Who cares?

Published : Jan 29, 2010 00:00 IST

An internally displaced Tamil child at a camp at Manik Farm in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka, on December 23, 2009. In addition to war, new forms of exploitation have emerged, negating the progress made in the past century.-ERANGA JAYAWARDENA/AP

An internally displaced Tamil child at a camp at Manik Farm in Vavuniya, Sri Lanka, on December 23, 2009. In addition to war, new forms of exploitation have emerged, negating the progress made in the past century.-ERANGA JAYAWARDENA/AP

ON November 20, 1989, in what was a historic moment, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by a General Assembly Resolution of the United Nations. It came into force on September 2, 1990, and has since been ratified by 193 countries except the United States. The United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) has brought out a special edition of its The State of the Worlds Children report on the occasion of 20 years of the CRC which coincides with the worst global financial and economic crisis since the Great Depression 80 years ago.

Significantly, it calls on governments to seize the opportunity and put the CRC principles into practice and not to ignore the impact of the crisis on the poor, and women and children. The risks to child rights from the current economic crisis and other challenges from the external environment must not be underestimated, it warns. The report calls for large-scale outlays by governments in procurement and distribution to maintain levels of immunisation and to provide basic health care services. Greater commitment and levels of investment than pre-crisis levels will be required to meet the Millennium Development Goals, it says.

The report recognises the need for a change in values that respects child rights, and uses terms such as social transformation and reconstruction, which almost everyone had taken for granted in a global economic scenario in the post-1990s. According to the report, at the time it was going to press in August 2009, the global economic outlook remained uncertain despite signs of forward-looking economic indicators. The full impact on child rights, it says, will only become apparent as new international estimates of global poverty, child development and nutrition emerge. For the crisis not to leave a legacy of deprivation for generations, the choice has to be to safeguard, support and, if possible, expand the essential services, protection and participation that are the right of all children at all times, it says. It cautions that declining or inadequate government expenditure on health and education associated in a period of economic crisis will transfer the burden of service provision to households and communities and heighten the already high demands on girls and women. The report concedes in a sense that greater progress towards the achievement of the rights of the child could have been made had they been given top priority. The profound financial and economic crisis now engulfing the world may, if nothing else, have opened a debate on global and economic priorities, it says. Additionally, in the context of the impact of climate change on children in developing countries, it warns that the old way of operating is no longer applicable the world has a unique opportunity to reconstruct itself and to dedicate itself afresh to nurturing not only the physical environment but also its most vulnerable human inhabitants.

Notwithstanding the reports prognostications, most governments led by some of the advanced nations do not appear keen on shedding their old ways. There are isolated interventions within developing nations, for instance, in Brazil and China where deliberate measures to universalise education or even to put in place social protection systems have been undertaken. But certain developing countries are still in denial mode. Quoting a research on the prevalence of social protection schemes in developing countries, the report says that of 144 developing countries surveyed, 19 out of 49 low-income countries and 49 out of 95 middle-income countries have no social safety net programmes and only one-third of all countries have some kind of cash transfers in place. Clearly, the existing systems are woefully inadequate.

To bolster its argument about the impact of the present economic turmoil on children, the report cites the example of developing countries that faced economic shocks in 1997 (the Asian financial crisis) which led to higher under-five mortality rates, lower school enrolment and rising insecurity. These were accompanied with reductions in public expenditure on health and education. The governments of Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines strengthened nutritional programmes for children and ensured greater access to education through scholarships.

Argentina dealt with its 2002 debt crisis differently. Its government tried to protect the poorest households by providing income support to their unemployed heads. This lowered the incidence of extreme poverty across the nation. The popular social protection schemes of Mexico (Oportunidades) and Brazil (Programa Saude da Family) resulted in falling infant mortality rates and lower rates of poverty. It is important to mention here that the change of leadership in Brazil did have a large role to play in reducing hunger in its population.

While social protection programmes like cash transfers, which were experimented with in a few countries, have their own merits and strengths, what is needed are long-term interventions that result in enhanced investment in the social sector. This will, in turn, generate employment and sustain the purchasing power of the people. It is not a coincidence that countries that lack a social protection programme are those with great income inequalities.

Soaring food and fuel prices too are a matter of concern. This, the report says, could result in rising poverty and undernutrition (defined as the outcome of insufficient food intake and repeated infectious diseases) in developing countries. Domestic food prices in developing countries are far above historical levels, the report says. There is ample evidence at present from India to show this.

The report recommends supplementation measures such as therapeutic foods for young children and supportive measures to ensure access to micronutrients, quality health care and improved monitoring of nutritional status. However, this is easier said than done. More importantly, governments will have to be cautious about the kind of supplemental food and micronutrients that may emerge as solutions from corporate entities in the guise of dealing with the hunger of Third World babies and children. These measures, apart from being stopgap arrangements, deviate from the real issues that of under-investment by governments in social protection and nutrition systems.

What most people in the health and nutrition sector agree broadly is that governments should first undertake to provide balanced nutrition to their populations through a universal public distribution system or otherwise, provide health services through a free and universal health care system, and provide free and quality education for all. The report says that an analysis of data from 120 developing countries for the period 1975-2000 indicates that an increase of 1 per cent in education spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP) over a 15-year period could lead to universal primary school enrolment while reducing poverty.

The CRC, which emerged out of the general debate on rights in the post-Second World War period, has been put to severe test. The report says that those who were outraged with the treatment of children in 19th century factories or by their victimisation during the World War would be equally outraged by the high incidence of child labour, under-five mortality and undernutrition, high rates of out-of-school children, use of child soldiers and the phenomenon of child sex workers now. Children around the world continue to endure conditions tantamount to slavery. They are trafficked to other countries and exploited as forced labour or prostitutes. They are brutalised and victimised as participants in wars to an extent that allows todays world no self-satisfied sense of moral superiority over yesterdays. They are often not afforded dignity and worth when they come into conflict with the law, states the special edition.

While children in situations of war or conflict are very vulnerable to violence and deprivation, the condition of children in peace zones or non-war conditions is no better. The majority of them continue to be deprived of basic entitlements, thanks to the lack of social protection systems and the gross underinvestment by their respective governments. They are treated as second- or third-class citizens as they happen to belong to the lower-income groups. They are often the recipients of piecemeal interventions that are aimed more at satisfying donor or funding agencies than at bringing about a more qualitative and meaningful change. In effect, what the report seems to say is that while conceptually there has been a worldwide agreement on the rights of the child, newer forms of exploitation have emerged which negate all the progress made in the past one century.

The overall picture is not encouraging in the least. The annual burden of maternal deaths has remained intractable, says the report, at around 500,000 since 1990. The bulk of these deaths occur in developing countries, notably in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. This is accompanied with low birth weight of newborns, which is a derivative of the mothers poor nutritional and health status. Interestingly, many of these regions have got a lot of material aid from external sources and seen non-government intervention. Even today, instead of taking on the challenge as a national responsibility, governments are willing to outsource it to private entities in the name of private-public partnerships or community participation. Thus, it is not surprising to see why there has been no decline in maternal mortality in the past 20 years.

The report says that nearly half of the developing worlds population lives without basic sanitation facilities. Access to clean drinking water is a distant dream for many people. Again, in some of these countries, the income gaps between different sections of people are stark. There are people who live on less than half a dollar a day when there are billionaires who make it to international rating lists in these countries. Two decades after the CRC was adopted, its successful implementation leaves much to be desired.

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