The deepening global economic crisis could significantly raise infant mortality and malnutrition rates, a UN official said Tuesday, urging Asian governments to protect millions of vulnerable children.
Despite budgetary constraints, there is no reason to cut back on social spending, said Anupama Rao Singh, director for East Asia and the Pacific at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Singh warned that, based on previous experience, the current economic crisis could result in a 5-10 percent increase in anaemia among pregnant women and a 10 percent rise in low birth weights among babies in severely affected countries.
Infant mortality is expected to increase between 3.0 and 10 percent and the malnutrition rate among children could rise by 10 percent, she said, without specifying exactly the number of youngsters at risk.
Real data on the impact of the global meltdown was not yet available, Singh said at a conference to assess the impact of the global economic crisis on children. The event was jointly sponsored by UNICEF and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
While economies in the region have been affected by the global slump, many are still expected to post economic growth, although at a slower pace, Singh said.
"In this context, I think the first implication for us is that there is absolutely no justification for cutting back programmes and services for the poor or for children. This is not the time to do it," Singh said.
"On the contrary, this is the time to sustain and actually expand social investments."
She suggested that social protection programmes be made an integral part of government stimulus packages aimed at reviving economies. That would create jobs for teachers, healthcare workers and social workers, she said.
There are concerns that shrinking national budgets could force governments to cut back on social spending in areas such as health care, nutrition and education, potentially affecting a huge number of children, according to experts.
During the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, Thailand's public health budget shrank by 9.0 percent and its education budget fell 6.0 percent, according to figures cited by UNICEF.
At that time, the infant mortality rate in Indonesia rose 14 percent.
In the Philippines, the immunisation rate fell nearly 15 percent and public health expenditure tumbled six percent, while school enrollment rates for children declined and the number of child labourers increased, UNICEF said.
Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore's Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, suggested refocusing on the social impact of the crisis.
"Remember that there are real human beings at the end of these numbers and this indicates real suffering," he said, referring to children likely to be affected.
Governments should get their priorities right, said Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School.
He cited data showing that the total cost of launching feeding programmes for malnourished schoolchildren worldwide would be six billion dollars a year.
The money may appear massive but it pales in comparison with the eight trillion dollars used by governments to bail out the world's richest banks over the past few months, he said.
"Eight trillion dollars is 8,000 billion dollars. We can find 8,000 billion dollars to bail out rich banks, but we cannot find six billion dollars to feed the children of the world. Something is very wrong here," he added.
Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati called on international financial institutions to increase lending for social programmes.
Developing countries previously depended on raising funds in the global bond markets to support projects targeted at the poor, but borrowing costs have become prohibitive, she told the conference.