Today is Universal Children’s Day, the anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The document, which has provisions that range from protections against the use of child soldiers to guaranteeing all children the right to a nationality, also challenges the nations of the world to “ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development” of children. But the in the next half-hour, around the world, approximately 600 children under the age of five will die from easily preventable diseases. That is a group slightly larger than Davenport, my college.
Of those kids, 114 will die from pneumonia, 80 from diarrhea, and 66 from the measles. Of these 600 doomed babies, toddlers and kids, approximately 246 live in Sub-Saharan Africa and 204 live in South Asia. Half of their deaths will be related to malnourishment. They will have contracted bacteria from unpurified drinking water, viruses from playing in streets without sewage systems, or parasites from a mosquito that bit them while they slept. They will not have had access to effective, inexpensive treatments — oral rehydration salts, vaccines, antibiotics, mosquito nets — proven to save lives.
Such children are not the victims of a news-making epidemic, a stunning catastrophe of nature, political violence, or direct human malevolence. Instead, they are the voiceless casualties of dramatic global inequality and a silent resignation to its inevitability. Rarely, if ever, does the world pause to mourn their passing, record their mothers’ grief, or rage at the injustice of their extinguished futures.
The prevention of these unnecessary deaths should become a global priority. Student activists, development economists, medical researchers and international policymakers can all direct efforts toward saving and improving these young lives. Significant progress has already been made in the last decades, including the near eradication of polio, the introduction of inexpensive oral rehydration therapy to treat diarrhea, and vitamin A supplements to combat malnutrition. As a result, infant and child mortality rates have declined.
But as medical treatments advanced over the last decade, U.S. funding of child survival programs stagnated. Our country, with the deepest pockets and the most international attention, allocates less than .025 percent of the federal budget to child survival programs. When measured as a percentage of GDP, the U.S. contribution to international child survival ranks 21st among industrialized donor nations. In its budget proposal this year, the Bush administration proposed a dramatic and unprecedented cut of almost one-sixth of the budget for child survival. Congress has acted to restore much of these funding cuts but should act to increase funding beyond its current level.
Global health advocates give many reasons why we should prioritize funding for child survival in the United States. Children’s health is critical to economic development, since rapid economic growth has proven impossible to sustain if malnutrition and high mortality rates are ignored. Reductions in child mortality have positive demographic effects, since parents who can expect their children to survive choose to have fewer children and make higher investments in their education. Healthier children make for more stable countries, which have more incentives to participate in the international community.
But these arguments are peripheral. There ought to be a swell of public support for increased U.S. commitment to global child survival programs — not for economic or national security reasons, but for moral ones. The disproportionate concentration of wealth in this country has lots of implications, but the least acceptable is the deaths of the 600 children every half-hour because they never had clean water to drink or were vaccinated. All human lives are of equal value, and all children deserve to live to see their fifth birthday. The United States should rededicate itself to the principles of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Taryn Williams is a senior in Davenport College. She is a member of the Yale chapter of the Student Campaign for Child Survival.