Working With The Children

by Tokunbo Awoshakin

As the United Nations special session on children winds up in New York, the plights of children from all over the world has become the main discourse given that the goal of the special session is to move children to the centre of the world’s agenda. This will, in turn, emphasise the link between the welfare of children and the development of societies so that Governments of different nations can Review what has been achieved for children over the last decade and, crucially, what has not.

A quick look at the series of 21 goals the special session was expected to adopt is relevant at this point. The session was supposed to focus on key issues like reducing infant and maternal mortality, expanding access to clean water and sanitation and establishing universal primary education.

Declaring the session open on Thursday, United Nations’ Secretary General, Kofi Annan, declared: “This is not just a special session on children. It is a gathering about the future of humanity. We are meeting here because there is no issue more unifying, more urgent or more universal than the welfare of our children. There is no issue more important”.

He added that “None of us – not in the United Nations, not in government, not in civil society, and certainly not the children in this room today – needs convincing that this session must be truly special. And it will be special in at least one way: it will be the first time that children themselves will speak at such an event. I urge all the adults here to listen to them attentively. To work for a world fit for children, we must work with children”.

Similarly, The Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund, Carol Bellamy, told correspondents Thursday afternoon that “Children are not an expense, they are an investment” adding that, “Investing in children had a moral, economic and a geo-political basis”. Answering questions, she said every country, even the poorest one, had to assign an adequate portion of their budget to basic social services such as health and education.

This special session gave children from all over the World, including those from Nigeria, an opportunity to talk with world leaders, interact with one another and listen to how their situation is presented to the world. Expectedly, representatives of the different nations gave an appraisal of the situation of children in their country and reviewed events since the last summit in 1992.

The Nigeria delegation added a twist to the agenda. The delegation, led by the minister for Women Affairs and Youth development, Hajia Aisha Ismail, presented a report that makes one wonder whether motherhood, sincerity and politics can ever have a compromise. True, the minister started with true observations of how global trends show that children still suffer dehumanising treatment, abuses, exploitation and deprivation.

Of course she repeated the story of how child trafficking and sexual exploitation are still much rampant as well as the involvement of children in armed conflicts and how children who are the most vulnerable members of society are also the worst victims of such conflicts. Her other comments, placed in the context of the reality back home in Nigeria, suggest that the Nigerian government has simply been paying lip service to the situation of Nigerian children rather than charting a new course of action that will lift them out of the web of poverty.

While other delegate leaders used the opportunity of the special session to tell the world the social programs that their respective nations have initiated and implemented in the last ten years to improve the lot of children and also to study, compare notes and explore new initiatives that have worked elsewhere, the Nigerian delegation focused again on debt cancellation and blamed the poverty level and low mortality rate in that country on external debt.

In what sounded like a broken record of President Obasanjo´s speeches to the U. N. General Assembly, Hajia Ismail said “Our experience in Nigeria shows that the comprehensive programmes we have designed to tackle the issue of poverty among our children and women have been hampered by the lack of financial resources. Last year, Nigeria spent a whopping US$1.7 billion to service external debts and only a paltry US$300 million on the social sector, a sector most critical to children and women.”

She added that developing countries in Africa are caught in a spiral of debt over-hang. Yet they face the greatest challenges of development with the least financial resources. Devoting large chunks of their national incomes, sometimes as high as 40% to debt servicing alone further compounds the problem. Her submission is: “It is for this reason that Nigeria has consistently called for the cancellation of external debt”.

That means until Nigeria gets her external debts cancelled, Nigerian children are doomed. So President Obasanjo´s explanation to Nigerians after more than three years in office is that external debt is not only a burden but an obstacle to the prosecution of effective programmes targeted at children and women to lift them out of poverty. Even when several millions of dollars have been given to the bogus Poverty Alleviation Program (PAP) in form of development funds for poverty reduction programmes for children and women, the Obasanjo administration´s “excuse” for the state of Nigerian children remains external debt.

Not that there is no merit in the Obasanjo campaign for debt cancellation but it is sad that the fate of an entire generation of Nigerians, the future of that country should be hinged on debt cancellation. It is more pathetic considering the way officials of the Obasanjo administration at the federal and state levels have been swimming in and out of allegations of financial impropriety in spite of the president’s war on corruption.

Not a few delegates at the special summit raised eyebrows at the logic of the Women minister. On a personal note, it is annoying. While at the meeting in New York, I got an e-mail message that my younger sister was dead. My sister, at sixteen, died because of the poor health infrastructure for children in Nigeria.

As fellow journalists commiserate with me and I make plans to visit Nigeria for the funeral, one foreign correspondent wondered how many more children, like my sister will die in similar circumstance if Nigeria’s debts are not cancelled…

I wonder too…

Please accept our condolences, Toks – Editor

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