Children on the Edge

December 25, 1993

PPE: It may sound like a utility company, but it's shorthand for poverty, population growth and environmental stress -- the formula for a downward spiral toward greater human misery for millions of people around the world. James Grant, director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), cites the "PPE spiral" in the fund's annual "State of the World's Children" report,

released this week.

In many ways, improving the lives of the world's children is too easy, simply because needs are so great that almost any positive effort can make a measurable difference. For instance, two initiatives alone -- immunization against common childhood diseases and the availability of a simple, inexpensive oral rehydration therapy -- save the lives of more than 4 million children each year.

The major reason so many are at risk is poverty -- not the kind of end-of-the-month poverty some American families regularly experience, but the absolute poverty of a desperate, day-to-day scramble when entire families exist on pennies a day. UNICEF says one-fifth of the world's families live that way -- and warns the number of desperately poor people could quadruple if present trends continue.

That's the scary news. But there's also hope. During the Cold War years, superpower rivalries often precluded the broad vision that is necessary to see problems in their context. As nations feel their way in a post-Cold War world, UNICEF is wise to emphasize that the welfare of children ultimately depends on a broader approach to sustainable economic and human development.

Poverty doesn't develop in a vacuum. It is related to other factors -- population pressures and environmental stress being two major ones. When a woman in Africa has to spend several hours a day searching for wood to burn for fuel and fetching scarce water from a distant well, there is less time to grow crops, tend livestock or undertake other activities that could sustain the family. Clearly, the number of children this woman has to feed and the resources available to help her do it affect the ability of each child to survive and thrive.

Political and economic decisions also help determine whether a poor family ever climbs out of absolute poverty. Access to health care, education and economic opportunity, especially including small amounts of credit for entrepreneurial activities, have a direct effect on the lives of children.

Maybe one year soon, UNICEF will not be able to report that millions of children's lives were saved simply by rudimentary preventive measures. That would be good news, since it would indicate that far fewer young lives are lived so close to the edge.

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