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To the Los Angeles World Affairs Council


Los Angeles - 10 January 2001

Chairman Karatz, President Mack, Officers and Directors of the Council, Ladies and Gentlemen:

I am delighted to join you today - and honoured by this opportunity to address the Council - an organisation that, in the course of 48 years of service, has established itself as one of America's pre-eminent forums on the most important issues of our time.

There is, of course, no shortage of such issues.

A Martian landing in the middle of this country's memorable presidential campaign might have come away thinking that there were at least four overarching issues of our time: tax cuts, prescription drugs, a missile defense system - and who looked better on "Oprah."

But as this audience is well aware, the full list is somewhat longer, even if we somehow failed to include California's own energy crisis, which is serious indeed.

It takes in such vast perennial problems as poverty, inequity, discrimination, environmental degradation, social upheaval, joblessness, terrorism and natural disasters - all of them issues with global repercussions, regardless of the day-to-day attention that is, and is often not, paid them by politicians and the mainstream media.

Yet there I would submit that there is one issue that is not only relevant to every major global problem, but that is also implicit in the solution of each - and that is the well-being of the world's children.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is hard to find a responsible public official who does not understand in his or her bones that the future of every nation is directly linked to the future of its children - and that by investing in children and in the families that sustain them, a nation is ultimately investing in its own development.

Children are the bearers of our common future. The entire community of nations acknowledged as much when they embraced the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child - and vowed, a decade ago, to fulfil the goals of the World Summit for Children.

Thanks to their determination and the work of countless other dedicated people, including non-governmental groups and the business community (many of them UNICEF partners), the world has witnessed triumphs for children and their families on a scale unlike any other.

Because of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there is now widespread recognition that every child, no matter how poor or otherwise marginalised, has a whole galaxy of fundamental rights: the right to health and nutrition, to a primary education of good quality, especially for girls; to clean water and adequate sanitation, to gender equality; and to freedom from exploitation and abuse.

Moreover, children have a right to have a name and a nationality - as well as to express themselves freely and, in line with their evolving capacities, to participate in decisions that affect them.

This wide recognition of the rights of children is not merely rhetorical - far from it. In scores of countries, in every region of the world, the importance of child rights is reflected in concrete changes in law, in policy, and in practice.

As a result, the1990s were a time of remarkable progress toward the World Summit goals in a variety of areas - including gains in child immunisation that have brought polio to the brink of eradication; the widespread prevention of iodine deficiency disorders through salt iodisation; access to primary education; widespread provision of Vitamin A supplements, and the promotion of breastfeeding standards.

But for all the millions of young lives that have been saved, and for all the futures that have been enhanced, these triumphs fall far short of the promises that governments made to children in 1990.

As we crossed into the new Millennium, children under the age of 5 were still dying at the rate of 11 million a year, all from preventable causes like diarrhoea, measles, and acute respiratory infections, while 170 million children are malnourished, often at a cost of developmental handicaps that can last a lifetime; over 100 million children, the majority of them girls, never see the inside of a school; and 1 out of every 10 children have serious disabilities.

And this toll is occurring in the face of daunting new challenges. Deepening poverty and inequity remain immense obstacles to human development, including the burden of external debt; gender discrimination and violence, environmental degradation, terrorism, and natural disasters.

These have been joined in recent years by the explosive spread of HIV/AIDS, as Dr. David Baltimore of CalTech so graphically described to you in his presentation in November - to which must be added the proliferation of armed conflict and related problems like anti-personnel land mines, the spread of small arms, and the merciless recruitment of child soldiers, whose re-integration into society poses immense difficulties.

Yet for all of these horrors, I submit that we now stand at the most opportune moment imaginable for reaching the remaining goals that were set at the World Summit for Children - and for mobilising a global alliance dedicated to achieving a breakthrough in human development based on specific actions for children.

Thomas Edison, in one of his rare non-working moments, was once quoted as saying that "we don't know half of one-millionth of 1 per cent about anything."

He may have been right at the time he made his remark, in the 1930s. But it is safe to say that since then, human knowledge and understanding have increased somewhat. We may even have broken the 1 percent mark.

Whatever the number, we know a great deal more today about how best to ensure the rights of children and address their needs. And certainly one of the biggest light bulbs to go off above our heads is the knowledge, borne out by the latest scientific research and affirmed by years of practical experience, that what happens to children in the earliest years of their lives is absolutely crucial not only to their future, but to the future of all our societies.

We know, too, that it is crucial to ensure that every girl and boy receives a primary education of good quality; and that every adolescent is afforded ample opportunity to develop and to participate meaningfully in society.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the future is in our hands as never before.

