Saving tomorrow's children

The next 20 years will bring the largest generation of children in human history. And the world seems less prepared than ever to receive them. The vast majority will be born in the poorest countries where money for development is getting scarcer than at any time in two decades. The issue of children's needs focuses more poignantly than any other the urgency of opening up new opportunities for human development in the decades ahead.

Fortunately, as the recent 35th anniversary report by UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) points out, there are ways this can be done. Perhaps most fundamental is a renovation of world attitudes toward children and what they represent.

Take, for instance, the exceedingly low priority currently given by many leaders in rich and poor countries alike to investing in child-oriented development programs. UNICEF notes the proven economic, political, and social gains that have been achieved when such investments are made. Many of the countries with a sustained per capita economic growth of 6 percent or more in the 1960s and '70s -- Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Romania, and South Korea -- had made a concerted effort to advance the well-being of low-income families and their children. A recent World Bank study of 30 developing countries concludes that primary education is the most productive investment opportunity available -- in time, capable of ''hard economic returns'' of up to 24 percent.

At the same time, much more value per dollar can be gleaned for children with the money available.Here it is gratifying to see UNICEF itself setting an example by shifting some of its own priorities. The agency plans to: (1) channel less investment into the expensive training of the highly trained technicians and doctors, and more toward the work of the millions of community development workers who have direct contact with the needy masses and can advise them about the basics of child nutrition, cleanliness, water, waste disposal, and family planning; (2) enlist more participation on the part of citizens in poor countries to help themselves improve the quality of life for their children; and (3) make development activities work together more effectively - such as coupling programs for new water pumps with education about how to keep water clean in the home.

It is also gratifying to see a new trend of increasing international support for UNICEF. Worldwide contributions have more than doubled in the last three years.

Still, if the donation of a world leader like the US is any indication, the commitment to children appears to have hardly begun. America's $41.6 million donation for 1982, for instance, looks pretty skimpy when it is realized that this is less than it costs the US to produce only one F-15 fighter, of which 36 will be purchased this coming year alone.

Clearly as governments and individuals adjust their budgets in the economically difficult days ahead, it would be short-sighted indeed to think that the future can be secure without giving the highest of priorities to the care of children.

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