World economic crisis finds UNICEF struggling for support

UNICEF (the United Nations' Fund for Children), which is struggling to save third-world children from famine, is in dire financial straits.

And more and more the West has been turning a deaf ear to UNICEF's calls for economic aid.

''What we are facing is a crisis of faith,'' James Grant, executive director of UNICEF, told the Monitor.

According to Mr. Grant, UNICEF faces two sorts of emergencies:

* Loud emergencies - such as the starvation in Cambodia two years ago.

* Silent emergencies - such as the creeping, chronic human disaster situation in the third world (with 40,000 children dying each year and 100 million children going to sleep hungry every night).

UNICEF has been hit hard by the world economic crisis. Governments are contributing less. The steady rise of the dollar has severely shrunk contributions (by 10 and sometimes by 20 percent) by many governments paid in local currencies.

The United States remains UNICEF's largest contributor in absolute terms ($31 million this year), followed by Sweden ($26 million). This means, however, that the American contribution is 20 cents per capita and Sweden's $4 per capita. Italy has recently dramatically raised its contributions, as have the Gulf states.

In the face of devastating financial blows, therefore, UNICEF has attempted to increase its cost-effectiveness. It has made substantial savings in cost and personnel.

''It is the poorest countries which are hit the worst by the economic crisis and in these poorest countries it is the poorest people, meaning the women and the children, who suffer the most. We have here an inverted pyramid,'' says Mr. Grant.

''We have a choice. We can either accept this tragedy and say 'there is nothing we can do.' Or we can try to come to grips with it, after recognizing that this is not only a moral imperative but a practical one inasmuch as the survival of the world is at issue,'' Mr. Grant adds.

It would have cost less than $100 to maintain a child's life last year. Wisely spent on each of the poorest 500 million mothers and young children in the world, this sum could have brought improved diets, easier pregnancies, elementary education, basic health care: the basics of life. And it could at the same time have slowed down the population growth.

''We can either allow the largest generation of children to grow up undernourished and unhealthy or improve their lives and invest in their capacity as parents tomorrow,'' Mr. Grant believes. It would take the amount spent in one year on alcohol consumption in the United States to save the lives of 40,000 children this year, according to UNICEF's estimates.

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