Asian governments pledge to reduce disparities to help children

Twenty-six Asian governments pledged Friday to work towards reducing disparities within their countries in a bid to improve the lives of the region’s 600 million children.

In a declaration, the countries pledged to "find ways to guarantee free or affordable services to all members of society. We recognise that the survival, growth and development of our children is a national public good that will guarantee the future success of our societies."

"We are concerned that in many countries wide gaps exist between different groups in society and/or regions in the country which exacerbate the vulnerability of children to malnutrition, ill health, exclusion from education, neglect and all forms of exploitation," the nations said.

The Siem Reap-Angkor Declaration followed three days of talks by representatives from across East Asia and the Pacific, focussing on disparities, adolescents and child survival, growth and development.

Rapid economic and social changes in the region have resulted in inequitable progress and contributed to increasing disparities that have exacerbated risks facing children, the declaration acknowledged.

Figures distributed at the talks showed that for instance in Indonesia, under-five mortality rates among the poorest were 110 per 1,000 live births compared to 28 per 1,000 among the richest quintile.

In host Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, under-five mortality was 50 per 1,000 live births compared to 229 per 1,000 in the northern provinces.

At the start of the talks the head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Carol Bellamy called for greater spending in health and education especially targeted towards communities where disparities are high.

The region spends less on average on public health per capita than any other region in the world.

According to UNICEF, Cambodia, China, Vietnam and Indonesia all appear to be experiencing growing economic and social inequalities.

Countries also pledged innovative strategies to help adolescents, a fast-growing segment of the region’s population.

Lina Laigo, executive director of the Philippines’ Council for the Welfare of Children, told AFP that the talks and declaration were "very substantive".

"The agenda that they have agreed on and what they have identified is quite important for all the countries… in the sense that we are looking at things we have neglected before," she said.

"These new things that they have identified, adolescents and disparities, are really something that we need to address."

During the talks, an alliance of non-government organisations also urged the region’s governments to address the issue of violence against children.

Young people from 19 of the participating countries meanwhile held their own three-day forum and called for a larger role in decisions affecting their welfare.

The ministerial talks were held in the northwestern Cambodian town of Siem Reap, gateway to the famed Angkor temple complex. They have been held every second year since being initiated at the 1990 World Summit for Children in New York.

UNICEF head calls for more investment in Asia-Pacific youth

Asian governments are spending much less on public health than the global average, the head of the UN children’s agency said Wednesday in an appeal for more investment in the region’s youth.

UNICEF head Carol Bellamy also said the fruits of unprecedented economic growth in the East Asian and Pacific region have not been shared equally.

"If we want to tackle disparities and achieve more equitable development we have to invest more in children. The region, for example, spends much less per capita than the global average on public health," she said.

"I urge governments to increase spending in health and education and to target these investments to communities where disparities are high."

Her comments were made to ministers, officials and experts from 26 countries attending a three-day conference focusing on child survival, growth and development with particular attention on growing regional disparities.

According to UNICEF, Cambodia, China, Vietnam and Indonesia all appear to be experiencing growing economic and social inequalities, while disparities also occur within the region.

In Cambodia, for instance, 34 percent of people live on less than one dollar a day and average life expectancy is 57 years. In neighbouring Thailand, two percent of the population get by on less than a dollar a day and live on average to 69.

Bellamy said adolescents and young people who form a growing segment of the region’s population remain among the most marginalised and are highly susceptible to economic and other forms of exploitation.

"Many families are deprived of access to basic social services that are fundamental to the fulfilment of their rights," she said.

"We need strong, concerted, unified action to ensure disparities do not become a scourge that robs us of hard-won gains and fuels division and conflict."

Bellamy, who ends her 10-year stint as head of UNICEF in April, also noted that last December’s Indian Ocean tsunami had demonstrated that the region was more prone to natural disasters than any other.

"Whether they are floods, droughts, landslides or earthquakes, they can wreak havoc on lives, infrastructure and livelihoods, and children are especially at risk," she said.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who formally opened the meeting, blamed the dismal state of children in this Southeast Asian nation, where child mortality rates have worsened in recent years, on the decades of war it has suffered.

