While the inability of the world's finance ministers and central bankers to find a solution to the crippling debt burden of poor countries is not fatal, the failure of world leaders to address the health needs of poor children most definitely is -- because of the ramifications.
About 11 million children in developing nations die each year before the age of 5 from causes that are preventable in wealthier countries, the World Bank said in a report issued Sunday. It's the same World Bank, along with its sister institution, the International Monetary Fund, that failed last weekend to agree on how to relieve the Third World from the debt that has become a major drag on many economies.
It is also the same World Bank, along with the IMF, that five years ago adopted the Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015. The goals included boosting primary school enrollments, removing obstacles to greater numbers of girls going to school and improving health care.
But in light of the report on the health needs of poor children, it is clear that much more must be done before world leaders can declare victory. What is disturbing about the report's findings is that the causes of the fatal illnesses include acute respiratory infection, diarrhea, measles and malaria. Those account for 48 percent of child deaths in developing nations.
"Rapid improvement before 1990 gave hope that mortality rates for infants and children would be cut by two-thirds in the following 25 years," according to the World Development Indicators report. "But progress slowed almost everywhere in the 1990s."
Therein lies the problem. Once the spotlight that shined on the Millennium Development Goals five years ago was turned off, world leaders found it easier to put on the back burner the issue of infant mortality in poor countries than to commit the resources and time needed to actually do something.
What is disconcerting about the 11 million children dying each year before the age of 5 is that the diseases afflicting them have already been eradicated in the industrialized world. It is rare to find a child in the United States, Britain, Germany or Japan dying from diarrhea or acute respiratory infection. There are treatments and medicines that ensure recovery, yet in sub-Saharan Africa such afflictions are a death sentence.
Last weekend, when world leaders failed to agree on a solution to the crippling debt in poor countries, there wasn't any hand-wringing or chest-beating. To be sure, international aid groups accused the major industrialized nations of dragging their feet and worsening the plight of the poor. But there is every expectation that an agreement could be reached later this year.
The delay, while unfortunate, is not going to result in poor countries collapsing.
On the other hand, the absence of an aggressive campaign to address the child health mortality crisis will continue to expand the death toll. And that's something world leaders cannot, in good conscience, ignore.