UN Keeps Nations' Focus On Needs of Children
IF any of the national leaders at last fall's United Nations World Summit for Children thought the pledges made there would soon be forgotten, they assumed wrong.A combination of built-in monitoring machinery and vocal child-interest groups is bird-dogging each step of progress. The seven goals, which the 158 parti-cipants pledged to reach by the year 2000, range from access to safe drinking water to a one-third cut in mortality rates for children under age five. UNICEF executive director James Grant said in a recent interview at UN headquarters here that the results so far are encouraging. He has spent the last two months traveling to help nations in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere draft action plans on how they will reach their goals year by year. More than 100 countries are at work on such plans, due by the end of the year. Mr. Grant says he is also encouraged by the extent to which children and their needs are gaining priority even in war situations. During the height of the Gulf war, Iraq and the Western coalition agreed, for instance, to allow the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF to carry medical supplies into Baghdad. Similarly, says Grant, levels of child immunization have been high, despite intense fighting, in such nations as El Salvador, Sri Lanka, and Sudan. The immunization of 80 percent of the world's children under age one, an achievement announced Oct. 8 at UN headquarters, is widely seen as the most solid gain yet toward summit goals. These set a target of 90 percent for the year 2000. In 1980 only 20 percent of the world's children had been immunized. UNICEF, a key recipient of aid for the world's children, reports that its donations are up sharply. Yet much of the 23 percent increase in 1990 contributions - totaling $821 million - came not from governments but from individuals, buying everything from greeting cards to irrigation pumps, says Harold Fleming, UNICEF senior program funding officer. Improving water and sanitation in any village is often a key first step for UNICEF in persuading women to take other health-related moves on behalf of their children. "It's something visible and tangible that the women of a village can rally around," says Mr. Fleming. Elisabeth Rehn, Finland's minister of defense and the recently elected chairwoman of the standing group of UNICEF national committees, confirms that on several fact-finding trips to Cameroon, Sudan, and Ethiopia, village tours almost always included the offer of a drink from a newly drilled well and the proud display of new community toilet facilities. She says she is somewhat concerned that a mistaken sense of self-interest could divert European money and attention to the needs of "neighbor" children in Eastern Europe at the expense of more-deprived young people in developing countries. She says she considers the UN summit goals very realistic as long as they are backed by a global determination to meet them. James Bausch, president of Save the Children, which is active in 20 US states and 37 other nations, says he is particularly concerned that the US itself is not doing more to reach them. He notes that the US is not one of the 97 countries that have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Noting that life expectancy is greater for some children in Bangladesh, where he lived for some years, than in parts of New York City, he says the US must do much more to encourage the development of genuine self-help programs for children and families in need. He says: m beginning to ask, not only, 'Are we doing what we need to do,' but, 'Are we doing anything? Perhaps the toughest goal for summit nations to meet, concedes Grant, is the call for universal access to basic education and completion of primary school by at least 80 percent of the world's children. A survey by UNESCO notes that per-pupil spending has been falling in more than half of the developing nations. Four of every 10 students drop out before finishing primary school. Solving the problem, says Mr. Grant, requires not only more money but improving ways to keep youngsters in school. One suggestion made this month by a group of UNESCO and UNICEF experts at a Paris conference on street children urges schools in developing nations to drop student fees and documentation, such as addresses and birth certificates.