• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Wednesday 13th February, 2008

Can poorest children be saved by putting the world to rights?

The picture is as bleak as it is familiar: every year more than ten million children from developing countries die before their fifth birthday from malnutrition or diseases that can be easily and cheaply prevented. Pneumonia, diarrhea, measles, and malaria are the commonest.But, in the eyes of the World Health Organisation, the biggest killer and the greatest cause of ill-health and suffering is extreme poverty. Eliminate that, the WHO says, and global child survival rates must improve, particularly over the long term.Reducing the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds before 2015 is one of the UN Millennium goals. A number of policy and public health initiatives have been introduced by governments and international aid agencies but progress is uneven and behind schedule. Between 1990 and 2005, a 60% decline in infant mortality was achieved in North African countries. But in sub-Saharan Africa the reduction is only 10%.Recognizing that without some dramatic change of strategy the battle will be lost, researchers at the UK Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research suggest taking a child rights approach to the problem. If reducing poverty were to become an international obligation recognized by all countries, they argue, spin-offs in terms of infant mortality would surely follow.But the area of children’s rights is unexpectedly contentious. In the online journal of the Public Library of Science The Townsend Centre team recall how a 2004 editorial in The Lancet argued that UNICEF's focus on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child had been detrimental to international campaigns to improve child survival. By focusing on girls’ education, early childhood development, immunization, HIV/AIDS, and protecting children from violence, abuse, exploitation, and discrimination, The Lancet claimed, outgoing UNICEF Director Carol Bellamy had “failed to address the essential health needs of children”. Her successor, Ann Veneman, had so far given rights much less prominence, making “child mortality public enemy number one for the agency”.Nevertheless, Townsend Centre director David Gordon reasons that a rights-based strategy can increase child survival, in part by reducing child poverty, as long as some rights are calculatedly prioritized. So, whereas UNICEF recognizes that children living in poverty are more likely to experience non-fulfillment of other rights, the right to vote means little to a child who dies in infancy as a result of a lack of medical care due to poverty.“We suggest that the rights contained in the United Nations Convention relating to child survival and non-discrimination be prioritized, and these rights implemented first in situations where child rights cannot be implemented all at once. An emphasis on both survival and non-discrimination is vital to prevent unequal health provision from developing – for example, by privileging the survival of boys over girls or one ethnic group over another.”Behind all the necessarily careful political argument there is a stark dollar-equation: Gordon and his colleagues point to UN estimates that about $13 billion per annum would provide the necessary minimum health care for every person on the planet. Last year, Europeans spent $12 billion on cat food; Americans spent $30 billion on pizzas.[The five core principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are:

  • the right to life, survival, and development
  • non-discrimination
  • devotion to the best interests of the child
  • respect for the views of the child
  • the right to an adequate standard of living and social security.]
Reference “Child Rights and Child Poverty: Can the international framework of children's rights be used to improve child survival rates?" Simon Pemberton, David Gordon, Shailen Nandy, Christina Pantazis, and Peter Townsend PLoS Medicine, Volume 4, Issue 10, October 2007

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