A Call to the World to Care - and to Act Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Kings Will Gather Next Week at the United Nations World Summit for Children

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IT'S all in the name of children. This Sunday - exactly six days before the United Nations World Summit for Children begins Sept. 29 in New York - concerned citizens in 78 countries will hold 2,500 candlelight vigils. From an Ethiopian refugee camp to a meeting held along the site of the Berlin Wall, the message will be the same: The plight of needy children deserves a higher priority on the global agenda.

Co-chaired by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, and supported by a variety of organizations from CARE to the Children's Defense Fund, the vigils are also intended as a pointed reminder to national leaders that children around the world have a large and growing constituency. "We're trying to mobilize people to care and to expect action," says vigil coordinator Sam Harris.

Nearly 80 presidents (including President Bush), prime ministers, and kings are scheduled to attend the summit. It will mark one of the largest high-level gatherings ever to focus on a single subject and will last less than 24 hours.

Yet Canada, Egypt, Mali, Mexico, Pakistan, and Sweden - the six governments initiating the summit - expect it to be a working meeting, more substance than symbol. A declaration on the rights of the child is ready for signature. So is a plan of action, including such goals as reducing the infant-mortality rate by one-third by the year 2000.

Child survival is the top United Nations concern. Each day some 40,000 youngsters under five die from malnutrition and disease. Most experts say the majority of deaths are easily preventable by access to clean water and low-cost vaccines, oral rehydration salts, and vitamins. The problem is widely viewed as less one of money and technical knowledge than of political commitment and will.

Yet the challenge is enormous. Only half the children in developing countries have access to clean drinking water, according to UNICEF (United Nations Childrens Fund) data. Forty percent suffer from malnutrition. Poverty, illiteracy, and war compound such problems: The continuing war in Afghanistan is one reason why that country leads all others in infant mortality rates, according to 1988 UNICEF data.

Also, nearly 100 million school-age children have never stepped inside a classroom. The majority of these nonstudents are female, often discriminated against from infant feeding on up through employment. Nations feel the repercussions in lower life expectancy and greater malnutrition among women.

Tightly pinched national budgets often provide little help. Many developing countries now spend half their revenue paying interest on debts or maintaining military strength. In many developing countries, health and education spending declined during the 1980s. Poverty, malnutrition, and ill health are advancing again in these countries after years of steady retreat, according to UNICEF. That reversal is one reason UNICEF executive director James Grant first floated the idea of a summit in that group's 1989 "State of the World's Children" report. Children must have "first call," says Mr. Grant, in terms of a nation's concern and its resources - whether times are good or bad.

Industrialized countries are not just part of the solution: They share the problem. UNICEF spokesman John Usher notes there is evidence of a resurgence of sweatshops - often employing children in under poor working conditions - in developed countries for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. In the United States, 1 of every 5 children live in households below the poverty line. In New York City, 2 of every 5 youngsters grow up poor. Also, the US ranks only 20th - Finland is first - among nations with the lowest infant mortality rate. Despite steady economic growth, the US and Great Britain now have double the number of homeless they had a decade ago; 1 in 4 is a child. In Canada, 1 of every 6 youngsters goes to bed hungry every night, notes Yves Fortier, Canada's Ambassador to the UN. …