The State of the World's Children 2000

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In a single generation

Poverty does not always have to be with us

The patterns of poverty that are passed from one generation to the next can and will be broken when the poor have the means and opportunity to be healthy and well-nourished enough, and educated and skilled enough, to fully participate in the decisions that affect their lives. Because such needs are most efficiently met through public services, universal access to an integrated set of basic social services is one of the most effective ways of reducing poverty in any society. Access to basic health, education, family planning and water and sanitation services is what makes sustained and stable economic progress possible, helps people achieve greater productivity and forms an especially crucial buffer for children and women in difficult times.

The services, in light of their great benefits and certainly in comparison with most weapons of destruction, are modestly priced. By redirecting $70 billion to $80 billion a year in a global economy that is more than $30 trillion, the world could ensure access to the basics for everyone. The 20/20 Initiative is one way to do it.

An idea championed by then UNICEF Executive Director, James P. Grant, 20/20 was launched at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, and pursued the following year at the World Summit for Social Development, convened in Copenhagen. It builds upon the Convention's mutual obligations for both rich countries and poor to come up with adequate resources for basic social services for human development. The Initiative suggests as a guiding principle that developing countries commit 20 per cent of their budget and donor countries 20 per cent of their official development assistance (ODA) to build and buttress these services.

ODA, however, has declined alarmingly in recent years, jeopardizing resources and creating strains on development goals. It dropped 21 per cent between 1992 and 1997, and among the leading industrialized countries, it dropped almost 30 per cent in the same time. Given the fact that the GNP in these countries jumped by almost 30 per cent, the retreat from assistance seems particularly egregious.

But governments in the developing world must answer as well for their budget decisions. Of 27 developing countries recently surveyed, only 5-Belize, Burkina Faso, Namibia, Niger and Uganda-allocate virtually 20 per cent of their budgets to basic social services. Most governments spend only about 13 per cent of their budgets this way, significantly short of what is needed.

It is crucial for people on every continent to speak out against such uninformed priorities and misdirection of resources, as did Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when he criticized South Africa's plan to buy $5 billion worth of fighter aircraft, corvettes, helicopters and submarines from Canada, France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom: "Our country needs teachers and books, clean water and clinics. Billions spent on fighter aircraft should be spent on the upliftment of our people."1

Of course, some responsibility for the failure to meet fundamental obligations to children needs to be laid at the door of international creditors and those rich nations that have done little to ease the debt burden that drains the national resources of indebted countries. The rights of children throughout the world are not likely to be realized as long as governments remain trapped in debt bondage. In 1996-1997, for example, 4 per cent of Cameroon's central spending went towards basic social services while 36 per cent went towards debt service. In the United Republic of Tanzania, four times more is spent in repaying debt than on primary education, and nine times more than on basic health.

There is a growing international consensus to reduce the crippling external debts of the poorest countries in order to enable those governments to fulfil the rights of their citizens to basic health, nutrition and education services. And heads of the leading industrialized nations took a step in that direction when, at their May 1999 meeting in Cologne (Germany), they agreed to reduce the debts carried by the 41 most heavily indebted poor countries. More recently, IMF has proposed a plan to cancel $27 billion of the more than $220 billion owed, freeing that amount for investment in basic social services. Both are promising overtures that are still to be played through.2

Finally, efforts are needed to regulate the powerful forces of globalization without which it will continue to serve the expansion needs of global markets at the expense of equity between and within nations. As a result, the poor and vulnerable in the world will reap increasingly fewer benefits, leading to their further marginalization and social exclusion.

UNDP's Human Development Report 1999 calls for stronger governance at the local, national, regional and global levels in order to ensure that globalization works for the benefit of people.3 In keeping with the intent of article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, any attempts to regulate globalization should address the best interests of children through a 'child impact analysis'.4 Such an analysis would review any proposals for their impact on children, taking into consideration, for example, whether changes in economic policies protect the rights of children to education and health services or whether changes in labour policies specifically address the issue of child workers.

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