One well-timed photograph can change the way people perceive the world. Think, for example, of military personnel struggling to raise the flag at Iwo Jima, or of the lone man defying a row of tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
And now think of the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed ashore on the coast of Turkey, the victim of an ill-fated Syrian refugee ship. His image was captured as he lay in the moist sand, waves lapping his lifeless body.
That one photo probably did more than anything to change how Europe is handling its refugee crisis. Unfortunately, photographers can’t be everywhere to capture iconic images of suffering.
Kurdi wasn’t alone. Thousands of children have died from violence in Syria. Even worse, however, millions of children under 5 die each year in developing nations from causes that are entirely preventable.
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That was part of the message last week from a 2015 Progress Report by UNICEF. The raw figures are awful. Linda Arnold, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on International Child Health told a conference call this week that 16,000 children die each day from ailments such as pneumonia, diarrhea or malnutrition. Some die struggling to take their first breath in life because of a lack of skilled medical care.
That’s 16,000 Aylan Kurdis every day, or 5.8 million in all of 2015. Poverty and disease can be just as cruel as political violence, but they are preventable.
This isn’t meant to be a hand-wringing column. Facts and figures demand perspective, and when the big picture is considered — the kind no photographer can capture — the news goes from awful to very good.
Today, 5.8 million children die from preventable causes. In 1990, the number was 12.6 million. If childhood mortality rates had remained the same, 48 million more children under 5 would have died by now.
That’s a staggering figure. It also tells the story of one of the most under-reported successes in modern times, or “one of the first great achievements of the new millennium,” to use the words of UNICEF Executive Director Yoka Brandt. It becomes even better when you isolate a few troubled countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia and Uganda. In those impoverished nations, childhood deaths have dropped by two-thirds.
And perhaps the most surprising part of this success story is that it involves, to a large extent, the U.S. government — that agency run by politicians who couldn’t pass a resolution on how to tie a shoelace if it involved combining a left and a right end.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has led a partnership with other agencies worldwide to make this happen. The strategy wasn’t difficult. Stopping diarrhea, curing pneumonia or training local health care workers is simple and inexpensive.
Amazingly, aid workers now believe preventable childhood deaths can be completely eradicated by 2035, again with a minimum of expense. A bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware — The Reach Every Mother and Child Act of 2015 — would require USAID to develop a strategy that focuses on the most vulnerable and poorest people worldwide, with measurable targets. It would require no extra money.
As I wrote last fall after meeting with Dr. Namala Mkopi of Tanzania, the health care successes in the Third World are dramatic to those who see them each day. Mkopi described how, in one year, his hospital went from having several children share beds as they slowly died, to seeing children’s wards that are virtually empty, all because of an effective rotavirus vaccine.
“One can say it’s a miracle, but it’s simple science,” he told me.
Many Americans react strongly to the notion that tax dollars go to foreign aid. The truth is these expenditures amount to less than 1 percent of the federal budget.
It may be the most effective federal money being spent right now, and it will pay off in many ways as developing nations turn their attention from the despair of dying children to finding ways to prosper.
That would make a pretty picture. Unfortunately, it’s also much easier than ending the violence that has killed Kurdis and so many of his fellow refugees.