Letting children die


What counts as a catastrophe? A plane crash? A hurricane? A savings and loan crisis? How about the quiet deaths, each day, of 40,000 children?

Around the world, 250,000 young lives are lost every week -- more than a million a month. Today, 11,000 children will die of diarrheal dehydration -- a condition that can easily be prevented by a package of oral rehydration salts that costs one dime. Meanwhile, 6,000 other children's deaths will be attributed to pneumonia; 4,000 will die from measles, 2,100 from tetanus and 1,400 from whooping cough. The same thing happened yesterday, and tomorrow will take its own deadly toll.

It might lend some comfort to think that these deaths cannot be helped, that they are somehow inevitable. They aren't. Each of these diseases is easily prevented; 40,000 children are dying today largely because the world has not cared enough to let them live.

In September 1990, the World Summit for Children brought together President Bush and 70 other heads of state who decided on goals and a plan of action to address the dreadful conditions which take the lives of so many children around the world. Following that meeting, Congress took steps to make sure that the United States contributed its fair share of aid to meet the summit's goals of reducing maternal and infant mortality, improving nutrition, making drinking water safe and encouraging access to basic education.

Some members of Congress have sought to use cuts in the foreign aid and defense budgets to fund domestic programs. But that violates a 1990 agreement to use any such savings only for deficit reduction. Last year, House members found ways to increase aid for projects that would further the summit's goals, while not increasing the overall foreign aid budget. But then aid appropriations got caught up in the controversy between the Bush administration and Israel over housing loan guarantees.

House action earlier this summer again addressed the summit goals, but not at adequate levels. Attention now turns to the Senate Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, on which Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski sits. That committee will be making its aid decisions in the coming days.

Foreign aid has never been popular with Americans, especially during a recession. But the abstract notion of "foreign aid" is one thing, while the chance to save millions of young lives is the kind of humanitarian need to which Americans have always responded with generosity and concern.

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