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Of 67,000 Tsunami Victims, At Least 1/3 Are Children

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UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy discusses the mammoth relief effort that has begun to help the 10 nations hit the by the deadliest tsunami in two centuries. The death toll is 67,000 and rising. Doctors fear tens of thousands more may die from disease. [includes rush transcript]

The death toll has topped 67,000 in Asia and East Africa following the devastating tsunamis that hit the Indian Ocean region on Sunday.

The World Health Organization is warning that the spread of disease, especially malaria and cholera, could end up killing up tens of thousands more people.

The head of crisis operations for the World Health Organization, Dr. David Nabarro, said “The initial terror associated with the tsunamis and the earthquake itself may be dwarfed by the longer term suffering of the affected communities.”

Worst hit have been Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Both countries have lost more than 25,000 people each. The Vice President of Indonesia said his country may have lost as many as 40,000 people. In Sri Lanka the government is estimating 1.5 million people–or nearly 8 percent of the population–is now homeless.

Humanitarian groups have launched what is believed to be the largest relief effort in the world’s history. Billions of dollars will be needed in the coming weeks.

While the Bush administration has pledged to play a major role in the relief effort, it is already coming under criticism for its handling of the crisis.

On Monday, the Bush administration pledged an initial $15 million for the effort. After a top UN official described the donation as “stingy”, the US pledged another $20 million bringing the total offering to $35 million.

To put the figure in perspective, President Bush plans to spend between $30 and $40 million for his upcoming inauguration celebration.

And the amount pledged to victims of the tsunami is dwarfed by the Bush administration’s war effort in Iraq.

The U.S. has spent an average of $9.5 million every hour on the war and occupation of Iraq. With a current price tag of $147 billion, the U.S. has spent n average of about $228 million a day in Iraq. In other words, the U.S. spends what it promised on the tsunami relief effort in less than four hours in Iraq.

  • Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now in New York by Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

CAROL BELLAMY: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you talk about the scope of the problem as you understand it right now?

CAROL BELLAMY: Well, we all see these pictures that are so appalling. We have talked to our offices. We actually have offices and have had programs in all of the countries affected. It’s just massive destruction, obviously, slightly different in different countries. In India, certainly significantly hit, they are responding, the Indian government is taking the lead. On the other hand, in the northern part of Indonesia, in Sri Lanka and Maldives, parts of Thailand, there’s just enormous destruction.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the children?

CAROL BELLAMY: Well, you have to understand to begin with the demographics of these countries. They’re generally poor countries. The population tends to be young. At a minimum in these countries, 30% of the population is under the age of 18, but in some of these countries, close to half of the population is under the age of 18. So, you have a huge population of young people and children. They’re generally the most vulnerable. They’re the least able to hold on when the waves hit. They may have been being held by their parents but they’re yanked away from their parents. They may have lost their parents now. They are more subject to some of the disease that potentially could be seen as the second wave of horror coming. So, the challenges for children are extraordinary.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Carol Bellamy; she is head of UNICEF, the United Nation’s Children’s Fund. So, what are you doing right now and what kind of support is there? We heard the controversial words of one of the high UN Officials talking about the contribution, for example, from the United States being stingy. Now, in response it seems to the criticism, the US government has upped the aid from $15 million to I think $35 million. That is approximately what President Bush will spend on his inauguration celebration. It’s approximately what is spent on average in about four hours in Iraq. Carol Bellamy.

CAROL BELLAMY: Well, I think everybody realizes that before this is over, and one doesn’t even know how to define over, this will probably be billions of dollars that this crisis will require to help rebuild these societies. The immediate interventions right now and you ask what we specifically are doing; first, we have reallocated resources in the programs to move as quickly as possible. We are focusing as we usually do in emergencies on children and largely around things like blankets, pads, cooking, little cooking kits, essential medicines and drugs, and particularly the provision of clean water, whether that’s through water purification tablets or huge water bladders with clean water and sanitation. The response from the international community, frankly and I said this to my colleague, Jan Egeland, I think has been a good response so far, but it’s only the beginning. It’s going to have to be much more from everyone, whether the US or Japan or the United Kingdom or Australia. So, of course, the US is going to have to do more, but I think it’s important already that they have announced some.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Carol Bellamy, she is head of UNICEF. Carol Bellamy, you just came out with a report on the state of children in the world before the tsunamis, and it was extremely dire.

