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Children are the most vulnerable victims of an unjust global economic system.

by Adolfo Perez Esquivel

  Although the plight of children is no doubt worse in the developing countries, where infant mortality, malnutrition and illiteracy are widespread, such evils are not uncommon in many wealthier parts of the world. A report published by the U.S. Congress last year sounded the alarm by drawing attention to the fact that thousands of American children were living below the poverty line. This, it said, was a "national tragedy", which threatened the future of the nation.

The report also pointed out that poverty had serious consequences for children and adolescents: poor health, scholastic underachievement, early pregnancies, crime, drug abuse and so on.

It stressed that poverty was the greatest amongst blacks and Hispanics: in 1987 only 15 per cent of white American children where poor, while proportions among blacks and Hispanics were 39 per cent and 45 per cent respectively. In other words, the most powerful country in the world has proved unable, despite its huge economic resources, to offer a large section of its young people a decent future.

In Brazil, children and teenagers account for almost a third of the country's population of 150 million. Eight million kids live on the streets in a state of almost total destitution. According to the Brazilian Foundation for Children and Adolescents, barely one million children receive official aid, the rest are left to their own devices.

UNICEF believes them all to be in state of "social risk", and estimates that almost 40(),000 girls under the age of fourteen are forced to prostitute themselves in the garimpos (brothels) of Mata Grosso de Para, in the state of Maranhao.

In the northeast and in the southern states like San Paulo, minors are exploited as a source of cheap labour. In cities, a third of all children are illiterate, while in rural areas the figure is almost 48 per cent.

Their state of health is almost equally alarming- 60 per cent of them die in their first year. 20 per cent of babies are underweight because they are not properly fed. Only about 19 per cent of mothers breast feed their babies until the sixth month. The mortality rate of mothers during childbirth is also very high.

Cuba is the only Latin American country where the infant mortality is comparable to, and in some cases lower than, those of the developed countries. Chile and Costa Rica do not lag very far behind. Bolivia, Haiti, Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua on the other hand, rank amongst the countries with the highest infant mortality rates in the world.

A third of Argentina's 33 million live in poverty. Every day 58 children under the age one die of malnutrition in that country, which not so long ago used to be a major food exporter and used to be described as the "world's granary".

Malnutrition is believed to have caused grave neurological damage in a total of 1.2 million Argentinean children, with the result that 15 to 20 per cent of their brain cells have been destroyed.

The World Bank in its recent report on poverty, pointed out that there are about 1.1 billion people in the world whose daily income is less than one dollar. On the world map of poverty, Latin America has the singular distinction of being the part of the world where the gulf between poor and the rich is the most marked.

Although average income per inhabitant is five to six times higher than in southern Asia or black Africa, almost 20 per cent of people in Latin America continue to live in extreme poverty.

But it has to be remembered that the structural adjustment policy imposed on poor countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has had the effect of dragging them down into a quagmire of recession and poverty. It is that policy which has caused the gulf between rich and poor countries to go on widening.

Nor is there any political will in the North to put an end to this state of affairs, to change the rules of international trade, or to guarantee that raw materials and goods produced in the South command proper prices.

On the contrary, these unfair terms of trade have not only persisted but gotten worse. The countries of the North continue to demand repayment of an unjust debt that is crippling the poor countries. To crown everything, the South has now become a net exporter of capital.

One of the consequences of this iniquitous situation is the tragic plight of children. It is not just a social problem, not just an exotic, if lamentable, feature of those picturesque countries of the South, but the direct consequence of an economic policy implemented by the North.

The donations that charities send to the poor countries are naturally welcome, hut they are not enough. They are a response to whatever the latest disaster or emergency happens to be, but can never have more than a palliative effect. They cannot solve the underlying problems.

True charitable aid remains of crucial importance because every day it saves thousands of people from starvation. But it should be accompanied by development programs that are geared to the specific characteristics of the various regions of the South. Unless there is sustained and determined cooperation on development, the children of the South will continue to die in their hundreds of thousands.

Those that manage to survive the various forms of infantile mortality will in a few years become teenagers then adults. They will demand an explanation for what they have had to endure at the hands of their governments and the nations of the North. They will rebel.

A highly explosive time bomb has begun ticking away and no amount of promises or sweet words will defuse it. It is surely urgent for the governments of the world to come to their senses and construct, before it is to late, the new economic order that will be our only chance of building a more harmonious world and inciting mankind to rediscover the virtues of sharing.

The human race is facing a crisis, so it must collectively come up with new development models. It must show itself to be both daring and generous, otherwise it will implode into a black hole of unbridled selfishness.

In the 80 s, Latin America exported more than ever before and had a very favourable trade balance. Anywhere else in the world, that kind of performance would have gone hand in hand with the kind wealth enjoyed by, say, Japan or Germany. But in Latin America it did not generate enough income even to service its foreign debt; indeed, that debt in creased during the period.

This is concrete proof that indebtedness is a trap from which it is extremely difficult to escape. Increasingly, the peoples of the South believe that they will never see the end of the tunnel. Something must be done to help them snap out the trap of
indebtedness, which has the effect of strangling society.

In order to reduce their budgets, as instructed by the IMF, governments have been slashing social expenditure in all its forms (health, education, benefits and subsidies in general). As a result, poverty is spreading and the middle classes are becoming paupers. City infrastructures are decaying and delinquency is on the increase.

This general process of impoverishment has a particularly disastrous effect on children, who end up being abandoned by society. This puts them in a permanent state of risk. In Latin America as a whole there are now some 100 million children who live, eat and sleep on the streets. The social ill for which Bogota was notorious ten years ago has now become the Latin American norm. The continent crawls with olvidados (abandoned children).

The mind boggles at the violence suffered by such children. Sold, imprisoned, kidnapped or exploited, they suffer a slow and interminable martyrdom. Only recently in Rio de Janeiro, a mass grave was discovered which contained the bodies of dozens of children murdered by the Squadrons of Death, who regard murder as an excellent way of keeping down juvenile delinquency.

But delinquency is a form of survival. It is a way for the weakest and poorest to wage a war against their condition. If economic cooperation and development fail to get beyond the planning stage, that war could spread in various forms throughout the South. Two-thirds of the world's population go hungry and have to watch their children die. They will certainly not forever stay on the sidelines meekly staring at the rich as they launch into the feast.

Adolfo Perez Esquivel is a human rights activist in Latin America and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. This article originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique, Paris.

This article was published in New Renaissance magazine Vol.2, No.