Save the Children: It's Not That Hard


December 20, 1991|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. - "We have already traveled three-quarters of the way toward a world in which every man, woman and child has adequate food, safe water, basic health care and primary education. There is no financial or technological barrier to prevent the completion of this journey in our times,'' announces James Grant, executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund, in its annual report ''The State of the World's Children.''

Why aren't we completing the other 25 per cent of this remarkable journey that has transformed the well-being of most of the world in this century? The kind of anger born of injustice and needless poverty that moved so many young people to be communists in the 1930s, socialists in the '40s and liberals in the '60s should charge the new generation today.

Only a tiny percentage of the aid the industrialized countries send to the Third World is spent directly on the basic needs of the poor. About one per cent goes to primary health-care systems, which could prevent or treat 80 per cent of the disease and malnutrition in the Third World. One per cent goes to primary education. And one per cent goes to family planning.

Too often, the same bias obtains at the receiving end, in the Third World countries themselves. Health budgets are concentrated on urban hospitals, serving only a minority of the population. Eighty per cent of the money spent each year on water-supply systems goes to installing private taps, only 20 per cent to the wells and stand-pipes that could bring clean, safe water to every villager and slum dweller.

This neglect adds up to a quarter-million children dying unnecessarily every week of the year.

Compounding the tragedy in many parts of the Third World is the lowering of basic living standards as communism has collapsed in Eastern Europe. Capitalism has been introduced too carelessly, with too little regard for how unemployment, falling incomes and rising prices have affected the poor. In Albania, the worst case, 20 per cent of all children are now malnourished; infant mortality is more than double its 1989 level. In Poland, Bulgaria and the ex-Soviet Union it is, if not quite as bad, severe enough.

Reasonable indexing of state benefits, sensitive monitoring of changes in child well-being, careful targeting of available resources, free school meals, food stamps to insure minimal nutritional standards and the maintenance of basic health and education services could have protected the most vulnerable, especially the children. But the new political class and their Western scholastic advisers have been so concerned to get the ''big picture'' right that they've ignored the quite inexpensive ways elementary standards can be preserved, even furthered, in a time of stringency.

Real life alternatives exist. The Eastern European nations and much of the Third World could usefully take a look at the highly ''impoverished'' northeastern Brazilian state of Ceara. In the three years, 1986-1989, Ceara, population 6 million, has reduced its infant death rate by one-third; cut child deaths from diarrhea, the biggest killer, by a half; boosted immunization levels up to 40 per cent and reduced child malnutrition by a third. This, moreover, has been accomplished while the economy of Brazil has plunged from bad to worse. Ceara has no natural resources to speak of, and is often drought-ridden. All it has is a group of local leaders with imagination and drive.

Mismanaged capitalism has put Brazil in a tailspin the last few years. Ceara shows one way of parachuting to safety. Better still, you are a child, to be born in one of those east Asian economies which have pioneered capitalist economic take-off with in-flight service for everybody.

South Korea, for example, insured that almost all its children were in primary school even when its per-capita national income was little more than $100 a year. This country, which has moved from rags to riches within a single generation, realized that early spending on basic education and health for all were not just social expenditures but economic investments, not just indulgences affordable only after prosperity but the foundations without which widespread prosperity will never be achieved.

When something important can be done with such relative ease, it makes the blood boil that it isn't done everywhere.


Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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