CAROL BELLAMY: Well, it was. We said that virtually half of the children in the world are living in poverty. And we urged a different definition, if you will, of poverty than that of adults. Let me explain why. We said that you can’t just look at a country and say, if this country has economic growth therefore, it doesn’t have people in poverty. Because for children, there are certain deprivations: the deprivation of health or education, deprivation of simple, basic services. These constitute a contribution toward childhood poverty and childhood is a very special time in life. It’s not just the child; it’s a pure life, if there isn’t some basic foundation it affects the future of that human being. So, that was our challenge to the world, to understand the impact of poverty, but we also pointed to other things, like the enormous implications of the pandemic of HIV and AIDS on young people and children and the impact of war. Even as we speak in these countries affected, you have a country like Sri Lanka, which has been at war. You have a country like Indonesia, where there’s been conflict in the north.

AMY GOODMAN: Carol Bellamy in terms of aid to children of the world. Children are considered under the rubric of women and children and that often includes reproductive rights. The US taking a very strong stand against women’s choice, and that means cutting aid to organizations around the world that deal with that issue, if they also deal with abortion. How does that affect children?

CAROL BELLAMY: Well, it affects children. First, let’s be very clear. As a UN Agency, we were very unhappy that the US reduced its contribution to the UN Population Agency. The UN Population Agency doesn’t engage in promoting abortions. They have been very clear about that. So, we really believe that there is a very, very major, and a very unfortunate misunderstanding here. Good reproductive health is very important. It means that women come into pregnancy, and are healthy, and it means that their children have more of a likelihood of being born in a healthy manner. For example, I’ll come back to the report UNICEF just did to give you an idea. One of the challenges is to try to reduce the problem of children dying before the age of five around the world. Better child survival. And in fact, in the last ten years, in all parts of the world except sub-Saharan Africa, there are fewer children under the age of five dying. But, now, about more than 30% of the children that die before the age of 5 die in that very first month or so, which means that in many ways, the woman coming into pregnancy was not very healthy. So, good reproductive health is important not only to the human being, the woman, but is also critically important to that child being born.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Carol Bellamy, she is head of UNICEF. Right now, your chief, Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, is under fierce attack by the United States, and particularly the religious right, that could take him down. What does that mean for you, and also even now in the midst of this global calamity, the pressure that he faces?

CAROL BELLAMY: Well, you know, I have been saying to everybody, whatever they think of the UN, and I am really a strong promoter of the UN, I’m an American, but I’m the head of a UN organization, there is no organization that better responds in these kinds of crises as we see in Asia right now than the United Nations. Whether it’s through the organization I’m with, through UNICEF or whether it’s through the World Food Program or the World Health Organization, or through the other arms of the UN. The major response in humanitarian crisis around the world working with non-governmental organizations is through the UN. I think people forget sometimes all of the different parts of the United Nations. Secondly, oil for food, and we all believe there ought to be full disclosure in the oil for food issues, was really something that was dealt with by the UN Security Council, the UN is made up of member states. If they want something to work, it works, and if they don’t, it doesn’t work. It isn’t as though people are sitting behind closed doors and making the decisions. Kofi Annan, the secretary general, is my boss. I believe he is providing good leadership at the United Nations. I don’t think that he will be, as you said, taken down. But it is a discouraging time to be at the United Nations now. I’m sorry that the really horrific disaster has occurred in Asia, but I hope it will give people a second look at how the UN does respond, and people will realize that the UN plays a very important role.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that amount that the US has pledged at this point, some $35 million, again, a couple of hours on average, spent in Iraq in the war. By the US Administration is reflective overall of the US cutting back on humanitarian services and pushing it into the military. Latest news, reading a piece from The New York Times, one of the first signs of the effects of the tightening federal budget, the bush administration reducing contributions to global food aid programs aimed at helping millions of people climb out of poverty, about 100,000 — $100 million cut, estimated by some charities. It will be cut dealing with crises like the Sudan, save our children, Catholic Relief and other charities have suspended and eliminated programs, intended to help the poor.

CAROL BELLAMY: Well, you’re probably not going to like my answer, Amy, but I have to say, to be fair, that this Bush administration has actually increased the Foreign Aid Budget. Now, it hasn’t really increased it when it comes to supporting multilateral agencies like the United Nations, but it actually has increased the Foreign Aid Budget. That being said, frankly, whether it’s the US or anywhere else, we think much, too much, money is being spent on armaments on war, on conflict. If you just took that money and invested it in human development I know that sounds pretty, you know, sappy, but frankly, there’s a lot to it. You invest in kids. Invest in basic health and education. It would do a lot more for international security than the conduct of more wars, whether the wars are in Africa, or the Middle East, or Columbia or Nepal, investing in war is just not good use of money.

AMY GOODMAN: Carol Bellamy, I want to thank you very much for be us with. She is the Chief of UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund. Thank you for join us.


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