Imagine a world where every pregnant woman receives decent care, where every child gets a healthy and supportive start in life and a good basic education, where each adolescent has the opportunity to develop fully and to participate in society, where the best interests of children guide every decision affecting them.
What a very different world that would be from what we have now. UNICEF and other groups that have been leading the movement for children's rights believe we can accomplish this by 2010. It is hard to think of a more worthy goal as we cross into the new millennium. We can leave behind a bloody century and pledge ourselves to a world of peace and prosperity in which every child enjoys these basic human rights. If we can do this, we will secure the structure of a global, humane society.
We have made enormous progress in the last half of the century in promoting universal education, human rights, public health and democratic institutions. A UNICEF report this month was filled with news of some truly amazing accomplishments that have come about through joint efforts of governments, nongovernmental organizations and international development agencies.
Millions of lives have been saved by mass immunization efforts, improved access to safe drinking water and sanitation and public health education campaigns. Hundreds of thousands of women are alive today because of well-spaced pregnancies and good prenatal care. More women and girls have access to education than ever before -- and even countries that are torn by civil war are honoring their commitments to teach their children. Polio is on the verge of eradication. More than two-thirds of the world's children under 5 years of age were immunized against polio in 1998 alone. That's 450 million children. Measles, a child killer, has been reduced by a stunning 85 percent over the last 10 years, and neonatal tetanus has been reduced by more than 25 percent. Some 12 million children have been spared mental retardation caused by iodine deficiency. Blindness from vitamin A deficiency has been significantly reduced.
Despite these gains, UNICEF's "State of the World's Children 2000" concludes that millions of children's futures are blighted by deepening poverty, a growing disparity between rich and poor, proliferating violence, the spread of HIV/AIDS and discrimination against women and girls.
"These problems are not new, but they are more widespread and profoundly entrenched than they were even a decade ago," the report states. "Interwoven and reinforcing, they feed off one another and abrogate the rights of children and women in compounding ways. In some countries and regions, they threaten to undo much of what has been accomplished."
This is particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia where the AIDS epidemic has had devastating consequences. "In Africa, the social and economic devastation caused by HIV/AIDS in the last decade is greater than the combined destruction of the continent's wars: an estimated 200,000 Africans, most of them women and children, died as a result of conflicts in 1998, while 2 million people were killed by AIDS," the report says. The virus preys on the young, the poor, the powerless -- which is to say women and children -- and on the uneducated.
During the decade since the 1989 adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a decade that began by putting children at the forefront of human rights efforts, more than 2 million have been killed and an additional 6 million maimed or disabled in armed conflicts. Hundreds of thousands were forced into service as soldiers, sex slaves or porters.
In 1960, the income gap between the richest fifth of the world's population and the poorest fifth was 30 to 1. In 1997, it was 74 to 1. Many of the world's poorest countries are paying far more on international debt service than they are on basic human services such as education and health care. Some are making foolish decisions, such as spending money on fighter aircraft and submarines when they should be spending it on social services.
Meanwhile, official development assistance from donor countries dropped 21 percent between 1992 and 1997. And among leading industrialized countries it dropped 30 percent, while their GNPs jumped almost 30 percent.
The late James P. Grant, who was UNICEF's executive director, championed the idea that both rich and poor countries need to come up with resources to provide the social services necessary for human development: access to basic health care, education, family planning, safe water and sanitation. He called it the 20/20 Initiative, and its guiding principle was that developing countries would commit 20 percent of their budgets to these services and donor countries would commit 20 percent of their official development assistance to these services. UNICEF now estimates that by redirecting $70 billion to $80 billion a year in a global economy that exceeds $30 trillion a year, the world would ensure that everyone on Earth gets those fundamentals. A global summit of governments, philanthropies, corporations, nongovernmental organizations and U.N. organizations will meet in New York during a special session of the General Assembly in the fall of 2001 to develop an agenda for doing this before the first decade of the millennium ends.
UNICEF believes this can be done in one generation. We all can do our part by making this effort a meaningful part of our lives. If we do, we would know that in our time on Earth, we've made a difference.
Happy new year!