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Progress in Meeting Needs Of Children Moves Slowly

Experts prod Bush to expedite a key UN convention

SOVIET President Mikhail Gorbachev's recent decision to donate $1 million - including the cash from his Nobel Peace Prize - to health care for Russian children may look like an isolated move. But advocates of the very young see it as one more small sign that the needs of the world's children are being taken more seriously. Three months have passed since more than 150 nations gathered at the United Nations here for a one-day World Summit for Children. They embraced 22 specific goals over the next decade, including a one-third cut in the infant mortality rate and access for every child to a school and to safe drinking water. They also agreed that children should have first call on the world's resources in both bad and good times.

UNICEF executive director James Grant says the summit goals can be met. UNICEF's State of the World's Children report for 1991, released Dec. 19, says for instance that this year a goal set by the World Health Organization in 1980 to immunize against disease 80 percent of all children in the developing world before their first birthday appears to have been achieved.

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In several cases, beginning with El Salvador in 1985, UNICEF has immunized children in the midst of civil wars. Dr. Richard Jolly, deputy UNICEF executive director for programs, recalls that the effort in Lebanon required negotiating with ten warring factions. ``These are real wars, and in a way it's quite remarkable that this has proved possible,'' he says.

Other indicators that children's needs are getting more attention can be seen in priority shifts in national budgets and in development aid.

Congress did more

The US Congress, for instance, passed more child-focused legislation in the last session than at any time in the last 20 years - including a $22.5 billion, five-year child-care bill, an expansion of Medicaid to reach more poor families, and a broadened Head Start program. It even raised its appropriation for UNICEF by $10 million to $75 million.

In Jordan, where the gross national product has dropped by an estimated 40 percent during the Persian Gulf crisis, guidelines for the new budget unveiled this month call for heavy cuts in every area except health and education. Richard Reid, UNICEF director for the Middle East and North Africa, terms the budget plan ``remarkable.''

Many developing nations, as well as those who give them loans and aid, now recognize a close connection between investment in health and education for children and improved economies, says Dr. Jolly.

James Bausch, president of Save the Children, a nonprofit Connecticut-based group that works in 37 countries, says changing attitudes and behavior can take a long time. Yet he notes that important changes already are taking place in attitudes toward health care in some poor countries. Many see the link between more economic power and literacy for women and improvement in child health, he says.

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Some children's advocates argue that the Middle East crisis has diverted attention and money from children's issues. ``I think the Middle East blowup has really set us back,'' says David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America. He is concerned that some of the landmark children's legislation recently passed on Capitol Hill will not be funded.

``Unfortunately, our world leaders seem to be always consumed with fighting,'' says Mr. Liederman. ``They're much more comfortable talking about tanks and planes and military strategy than about child survival.''

White House stalls

Most of the 133 nations at the summit have now ratified or otherwise signed on to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guarantees all children the right to survival, development, and protection. Despite resolutions by the US Senate and House urging the White House to sign and forward the treaty to the Senate, it has not.

``The summit hasn't produced any noticeable effect on the executive branch - President Bush has failed to respond to what is essentially a worldwide movement,'' comments Jim Weill, general counsel of the Children's Defense Fund.

Abortion issue surfaces

Though the White House attributes the delay to ``technical problems,'' it is widely assumed that its reservations on abortion are key. Drafters worked on the document for 10 years and deliberately avoided the question of whether life begins at conception or birth. Supporters of the measure say the US could add its own reservation in approving the treaty; but they consider it unfair to hold the treaty hostage to that issue.

``Nothing's happening,'' insists Kenneth Phillips, President of Plan International, USA, formerly known as the Foster Parents Plan. In not ratifying the measure, says Mr. Phillips, the White House is in the company of such nations as Libya, Iraq, Iran, and South Africa, nations he describes as ``not known for their concern for children.''

UNICEF's 1991 report says many of the most effective solutions for cutting malnutrition and infant mortality cost little on a per capita basis. It notes that several countries with per capita gross national products of $1,500 a year, including Chile, China, Jamaica, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, have reduce deaths of children under five to less than 50 per 1,000 births - surpassing the summit goal set for the year 2000.

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