- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009



As President-elect Barack Obama prepares to address the many daunting challenges ahead, one imperative has received little attention - putting children first. For the new administration and Congress, the following are five practical steps that can make a real difference in the lives of vulnerable children both at home and abroad.

(1) Save children and mothers. This should be a top priority. At home, solutions need to be found for the large number of children without reliable access to health care. Abroad, more than 200 million children have no access to even rudimentary health services. As a consequence, more than 9 million children around the world die each year before their fifth birthday - that’s 25,000 a day - from causes that are treatable and preventable. America can and should right this wrong.

The significant U.S. support for HIV/AIDS and malaria programs should continue, but this addresses the causes of only 1 of 10 child deaths. The U.S. and other governments can do much more to address the forgotten killers of children under 5 - diarrhea, pneumonia and neonatal conditions - and the preventable and tragic deaths of more than 500,000 mothers each year.

More than one-fifth of House and Senate members have signed legislation calling for American leadership on this neglected global health issue. Together with other concerned governments, Mr. Obama should ramp up programs in the developing world to provide increased access to cost-effective, lifesaving interventions that would save more than 6 million more lives each year. No developing country committed to addressing the health of its children should fail for lack of resources.

(2) Conquer hunger among children and improve their nutrition. Food prices are up, economies are down and safety nets are fraying. Poor mothers and children are hit the hardest. With families in the developing world spending up to three-quarters of their income on food, experts expect child mortality rates to increase. Malnutrition already contributes to a third of the 9 million child deaths. Decades of improvements in the well-being of poor children are now at risk.

The way through this crisis requires short-term responses and long-term investment. When world leaders gather late January in Madrid to discuss a new global partnership on agriculture and food security, the new administration should seize this early opportunity for America to play a leadership role. The United States should energize emergency responses in hotspots like Ethiopia, Haiti and Tajikistan, dramatically increase investment in agricultural production and rural development in the developing world and boost support for children’s nutrition, health and education.

We face a childhood nutrition crisis at home too. One-third of American children and adolescents are overweight or obese, increasing lifetime physical and psychological health risks. This is a particular problem among rural kids, who have limited access to proper nutrition counseling and programs. Developing dynamic programs that encourage healthy eating habits and physical activity among children in rural areas would be an important step toward a more fit and healthy young America.

(3) Provide basic education for all children. Education has the power to protect children and lift up their lives while enhancing the capacity of developing nations to progress. Seventy-five million children remain out of school. A majority of them live in areas affected by conflict, like Afghanistan, Congo and Darfur. The United States should join with other nations to eliminate the education deficit that traps children and families in poverty by expanding and focusing international assistance on those who need it the most. Right now, children in conflict countries, who represent more than half of those out of school, receive only one-fifth of international education assistance.

Another gap must also be closed. Each year, when natural disaster or conflict strikes, women and children are hit the hardest. More than 750,000 children have their education disrupted during emergencies, yet the United States and many other governments do not regularly prioritize education as part of their humanitarian response. That must change. Education can protect children in troubled circumstances as well as lay the foundation for reconstruction and development following protracted conflict.

(4) Give children a Head Start in school and life. One-fifth of children living in poverty in the United States are unable to access robust early education, depriving them of the foundation for a richer and fuller school experience and adult life. Children benefit from literacy programs that begin much earlier than Head Start and kindergarten. One study found young children living in families headed by college-educated parents heard 11 million words in a year while children of parents with limited or poor educational experiences heard just 3 million. A new, high-quality preschool education program would not only benefit and enrich disadvantaged children, but, according to the Brookings Institution, also contribute to the U.S. economy, adding $2 trillion to the annual gross domestic product by 2080.

Greater investment in early childhood development abroad would provide a stronger foundation for the success and sustainability of U.S. health and education programs overseas. Such programs prepare children physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally for school and life. Children who participated in our early childhood development transitions-to-primary school initiatives in Nepal, for example, were seen by parents and teachers as avid learners who were highly motivated with stronger social skills and more regular school attendance.

(5) Include children in disaster preparedness planning at home and abroad. Children are among the most vulnerable during a crisis. Yet, as seen after recent Gulf hurricanes, they also are the most poorly protected under federal and state relief procedures. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Congress must ensure that children are protected before, during and after disasters so families are kept together and the special needs of infants, toddlers and young children are met.

Overseas, the United States should work with governments in risk-prone countries to prepare for emergencies and strengthen disaster risk-reduction measures to save young lives. This is possible even in the poorest of nations. Last year when Cyclone Sidr struck Bangladesh, 3,000 people lost their lives - devastating, but a dramatic decrease from the tens of thousands of people who died in similar cyclones, thanks in part to extensive emergency preparedness with coastal communities.

President-elect Barack Obama - by implementing a sweeping, child-focused agenda - has a real opportunity to help children at home and save the lives of those abroad. These measures are cost-effective. They lay the groundwork for more peaceful and prosperous nations. And they create lasting and positive change.

Charles MacCormack is president and chief executive officer of Save the Children, based in Westport, Conn.

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