As UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, at the invitation of the 1 Percent for Development Fund. Geneva, 13 June 1989
Up until some eighteen months ago-before I was given the great privilege of becoming a volunteer for UNICEF - I used to be overwhelmed by a sense of desperation and helplessness when watching television or reading about the indescribable misery of the developing world's children and their mothers.
If I feel less helpless today, it is because I have now seen what can be done and what is being done by UNICEF, by many other organizations and agencies, by the churches, by governments, and most of all, with very little help, by people themselves. And yet, we must do more about the alarming state of the children in the developing world-many are only just surviving-especially when we know that the finances needed are minimal compared to the global expenditure of this world, and when we know that less than half of one percent of today's world economy would be the total required to eradicate the worst aspects of poverty and to meet basic human needs over the next ten years. In other words, there is no deficit in human resources-the deficit is in human will.
The question I am most frequently asked is: "What do you really do for UNICEF?" Clearly, my task is to inform, to create awareness of the need of children. To fully understand the problems of the state of the world's children, it would be nice to be an expert on education, economics, politics, religious traditions, and cultures. I am none of these things, but I am a mother. There is unhappily a need for greater advocacy for children-children haunted by undernourishment, disease and death. You do not have to be a "financial whiz" to look into so many little faces with diseased, glazed eyes and to know that this is the result of critical malnutrition, one of the worst symptoms of which is vitamin A deficiency that causes corneal lesions resulting in partial or total blindness, followed within a few weeks by death. Every year there are as many as 500,000 such cases in countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, Ethiopia. Today there are in fact, millions of children at risk of going blind. Little wonder that I and many other UNICEF volunteers travel the world to raise funds before it is too late, but also to raise awareness and to combat a different kind of darkness, a darkness people find themselves in through lack of information on how easy it is to reach out and keep these children. It costs eighty-four cents a year to stop a child from going blind-the price of two vitamin A capsules.
I have known UNICEF a long time. For, almost forty-five years ago, I was one of the tens of thousands of starving children in war-ravaged Europe to receive aid from UNICEF, immediately after our Iiberation. That liberation freed us from hunger, repression, and constant violence. We were reduced to near total poverty, as is the developing world today. For it is poverty that is at the root of all their suffering-the not-having: not having the means to help themselves. That is what UNICEF is all about-helping people to help themselves and giving them the aid to develop.The effect of the monstrous burden of debt in the developing world has made the poor even poorer, and has fallen most heavily on the neediest. Those whom it has damaged the most have been the women and children.
Unlike droughts, floods, or earthquakes, the tragedy of poverty cannot easily be captured by the media and brought to the attention of the public worldwide. It is happening not in any one particular place, but in slums and shanties and neglected rural communities across two continents. It is happening not at any one particular time, but over long years of increasing poverty, which have not been featured in the nightly news but which have changed the lives of many millions of people. And it is happening not because of any one visible cause, but because of an unfolding economic drama in which the industrialized nations play a leading part, which is spreading human misery and hardship on a scale and of a severity unprecedented in the postwar era.
In Africa, for instance, in spite of national reforms, improved weather conditions, and a surge of their agricultural output, all their hard-earned gains have been undermined by international economic trends and a drastic fall in commodity prices. They are now compelled to return four times as much money as they were loaned! But the poorest sectors of society in the developing world are also suffering as a result of all too frequent misappropriation of funds, as well as the tremendous inequality in the distribution of land and other productive resources.
UNICEF's business is children-not the workings of the international economy. In its everyday work in over 100 developing nations, UNICEF is brought up against a face of today's international economic problems that is not seen in the corridors of financial power, not reflected in the statistics of debt service ratios, not seated at the conference tables of debt negotiations-it is in the face of a child. It is the young child whose growing mind and body is susceptible to permanent damage from even temporary deprivation. The human brain and body are formed within the first five years of life, and there is no second chance. It is the young child whose individual development today, and whose social contribution tomorrow, are being shaped by the economics of now. It is the young child who is paying the highest of all prices. We cannot therefore ignore the economic issues which for so many millions of the world's poorest families have made the 1980s into a decade of despair.
Today the heaviest burden of a decade of frenzied borrowing is falling not on the military, nor on those foreign bank accounts, nor on those who conceived the years of waste, but on the poor who are having to do without the bare necessities, on the women who do not have enough food to maintain their health, on the infants whose minds and bodies are being stunted because of untreated illnesses and malnutrition, and on children who are being denied their only opportunity ever to go to school. When the impact becomes visible in the rising death rates among children, then what has happened is simply an outrage against a large section of humanity. Nothing can justify it. The consensus now beginning to take shape is that the burden of debt must be lifted to a degree where the developing countries can cope with debt repayment, to the point where their economies can grow out of their overwhelming indebtedness, and set them on the road to recovery and real development.
World population growth is beginning to be brought under control. Change is in prospect everywhere-and if at this time there is the vision to use this opportunity creatively to see a brave new world and to dare to reach for it, there is a real possibility over the next ten years to begin to come to grips with the triad of fundamental problems which threaten mankind: the presence and the threat of war, the deterioration of the environment, and the persistence of the worst aspects of absolute poverty.
