7. CHILDREN ARE PAYING THE THIRD WORLD DEBT WITH THEIR LIVES

Nine hundred million people, mostly women and children, are suffering because their nations use resources to repay debts to bankers in industrialized nations.

This was a key finding revealed in the UNICEF report, "The State of the World's Children," issued late in 1988.

UNICEF Executive Director James Grant called for a world summit to save an estimated three million children who he said die each year from easily preventable diseases. More than half a million of those children died in 16 developing nations last year because their debt-burdened governments have had to cut back on social spending.

Until recently, deaths among the young were falling. A decade of immunization against basic diseases was saving 1.5 million lives a year. But lives once saved by immunization are now being threatened by economic hardship.

The 40 poorest countries in the developing world have halved health spending over the past few years and cut education budgets by a quarter.

UNICEF cited the two major causes of the worsening conditions: rising debt repayments and falling commodity prices. Third World debt now stands at more than $1 trillion while debt repayment takes almost a quarter of the developing world's export revenues.

Lawrence E. Bruce Jr., president of the UN Children's Fund, charged that the "mounting debt payments of so many of these developing countries to Western institutions are quite literally snatching food and medicine out of the mouths of millions of children."

Janet Welsh Brown, of the World Resource Institute, in Washington, D.C., wants to see a shift "from military assistance to solving problems of environment, population and poverty." She wants the U.S. to reevaluate the 14 billion dollars in military and economic support it sends overseas and focus on "long-term, serious development issues."

"If you look at the trends in the developing countries -- increasing population, soil erosion, water and air pollution, loss of forests and species -- you see that they're really on a collision course that can threaten economic and political viability in those countries," Brown added.

Bruce said that the solution to the problem is found in a combination of actions which include forgiving a certain percentage of the debt, liberalized trade policies, and increased aid to the countries.

Bruce added that if the moral and humanitarian imperative is not enough to persuade the United States to act and help save thousands of people who are dying needlessly, "it is in our own enlightened self-interest that these countries become stabilized."

Whether the world's leading bankers will be persuaded by either the moral imperative or enlightened self-interest is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, as the bankers are negotiating and as you read this, the children are dying.

SOURCES:

SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER, 12/21/88, "Children hardest hit by resurgence of global poverty," by John Madeley, of the London Observer, p A22; USA TODAY, 12/21/88, "World's children pay debt with their lives," by Marilyn Greene, p 11A.