UNITED NATIONS - The devastating impact of rising food prices is expected to hit most of the world's 2.2 billion children the hardest -- particularly in developing nations.
"They are likely to be its main victims," says Kul Gautam, a former deputy executive director of the U.N. children's agency UNICEF. "Remember, 80 percent of the human brain is formed in the first 18 months of a child's life."
And whether a child will grow to live up to his or her full human potential, or the child will be condemned to be a slow learner and poor achiever in life, is largely determined in the first few years of a child's pre-school life.
"The damage caused by malnutrition, infection and poor child care in early childhood often lasts for the whole life, and it cannot be easily reversed later," Gautam told IPS.
A national of Nepal, Gautam is the recipient of the 2008 Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award, named after the legendary Hollywood movie star, a onetime UNICEF goodwill ambassador who relentlessly advocated the cause of children worldwide in the early 1990s.
Quoting the former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, Gautam said that poverty is the greatest violation of human rights in the world today. And children are the greatest victims of this violation of human rights.
"The time has come for all of us, as Audrey Hepburn would have wished, to consider the fight against child poverty everywhere, in rich as well as in poor countries, not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of human rights, and a foundation for human development," he said, after receiving the award at the annual meeting of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF in Atlanta, in the U.S. state of Georgia.
The spreading food crisis has triggered street demonstrations and riots in over 30 countries -- including Haiti, Indonesia, Cote d'Ivoire, Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal, and most recently in Somalia.
In May, UNICEF began supplementary feeding for 44,000 children under five years of age in central and southern Somalia. Over the last three months, Somali children have been given 10 kg of fortified corn-soya blend per month.
This feeding programme came at a time of worsening humanitarian crisis in war-ravaged Somalia, which remains politically unstable.
"We are extremely concerned about the most vulnerable among this group, and we are using all means possible to prevent a catastrophe for the youngest children," says Unni Silkoset, a UNICEF nutrition officer based in Somalia.
The food crisis will be on the agenda of the upcoming G-8 summit meeting of industrialised nations in Hokkaido, Japan, early next month.
The rising prices and the growing shortage of staples -- including wheat, rice, corn, maize and soybeans -- are threatening to push an additional 100 million people into poverty and hunger, increasing the total to about 950 million worldwide.
A high-level U.N. Task Force on the Global Food Crisis, headed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, is seeking short, medium, and long-term solutions to resolve the problem.
Gautam told the meeting in Atlanta that much of the progress in poverty alleviation has bypassed the bottom billion people in the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, who subsist on less than a dollar a day.
Civil wars and conflict, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic have exacerbated the fight against poverty by weakening the economies and social fabric of many countries in Africa.
"And largely because of AIDS and poverty, children in many countries of Africa today can expect to live a shorter life than their parents and grandparents. This has never happened in human history before," he pointed out.
Much of the world's greatest tragedies befalling children are concentrated on the bottom billion people of the world.
In a report to the upcoming meeting of the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the secretary-general says the price of nearly every food commodity has increased.
The price of wheat and maize has risen by 130 percent over the last 12 months while the price of rice has more than doubled since late January.
"With higher prices, the poor reduce the amounts that they consume and switch to foods with lower nutritional value," he points out.
Ban also says the rise in both food and energy costs also threatens to undermine the U.N.'s anti-poverty programme as envisaged in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
One of the goals is to reduce by half the number of people living in extreme poverty. The deadline is 2015.
Gautam said it is this degrading poverty that kills nearly 10 million children every year from causes that are readily preventable. It is poverty that keeps 93 million children out of primary schools, the majority of them girls.
And it is poverty that lands millions of children in child labour, often in hazardous circumstances, when they should be going to school.
It is poverty, debt and unemployment that lead desperate parents to even sell their vital organs like kidneys through unscrupulous middle-men to provide for their children.
"And when all else fails, parents are even forced to abandon their children, sell them to brothels, and work in slave-like conditions," he added.
Still, there is brighter side to the plight of children worldwide.
As a former UNICEF executive director, the late Jim Grant, once remarked, there has been more progress for children in the last 50 years -- during the second half of the 20th century -- than perhaps in the previous 500 years.
Gautam said that 20 million children used to die in the world annually in the 1960s. Although world population has doubled since then, the number of child deaths has been halved, to less than 10 million per year.
"This is 10 million too many deaths, but a huge progress nevertheless," he added.
"I recall in my home country of Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, the child death rate has been reduced by more than 50 percent in the last decade in spite of a terrible civil war that has caused many civilian deaths and destruction."
The deadly disease smallpox used to kill 5 million people a year during Audrey Hepburn's childhood, he said. But it was completely eradicated during her lifetime. Hepburn died in 1993.
Polio which used to cripple millions is on the brink of eradication. Deaths due to measles, one of the biggest killers of children, declined by 90 percent in Africa in the last seven years.
"All of this is a testimony to the success of the UNICEF-led global campaign for child-survival, now so ably supported by the highly effective U.S. Fund for UNICEF's campaign under the banner: "Whatever it takes to save a child," Gautam declared.
Copyright © 2008 IPS-Inter Press Service