Ending Child Poverty: A Great Ethical Imperative of Our Times
by Mr. Kul Chandra Gautam
Former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF
Third Forum of the Global Network of Religions for Children
Hiroshima, Japan, 24 May 2008
We live in the most prosperous of times in human history. Last year world economic output reached US$60 trillion. And according to the Forbes magazine, the number of billionaires in the world reached 1,125.
These billionaires came not only from rich countries like the US, Germany and Japan, but from 56 different countries, including many low and middle-income nations such as Egypt and Nigeria in Africa; Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela in Latin America; China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand in Asia; and Russia, which now accounts for the second largest number of billionaires, only surpassed by the USA.
At this time of unprecedented global prosperity, in which someone new becomes a billionaire every 2nd day, we have the contrasting situation of nearly 1 billion people living on less than $1 a day; 800 million people going to bed hungry every night; 1 billion people without access to clean drinking water, and 2 billion people without access to proper sanitation.
What an incredibly unequal and unjust world we live in!
Young children suffer disproportionately from poverty, not just in poor countries but even in the richest countries of the world. UNICEF has documented that the proportion of children living in poverty has actually risen in the majority of the world's richest countries in the last decade.
Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has said that poverty is the greatest violation of human rights in the world today. And children are the greatest victims of this violation of human rights.
It is because of poverty that nearly 10 million children die every year from causes that are readily preventable.
It is poverty that keeps 93 million children out of primary schools, the majority of them girls.
It is poverty that lands millions of children in child labour, often in hazardous circumstances, when they should be going to school.
It is poverty, debt and unemployment that lead desperate parents to even sell their vital organs like kidneys through unscrupulous middle-men to provide for their children. And when all else fails, parents are even forced to abandon their children, sell them to brothels, and work in slave-like conditions.
Because children bear the heaviest burden of poverty, all efforts to combat poverty must give the highest priority to children.
But there is no single or simple way to attack poverty. Poverty, after all, is a cumulative phenomenon involving many factors.
While we generally measure poverty in terms of income in dollars and pounds, or euros and yens, and our own local currencies, the worst manifestations of poverty are found in the physical deprivation of children - the high rates of mortality and fertility, illiteracy and malnutrition, and a life without minimal human dignity.
Tackling these problems - starting with children - brings both immediate and long-term benefits in the fight against poverty.
Healthy, well-nourished, educated children grow-up to become productive citizens, and they help break the inter-generational cycle of poverty. That is why our efforts to immunize the world's children against diseases that kill or cripple youngsters are a direct contribution to poverty reduction. Our effort to expand access to safe drinking water and sanitation is an essential foundation for good health and improved productivity. Our struggle to pursue universal primary education of good quality is a sine qua non for poverty reduction and sustainable development. Now, some say that poverty has always been with us, and will never be completely eliminated. That maybe true in the case of relative poverty, but in a $60 trillion global economy, we simply cannot and should not accept the persistence of absolute poverty as the unavoidable fate of humanity.
While we rightly lament inadequate and uneven progress, and continuing poverty and injustice in the world, we must not forget that in a historical context, there has been unprecedented progress for children in recent decades.
My former boss and mentor, Jim Grant of UNICEF, used to say that there had been more progress for children in the last 50 years - during the 2nd half of the 20th century - than perhaps in the previous 500 years.
Consider these examples:
- Over a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in Asia alone in the past half century. In China 400 million people were lifted up from absolute poverty in a single generation. India is rapidly following a similar trend. The Republic of Korea has seen its per capita income increase from $100 to $17,000 in our life time.
- Innovative schemes, such as micro-credit for women are benefitting millions of families and are having a very direct impact on the status of women and the well-being of children.
- Late last year UNICEF reported that for the first time since it started keeping records, annual number of child deaths decreased to below 10 million. This accounted for a 60 percent reduction in under-5 mortality rate since 1960. This is a remarkable testimony to the continuing progress in child survival and success of many health interventions.
- Smallpox which used to kill 5 million people a year in the 1950s was eradicated during our life time. Polio which used to cripple millions is on the brink of eradication. Deaths due to measles, one of the biggest killers of children, declined by 90 per cent in Africa in the last 7 years.
- There are more children in school today than ever before, and gender disparity is rapidly declining at the primary school level.
- Thanks to the heightened sensitivity created by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, issues such as child labour, trafficking and abuse of children, children in armed conflict and other violence against children are being systematically exposed, and action taken to address them.
