UNISSONS-NOUS POUR LES ENFANTS

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Discours

To the Frankfurt Book Fair, 'Futura Mundi Symposium'

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Frankfurt - 12 October 2002

Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a privilege to join you for this 49th edition of the Frankfurt Book Fair, an event whose longevity, size, diversity and intellectual edge have made it a veritable UN General Assembly of the publishing industry.

I am also very pleased to help launch the Futura Mundi Symposium - an event whose title sets forth the broadest and most fundamental of subjects: the very future of our world.

It is a formidable task, matched by a formidable line-up of participants. It should be quite a lively exchange. And I hope it will be a fruitful one, for we are sorely in need of fresh approaches and new energy in the struggle to advance humanity.

In my travels with UNICEF I am continually struck by the forlorn state of so much of humanity. More than two millennia have passed since the development of complex water supply systems, and yet billions of people today still live without a source of clean water. More than four centuries have passed since the printed word became widely available, and yet hundreds of millions of people still cannot read. It has been over 100 years since the equal rights of women first began to be recognized in law, and yet gender discrimination remains deeply entrenched in cultures around the world. And even though fifty years have passed since the development of cheap, easy-to-administer vaccines for many deadly diseases, more than a quarter of all the world's children remain unimmunized.

These are the realities of the world I work in, a world very much divided in its riches. And we are incredibly rich - rich with knowledge, rich with resources, rich with powerful technologies, rich with time. Life in the developed world seems to be moving faster and faster, but in another sense, time has become stretched. What we can do in minutes now once took hours, what we can do in hours once took days. Our time to accomplish things in this world has expanded immensely.

All these riches grace our era. And yet, when all is said and done, we remain so very poor.

The forces and habits and histories that hold us back will be the subjects of your exploration today. You are far more qualified to do this than I, for as has been said, "it is the poet-natures that have always known."

But if I could, I would like to suggest a general context for you to keep in mind throughout the day, and I hope beyond.

We are here to address our shared future. It is axiomatic, of course, that our children have the greatest stake in that future. As our UNICEF Ambassador Harry Belafonte is fond of saying, children are part of the present, but they are all of the future.

I'd like to focus on children briefly for two very important reasons. First, I'd like to add a corollary to the axiom of children being our future. Children are also our past - our own personal past.

For most adults, childhood is a time shrouded in mystery. The further we look back into own lives, the less we can clearly delineate. As children, we are sentient beings, very much aware and alert and all-consuming, and yet there seems to be a threshold in late adolescence that, once crossed, prevents us from knowing very well what our own childhood was like.

And yet those formative experiences define us. They make us who we are, and point us down a road toward who we have the potential to become. Children are our future. But childhood is our shared past. It pays to keep this in mind.

And that leads me to the second reason I want to encourage you to keep children in the forefront of your discussions.

Simply put, there is no better way to change the world than with children. You provide a child a loving environment, you fortify that child's health, you give that child a quality basic education, and you allow that child to grow to adulthood in peace and dignity - well, ladies and gentlemen, you do that with all children you have already radically changed our world.

These are not revolutionary ideas. On the contrary, they are part of who we are as a species. But more often than not we give in to distractions, lapses, entrenched inequalities, and a tremendous failure of leadership.

If we want to change the world, if we want to hold a serious discussion about advancing humanity, we must start with the problems that keep our children locked in poverty, exposed to exploitation, abuse, disease, hunger and illiteracy. We must invest our prodigious intellectual capital in children.

And that brings me full circle back to Frankfurt and why I am so excited and honored to be here among some of the world's great writers and thinkers, and almost all of its major publishers.

We are blessed to have books and literature in our lives. All of us have been changed by the books we have read. We have seen the world newly through the gifts and insights of the authors who wrote these books - people who truly are at the core of the world's intellectual and moral capital.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is those magical qualities of literature - that ability to illuminate our minds and our souls - that has given rise to an exciting new book series that UNICEF is announcing today with Chinua Achebe, the great writer and winner of this year's Peace Prize of the German book trade, and Toni Morrison, the great Nobel laureate.

Titled Our Shared Future, this series of short, compelling literary works will be written by some of the world's most distinguished authors, including Mr. Achebe and Ms. Morrison themselves. They will write on the global forces that are shaping the children's lives. In fact, with this project we think we may have hit upon something new under the sun: the first literary series on human development.

There is no substitute for an informed global citizenry. And yet, for the general reader there are virtually no readable, accessible books on the most important issues facing the world today: poverty, hunger, illiteracy, sickness, disability, exploitation, abuse.

Yet we believe that - perhaps now more than ever, with a greater consciousness of how divided our world has become - people are thirsting for this type of literary non-fiction. We are extraordinarily grateful to Mr. Achebe and Ms. Morrison for their commitment to children and their willingness to devote their time to editing this series. It is their literary and moral power - and that of the other writers they invite - that will attract readers to these works.

The goal of the series is not unlike the goal of this symposium: engage people on the crucial issues facing us as a global community and help us advance humanity and create a world that is truly fit for our children.

Chinua Achebe has, among other things, illuminated our understanding of Africa. Given his prodigious literary and intellectual ability, imagine a book devoted to explaining to all of us how the rights and well-being of children in Africa can be secured.

Toni Morrison has, among other things, illuminated our understanding of being a woman. Imagine a great new work by her, illuminating the deprivations faced by women and girls around the world, and what we can do to end these deprivations.

Policy-makers are also readers. I'm willing to bet you that these books would not only reach these readers, but would have a greater impact on them than a plethora of reports ever could.

Books and publishing have long been a strategic element of UNICEF's efforts on behalf of children. One of the world's most popular books is UNICEF's Facts for Life, a basic handbook for families that provides authoritative information about effective and low-cost ways of protecting children's lives and health. At last count, over 15 million copies were in use in some 215 languages.

Facts for Life is one of the small investments UNICEF has made in putting information directly into the hands of the people who need it. The Our Shared Future series is another investment of that kind.

And Futura Mundi is yet another such investment. It is my ardent wish as you launch into your debates over the challenges and opportunities that represent our future, that you remember what I am reminded of every day: We are our own keepers. And there is no clearer test of who we are and who we aspire to be than how we treat our children.

Against that measure, I'd say you have your work cut out for you.

Thank you very much.


 

 
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