Many of the great social changes of modern history-the abolition of slavery, the ending of colonial rule, the isolation of apartheid, the increasing consensus on the environment, or the growing recognition of the rights of women-have begun with rhetorical commitment which has eventually turned into action. In the 1990s it may at last be the turn of the child, and our dream for an international summit for children and ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child could become a reality.
Forty thousand (35,000 in 2003) children still die every day-280,000 a week (245,000 in 2003). No natural calamity, be it flood or earthquake, has ever claimed as many children's lives-and this happens every week mostly in the silent emergency of preventable diseases like polio, tetanus, tuberculosis, measles, and the worst killer of all, dehydration from diarrhea caused by unclean drinking water and malnutrition. It costs five dollars to vaccinate a child for life, 6 cents will prevent death from dehydration, and 84 cents per year will stop a child from going blind. How is it that governments spend so much on warfare and bypass the needs of their children, their greatest capital, their only hope for peace?
I must admit to you that the magnitude of the task that UNICEF has undertaken sometimes overwhelms me, and I am saddened and frustrated when I stop to think of what we cannot do-like change the world overnight-or when I have to deal with the cynics of this world who argue, Is it morally right to save the lives of children who will only grow up to more suffering and poverty due to overpopulation? Letting children die is not the remedy to overpopulation; family planning and birth spacing is. Rapid population growth can be slowed by giving the world's poor a better life, giving them health, education, housing, nutrition, civil rights. These things are not free but available at a cost that developing countries can afford, given the assistance they need. China, Indonesia, Thailand, and Mexico have already proven that population can be slowed by working on public health education and family planning.
The World Bank now forecasts that by the early 1990s the world should reach the historic turning point at which the annual increase in global population begins to decline. It is also true that in no country has the birth rate declined before infant deaths have declined. In other words, parents can plan to have two children if they know they will survive, rather than having six in the hopes that two will survive. That is why UNICEF is also so dedicated to educating and informing mothers in child care. For it is the mother who is still the best "caretaker" of her child, and UNICEF supports any amount of educational projects for women in the developing countries that relate directly to health and nutrition, sanitation and hygiene, education and literacy.
So today I speak for those children who cannot speak for themselves: children who are going blind through lack of vitamins; children who are slowly being mutilated by polio; children who are wasting away in so many ways through lack of water; for the estimated 100 million street children in this world who have no choice but to leave home in order to survive, who have absolutely nothing but their courage and their smiles and their dreams; for children who have no enemies yet are invariably the first tiny victims of war-wars that are no longer confined to the battlefield but which are being waged through terror and intimidation and massacre-children who are therefore growing up surrounded by the horrors of violence for the hundreds of thousands of children who are refugees. The task that lies ahead for UNICEF is ever greater, whether it be repatriating millions of children in Afghanistan or teaching children how to play who have only learned how to kill. Charles Dickens wrote, "In their little world, in which children have their existence, nothing is so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice." Injustice which we can avoid by giving more of ourselves, yet we often hesitate in the face of such apocalyptic tragedy. Why, when the way and the low-cost means are there to safeguard and protect these children? It is for leaders, parents, and young people-young people, who have the purity of heart which age sometimes tends to obscure-to remember their own childhood and come to the rescue of those who start life against such heavy odds.
Children are our most vital resource, our hope for the future. Until they not only can be assured of physically surviving the first fragile years of life, but are free of emotional, social and physical abuse, it is impossible to envisage a world that is free of tension and violence. But it is up to us to make it possible.
UNICEF is a humanitarian institution, not a charitable organization. It deals in development, not in welfare, giving handouts to those waiting with their hands outstretched. On my travels to Ethiopia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Central America, Mexico, and the Sudan, I have seen no out-stretched hands, only a silent dignity and a longing to help themselves, given the chance.
UNICEF's mandate is to protect every child against famine, thirst, sickness, abuse, and death. But today we are dealing with an even more ominous threat, "man's inhumanity to man;" with the dark side of humanity that is polluting our skies and our oceans, destroying our forests and extinguishing thousands of beautiful animals. Are our children next?
That is what we are up against. For it is no longer enough to vaccinate our children, to give them food and water, and only cure the symptoms of man's tendency to destroy-to destroy everything we hold dear, everything life depends on,the very air we breathe,the earth that sustains us, and the most precious of all, our children. Whether it be famine in Ethiopia, excruciating poverty in Guatemala and Honduras, civil strife in El Salvador, or ethnic massacre in the Sudan, I saw but one glaring truth. These are not natural disasters, but man-made tragedies, for which there is only one man-made solution-peace.
Even if this mammoth Operation Life-Line Sudan were only to achieve half its goal, due to the countless odds it is up against-in a vast country with no infrastructure, few roads to speak of, no communication system-it will have succeeded, For not only will it have saved thousands of lives, but it will also have given the Sudan hope. The United Nations will have shown the world that only through corridors of tranquillity can children be saved, that only through peace can man survive, and only through development will they survive, with dignity and a future. A future in which we can say we have fulfilled our human obligation.
Your 1 percent is an example of 100 percent but all together a beautiful example to us of love and caring. Together there is nothing we cannot do.
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