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On the Occasion of the Second World Assembly on Ageing

Imagen del UNICEF

Madrid - 8 April 2002

Mr. President, Mr. Secretary-General, Excellencies, Distinguished Delegates:

Bernard Baruch, once the UN's quintessential elder statesman, was not a demographer. But he knew a few things about the ageing process. Sometime before his 85th birthday, Baruch - who lived to be 95 - was asked to define old age. That's easy, he said. "Old age is always 15 years older than I am."

Ambassador Baruch lived in a far less youth-centred cultural milieu than now exists in many countries. Indeed, when a newspaper reporter wrote in 1946 that Baruch looked "like everyone's grandfather," that was meant as a compliment.

Even today, Baruch's long career - including his work as US delegate to the UN's first nuclear disarmament agency - is a testament to the limitless opportunities that exist for people of all ages to contribute to society.

Yet more than 50 years later, ominous clouds are gathering. By the middle of the 21st century, UN demographers say, adults over 60 will equal or even slightly outnumber the world's children - a first in human history, but one that carries the prospect of heightened intergenerational strife over everything from economic growth, labour markets and pensions to health care, family living arrangements, and transfers of wealth and property.

Indeed, some developing countries are already feeling the turbulence, as development imperatives come up against the equally urgent demands of a rapidly ageing population.

As Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO's Director General, put it: "We must be fully aware that while the developed countries became rich before they became old, the developing countries will become old before they become rich."

Mr. President, if we are to fulfil the recommitment of last month's Monterrey Conference to make the benefits of globalisation accessible to all, societies will have to forge bold new approaches.

That is why UNICEF strongly supports the call for intergenerational solidarity at the national, community and especially family levels.

Children and the elderly are among the most excluded and marginalised groups - and they already make up a majority of the 1.3 billion people trapped in the worst poverty on earth.

The physical, emotional and intellectual impairment that poverty inflicts on children can mean a lifetime of suffering and want - and a legacy of poverty for the next generation. Investing in children and mothers today will ensure the well-being and productivity of succeeding generations for decades to come.

Now the world is awakening to the realisation that the elderly are also a priceless but largely untapped and under-appreciated resource. Mr. President, this conference has highlighted the fact that in bringing their skills and experience to the workplace, to public life, and to their families, older people can help advance the cause of social and economic development - and in the process, inspire younger people to follow their example.

The prospect of establishing an intergenerational dialogue between the young and the old is thus immensely important, for it represents a unique opportunity to set a new and swifter course toward human development.

Within families, the role of older people as caregivers brings stability and continuity to children's lives. It is a role that has assumed life-and-death dimensions in sub-Saharan Africa, where millions of grandparents are struggling to care for young children whose parents have fallen victim to HIV/AIDS.

Mr. President, this Second World Assembly on Ageing has focused on why we must work to meet the basic needs of all members of society, with special emphasis on protecting the rights of children and women - including elderly women, who make up a rapidly expanding majority of adults over the age of 60.

It is children, women and the elderly who bear the heaviest burden of poverty - a burden made more onerous by the catastrophic spread of HIV/AIDS, by the proliferation of armed conflict and terrorism; and by the paralysing effects of external debt, gender-based discrimination and violence, environmental degradation and natural disasters.

Young and old alike are already working to turn the tide - millions of them as volunteers who lend hands-on support to national immunisation campaigns; who help in emergencies and a myriad of other tasks; and who advocate, teach, raise funds and public awareness. All are in the forefront of improving the human condition, especially for children.

That is why UNICEF and its partners so value the work of volunteers, whose willingness to help others, in a spirit of reciprocity, has been at the heart of UNICEF's efforts to serve the best interests of children since the agency's creation more than half a century ago. Indeed, the work of UNICEF's 37 National Committees, which play a crucial role in raising public awareness as well as funds, is supported by more than 100,000 volunteers throughout Europe, North America and elsewhere.

Mr. President, exactly one month from today, on May 8th, the General Assembly will convene its Special Session on Children - the biggest and most momentous gathering on child rights since the World Summit for Children more than a decade ago.

The 1990 World Summit - and the nearly universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child - ushered in a decade that brought major reductions in iodine deficiency disorders through salt iodisation; an immunisation drive that has brought polio to the brink of eradication; widespread provision of Vitamin A supplements, and progress in promoting the many benefits of breastfeeding.

Those accomplishments showed what can be done when commitments are matched by resources and political will.

Now, in the Special Session, we have an opportunity to build on that spirit to complete the Summit goals in basic education, under-5 mortality, maternal mortality, and child malnutrition - and in the process, to mobilise a global alliance dedicated to achieving a breakthrough in human development based on specific actions for children.

That is why UNICEF and its partners have been working to mobilise a Global Movement for Children - a worldwide campaign to build a shared sense of responsibility for the well-being of every child on earth.

The Global Movement is aimed at enlisting not only established leaders, but people of influence representing every part of civil society, from non-governmental organisations, religious groups and private enterprise to people's movements, academia and the media, community and grassroots groups, families - and children themselves.

Mr. President, Distinguished Delegates: UNICEF is convinced that we can alter the course of human development by decisively shifting investments, both governmental and private, to fulfil child needs and rights - and thus lay the foundation for a world where every child can grow up in health, peace and dignity.

Development is about building that better world - and as this Assembly has demonstrated, both young and old are central to the process.

Thank you.