INVESTMENT in children pays off for nations. That's the contention of James Grant, executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Those countries that dramatically improve child health and education also experience the greatest economic growth, he says. As examples, he cites Japan and, more recently, the newly industrializing countries of Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea.
It's a point Mr. Grant makes not only for the benefit of other developing countries, but for the United States. In this country, he said in an interview, the safety net for children is weaker now than 10 years ago. In New York City today, around 40 percent of the children are raised in poverty, he reckons. That's far higher than the 13 percent in 1969 or the 19 percent in 1979. On top of this, many children in New York (and elsewhere) are victims of the drugs, AIDs, and violence that are ravaging their families.
The US, Grant maintains, needs to do more for the education and health of its children if America is to remain competitive. He regards the mortality rate for children in the US as a disgrace for an advanced industrial society. Of each 1,000 children born alive, 13 die before the age of five. That's worse than any other major industrial democracy. It's even higher than crowded Hong Kong, with a mortality rate of 10.
Grant's major goal during his decade at the head of UNICEF has been the saving of children's lives through low-cost medical care, better nutrition, and improved sanitation. An American, Grant wants to advance that goal with a World Summit for Children, scheduled Sept. 29-30 in New York. It is the first time that leaders from around the globe - some 60 of them from North, South, East, and West - will join together to try to resolve some of the universal problems that children encounter in surviving and developing to adulthood.
At this time, some 40,000 children under the age of five die every day in the developing countries, largely from preventable causes. Grant figures technological advances already being implemented in health and communications will save the lives of 25 million children during this decade. He hopes that the summit will provide the impetus to save another 25 million lives.
Paradoxically, assuring that more children live will reduce population growth. As parents become confident their first offspring will survive, they choose to have fewer children.
That is shown in such nations as Costa Rica, Jamaica, Cuba, and Chile. For developing countries, these have both relatively low mortality rates for children (18 to 26 per thousand) and relatively low birth rates.
For years India has had a massive effort to promote birth control. But because the mortality rate for children remains high (149 per thousand), the reduction in the birth rate has been ``modest,'' says Grant.
The UN official's great hope is that the world's children will be given first claim on the resources being freed up by the winding down of the Cold War, that the reduced competition of the superpowers will encourage less spending on arms among developing nations as well.
At present, the governments of the developing world are devoting half of their total annual expenditures to the maintenance of the military and the servicing of external debt. These cost the nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America almost $1 billion a day, or more than $400 a year for each family in the developing world.
But levels of military spending have begun to fall for the first time in more than 50 years in the largest developing countries, China, India, and Pakistan. Fewer wars are being fought in the world than at any time in the last half-century.
UNICEF's 1990 report on the state of the world's children says: ``Total military expenditures, in both industrialized and developing worlds, easily exceed the combined annual incomes of the poorest half of humanity. The diversion of even 5 percent or 10 percent of this vast sum would be enough to reaccelerate progress toward a world in which the basic human needs of all were met.''
Idealists have long dreamed of converting swords into ploughshares. ``It is ... not impossible to think in terms of an outbreak of peace,'' says the report.