- Many NGOs, faith-based organizations, and inter-faith groups like the GNRC, and civic leaders are championing the cause of children.
- Overall, children are much higher on the world's political agenda. Increasingly they figure prominently in election campaigns, parliamentary debates and national legislation.
- The fantastic communications capacity in the world today makes it possible to bring the blessings of science and technology to the doorsteps of even the poorest people in the most remote corners of the world. Child-oriented programmes are benefitting from this information and communications revolution.
But much of this progress has bypassed the bottom billion people in the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia.
Civil wars and conflict, and the pandemic of HIV/AIDS have exacerbated the fight against poverty by weakening the economies and social fabric of many countries in Africa.
We all thought there would be an era of peace, and a huge peace dividend, following the end of the cold war. But regrettably, ethnic conflicts and tensions spread following the collapse of the Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia.
Some of the progressive safety-nets of social protection found in the former socialist countries were dismantled as part of the "shock therapy" during these countries' economic transition. As a result children - and the elderly - are often worse off today than during the Soviet times in some of these countries.
In many countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, the debt crisis, hyper-inflation, extreme inequality, and economic mismanagement has led to the deterioration in the situation of children.
In the Middle East, continuing regional tensions, religious extremism, foreign occupation and intervention have made the situation of children extremely fragile and violence-prone. This oil-rich region has not been able to translate its vast wealth and resources into peace and poverty reduction.
The recent dramatic rise in food and petroleum prices is bound to further impoverish the already poor, and as usual, children are likely to be its main victims. Soaring food prices hit poor households and the most vulnerable children and women the hardest.
When faced with grinding poverty and unemployment at home, many adults migrate to cities and faraway lands in search of jobs. Remittances by migrant workers have become the life-line for many families and countries.
But migration is a mixed blessing. While it keeps many families and nations afloat from financial bankruptcy, it also leads to family separation, neglect of children, and weakening of the emotional bonds between parents and children, so crucial for child development.
Later in this thematic discussion, my colleagues Paulo Sergio Pinheiro and Henriette Rasmussen will speak about the ethical imperative to end violence against children, and the need to protect the earth.
As I am sure they will point out, poverty very directly exacerbates violence and environmental degradation.
Recently we have had violent food riots in Haiti, India, Nigeria, the Philippines and several other countries. As world food and fuel prices continue to rise, we can expect more such riots.
There tends to be higher incidence of domestic violence in impoverished families with unemployed adults. Many poor neighbourhoods, with young people who can neither afford to go to school, nor find jobs, also tend to have higher rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, gang violence and other crimes that impact children.
Much can be done to reduce violence against children even in poor communities, as we will hear from Professor Pinheiro. But tackling poverty is one of the most sustainable ways to reduce violence against children.
The same thing can be said about environmental degradation. We all agree that environmental degradation caused by human activity leading to climate change is one of the greatest challenges of planetary proportions facing humanity today. But in an unequal world, the exhortation by environmentalists for conservation and preservation of nature may sound hollow to the poor who are struggling to eke out a meager living, while the well-to-do continue to squander natural resources to maintain their profligate living standards. A model of development that allows the rich to generously fill their swimming pools, water their golf courses, drive their gas-guzzling vehicles, but preaches to the poor not to cut trees to meet their essential needs for fuel or fodder is hypocritical and indefensible.
What we need is a more balanced approach that puts greater responsibility on the well-to-do to moderate their consumption patterns and to support the legitimate human needs of the less fortunate.
As the Brundtland Commission on environment and development said over two decades ago, we must pursue a development approach that helps meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
So often, children are the forgotten victims of our failure to protect the environment, and to provide basic life-saving services to all of our fellow citizens. Each year, at least three million children under the age of five die due to environment-related diseases, including diarrhoea, caused by inadequate and unsafe water, poor sanitation, and unsafe hygiene. This is the major environmental issue for the poor, as is the need to fetch water and fodder from long distances, and the lack of separate toilets for girls that prevents or discourages many of them from going or staying in schools.
As we deal with high profile environmental issues of global warming, industrial pollution, deforestation, and the need to preserve our planet's bio-diversity, let us not forget that effectively combating absolute poverty is the only way to make the poorest people of the world stakeholders in our great global crusade to protect the earth for our children.
