneously addressed economic and social reforms, not those that have prioritized macroeconomic stability while postponing social development until the arrival of a more economically prosperous time.

Empowerment, participation and social mobilization are the hallmark of UNICEF’s efforts to reduce poverty.  They represent ends in themselves to realize the human rights of all people, starting with the most vulnerable members of society: children and women.

As we look ahead, the path seems quite clear to me. Together with our partners, World Vision and UNICEF outlined it in the Say Yes for Children Campaign of the Global Movement for Children, which was endorsed at the Special Session on Children.

Creating a world fit for all two billion children

Admittedly, the challenges are enormous.  But they are not insurmountable, especially if we all adopt a strategic focus on children, as increasingly exemplified by World Vision. 

Whether at global, regional, national, or community level, I would urge that we focus on results – results that matter for children, adolescents and families and results that mean fewer deaths, less illness, and more children, especially girls, in school.

The world is two billion children rich, but many of them sadly still fall out of our reach, growing up unhealthy, uneducated and unprotected.

We need to double, triple or maybe quadruple the scale of our programmes.  But we can be proud of the positive start and build upon the initial progress.

It will take courage and even heavy sacrifice, including the loss of life as in the case of the terrible Baghdad bombing last August, where UNICEF lost a staff member, and the tragic death of a World Vision staff, who was taken hostage in Sudan last year.  But we shall persevere and persist.

Let me conclude by observing that today we live in very prosperous times, in a $30 trillion world economy – where someone new becomes a billionaire every 2 weeks.

We live in a world where global military expenditure is rising towards $1 trillion mark.  That amounts to more than the World Vision’s and UNICEF’s combined annual  budget being spent every single day for military personnel and armaments.

Yet in this world of great affluence, and profligate spending on weapons  and luxuries, we have 1.3 billion people living on less than $1 a day- more than half of them children.

Let us dedicate ourselves to lifting these children out of poverty, and contribute to making this a world truly fit for all of our two billion children.

Thank you.