NEW DELHI — Global resolve to rescue impoverished children from lives of squalor, disease and hunger has fallen short, with economic development in many countries still leaving millions of the most vulnerable behind, according to a UNICEF report released Tuesday.
The data show a bleak situation: The world's poorest children are almost twice as likely to die before their 5th birthday as children from wealthier homes, and the proportion of those dying within days of being born is even increasing.
"This is outrageous," UNICEF's Executive Director Anthony Lake told reporters in a teleconference highlighting the report's assessment of U.N. development goals laid out in 2000 for targeting poverty, hunger, gender inequality, illiteracy and other areas.
While the world has seen unprecedented economic growth in the last 25 years, the benefits have rolled out unevenly with nations focusing on national data averages that can obscure enormous inequalities between the rich and the poor, the report says.
So while the number of people living in extreme poverty has gone from 1.9 billion worldwide in 1990 to 1 billion today, 47 percent are still younger than 18. And while 46 million more children are in primary school, the 58 million still out of school are five times more likely to be poor, the report shows.
That means poverty is likely to endure for millions of people, ultimately limiting the full potential of economic growth, Lake said. "We need to address the needs of the most disadvantaged children before they become tomorrow's parents and the cycle turns again."
In India, the problem is particularly bad despite more than a decade of robust economic expansion, with 50 percent of the country's 1.2 billion people younger than 24, and 60 percent living in poverty on less than $2 a day.
Children living in grinding poverty can be seen almost everywhere — sleeping on sidewalks, begging at traffic intersections or relying on state-run lunch programs to provide their only full meal for the day.
That poverty also drives children into dangerous situations like early marriage or unsafe jobs just to secure a bit of food or help their families. Last year, India was both honored and embarrassed when child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi won the Nobel Peace Prize for decades of work against child labor and slavery.
If nations don't start focusing on their most vulnerable, another 68 million children will die before they are 5 by 2030, while another 119 million will be chronically malnourished, the agency warned. Open defecation, which in India alone leads to pathogenic diseases that kill 700,000 children every year, will also remain a vicious public health threat.
The report noted some progress toward improving public health among the poorest children, with chronic malnutrition decreasing 41 percent worldwide since 1990 and under-5 mortality dropping by more than a half. In addition, maternal mortality has fallen 45 percent, while more than 2 billion gained access to cleaner drinking water.
But the violent conflicts in Africa and the Middle East and natural disasters like Nepal's massive earthquake in April or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 can stymie or even reverse progress if countries do not have stable institutions that can withstand such shocks.
The United Nations is currently leading efforts to come up with a new set of so-called "sustainable development goals" that will apply to all countries, not just developing ones, in setting benchmarks through 2030.