Opinion: Small actions can help world's poor children

NEW YORK — This week, President Barack Obama announced a new global development policy, the United Nations convened a summit on the Millennium Development Goals and the United Nations Secretary General and world leaders released a new, broadly-backed global strategy on women’s and children’s health. 

So what happens now that the speeches are over? Watch for the answer in villages and shantytowns across Africa and Asia.

Hopefully, inspired leaders of many developing countries will blaze the same trail as political and social leaders in Bangladesh and Malawi — where, despite extreme poverty, they’ve made incredible progress reducing child mortality and hunger.

Hopefully, the leaders of wealthier nations will back up their promises and, as Obama has pledged, partner with those ready to fight preventable child and maternal deaths and malnutrition. 

Hopefully, the excellent principles in the new U.S. global development policy will actually be implemented and unleash the full power of U.S. resources directed at fighting poverty and supporting every child’s right to grow up healthy.

And, hopefully, even more corporations, foundations, nongovernmental organizations and everyday people will back the poverty reduction goals the world agreed to in 2000. 

The payoff would be huge — for everybody. Healthy and well-nourished children are more likely to do well in school and earn more as adults. Educated, empowered girls grow up to have fewer and healthier children. The bottom line — healthy, educated young people fuel their countries’ development. That means better partners for the U.S. as well as a more secure and prosperous world for all. And what child isn’t worth the modest investment it takes to change or save a life?

Existing efforts are working. But they have yet to reach everyone who needs them, and in many countries they’re reaching the better off more than the poorest. More than 12 million newborns and children no longer die every year — as they did in 1990. But 8 million still do. Most of these deaths are entirely preventable with low-cost, proven solutions.

For instance, less than $1 of antibiotics can treat the number one killer of children — pneumonia.  Better breastfeeding could prevent the deaths of over a 1 million children a year, primarily by protecting against pneumonia and the number two killer of children — diarrhea.  Skilled attendance at birth and pre- and post-natal care can dramatically reduce the needless deaths of millions of newborns and mothers each year. Inexpensive bed nets and drugs can prevent and treat another leading child killer — malaria.

Regrettably, this basic care has often failed to reach the world’s poorest. But there are practical, sustainable solutions. Health workers, often recruited from the communities in which they live, can deliver much of the life-saving care that is needed. With very basic training, these community health workers are able to treat diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria, promote breastfeeding and provide basic newborn care. In some countries, they have received the additional midwifery training needed to assist mothers and newborns before, during and after delivery.

This week in New York, Save the Children hosted a breakfast for individuals and corporate leaders interested in joining our campaign to end preventable newborn and child deaths.

They heard from Dr. Abhay Bang, who pioneered a model for home-based newborn care by training village health workers in India. Neonatal deaths declined by more than 60 percent, and the model is now being replicated around India and in other developing countries.

They heard from physician and CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who said the media should cover more of what is working, and do a better job at showing the progress being made.

They heard from Anne Mulcahy, Save the Children Chairman and former Xerox CEO, who said that despite the economic downturn, there’s never been a better time for corporations to step up their global philanthropy. Their growth, she pointed out, is increasingly coming from these same developing countries that are working to pull their people out of poverty.

And Peter Singer, Princeton bioethicist and author of the book “The Life You Can Save,” made a compelling case that each one of us can help save children’s lives, and without hurting our own families.

“We have to take some responsibility for others in the world who are not as fortunate as we are. We have abundance and it doesn’t really involve major sacrifices in order to do more that if we were all giving a relatively small amount each, we could make that difference,” he said.

See Singer’s video, and learn more about the difference community health workers are making and how to get involved.

There are only five years left to reach the Millennium Development Goals, including reducing child mortality by two-thirds. It’s time to run, not walk. Together, we can save many more children’s lives if we all take action now. 

Charles MacCormack is president and CEO of Save the Children, an independent organization that creates lasting change for children in need in the United States and 120 countries around the world.