Washington — A two-month-old initiative to save children’s lives is moving into high gear as representatives from faith organizations, international aid groups, academia, industry and at least 80 governments develop an action plan for improving early childhood survival.
These groups and governments are answering a “Child Survival: Call to Action,” committing themselves to a heightened campaign to save young lives in their most vulnerable years. About 7.6 million children die before their fifth birthday, with the greatest numbers of those fatalities occurring in a handful of countries.
The groups gathered in Washington June 14 to plan their strategy and heard U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton present the challenge.
“We are all here today with one vision,” Clinton said, “to make sure every child everywhere lives to see his or her fifth birthday, to eliminate preventable child death in a generation.”
Clinton acknowledged that the goal is ambitious. But the causes of child deaths are widely known, and the tools to prevent them are available, so Clinton expressed optimism about the world’s ability to reach the goal.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) first announced the U.S. intent to pursue this goal in late April.
The moral imperative to save children’s lives is apparent, but Clinton said there are political, economic and social reasons to pursue the goal. An improved survival rate for children allows them to grow into adults who can be productive and contributing citizens of their countries.
“Eventually there are more working adults supporting fewer dependents, which makes it easier for countries to make investments that drive sustained economic growth,” Clinton said. “With that sustained economic growth, the country will likely be more stable, less prone to political crises, and more apt to become a partner to help solve global problems.”
Clinton sketched out some U.S. proposals on how best to save many of those 7.6 million lives:
• Focus efforts in countries where child mortality is highest; 80 percent of child deaths occur in 25 countries.
• Find the specific populations where children suffer the most — among slums, rural areas or oppressed groups.
• Prioritize the illnesses and conditions that kill the most children, such as pneumonia and diarrhea.
• Study the broader social and economic factors that may be associated with high death rates, such as sexual, racial or ethnic discrimination.
• Mutual accountability and transparency must be an imperative.
Half of all the 7.6 million deaths occur in just five countries — India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo — all of which were represented at the Call to Action meeting.
Along with the United States and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), India and Ethiopia were co-hosts of the Washington meeting held on the campus of Georgetown University. Officials from both countries addressed the meeting before Clinton’s speech, explaining their efforts in this area. Clinton saluted the two nations for their forthright positions on the issue.
“India and Ethiopia are exemplars of countries stepping up and taking responsibility, and I thank them for their leadership and partnership,” Clinton said.
Clinton said the United States is the world’s biggest supporter of worldwide programs to improve children’s health, maternal health, family planning, nutrition and other human-services assistance. In the scale-up of those efforts in recent years, U.S. aid officials have learned that partnership with a variety of organizations and the full support of the host government are critical to the success of development programs.
That lesson is also one quickly learned by a relative newcomer to the development field: actor Ben Affleck, who is the backer of the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI). Founded in 2009, ECI is dedicated to improving economic and social development in eastern Congo.
“ECI is driven by the Congolese and their resilience and determination on the path toward progress,” Affleck said. “It’s an inspiring thing to see, and it’s an inspiring thing to be part of.”
Affleck paid tribute to the Congolese leaders who were in the Georgetown University audience and are working with ECI in programs to improve health, development and opportunities for women.
Boosting the child survival rate will require a relentless and ongoing commitment, Clinton said, but she also reminded her audience of the great victories in global health won in recent decades, notably the eradication of smallpox and the elimination of polio from all but four countries. Those are the achievements to keep in mind, Clinton said, as the campaign to end preventable child deaths continues.
“We will have added another story to the short list of the greatest things people have ever done for one another” if the goal is met, Clinton said. “And we will have set ourselves on a path to a world that is more stable, more prosperous and more just.”