new internationalist
issue 217 - March 1991



Quiet conquest

Polio is on the way out. It now looks if the ambitious target of immunizing 80 per cent of the developing world's children by the end of 1990 has been reached.

'As a result of a decade-long effort, the lives of over 12 million children have been saved and more than 1.5 million cases of paralytic polio have been prevented', says UNICEF. The final figures, which become available this month, should provide the evidence.

When the 80-per-cent target was first set by the World Health Organization just over 10 years ago, only 15 to 20 per cent of the children in the developing world were being immunized. More than five million were dying every year from common diseases like measles, tetanus and whooping cough, and half a million children were being crippled each year by polio.

Today, the toll has been halved. Two and a half million children have been saved by vaccines this year, but two and a half million have still died from diseases which vaccines can prevent. 'Eighty per cent immunization does not mean an 80 per cent reduction in deaths, because disease is both more common, and more commonly fatal, among the minority who have not been reached,' says UNICEF in its latest State of the World's Children Report.

Now a new target has been set - to increase the overall immunization level to 90 per cent or more. 'These achievements,' according to UNICEF, are within the grasp of any nation which commits itself to them.'

At approximately $10 per child for full immunization (against polio, measles and tetanus) the total cost of reaching these targets would be approximately one billion dollars a year for the next 10 years. The developing world could be expected to continue to meet two-thirds of the bill, leaving a gap of $300 to $400 million a year to be made up by aid from the industrialized countries. The investment would soon pay for itself. The eradication of smallpox is now saving more than one billion dollars a year in vaccine and surveillance costs - three times as much as it cost to eradicate the disease.

In most countries there are two major opportunities for rapid improvement. If unvaccinated children who are brought to clinics for other reasons were either vaccinated on the spot or referred for immunization, then most countries would soon reach the 90 per cent target. Similarly the target would be reached if all children brought for a first vaccination were to complete the full course. Drop-out rates between first and third injections are often as high as 50 per cent.

Following the eradication of smallpox in the late 1970s, polio is likely to be the next major disease to be eliminated from the face of the earth. The Americas and Europe should be free of the crippling disease by 1995 and the rest of the world by the year 2000.

The State of the World's Children 1991/UNICEF.



Famine for Africa

Famine hits Africa again For the first time in four years, the world is producing more food than it consumes, thanks to a record cereal harvest in 1990. Yet more than 10 million people are threatened by starvation in the Horn of Africa. What is going on? Well, it's the usual story. The food is in the developed North, the need is in conflict-ridden areas of the South. This time around the aid needed is on a larger scale even than six years ago when starving people haunted television screens around the world. But already there is talk of donor fatigue. And, in some cases, African governments themselves are reluctant to admit that there is famine and to receive foreign aid.

In Sudan, the combination of civil war between the Muslim north and the Christian south and drought wiped out almost the whole harvest of 1990 and now threatens eight million people with famine. But the military Government has only just acknowledged that severe famine looms and is reluctant to turn to the West for help. Aid is getting through at a local level and most aid agencies are going ahead with their relief operations.

Drought has also hit Mozambique, suffering from a 15-year-old civil war. One million people have been displaced. Many are without medicine or salt and so are vulnerable to easily preventable diseases such as measles and diarrhoea, which can be as lethal as starvation. Levels of chronic malnutrition are reaching 20-50 per cent in children under five. An end to the civil war would not provide a solution. It would bring back nearly a million refugees, now living mostly in Malawi, and increase the number of people facing starvation.

In southern Angola two mil lion people are on the verge of famine. UN reserves are in imminent danger of running out and the donor response has been extremely poor. Drought has also struck Niger and according to the FAO one to two million people are at risk.

However, in war-torn northern Ethiopia and Eritrea the warring Government in Addis Ababa and the Eritrean independence movement are for the first time co-operating to distribute food aid equally.

Peace is, of course, the long term solution: even though Burkina Faso is more prone to drought than Mozambique, it has neither famine nor fighting. For immediate relief food aid is the only answer, however.

Jules Van Os (additional facts from Jeremy Harding and Ogen John Kevin Aliro) / Gemini



The cost of compromise

It is now one year since the ruling Sandinista party (FSLN) in Nicaragua unexpectedly lost the election to the National Opposition Union (UNO) and war-weary Daniel Ortega gave over the President's seat to right-winger Violeta Chamorro.

