30th anniversary of World Summit for Children – a pioneering UN event

Published on 28 September 2020

Richard Jolly

Research Associate

September 29th-30th marks the 30th anniversary of a pioneering UN event that almost didn’t happen – the World Summit for Children (WSC). It was the brainchild of James P Grant, the charismatic head of UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund. He wanted to hold a UN summit for heads of state, presidents and prime ministers, to assess the needs of each country’s children and to set goals for improving their situation and condition by 2000.

This may sound like an irresistibly good idea, bold and humanitarian but officials of the UN were against it, for bureaucratic reasons. Under UN rules at the time, UN meetings could only be held for “representatives” of countries, and only countries could decide whether to send a diplomat, a secretary or someone more senior.

Jim Grant was not deterred. After many twists and turns, the WSC was eventually held as a “non-UN” meeting in the UN building! 71 heads of State came, including President Bush, Maggie Thatcher, the King of Belgium, Julius Nyerere and other prime ministers or presidents from every continent.

Grant also had to contend with the New York Police Department. As President Bush would be coming, the police demanded that surrounding streets had to be cleared for his motorcade. Everyone, prime ministers or whoever, had to be in the UN building two hours before – at 7am! Many were offended but Grant was more positive: he simply ensured that Prime Minister Thatcher would be there at 7am and advertised that coffee and croissants would be served from then for anyone who wanted to meet the British Prime Minister! I helped to serve coffee – including to Margaret Thatcher!

The first-ever UN Summit

This first Summit was a great success, gathering headlines round the world for children and the UN. This was the first-ever UN Summit meeting but the idea of holding Summit meetings soon caught on – the Earth Summit in 1992, The World Summit for Social Development in 1995, the Millennium Summit in 2000 and the Summit for Sustainable Development in 2015.

More significant for long-run action, the WSC set goals to be achieved by 2000 for improving child health and education, reducing child deaths and malnutrition, and providing government support to fund this in poorer countries.

By 2000, significant progress in implementation had been achieved, and the UN at the Millennium Summit set new goals, the MDGs. When these had also registered considerable success, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), were adopted.

UN goals

Many react to the idea of UN goals with scepticism and disbelief. Will they really make any difference? This is a mistake. Not counting the MDGs and the SDGs, the UN over its lifetime has formulated some 50 goals for economic and social development. We reviewed these in our UN history and most have been fully or more than achieved by a considerable number of countries. More generally they have led to accelerated advance.

Perhaps the most impressive of UN goals was that of the WHO in 1966 aiming to eradicate smallpox, then a widespread disease killing two million people every year. The eradication of smallpox was achieved in 1977, at a total cost of $300 million. The price of three fighter bomber aircraft at the time!

A boost for child rights

The WSC also gave a strong boost to Child Rights. The Convention on the Rights of the Child had come into force just a month before the WSC. It is today the most ratified of all Human Rights conventions by all countries of the world except Somalia and the United States.  Performance by all ratifying countries is reviewed every three or four years by the Committee on Child Rights which itself has pioneered a new process of review, less judgmental and more sharing of experience, though always quietly pressing for more action.

A game-changing summit

The WSC was a game-changer. It pioneered the idea that heads of state should be directly concerned with action for children, not just with trade and economic matters. It set goals for children which accelerated action, including on child survival. Twelve million under-five children died in 1990. In line with the agreed goals, this has been reduced by 60 percent – the latest figure being 5.2 million child deaths in 2019. Progress is possible. And the WSC gave a boost to child rights, now a more common point for action.

Prioritising children in the Covid crisis

Today when children are under serious threat from Covid-19, the 30th anniversary of the Children’s Summit is a highly appropriate time to reassess children’s needs. Though children are less likely to suffer direct effects from Covid-19, the indirect effects are already serious – in disrupted education, neglect of essential health care, disturbed relations with family, relatives and friends.  In developing countries, many children are also suffering the repercussions of downturns in the richer countries on their own economies, especially in loss of exports and investment.

Today’s Covid-19 crisis could be an opportunity for a new impetus for children. Every country needs to consider afresh and plan for its children, both to recover from the immediate effects of the virus and to set new paths for the next five and ten years. Prime ministers and heads of state should take the lead, citizen’s assemblies should add to the specifics and communities and governments should make the commitments. A World Summit is not possible nor necessary but every country can and needs to assess priorities for its children and make serious plans and policies to respond to them.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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