"It’s all a consequence of mistakes made by political leaders — political mistakes," he said as he described in detail the turmoil the kingdom endured since 1970 when it first descended into unrest that only ended in 1998.

Those years included the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot, when up to two million people died.

Former Thai prime minister and UNICEF goodwill ambassador Anand Panyarachun, meanwhile, urged governments to work constructively with civil society, saying non-government organisations were needed to point out where they went wrong.

It may be unpleasant for those in government but "we have to recognise that we don’t always get it right," he said.

A declaration will be issued at the end of the meeting making concrete commitments for children based on the talks, which were initiated after the 1990 World Summit for Children held in New York and are held every second year.

Thailand’s deficits spark wariness but outlook remains upbeat: analysts

The announcement of Thailand’s largest current account deficit since before the Asian financial crisis has sparked unease among analysts but they are still largely upbeat about economic prospects this year.

Central bank figures released last Monday showed a 942-million-dollar current account deficit in January, the highest in nearly eight years.

The figure dominated headlines as commentators nervously harked back to the cause of the 1997 crash.

An interest rate rise of 25 basis points to 2.25 percent followed on Wednesday as the central bank acted to ease inflation fears, but the stock exchange plunged 2.4 percent on the heels of fleeing investors.

"The Thai economy has already recovered but we should still be in alert mode," Finance Minister Somkid Jatusripitak was quoted as saying in the Nation newspaper Saturday.

"If we don’t help each other, bad news in the form of the current account deficit could occur again," he warned.

An import surge, a downturn in tourism after the December tsunamis, and high oil prices were the main causes of the swing to the third and largest current account deficit since the crisis.

But government officials expect tourism to bounce back by year-end, while most analysts agree that imports have been productive and timely.

Pat Phattapongse, head of research for KGI Securities, told AFP the deficit should be expected since one of Asia’s best-performing economies is entering a fresh growth phase.

"This year we’re moving away from a demand-driven economy to supply-driven," he said, referring to the shift from the consumption-led growth created by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist policies to investment-led growth.

"Clearly, this is going to have ramifications for the current account deficit and trade balance," he said, noting that good fourth-quarter results among companies "shows that the economy still has some steam to it."

Pat was also unfazed by the stock market’s bearish reaction.

"If you look at the graph, since November it’s been a straight line up without any real pullback, so I think it was a healthy correction."

Vincent Milton, managing director of international agency Fitch Ratings, was similarly sanguine about the year ahead, as Thaksin begins his second term after an overwhelmingly election victory in February.

"The general picture on the corporate side has been strong growth earnings over the last 12 months and that’s expected to continue on the back of capacity expansion and new investment," Milton said.

The government is tipping 5.5-6.5 percent growth for 2005, compared to last year’s 6.2 percent and 2003’s 7.8 percent.

Analysts are still watching for hiccups in the economy, fearful of possible plunging consumer confidence in the wake of the tsunamis as well as potential fallout from slowing global markets.

The waves killed at least 5,395 people in Thailand and sent the crucial tourism industry into a tailspin, with international arrivals dropping 18 percent.

"We’re worried that the first half or quarter of this year, post-tsunami, you may have a bit of a shockwave through consumer confidence taking some wind out of consumption," KGI’s Pat warned.

Export growth meanwhile depends on what happens in China, Europe and Japan. "We see those markets softening," he said.

Exports grew 11.6 percent in January year-on-year, compared to a 23.0 percent average for 2004. Imports jumped 33.6 percent year-on-year, compared to 27.4 percent for 2004, leading to a 1.47 billion dollar trade deficit.

Sompop Manarangsan, an economics lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said more risk factors were now at play for the economy.

He said the government’s decision to begin dismantling a 13-month-old subsidy on diesel would add inflationary pressure and risk further interest rate rises.

"From now on interest rates are going to be a crucial factor in causing some adverse affects on the Thai economy," he said.

Sompop said export growth prospects were dim, while domestic consumption was likely to be constrained by a drought putting pressure on agricultural production and dragging on growth.