Asia's Children Pay for Skewed Priorities, Report

Marwaan Macan-Markar BANGKOK, Aug 22 (IPS) - Asian countries have failed their children, charges a leading development agency in its report that reveals a staggering 600 million children in the region condemned to a life of abject poverty and deprivation. The denial of such basics as food, safe drinking water, health and shelter to these children exposes a failure of the region's much vaunted economic growth rates and rapid development, states Plan International in the report, 'Growing Up in Asia,' released Monday. ''We will be judged by future generations, future centuries, when they write the history and compare us, maybe, to the holocaust,'' Michael Diamond, head of Plan's Asia division, said here at the launch of the 88-page report. ''This is truly catastrophic''. ''We sat on our hands when HIV began and we see the result of inaction,'' he added. ''We are doing little about it (child poverty in Asia)''. Such a dismal reality for nearly half the region's children comes despite the general availability of food in most countries, adds the report pointing to South-east Asia, which has enjoyed rapid economic growth. ''The proportions (of malnutrition) remain disturbingly high even in South-east Asia. This is surprising since in most of these countries there is no absolute shortage of food''. Currently, close to 47 percent of children in South Asia are malnourished, while South-east Asia has 29 percent malnourished children, according to a United Nations report released earlier this year. In sub-Saharan Africa, by contrast, 31 percent of the children are malnourished. The still high child- mortality rates are another indicator of ''economic growth and globalisation'' failing to touch the lives of the region's most vulnerable, states the Plan report. ‘'Millions of children in Asia are still dying before reaching their fifth birthday, usually from a combination of malnutrition, preventable diseases and injury,'' according to the report. Consequently, countries across South Asia, East Asia and the Pacific will fall short of the targets they pledged to meet by 2015 for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it states. Under the MDGs, governments agreed to pursue eight time-bound targets. They include halving the number of people living in extreme poverty, reducing by two-thirds the under-five mortality rate, achieving universal primary education, improving maternal health and halting the spread of HIV/AIDS. In South Asia, that would mean trying to bring down the under-five mortality rate to 43 per 1,000 live births by 2015, as opposed to the 2001 figure of 99 children under-five dying for every 1,000 births. In East Asia and the Pacific, it called for reduction in the under-five mortality rate of 20 for 1,000 live births by 2015, as against the 2001 figure of 44 under-five children dying for every 1,000 live births. In 1990, which serves as the base year for the MDGs, there were 129 children under-five dying for every 1,000 live births in South Asia and an under-five mortality rate of 59 for 1,000 live births in East Asia and the Pacific. The report also took to task countries for depriving children of basic sanitation. ''The most severe deprivation, in terms of number of children affected, is a lack of access to sanitation. South Asia and East Asia levels are the worst in the world''. In South Asia, only 34 percent of the population had access to sanitation facilities, while only 46 percent of the population in East Asia and the Pacific had access to sanitation. Among the factors that have contributed to this grim reality are rapid urbanisation, bad governance and corruption, states the report. ''The consequences of urbanisation for the poor are severe. It hinders development of rural areas where the bulk of the population still lives''. The domination by elites, ranging from landlords and industrialists to bureaucrats and army officers, has resulted in the ''concentration of the gains from any economic growth with the elites''. In addition, the report notes: ''Public expenditure is generally diverted away from the needs of the poor, in the name of economic growth towards tertiary education, military expenditure; privatisation initiatives (and) debt servicing''. The Indian government, for instance, spent close to 0.9 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on health in 2000, while spending 2.5 percent of its GDP on its military that year, states the report. Neighbouring Pakistan spent 0.9 percent of its GDP on health in 2000, while spending 4.5 percent of GDP on its military expenses that year. And at the local level, ''corruption plays a large role in the lives of the poor,'' it states. ''Public services which are meant to be free, such as drinking water, education, health and law enforcement, are subject to bribes and delays, keeping many, and especially the poorest, from receiving them''.

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