A Call to the World to Care - and to Act

Presidents, prime ministers, and kings will gather next week at the United Nations World Summit for Children

IT'S all in the name of children. This Sunday - exactly six days before the United Nations World Summit for Children begins Sept. 29 in New York - concerned citizens in 78 countries will hold 2,500 candlelight vigils. From an Ethiopian refugee camp to a meeting held along the site of the Berlin Wall, the message will be the same: The plight of needy children deserves a higher priority on the global agenda. Co-chaired by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, and supported by a variety of organizations from CARE to the Children's Defense Fund, the vigils are also intended as a pointed reminder to national leaders that children around the world have a large and growing constituency. ``We're trying to mobilize people to care and to expect action,'' says vigil coordinator Sam Harris.

Nearly 80 presidents (including President Bush), prime ministers, and kings are scheduled to attend the summit. It will mark one of the largest high-level gatherings ever to focus on a single subject and will last less than 24 hours.

Yet Canada, Egypt, Mali, Mexico, Pakistan, and Sweden - the six governments initiating the summit - expect it to be a working meeting, more substance than symbol. A declaration on the rights of the child is ready for signature. So is a plan of action, including such goals as reducing the infant-mortality rate by one-third by the year 2000.

Child survival is the top United Nations concern. Each day some 40,000 youngsters under five die from malnutrition and disease. Most experts say the majority of deaths are easily preventable by access to clean water and low-cost vaccines, oral rehydration salts, and vitamins. The problem is widely viewed as less one of money and technical knowledge than of political commitment and will.

Yet the challenge is enormous. Only half the children in developing countries have access to clean drinking water, according to UNICEF (United Nations Childrens Fund) data. Forty percent suffer from malnutrition. Poverty, illiteracy, and war compound such problems: The continuing war in Afghanistan is one reason why that country leads all others in infant mortality rates, according to 1988 UNICEF data.

Also, nearly 100 million school-age children have never stepped inside a classroom. The majority of these nonstudents are female, often discriminated against from infant feeding on up through employment. Nations feel the repercussions in lower life expectancy and greater malnutrition among women.

Tightly pinched national budgets often provide little help. Many developing countries now spend half their revenue paying interest on debts or maintaining military strength. In many developing countries, health and education spending declined during the 1980s. Poverty, malnutrition, and ill health are advancing again in these countries after years of steady retreat, according to UNICEF. That reversal is one reason UNICEF executive director James Grant first floated the idea of a summit in that group's 1989 ``State of the World's Children'' report. Children must have ``first call,'' says Mr. Grant, in terms of a nation's concern and its resources - whether times are good or bad.

Industrialized countries are not just part of the solution: They share the problem. UNICEF spokesman John Usher notes there is evidence of a resurgence of sweatshops - often employing children in under poor working conditions - in developed countries for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. In the United States, 1 of every 5 children live in households below the poverty line. In New York City, 2 of every 5 youngsters grow up poor. Also, the US ranks only 20th - Finland is first - among nations with the lowest infant mortality rate. Despite steady economic growth, the US and Great Britain now have double the number of homeless they had a decade ago; 1 in 4 is a child. In Canada, 1 of every 6 youngsters goes to bed hungry every night, notes Yves Fortier, Canada's Ambassador to the UN. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is co-chairman of the UN meeting on children.

``This is a summit about all children - not just about those in the third world,'' insists Ambassador Fortier.

Though Iraq's annexation of Kuwait has preoccupied many world leaders, organizers of the children's summit say they never considered postponing the meeting. They point to Iraq's taking of children as hostages and to the vulnerability of children in war as sound reasons for holding to the original summit schedule. They say the Middle East situation is just one more example of the kind of crisis that has constantly been allowed to overshadow the needs of children and put the squeeze on available national resources.

``The military always moves ahead of kids, particularly when there's a crisis,'' says David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America. ``Somehow we always find the money for those things that our government believes are important, whether it is fighting a war in the Middle East or bailing out the savings and loans. Kids always come in dead last.... We're going to keep beating the drums, but something dramatic needs to happen here.''

Still, progress has been made. Millions of children have gained access to clean water in the last decade. Immunization is credited with preventing 2 million deaths a year worldwide. Though South Asia qualifies as the most poverty-stricken global region, Bangladesh has made important strides in immunization during the 1980s; Sri Lanka has significantly improved health care and education and, in the process, its infant mortality rate. Often a drop in that rate leads to a fall in the birth rate as parents are assured that more of their children will survive.

Nations such as Japan and South Korea, which have put a high priority on the health and education needs of their children, have also experienced a positive ripple effect. Their economies have improved despite the expense involved in helping children.

National pride sometimes gets involved, says UNICEF statistician Gareth Jones. Iran and Iraq, for instance, have been battling over which nation has the lower infant mortality rate. Mr. Jones, who says he's been caught in the crossfire, says Iran currently has the edge. UNICEF's 1988 estimates indicate that in Iran 90 children under five die for every 1,000 births. In Iraq, deaths number a higher 94.

One of the aims of the UN summit is to broaden support for the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is essentially a bill of rights, guaranteeing those under 18 everything from the right to adequate health care and education to protection against physical abuse and sexual discrimination.

Ten years in the negotiating, the document carefully sidesteps the question of when childhood ends, but bars military recruitment of anyone under age 15 and assures each child the right to a name, so that he or she is not merely considered the property of parents.

``The convention creates a kind of consensus around which the world can mobilize to do a better job of protecting children,'' says Kenneth Phillips, president of Plan International, USA (formerly Foster Parents Plan).

Thirty-one nations have ratified the convention since it was opened for signatures last November, making it the fastest move into international law for any UN treaty so far. President Bush has not yet signed it, the first step in the US ratification process. Fifty-eight senators, however, including the leaders of both parties, have passed a resolution urging him to sign.

The UN summit is also aimed at getting group endorsement of achievable goals regarding children by the year 2000. Governments, voluntary agencies, and international organizations such as the World Bank will be challenged to focus more intensively on children's needs and to raise the level of their support.

However, as Canada's UN Ambassador Fortier says, the real test for most governments lies more in the area of commitment and legislation: ``This is not a checkbook summit.... I like to say the summit starts after the UN meetings. All those noble objectives are going to have to be translated into action. People are going to ask their leaders, `Where's the beef?'''

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