As we can see, ending child poverty is not only a matter of fulfilling a child's human rights, and unleashing the development potential of our nations and the world, it is also of vital importance for ending violence against children, and protecting the earth for our children - the 3 key inter-related themes of this whole GNRC Forum.
All kinds of arguments have been made and justification provided to make ending child poverty a central priority for human development. These range from the high economic rate of return to human rights arguments.
Yet collectively, we seem to have failed to make a sufficiently persuasive case to put children at the heart of the poverty reduction agenda.
As in so many other cases, when all else fails, people turn to religion and spirituality, the time has come for us to invoke and harness the power and influence of religions in support of ending child poverty.
And as the world's only inter-faith organization that is exclusively dedicated to enhancing the rights and well-being of children, we at GNRC should articulate why we have an ethical imperative to ensure that no child lives in poverty.
Now, there are many kinds and dimensions of poverty. As we have discussed, poverty manifests itself in the lack of income and gainful employment. Poverty is also reflected in the lack of basic social services. And poverty shows up in the form of disempowerment and disenfranchisement of people. But most importantly for our Forum today, the world is also faced with the poverty of faith and spirituality, on the one hand, and the unresponsiveness of the world's religions to the challenges of poverty, on the other hand.
Let me illustrate this point with a real example.
I served as UNICEF Representative in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, in the 1980s. I recall there was an enlightened archbishop in Cap Haitien, Monseigneur Gayot, who commissioned a poll asking an identical question to both his parish priests and to the general public. The question was this: what did they think was the main mission of the Church and the priests in their community?
The answers could not have been more contrasting.
The priests responded that the main mission of the Church was to inspire and provide religious guidance to the parishioners and to bring them the word of God.
The ordinary people, on the other hand, felt that the mission of their church and priests was to help people understand and fight against poverty, inequality and oppression.
As we can see, all too often the priests and the people look at the world, and the role of religion, in very different ways.
We need to bridge this gap, and make religious leaders more responsive to the people's views and needs, just as the priests try to inculcate certain moral, ethical and spiritual values among the people.
And just as priests try to bring to the people the message of God, so should they be prepared to learn from ordinary people's folk wisdom, and bring to their religious leaders the heart-felt messages of ordinary people.
It is because of the lack of such understanding, that so many crimes are committed, injustice is justified, and harmful traditional practices are perpetuated in the name of religion. Women are oppressed, children are deprived of education, and youth are incited to hate people belonging to other faiths-so often in the name of God and religion.
Religious intolerance and indifference to the plight of poor people is an extreme form of poverty of faith and spirituality. We know that in their core, all the great faiths of the world guide us to live by the universal norms espoused by all religions-peace, brotherhood, tolerance. It is human beings, including religious clergy, who suffer from the poverty of true faith, compassion and spirituality, who teach us otherwise.
This is where we see the great importance of the programme we just launched this morning: Learning to Live Together: An Intercultural and Interfaith Programme for Ethics Education. The toolkit for this programme contains specific modules teaching children about the importance of solidarity for combating poverty, promoting human rights, protecting the environment, and collaborating for a just and peaceful world. In this increasingly materialistic world, our children desperately need an ethical-moral value system to be imparted through education. We must educate our children how they can contribute to the greater good of humanity; respect for human rights, acceptance of diversity, understanding of issues of development, peace and justice, and a sense of global human solidarity.
For this purpose, I really hope that the ethics education manual will soon be introduced in all schools and teacher training colleges, and made a core part of the educational curriculum across the world.
We all agree that tackling poverty is important, but why does it necessarily have to start with children? There are many reasons why I believe strongly that poverty reduction must indeed begin with children.
Consider this: 80 percent of human brain is formed in the first 18 months of a child's life. Whether a child will grow to live up to his or her full human potential, or the child will be condemned to be a slow learner, and poor achiever in life, is largely determined in the first few years of a child's life, before the child enters school. The damage caused by malnutrition, infection and poor child care in early childhood often lasts for the whole life, and it cannot be easily reversed later. That is why most developed countries invest heavily in early child development. Impoverished children become transmitters of poverty, as parents, to the next generation. In a vicious cycle, malnourished girls grow up to become malnourished mothers who give birth to underweight babies and perpetuate the intergenerational transmission of poverty.