The two key electoral concerns were the Contra war and the crippled economy. The FSLN hoped that if it won a fair election the US Government would be compelled to accept the result, to cease funding the Contras and to lift its economic blockade on Nicaragua. The desired outcome: an end to the war and an open door to economic recovery.

This was not to be. The Bush administration not only backed Contra rebels through 'humanitarian aid' right up to the election. It also tailored its statements to persuade Nicaraguan voters that only a UNO victory would guarantee an end to US funding for the Contras, the lifting of the trade embargo and a renewal of aid. Voting for 'the US's friends' was thus perceived by many as the only hope of escaping poverty and ending war.

Today the country faces economic chaos with unemployment at 40 per cent and inflation running at 3,200 per cent a year. The Contras have not given up their arms - instead they have been demanding even greater concessions. Armed ex-Contras, desperate for land, have been grabbing it from the agricultural co-operatives formed by the Sandinista revolution. There has been a 40 per cent shortfall in the first harvest and famine seems imminent. And the US has not delivered on the aid package.

Violeta Chamorro has discovered that UNO (which means one) is by no means united but consists of politicians with widely differing views. When it took power the Chamorro Government decided to impose a free-market economy, cutting public expenditure, privatizing state land and industry, putting a credit squeeze on all sectors not producing for export and introducing a new currency pegged to the US dollar. Hand in hand with this went the desire to restrict labour rights and weaken trade unions. Their actions were often unconstitutional.

The country convulsed in two national strikes, the threat of civil war hovering like a storm cloud. This led to a national dialogue or concertacion in the hope of reaching a consensus on future economic policy. The Government had to abandon its radical economic plans.

This hasn't found favour with the US, which wants to see a swift destruction of the FSLN and its economic model. There are also strong indications that the US has withheld and delayed aid so as to pressurise Chamorro into greater confrontation with the FSLN. The US also wants Nicaragua to drop its $17 million suit against it in the International Court of Justice for damage caused by US-financing of the Contras for over a decade.

When elections were held last year the whole world turned up to see if they would be fair. Now that the new Government is perched upon an economic catastrophe, where is everybody?

Based upon the CIIR Update: Nicaragua: After the 1990 Elections



TV-show bullies rebuffed

In an abandoned lumberyard, almost bare of props but littered with what looks like throwaway furniture, a world-class children's television programme is created.

The Filipino show Batibot, a home-grown version of the American puppet series Sesame Street, began seven years ago. Its mainstays are a turtle puppet called Pong Pagong and a chattering monkey called Kiko Matsing - counterparts of Big Bird and Kermit the Frog. Last June it ran away in Munich with the top prize in the Prix Jeunesse International, the Oscar equivalent for children's programmes.

The Munich euphoria was short-lived. In September producer Lydia Benitez-Brown received a terse letter from the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) in New York, creators of Sesame Street, asking her to cease and desist' using Pong and Kiko. The two had been loaned to Batipot for use without any formal agreement.

Benitez-Brown and her small staff are fighting back. They are asking Filipino children to collect a million signatures so they can keep the show going. Benitez-Brown hopes to send the signatures to President George Bush.

Batipot began as a co-production with CTW in 1983. Pong and Kiko were created with their help, though CTW did not like the result because it thought the turtle too clumsy. But the turtle and monkey were part of Filipino folklore written by national hero Joe Rizal. Pong and Kiko, made of rattan and foam, are a huge hit with the very young.

Benitez-Brown claims that Batibot is not Sesame Street but a separate Philippine production made after its contract with CTW expired. The show has no funds, no government subsidy and gets a few scattered grants. It costs only $2000 an episode to produce against Sesame Street's $200,000.

Batibot has been recycled to keep it going. New material is inserted into old tapes to be viewed repeatedly by Filipino children. Benitez-Brown says CTW reacted when it found out she was negotiating with an Indonesian private channel to produce a Bahasa version of Batibot.

She adds: 'the objective of Sesame Street is education. We have never veered away from that. We have never commercialized Pong and Kiko to sell any product. The simple truth is that we cannot afford to give them back. Pong and Kiko really mean something to the children. They are not Ronald MacDonald.'

Abby Tan/Gemini

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