World leaders meet in N.Y. to discuss plight of children some decry cost

September 30, 1990|By Fernando Goncalves | Fernando Goncalves,Sun Staff Correspondent Sun staff correspondent Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

NEW YORK -- The leaders of 73 nations were gatherin yesterday in New York for the world's first summit convened to discuss the problems facing children.

Supporters of the event, billed as the world's largest gathering of government leaders, say it will stimulate commitment and convey awareness of the plight of children. Critics say it is a waste of money.

According to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, about 40,000 children die every day, mainly from preventable causes. If this death rate is not lowered, UNICEF says, by the end of this decade 150 million youngsters under the age of 5 will die.

The summit, proposed by Canada, Egypt, Mali, Sweden and Pakistan, is viewed with skepticism by those who think the money spent on the gathering itself would be better spent on needy children. About $6 million reportedly will be spent on security arrangements alone.

Other expenses will be incurred for travel, accommodation in luxurious New York hotels, and on local transportation for the heads of state or government and their delegations.

During the summit's two days, more than 50,000 infants are expected to die, mainly of preventable diseases such as whooping cough, measles, tetanus, malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia.

One critic of the proceedings was Oluyemi Falade, a 15-year-old girl who writes for Children's Express, a local children's publication.

"I think the summit will be too expensive, and I don't think it is going to produce any results," she said, adding that the money could be spent on solving "real problems."

UNICEF officials say the meeting will not be a fund-raising event but rather one that will make leaders commit themselves to paying greater attention to problems facing children in their respective countries.

By tomorrow, when the gathering closes, the leaders are expected to have signed a declaration aimed at improving the condition of children over the next decade.

[U.S. officials said yesterday that President Bush, who is to address the summit today, would be too busy to stay long enough to sign the declaration, according to the Associated Press. The signing is scheduled for about 5 p.m., when Mr. Bush is scheduled to be meeting with the presidents of Brazil, Venezuela and Czechoslovakia.

["Obviously, it's a tremendous disappointment," said one summit organizer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We certainly wanted to have everyone possible sign the document."]

Last November, the U.N. General Assembly approved a convention on the "rights of the child" that was designed to combat disease and ensure the protection, survival and development of children. About 30 nations -- but not the United States -- have signed the document.

Representative Tom Lantos, D-Calif., without discussing the substance of the convention, said he would support any action in Congress meant to improve the quality of life for children.

"I feel very strongly that the summit is long overdue, and if you study the problems facing children, you realize it's a nightmare," Mr. Lantossaid.

"The agenda is enormous and prompts the leaders to take action."

Among statistics cited by the summit's organizers: 40 percent of the world's children suffer from malnutrition; half the children in developing nations have no access to clean drinking water; nearly 100 million children of primary school age are unable to attend school; and hundreds of thousands of Third World children lose their parents each year because of civil war, other factional fighting or poor health care.

But the problems extend beyond the Third World. The New York-based National Center for Children in Poverty notes that poor children in the United States face risks of low birth weight and infant mortality rates higher than do those in many other industrialized nations.

The center also says that U.S. children face unacceptably high rates of prenatal drug exposure, pediatric AIDS, malnutrition, child abuse and neglect, and homelessness.

Although President Bush was attending, his superpower counterpart, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, was not listed as a participant.

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