IN the face of 14 million child deaths a year, at a time when drought and famine threaten the lives of 27 million people in Africa alone, the world's leading children's agency has something hopeful to say.
In a new report issued this month, UNICEF - the United Nations Children's Fund - says there has never been a better opportunity than now exists to reverse the spread of disease and hunger brought on by poverty and war. If that's true, it is important for all of us here and around the world to appreciate just how rare an opportunity that is.
In a divided world that has so long neglected its children, this represents a second chance. And in the labyrinth of international politics and diplomacy, where governments struggle to adjust to rapidly changing attitudes and events, second chances are something history has rarely afforded.
The world's leaders were painfully aware of this in the wake of World War II, when they went about building a world order based on fortifying the ideological chasm between East and West. The bitter conflict in the northern hemisphere spread quickly to the developing countries of the South, where the superpowers found willing partners in need of an economic boost.
When UNICEF changed its postwar mandate to focus on these countries in 1950, it urged the world's governments to remember that the needs of children knew no political boundaries.
Unfortunately, few government leaders listened. In the industrialized countries, humanitarian aid increasingly took a back seat to the arms race. In the developing world, where rapid decolonization led to poverty and power struggles, valuable resources went to equip armies, further slowing or even reversing social development. It may have been a cold war, but the cost of waging it was reminiscent of the bloodiest conflict.
Now, 40 years after UNICEF asked the world to put children above the differences of their parents, the cold war has thawed. Fortunately, we did not destroy each other, and we have not destroyed the possibility of a better future for our children. It is once again time to consider a new world order with new priorities. Almost miraculously, we find ourselves with an unprecedented second chance.
IN its annual "State of the World's Children" report, UNICEF says essentially what it said when the Berlin Wall was still freshly painted - that nurturing our children is our best if not our only hope for truly improving our civilization.
The report points out that low-cost technologies like immunization are saving millions of lives and can potentially save millions more. It puts forth 10 propositions for a new world order. Among them: Falling military expenditures in developing countries should be linked to increased international aid; market econ-omies should be accompanied by a commitment to social programs; gender apartheid should be opposed as strongly as the apartheid of race; and the vicious cycle of Africa's debt should finally be
broken. UNICEF's report stresses "children first," in good times and in bad.
Will the world listen this time? There is reason to be hopeful. A little over a year ago, 71 heads of state - the largest gathering of world leaders ever - came to the UN for the World Summit for Children.
There they adopted specific goals for the year 2000, including a one-third reduction in children's deaths and universal access to safe water. About 100 countries will soon finalize plans of action for pursuing these goals, UNICEF says - the same number of countries that have now ratified an international treaty known as the UN "Convention on the Rights of the Child." All this activity has come in the last two years, and all of it signals a real commitment at last to make children an international priorit y.
The ultimate responsibility for making good on these promises, of course, rests largely with all of us as individuals. The United States will play a leadership role in any new world order, and it is time to take that role as seriously in the pursuit of human rights - including the treatment of children - as we have in transforming NATO to meet new challenges.
So far, the US has refused to ratify the "Convention on the Rights of the Child," and commitments to health care for our own children have been getting weaker, not stronger. UNICEF's report also points out that child poverty in the US has risen steadily, increasing 22 percent in the 1980s, despite a sharp drop in poverty among the elderly. The disparity reflects markedly different levels of government commitment.
With an election on the horizon, Americans should read UNICEF's report and understand how fortunate we are to be living at such a time of change, to have an opportunity to reshape global priorities. Then they should ask the candidates: Where do children fit into your vision of a new world order? And are you willing to set the example?
In 1946, these were not the questions of the day. In 1992 - if we care at all about the future of the planet - they must be.