Of all the various development interventions, girls' education has the greatest potential impact in reducing poverty. Girls' education and women's literacy are closely correlated with delayed marriage, responsible planning of family size, lower fertility, better child survival, improved child care, better health and nutrition practices, more active participation of women in social and economic activities, and community leadership. Girls' education is, therefore, the single best investment with the most multiplier effects, which any society can make in support of its national development agenda. Girls' education makes it possible for a society to unleash the creative energy of half its population, and is therefore the best way to break the inter-generational cycle of poverty.
Today the world's development agenda is guided by the Millennium Declaration adopted by world leaders in 2000, which contains a set of very practical, ambitious but achievable Millennium Development Goals. Eradicating poverty is the very first of the MDGs, but all the remaining MDGs also relate directly to the well-being of children. That is why we believe that children are not just part of the MDGs, but they are rightly the very heart and core of MDGs. Since the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals, everybody agrees on their desirability, but some questions have been raised about their affordability. This issue was seriously addressed at the Monterrey Conference on Financing for Development in 2002, where the Secretary-General of the United Nations provided an estimated cost to reach the MDGs. Besides massive efforts by developing countries themselves, it was estimated that in terms of external support, it would cost approximately an additional $50 billion per year, or a doubling of the level of foreign aid from all donor countries at that time, to achieve the millennium goals.
Now, $50 billion is a lot of money. But consider that in the context of the world's defense expenditure of $1 trillion per year, or $3 billion a week that the US is spending right now in one country - Iraq - alone. Or consider that in the context of $1 billion per day in farm subsidies that the US, Europe and Japan spend all year around. Or compare the total European aid investment of less than $10 per capita per year in Africa, with the $900 a year that European taxpayers pay as subsidy for every single cow, to protect their dairy farmers from competitive international trade!
Friends, it is not that the world does not have enough resources to fight child poverty; it is more likely that leaders of the world - and we the citizens - do not give enough priority to combating such poverty.
As a great religious leader of our times - the late Martin Luther King Jr. said so eloquently, "There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will."
When the world cares enough, resources can always be found.
Remember in 1999 there was a huge scare that when the year 2000 came, computer systems that were not Y2K compliant might crash, elevators might stop, dams might burst, electric grids might explode, and Armageddon might arrive. Governments, private companies and individuals found the resources to make themselves Y2K compliant. Hundreds of billions of dollars, unbudgeted previously, were found. Even the poorest countries and many hard-pressed companies found billions to cope with the perceived threat of Y2K.
Somehow 30,000 children dying everyday - 10 times as many as died on 9/11 at the World Trade Center in New York- does not seem to us as enough of an emergency or tragedy. 14 million children being orphaned due to HIV/AIDS alone does not seem to shock us into action.
Many of us become numbed by these big figures. But religious leaders and priests, who come into contact with individuals and families every day, must surely feel the pain and agony of these tragedies, one individual at a time.
Please close your eyes for a moment, and think what you would do if your income was just $1 a day or $5 for a family - for food, for shelter, for clothing, for education, for health care, for festivals and for funerals?
How can we not make fighting such degrading poverty our individual, institutional and collective priority? I do not have the time to cite more examples, but we can do extraordinary things to combat poverty and promote the well-being of children at remarkably low-cost. It is often not money that is the main constraint, but lack of vision, leadership and commitment which retards progress.
We can eradicate the worst manifestations of poverty in our life time, and build the foundations for a world fit for children, if we commit ourselves to that noble task. For as Mahatma Gandhi said so memorably, "The world has enough for everybody's need, but not enough for everybody's greed."
I believe all of us at this GNRC Forum share a common vision - the vision of a world in which all children have a joyous childhood: where they can play, learn and grow,
where they are loved and cared for, where their health and safety are protected and where their gender is not a liability - a world in which their human rights are protected and fulfilled.
Right now, that world remains a dream for tens of millions of children. But it is a dream that I really believe can come true within a single generation, if we can help generate strong political commitment, sustained public action and genuine community participation, including the participation of children and young people themselves - as we are doing at this Forum.
The world is two billion children rich, but many of them sadly still fall out of our reach, growing up unhealthy, uneducated and unprotected.
We need to double, triple and quadruple the scale of our programmes, and the intensity of our commitment if we are to end child poverty in our life-time. With such commitment we can build a world in which all children can enjoy a childhood of playing and learning, where they are loved and cherished, their safety and well-being are assured, and where they can grow to adulthood in health, peace and dignity.
