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We owe something to Third World children

Alan Braunholtz

Whenever I’m around my nephew, niece or any children really, I’m amazed at their zest for life. They will not stop, and going to bed is failure. Sleep! What use is that?

As any baby sitter knows, an official bed time of 8 p.m. is merely the starting point in never-ending negotiations that drag on till either violence is threatened, bribes are promised, drugs are used or the parents’ car crunches up the gravel driveway.

What happens to this juvenile desire to be awake at all possible times? Now I love sleeping in; where did all that energy go? Burnt away by too many “no problem sir, oh I’m sorry I’ll try to do better, you need this tomorrow!” double shifts, boring TV shows, lonely nights, worries about bills, not having the right car, clothes or life. And knowing that all the stuff that wore you down is going to be there day after day, forever. Then the refuge of sleep beckons.

Kids have an intact life force, overflowing. They are in their minds The Man and always will be – till teen-age angst shows up.

They smile and laugh all the time. Children laugh 400 times a day. Pediatricians know that a kid who doesn’t smile or laugh is probably sick. Adults laugh less than 20 times a day, so by a kid’s standard we’re all ill.

We need some of their overflowing joie de vivre to splash on our faces and wake us up. All the childish humor, games, fantasy worlds, daydreams, giggles I allow myself will regenerate my life force.

Sadly instead of learning to love life from children, we’re stopping them from playing. Safety concerns make it hard to let children just goof off by themselves, and schools over the country are chipping away at recess. This is seen as wasted time, not helpful to test scores. But the social lessons learned at recess are probably more valuable than we know.

One of the saddest statements to come from the recent U.N. children’s summit came from a 12-year-old girl, Reena, from Uttar Pradesh: “We have the right to fun. Few children in India have the chance to just play and enjoy themselves.”

I can’t imagine a childhood without playing, where poverty, violence, disease, work and fear steal away the fun of life. This is reality for a ridiculous number of the world’s children. Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary general, got it right when he replied, “We the grownups have failed you deplorably.”

The First World nations have the power and wealth to change this situation if we choose to use it. To steal a line from a fashionable movie: Spiderman’s uncle warns that “with great power comes great responsibility.”

We and our governments rarely see this responsibility extending beyond our borders, or our campaign contributors. As the No. 1 military and economic power in the world, our responsibility encompasses the world to some extent. To be a world leader ,you have to lead the world.

Governments love to spout figures about all the aid dollars they give. These figures seem large to us, but as a percentage of the GDP, they are negligible. We spend far more on subsidies to our industries than on foreign aid and then wonder why developing countries can’t compete with us.

Instead of “aid,” we think of “free” trade, global economic growth and the “trickle down” theory as the saviors of the world’s poor.

Since 1979 the richest 1 percent in the United States have seen their wages increase by 157 percent. The bottom 20 percent are making a $100 less per year than in 1979, adjusted for inflation.

So in the greatest economic boom in U.S. history, in a country with labor laws, some unions and other protections of a democratic government, the poor experienced zero trickle down. What hope in a corrupt Third World country with limited labor laws and enforcement?

Research by the World Bank suggests little. Between 1988 and 1993, the poorest 5 percent of the world lost 25 percent of their income, the richest 5 percent grew by 12 percent and globally the middle class is disappearing. A few get rich and more get poor.

Admittedly, this is a short time to look at the effects of globalization and long-term, the “trickle down” theory may work.

But to expect the world’s poor to live in misery waiting to see if our economic theories work for them is at the best immoral.

We have cared little for the state of the world’s poor children and by continuing to do nothing in the face of global injustice, we are making a choice that none of us can be proud of.

Ignorance makes this choice easier than it should be.

Read the world section of the newspapers, read Time magazine, check out the Internet. We should be informed about the state of the world as we benefit from the global economy.

Once we know, we will care and can start making better decisions for ourselves and our governments.

Many Third World countries are swamped by debts that have accrued from old loans and huge interest payments.

The present population has inherited their fathers’ credit card binge. First World banks and countries use these debts to impose deals and trades that aren’t in these countries’ long-term interests.

Persuading our governments to forgive these debts would be helpful. If we choose to buy products that we know aren’t exploiting the Third World’s poor, then we will personally have helped.

These products will cost more, so it depends how much a conscience is worth. Patagonia is a great example of a company with a social conscience.

A world where all children can play would be a happier and more peaceful place. It would be nice if we started to think about creating that sooner rather than after the next material milestone we’re coveting.

To quote Gabriela Arreto, a 13-year-old from Bolivia, “We are not expenses, we are investments. You call us the future, but we are also the present.”

Alan Braunholtz, a raft guide and ski instructor, writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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