The Kids Aren’t Alright

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, December 14, 2004)


Every year for the past decade, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has publishes a report detailing the state of the world’s children. This year’s report, released last week, shows a world where more than one billion children — more than half of all children — live in poverty. And that’s just part of the problem, as Kofi Annan notes in the report’s foreword:

“The years of childhood hold a special place as an ideal we all hope to realize — a place in which all children are healthy, protected from harm and surrounded by loving and nurturing adults who help them grow and develop to their full potential. But as The State of the World’s Children 2005 makes clear, for nearly half of the two billion children in the real world, childhood is starkly and brutally different from the ideal we all aspire to. Poverty denies children their dignity, endangers their lives and limits their potential. Conflict and violence rob them of a secure family life, betray their trust and their hope. HIV/AIDS kills their parents, their teachers, their doctors and nurses. It also kills them.”

More specifically, the report estimates more than two million children under age 15 are infected with HIV. And far more stand to be left parentless by the disease. UNICEF predicts that, “based on current trends, the number of children orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa will exceed 18 million by 2010. With infection rates rising and the long latency period complicating efforts to estimate prevalence rates, the crisis for children will persist for decades.”

Of course, AIDS is only one factor in the disturbingly high child mortality rates cited by UNICEF. The U.N. group found 98 nations are off-track when it comes to the Millennium Development Goal of cutting the mortality rate of children under age 5 by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015. Of those 98, 45 countries were deemed “seriously off-track,” unable to cut the death rate by more than 1 percent annually. A plurality of those 45 are in Africa, the continent where children are hit hardest by the combination of AIDS, violence and poverty. Other countries in the “seriously off-track” category include Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Russia, Ukraine and obviously Iraq.

However, children in those nations that have effectively reduced the mortality rate still face plenty of problems. For example, India — with roughly 20 percent of the world’s children — has more than half of all children without access to adequate sanitation (roughly 273 million out of an estimated 500 million), as well as 147 million without adequate shelter, 77 million without access to safe water, 85 million who can’t access health care and 33 million who have never attended school.

“India is home to one-fifth of the world’s children. We should not be daunted by this figure, rather inspired by it, since if we can improve the lives of India’s children,” UNICEF Country Representative to India Cecilio Adorna said. “We will lead the way and dramatically improve the situation of children globally. The policies and legislation needed to meet this challenge are in place. It is now up to each one of us to transform the commitment and these policies into action.”

While that’s obviously a noble goal, even the world’s most developed countries are struggling to fight child poverty, UNICEF reports. According to a Luxembourg Income Study cited in the report, 11 of the 15 OECD countries have seen the percentage of their children living in poverty increase during the past 15 years. And poverty is particularly problematic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

While the overall picture is certainly bleak, the UNICEF report also highlights some successes in improving the lives of children, particularly in regard to cutting mortality and increasing access to education. Most of its proposed solutions are phrased in broad terms and are intuitive, such as:

“Many of the deprivations children face can be addressed by a positive change in their family income and better access to basic social services. However, strong arguments can be made for prioritizing action on reducing the many dimensions of the poverty that children experience. This will require greater awareness, concepts that tackle child poverty as a multidimensional issue, better monitoring and sharing of lessons, and efforts to build a broad coalition of agents.”

UNICEF calls on governments to better fulfill the principles outlined in the 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. Signed by 117 nations, the convention outlines the basic rights of children, and generally calls for governments to spend more on eradicating poverty and disease, and less on the wars that have killed more than 1.5 million children since 1990. As UNICEF director Carol Bellamy told the BBC:

“Too many governments are making informed, deliberate choices that actually hurt childhood. When half the world’s children are growing up hungry and unhealthy, when schools have become targets and whole villages are being emptied by AIDS, we’ve failed to deliver on the promise of childhood.”

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