Guest Introduction: Children

The Best and Worst of Times

By Carol Bellamy  

The 21st-century finds us living in a cruelly divided world where it is always the best of times as well as the worst—but on a scale that would have made Charles Dickens gasp.

Consider the phenomenon of extreme poverty. In a $30-plus trillion global economy fueled by new technology and growing economic integration, nearly three billion people—close to half the human race—are living on less than two dollars a day in conditions of almost unimaginable suffering and want. Half of them are children.

Never in history have we seen such numbers. And never in history have we seen overall aid to the world's neediest countries fall to such shamefully meager levels as they have in recent years.

Yet there have been more gains against global poverty in the last 50 years than in the last 500—and more progress for children in recent decades than in any other period. Between 1970 and 2000, the mortality rate among children under the age of 5 fell from 96 deaths per 1,000 live births to 56. But nearly 30,000 young children a day still die needlessly from preventable ailments like measles, diarrhea and acute respiratory ailments.

The 1990s saw a huge decline in the number of people killed in wars between countries, to 220,000 over the decade—down from nearly three times that many in the 1980s. Yet during the same period, 3.6 million people died in civil conflicts—half of them children.

For the peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean, this juxtaposition of the best of times with the worst is only too familiar.

But in 1998, in an agreement known as the Lima Accord on children and social policy, the leaders of the region reaffirmed that the future of their countries is inextricably linked to the rights and well being of their children—and that their work must begin with the eradication of the worst aspects of poverty.

With regional economic growth at its highest rate in 25 years, many Latin American and Caribbean leaders, united in partnership with donors, multilateral institutions and broad segments of civil society, moved to invest in the child survival and development goals of the 1990 World Summit for Children.

The campaign included an expansion of immunization that cut measles deaths by 95 per cent, virtually eliminated neo-natal tetanus, and moved closer to achieving gender balance in primary education.

But by 2002, an economic contraction drove the regional unemployment rate to record lows. With rich and poor separated by wide economic disparities, abject poverty tightened its grip on 4 out of every 10 people. More than half of the region's 200 million poor are children, countless numbers of whom are abandoned and adrift, where they are easy targets for violence, drugs, exploitation and disease—especially HIV/AIDS—whose pattern of devastation is already beginning to resemble sub-Saharan Africa's.

Anyone familiar with the agony of sub-Saharan Africa knows that it is impossible to speak about health and sustainable development except through the lens of HIV/AIDS—and the swath it is now cutting through a whole generation of children.

I have spoken with many young people from all over Africa who have shared their views on what should be done to slow the pandemic—and their perspective has bolstered UNICEF's conviction that until a medical remedy is found, there is only one effective tool for curbing HIV/AIDS—and that is education.

Only education can empower young people with the knowledge they need to protect themselves and their communities while combating the discrimination that helps perpetuate the pandemic.

And only education can help children and young people acquire the knowledge and develop the skills they need to build a better future—the better future that the international community promised every child more than a decade ago, at the World Summit for Children—and reaffirmed most recently at the UN General Assembly's Special Session on Children.

We are at a moment in history in which the exercise of leadership must begin with the recognition that poverty is much more than an economic issue. A malnourished infant, a subjugated girl child, a child soldier—all effectively enslaved by poverty and social exclusion—are deprived not only in their potential to grow, but also in their right to become responsible and productive citizens.

These are among the reasons why the conquest of poverty has become the overarching Millennium Development Goal of the United Nations.

It is also why UNICEF regards education, especially for girls, as a prerequisite for attacking poverty. Only education can put young women on a path to economic and social empowerment, help them make the most of their abilities, and provide a means for changing attitudes about violence while promoting equality.

But these and other investments in children are not short-term propositions.

That is why UNICEF urges ministers of finance, from developing and developed countries alike, to take steps to ensure the long-term future of their countries by putting the well being of children at the heart of the budgetary process.

Their responses have strengthened my belief that the world may finally be ready to alter the course of human development by decisively shifting investments, both governmental and private, to favor child well-being—and that all of us can help accelerate that shift by working to build a shared sense of responsibility for the well-being of every child on earth.

Carol Bellamy is the director of UNICEF.