This is the idea behind the Global Movement for Children which was launched at the UNGA Special Session on Children. Religious leaders and faith-based institutions that reach 5 out of 6 billion people on this planet, should now take a more leading role, joining hands with governments, NGOs, international organizations, the private sector and leaders of civil society to give a powerful momentum for this Movement.
In this context, I want to commend GNRC for taking a bold and visionary new initiative calling for "A World Day of Prayer and Action for Children". What a fitting response by the world's religious community to commemorate the anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, on 20th November each year, when all places of worship - churches, temples mosques, synagogues and shrines - in every community all over the world would be the hubs for prayers as well as specific actions to help achieve internationally agreed child rights and development goals for children, such as the Millennium Development Goals.
I must add that while much of our concern is, understandably, with children in poverty in the poorest countries of the world, we must also worry about children in rich countries, and children of the rich in poor countries. These seemingly privileged children are growing up often in broken families, mesmerized by the make-believe world of video games and electronic gadgets that alienate them from the real world.
These young people's ready access and immersion into the fantastic world of entertainment and advertising that glamourizes violence and sex, enhanced with special effects, makes it increasingly difficult for them to distinguish between reality and virtual reality.
Paradoxically, the revolution in information and communication technology today leads children to be more aloof and isolated rather than being engaged in human interaction and community spirit.
Yes, we need to worry about the children of the rich and affluent - in both the industrialized countries and among the wealthy folks of poor countries - who are likely to be the rulers of the world of tomorrow - and who maybe growing up in the cocoon of virtual reality today. Will those "privileged" children have empathy for the poor and the down-trodden? Will they understand how the other half of the poor world lives? It is our job as parents, teachers and community leaders to protect our children from the temptations created by today's tantalizing technology.
Religious leaders are by nature expert communicators, opinion leaders and social mobilisers, accustomed to translating complex texts into understandable messages.
We look to you to help convey the key messages of the WFFC, CRC and the MDGs in a language more readily understandable to ordinary people, including children.
As the old African proverb says, "it takes a village to raise a child". And raising children to their full human potential is not just our family duty, but is the ultimate mark of our great human civilisation.
Whether a child is born in a poor family in Niger or an affluent one in Norway, whether it is a girl in Afghanistan or a boy in Japan, they all have a right to a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and other necessary social services, including the right to education.
For this right to be realized, we must ensure that no child lives in poverty and that child development is the centre-point of all human development.
Programmes of poverty alleviation, especially aimed at children in developing countries, must be considered global public goods. This is because by meeting the basic needs of impoverished populations, they contribute to better global health, reduction of environmental degradation, prevention of conflicts and generation of a sense of global solidarity.
This was perhaps most eloquently stated in a message delivered at the opening of the UNGA Special Session on Children, by two child participants who said most memorably: "We are not expenses, we are investments".
I hope we can send a powerful message from this GNRC Forum to world leaders who will be gathering in Japan, next week at the TICAD Summit in Yokohama and in July at the G-8 Summit in Hokkaido, that as they discuss the weighty issues of trade, aid, development and climate change, they will keep in mind the special needs of the world's children, and the unique opportunity to enlist the younger generation to solve many of our major planetary problems.
Leaders attending the TICAD and G-8 Summits, and their predecessors have made solemn commitments to give first call to meeting the basic needs of children by ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopting the Millennium Declaration, and promising to build a World Fit for Children. It is now high time for them to deliver on these promises.
Before I conclude, I want to take this occasion to pay a special tribute to Reverend Takeyasu Miyamoto for his wise vision in establishing the Global Network of Religions for Children. I recall fondly Reverend Miayamoto's memorable speech at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children in 2002 when he spoke passionately about the need for global ethics education for children.
Today, he must be proud, as we all are, that his vision of global ethics education has taken a concrete shape with this morning's launch of the ethics education manual.
With the idea of a World Day of Prayer and Action for Children being launched at this Forum, focused on the 3 transcendental themes of ending violence against children, protecting the earth for future generations, and ensuring that no child lives in poverty, GNRC has helped us reach yet another momentous ethical milestone for children.
Never before did humankind have the capacity to do so much good, to reach so many, to work with the poor and the oppressed, to empower them, and to promote justice and human rights for all, as we do today.
Let us commit ourselves today to seize this historic opportunity, let us invoke and harness the power of the world's great religious traditions, and our moral leadership, to promote the well-being of children, and to liberate all God's children from the grip of poverty, as the centre-point of all our endeavours, and our sacred duty.