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Tuesday, 12 December, 2000, 15:17 GMT
Children deserve a chance
Child at an African feeding station
A child's early years are crucial to proper development
By the Executive Director of Unicef, Carol Bellamy

It's deeply troubling that despite widespread concern about the lack of sustainable development in numerous countries, government leaders, policy makers and development agents seem blinded to one investment opportunity with almost guaranteed returns - ensuring children a good start to life.

Whether it is ignorance, apathy or deliberate neglect, many have failed to grasp certain essential facts about human development, choosing instead to squander their countries' human potential, their peoples' collective trust and hope, and their children's future.

Top five child killers
Wasteful policies, avoidable wars and outright theft of national resources take precedence over the compelling need for health, education, food, water and sanitation for their citizens, especially the very young.

By neglecting or stealing from children now, leaders plunder their countries' future and entrench vice and poverty.

These leaders and other development agents should know what has been confirmed by a growing body of knowledge - that the most critical period of a child's development is the very early years, when brain connections multiply and the motor that will fire the child's thinking and behaviour patterns for the rest of his life is formed.

As children are learning to speak, sense, walk and reason, the value system against which they will judge good and bad, fair and unfair is also being formed.

This is the most vulnerable time in a person's life and one that demands careful attention from society in both the industrialised world and developing countries, who need support in their efforts to care for their young children.

Early childhood development is the central theme of Unicef's annual flagship publication, The State of the World Children 2001.

The Challenges Ahead
Nearly 11 million children die every year from preventable diseases
170 million children are malnourished
One third of births are not registered
One in five children in developing countries do not attend primary school
20 million children became refugees in 1999
More than 10 million children under 15 have lost their mother to AIDS
This year's edition, released today, argues that ensuring a child's rights is a process that must begin very early, even before the child is born.

Investing early in a child's health, education and nutrition is an efficient and effective way of guaranteeing positive future returns through savings on health and other social services.

Such investment should be community based and owned: each family needs support and resources to help its infants develop.

The report says that early childhood should merit the highest priority attention of any responsible government in terms of law, policies, programmes and resource allocation.

But it also recognises that tragically, for both children and nations, these are the years that receive the least.

The State of the World's Children 2001 also includes essays and statistical tables detailing basic quality of life indicators, like health and education, for children in every country, and is available online.

We encourage you to read it and related material found throughout our website.

And when you hear about a new plan for breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty and despair that ensnares so many people around the world, ask yourself if it focuses on the very young. For investment in them is an investment for us all.

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30 Nov 00 | Africa
Fiennes on Aids mission
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