Dire headlines from around the globe and polls showing a record-breaking plunge in the public’s confidence in our Supreme Court, Congress and the office of the president may make the average American want to throw up their hands in despair. But in what many might consider the least expected place to look, I have found something truly worth celebrating. I wish more Americans knew about the unprecedented American effort that saves millions of children’s lives around the world every year providing a true beacon of hope.
Consider this: Congress set up the first Child Survival Fund in the mid-1980s in response to a call for a child survival revolution from the late James P. Grant, the American head of UNICEF. It was just 30 years ago that UNICEF reported 41,000 children under the age of 5 were dying every single day from largely preventable malnutrition and disease. That’s right, 41,000 a day dying from diseases such as measles and whopping cough coupled with malnutrition — from dehydration and deadly diarrhea brought on by unsafe water. Today UNICEF reports the child death rate has tumbled nearly 60 percent — from 41,000 a day to 17,000 a day. That’s 15 million child deaths a year in the mid-1980s to 6.2 million a year today.
Bipartisan U.S. government leadership has been instrumental in this extraordinary success. The U.S. Agency for International Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, White House initiatives and Congressional legislation have created historic collaborations between the world’s governments, international agencies, civil society organizations, faith communities, corporations and local institutions. It’s important to remember that success on this scale would not have happened but for U.S. foreign aid which clocks in at less than 1 percent of the entire federal budget.
The late Sen. Mark Hatfield, a Republican from Oregon, would have called this bipartisan accomplishment that saves the lives of millions of children around the world a step toward achieving “humanity’s purpose on earth.” If that’s the case, why do so few of us know about it?
Jim Grant would say it’s because the ongoing deaths of 17,000 children a day is an emergency, but sadly, a silent one. Unlike blaring headlines announcing earthquakes, famines and war that benefit from much-needed emergency humanitarian aid, these deaths take place quietly and unnoticed.
We would do well to increase support for World Bank President Jim Kim’s call to end extreme poverty by 2030 and USAID’s plans to help save 500,000 children by the end of 2015 in 24 priority countries.
Congress would also do well to pass Rep. Christopher H. Smith’s, R-N.J., End Neglected Tropical Diseases Act — which encourages increased research and development to diagnose, prevent and treat deadly and debilitating NTDs. The bill offers promise to more than a billion impoverished around the world — and in the U.S. — who currently suffer unnecessarily. The recently introduced legislation already has bipartisan support from Reps. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.; Hank Johnson, D-Ga.; and Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y. But will it pass?
The Water for the World Act has inexplicably yet to pass, though it has 96 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House, and is smart legislation that focuses U.S. water investments overseas on those in greatest need, leverages private resources and integrates water development more efficiently and sustainably. It, too, will improve millions of lives and it won’t cost a penny more.
If we were to redouble our efforts in these areas, maybe then we would find ourselves in the enviable position The New York Times found itself in as it prepared for the first moon landing 45 years ago. Editor A.M. Rosenthal said, “Like every person who watched we felt we personally were part of the beauty and achievement, the great soaring. We loved those three men because we knew their adventure was born of the elegance of the human mind and desire. They allowed us to feel part of that elegance. Humanity was loving itself, which does not happen often.”
When we look at the most meaningful achievements of our foreign assistance program, perhaps we should see it for what it is: humanity loving itself.
Sam Daley-Harris is founder of the anti-poverty lobby RESULTS, an early pioneer in child survival and microfinance. He is author of “Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break between People and Government.”