For if we know anything, it is that in a $30 trillion global economy, the knowledge, the resources and the strategies already exist to give children the best possible start in life, educate them, and help them navigate the complex passage from adolescence to adulthood - outcomes that are crucial first steps if we are to break the endless cycle of global poverty.

As Secretary-General Kofi Annan has pointed out in his foreword to UNICEF's annual Report, The State of the World's Children 2001, assuring every child a good start in life is where we must begin, because a healthy and happy child is a child who is ready for school and learning.

Every year, some 129 million babies around the world begin an extraordinary developmental sprint - from defenseless new-borns to pro-active 3-year-olds. And every year, countless numbers of them are stopped in their tracks - deprived, in one way or another, of the love, care, nurturing, health, nutrition and safe environment that they need to grow, develop - and to learn.

The need to protect and nurture children in early childhood should merit the highest priority when governments make decisions about laws, policies, programmes and money. Yet, tragically, both for children and for countries, these are the years that receive the least attention.

We now know, for example, that the first 36 months of a child's life are when neural connections in the brain are at a crucial stage, ready to be developed through social and physical interactions and enriched by good nutrition and health - or left to atrophy.

These are not just any neural cells - they are the connections that enable a child to perceive the world, to walk and talk, to remember experiences, learn skills, feel emotion, establish and maintain social relations and make decisions. All of this has been confirmed by neuroscientists and others - and by the hands-on experience that UNICEF and its partners have amassed in working with children.

Indeed, early childhood care is an approach that includes a broader definition of care than what we have used in the past, one that encompasses the practices and actions not only of a child's mother or health-care worker, but the entirety of a child's world - his or her home and family, community, country and culture.

It includes the basic premise that caring for the child means supporting the crucial role of parents and families in ensuring the right of all children to grow up in a safe, stable and nurturing environment.

This includes caring for the mother, and caring about the conditions she faces at home and in society at large. For in societies where women have no voice, limited access to resources, little or no legal protection and no respect, optimal child development is impossible.

It also means supporting the role of men, who must address these issues if we are to dispel the attitudes that create inequality and that reduce women and children to second-class citizens.

Early childhood care also means that UNICEF and its partners must continue to build on our decades of experience about what good care for children means: that they receive sound nutrition, beginning with the enormous benefits that are conferred by breastfeeding; that they have access to safe drinking water, uncontaminated food and unpolluted air. That they live where there is adequate sanitation and waste-disposal practices. That their environments be healthy and free of disease. And that they be protected from injury, with the time and space to play, to explore and to learn.

Early child care also means building on the last decade of learning that we have amassed in promoting implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is knowledge that has been tested in the real world - about caring for, and empowering children by providing them with love and affection, in environments where they can explore and discover and learn skills that they can use throughout their lives.

Ladies and Gentlemen, providing all this would be a formidable challenge at any time. It is especially daunting now, when so many past advances for children are being undermined by poverty, and by armed conflict and infectious diseases, especially HIV/AIDS and malaria.

That is why UNICEF is calling on governments to reduce the burden of external debt so that impoverished countries can invest in children instead of debt service; and why we are urging them to redirect resources within their national budgets for early childhood development programmes.

It is why the global community must work harder to end armed conflict, and ensure that resources are invested in children, not armaments. It is why we are calling on leaders at all levels to redouble their efforts to end discrimination against women.

It is why we are asking governments, civil society organisations and the private sector, including corporations and the media industry, to join in waging an all-out battle against the spread of HIV/AIDS.

And it is why UNICEF is working to mobilise governments and citizens of every nation, including families, communities, and civil society organisations, to carry the banner of a Global Movement for Children - an unstoppable crusade to end, at long last, the poverty, ill health, violence and discrimination that has needlessly blighted and destroyed so many young lives.

It is an effort that we have every expectation will lend an extra push to a major event that will occur at the United Nations in September - the General Assembly's Special Session for Children, which will offer an unparalleled opportunity not only to review a decade's worth of progress for children at the highest level - but to re-energise the international commitment to realising a global vision for children now and in the years to come.

Building that alliance is a obviously vast undertaking. It entails enlisting the active support not only of established leaders, but people of influence representing all of civil society, from non-governmental organisations, religious groups and business and private enterprise to people's movements, academia and the media, community and grassroots groups, families - and children themselves.

Thanks to former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa and his wife, Graça Machel, the former Education Minister of Mozambique, the work has already begun. They have assumed a direct and personal role in organising a global partnership of leaders from every sphere to act on a basic recognition - that if we want a more just, equitable and thriving world, we must invest in children now.

I fervently believe that together we can build that world -secure in the knowledge that in serving the best interests of children, we serve the best interests of all humanity.

Thank you.



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