Letter from New York

By Shirley Farlinger | 1991-03-01 12:00:00

GONE ARE the days of "tripping the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York." Now you just trip. The side-walks are cracked in more ways than one. Street people sleeping in cardboard boxes or pushing their belonging in shopping carts brush up against models for Vogue. Something's rotten in The Big Apple.

We went to New York to attend the United Nations World Summit for Children. There we found the rot of The Big Apple extends around the globe.

The Summit was the largest gathering of heads of state ever held. It was the idea of James Grant, Executive Director of UNICEF, which has become a Hallowe'en word. It means the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund.

Brian Mulroney chaired the Summit along with black and stately Moussa Traore of Mali; everything proceeded smoothly. The children sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

The City of New York recognized the event. There were a children's concert in Central Park, a tree-planting at the U.N., church services, and bells ringing as the Declaration was signed.

The World Declaration on the Survival, Protection, and Development of Children and the Plan of Action for Implementing the Declaration are a document of 19 pages that contains enough tasks to keep us all busy for the next 10 years, when it will then be reviewed. The goals are plain: reduce infant mortality by one-third, reduce maternal mortality by half, reduce severe and moderate malnutrition among under-five children by half, provide universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation, provide universal access to basic education, reduce illiteracy, especially among women, and improve protection of children in difficult circumstances -prostitution, prisons, torture.

Let me put all the bad news into one paragraph. About 40,000 children die from starvation and preventable disease every day. Two-thirds of these deaths are easily preventable. In the '90s, at this rate, 150 million children will die. Violeta Chamorra, President of Nicaragua, said that 40 percent of the children of Latin America live in extreme poverty and in her country 3,000 children were killed in the war. In the Ukraine 60,000 children were irradiated by the disaster at Chernobyl. In Mozambique 400,000 children are refugees. In Columbia most of the crimes by children under 15 are related to the drug traffic. Globally there are 100 million children living on the streets, 50 million in Latin America and 6 million in Brazil. Even in Canada one child in six is poor and 40% of food bank users are children. Around the world 90 million are denied schooling and there is a rising tide of illiteracy in this, the International Year of Literacy.

SHOULD IT BE CALLED the International Year of Lunacy? As Stephen Lewis said at one of the press conferences, "Debt relief could save millions of lives. The collection of debt has become more important than the sanctity of children." But Wilfred Thalwitz of The World Bank stated, "I would not say the time has come to end structural adjustment." This is the new euphemism for austerity-social spending cuts, free market prices for export goods, and an open door policy for multinationals. He did admit, "The market economy emphasis has been too strong." After listening, one young girl asked, "Will rich countries share with the poor?"

Carrying out the goals of the new Declaration (which is now international law) will take money. James Grant estimates the cost at $2.5 billion a year-less than the world spends on the military each day. The welfare of children should not depend, he insisted, on whether interest rates rise or fall or on the political party in power or on economic recession. Or on war. Mulroney put it this way. "The Peace Dividend is being diluted by aggression in the Persian Gulf."

The confrontation in the Gulf had barely begun, but the comments of Mohiuddin of Bangladesh were instructive. "When arms are given to my neighbor I am held hostage," he said. Arms production is one way money is taken from the poor and given to the rich. The Summit did not deal with these problems. In fact, the task of carrying out the Plan of Action is left to each country and I suspect the non-governmental agencies will get most of the hard work.

You could say the U.N. Summit for Children was idealistic and you'd be right. You could say it was a charade of world leaders looking good and you'd be right. Or you could say it was an unprecedented act of political will codified in international law for which the leaders of the world will be held accountable. If you are right, children will not have to hold their hands out to beg while the rich turn away.

Shirley Farlinger is an Associate Editor of PEA CE.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991, page 15. Some rights reserved.

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