Saving the Children

December 22, 1991

The "peace dividend" made possible by the end of the Cold War could assure all the world's children adequate nourishment, basic health care and a primary education by the end of this decade. That is the premise of the optimistic "agenda for a new world order" put forth last week by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in its annual "State of the World's Children" report.

One billion people live in near-absolute poverty. "For almost half a century," UNICEF says, "war and ideological division have distracted attention and diverted resources. . . . Those threats are now receding. The time has come for the world to recommit itself to meeting basic human needs and building a new world order which will reflect mankind's brightest hopes rather than its darkest fears."

The report is no guilt-trip demand that the "have" countries pony up more money for the benefit of the "have-nots." UNICEF suggests that developing countries, by reducing their own military budgets 10 percent, should be able to find at least $12 billion of the $20 billion a year that is necessary. The rest, it says, could come from 1 percent cuts in the military budgets of the rich world. For the United States, that would amount to about a $3 billion nick in the $300-billion-plus Pentagon budget.

UNICEF also puts an onus on the developing countries to allocate their health and welfare spending more wisely. Too much of it, the report says, is "skewed in favor of the few rather than the many." Money spent on water systems, for example, pays for the installation of private taps in middle-class homes, rather than "wells and stand-pipes which, with today's technology, could bring clean water to the very poorest communities at low cost." Similarly, medical budgets favor urban hospitals over rural clinics.

The report notes that in the United States, during the 1980s -- "a decade of almost uninterrupted growth" -- the percentage of children living in poverty rose from 17 to 22 percent. It identifies two reasons: the erosion of government benefits to poor families with children and the steady fall in real wages of semi-skilled workers.

Ending the worst of world poverty is by no means a lost cause, UNICEF emphasizes. Immunization programs in the past decade have raised the vaccination rate for measles, polio and other diseases from about 25 percent to over 80 percent.

"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 at least a primary education. There is no financial or technological barrier to prevent the completion of that journey in our times."

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