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.

/ Current Affairs