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Millions of the world’s children are desperate

Christians regard the birth of a child into poverty some 2,000 years ago as one of the pivot points of human history. As such, followers of Jesus have reason to feel a special solidarity with today’s children of poverty, a sensitivity that should be most acute in the Christmas season.

In that light, the most recent annual report on children and poverty from the United Nations Children’s Fund -- UNICEF -- deserves to be at the heart of Christmas reflection in Christian churches and homes. It concludes that in 1999, 11 million children under the age of 5 died from causes traceable to poverty, most in Africa, and many from illnesses easily preventable with the right combination of hygiene and medicine. The numbers are harrowing: 30,500 children under 5 die every day, representing 1,270 child fatalities every hour, 21 every minute, or one every three seconds.

Malnutrition retards the growth of 177 million children in this world, and some 2.4 billion people, including roughly a billion children, do not have access to safe drinking water.

According to the UNICEF report, the countries with the highest rates of child mortality are almost all in Africa: Sierra Leone, Angola, Niger, Afghanistan, Liberia, Mali, Malawi, Somalia, Congo and Mozambique. Not coincidentally, several of those countries are currently locked in wars that, while reflecting local causes, are also to a significant degree sustained by Western economic and political interests. In Angola and the Congo, for example, large swaths of both countries are under the control of rebel forces largely financed by the illegal sale of diamonds to Western consumers.

UNICEF concludes that in 1998, 1.2 billion people lived on less than a dollar a day, including 500 million children. In many developing nations, funds needed for public health, education, and improvements in the infrastructure are instead absorbed in debt repayment. Despite the mythology that Africa drains Western resources, the fact of the matter is just the opposite: When one combines debt repayment and trade imbalances, for every one Western dollar that flows into Africa, three move from Africa to the West. In real dollars, between 1980 and 1996 Africa paid off more than double its external debt, and yet found itself three times as impoverished.

AIDS is making child poverty more acute. There are currently 1.3 million HIV-positive children under 15. By the end of 2001, there will be 13 million children in the world orphaned because of AIDS (there are already 10 million who have lost at least one parent to the disease).

War is also part of the picture. Today there are 20 million child refugees generated by armed conflicts. In the last 10 years, 2 million children have been killed in war, 6 million gravely injured, and 12 million made permanently homeless.

While the worst problems are obviously in the developing world, the United States is not immune. According to the UNICEF report, 17 percent of the child population in America lives in poverty.

In presenting the report, UNICEF officials argued that for every dollar invested in the physical and cognitive development of children, societies eventually recoup seven dollars they do not have to spend on emergency health care, social services and prisons. In that context, UNICEF is launching an effort to raise $207 million to assist children in zones of crisis such as Afghanistan, where only one child in three goes to school on a regular basis, and Angola, where three in 10 die before reaching the age of 5.

This UNICEF effort is urgently needed and merits support. But one hopes that its cost/benefit analysis will not be necessary to jar the Christian conscience, shaped as it should be by the memory of a lone, fragile child born into a working-class family on the edge of a vast global empire, quickly made a refugee by political upheaval. If faith calls Christians to anything in this world, it should be to action on behalf of today’s “holy innocents.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 22, 2000