World economic woes take toll on children

This year's report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) indicates that the heavy debt loads and recessions that hit the world economy in the 1980s, particularly in developing countries, have taken a heavy toll on children. UNICEF estimates that in the past 12 months, at least half a million children have died as a result of the slowing down or reversal of progress in the third world. Pointing to falling average incomes, reduction of government spending on health and education, rising debt repayments, and falling commodity prices, UNICEF warns that much of the progress made in recent years is in danger.

Underscoring the UNICEF report was a World Bank report released yesterday that the world's poorer countries are transferring their money to richer nations in record amounts to service debts. The 17 most indebted countries this year will pay governments and lending institutions $31.1 billion more than they take in.

The effects of the debt crisis rest ``very squarely on the backs of children,'' says Lawrence Bruce, president of the United States Committee for UNICEF. Over 13 million children under five years old died last year, mostly from preventable causes, he says. After an analysis of those figures - excluding, for example, deaths in countries at war - UNICEF estimated that 500,000 of those deaths were directly related to sluggishness in development progress.

Those children died, Mr. Bruce says, because food and medicine were ``quite literally'' snatched from people who needed them. The concept of ``structural readjustment'' in those indebted countries, or bringing their economies in line with a modified free-market system, does not often put people first, the report contends.

The industrialized world needs to look at the debt crisis in terms of human cost, Bruce says. ``It's an outrageous assault on a good part of humankind,'' he adds. (US to review its third-world debt strategy, Page 4.)

The report also notes the progress that has been made in the decade since International Year of the Child. Gains in health issues in developing countries have saved several million lives, it says. The report cites increased immunizations; dramatic progress in battling dehydration, which was killing an estimated 10,000 children daily; and spreading knowledge about the importance of ``birth spacing,'' so that women do not have children when they are ``too young or too old'' or have their children born ``too close'' in age to each other.

UNICEF also reports that Asia, which still has the majority of poor children, has made strides both economically and in terms of how children are treated.

The report calls for significant steps in debt relief, including writing down, on a case-by-case basis, the developing world's debt, by up to 50 percent over the next five years. The poorest and most debt-burdened lands ought to have a cancellation of remaining debts, the report suggests. These actions should be combined with increased aid for growth in development, a check on protectionist policies, and measures to stabilize the price of raw materials, it says.

The report calls for ``a new ethos'' that would have people react not just to the ``loud'' crises of earthquakes or famines, but to the silent emergency of poverty and underdevelopment.

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