SOME of the world's poorer nations are making a more effective effort than their wealthier neighbors to meet the basic health, nutrition, and education needs of children.
``The Progress of Nations,'' a report issued Sept. 22 by UNICEF (the United Nations Children's Fund), concludes that making such goals a priority often nets impressive results.
``The real question is political will,'' comments UNICEF executive director James Grant.
The report maintains that the developing world is making much more progress in such social areas than most people recognize. Since 1960, death rates of children under five years old have been cut in half, malnutrition rates have been reduced by one-third, and the proportion of couples using modern contraceptives is up from less than 10 percent to more than 50 percent. The average family size is now falling in almost every country. In just 10 years, the report notes, the proportion of children immunized against measles has gone from less than 20 percent to almost 80 percent. The percentage of rural families with access to safe water has risen from under 10 percent to some 60 percent.
``There has been more progress in human welfare in the last 40 years than in the preceding 3,000,'' Mr. Grant says.
When he grew up in China in the 1920s, he says, there was no expectation that health or education should be made available to the ``bottom two-thirds'' of society. The UNICEF report, which tries to measure national gains, reflects ``incredible progress,'' Grant adds.
In ranking nations both regionally and globally, the report notes that four of the poorest nations - Vietnam, China, Sri Lanka, and Honduras - have achieved lower child mortality rates (20 to 60 deaths per 1,000 births) than economically better off nations such as Turkey, Iraq, South Africa, and Brazil.
The report also notes that China, India, Egypt, the Philippines, Vietnam, Honduras, and Zimbabwe all have broader immunization rates than many developing nations with income levels two or three times higher.
Though Africa has a reputation for drought and famine, the report says that malnutrition is most heavily concentrated in such densely populated nations as India and Bangladesh.
AMONG industrialized countries, the United States ranks a low 19th in infant mortality and 21st in immunization. The report notes that the US has twice as high a proportion of children living in poverty as does any European country.
Grant points to what he calls a sharp movement away from government support for children in the US as one factor. As a matter of government policy, he says, the US is paying less attention to children than it did 20 years ago when fewer women worked and families were better equipped to protect themselves.
He notes that the US is the only western industrialized nation that has not signed the UN convention on the rights of the child.
``The striking thing about this report is that poor countries that give priority attention to their children can achieve startling results and rich countries which do not give priority to their children can suffer many adverse consequences,'' Grant says.
The report, which UNICEF hopes to issue on an annual basis, marks the third anniversary of the World Summit for Children. That meeting, held at the UN here, set several goals for the year 2000. One was that 80 percent of all children should have at least four years of schooling.
That goal, according to the new report, will be the most difficult to achieve. Most dropouts are girls and less than half of all children in South Asia, South America, and sub-Saharan Africa now complete four years of primary school. Nonetheless, the proportion of children enrolled in primary school has risen from less than half to more than three quarters.