The world’s slumdogs need an ambassador

Why Obama should appoint a special ambassador for the world’s children. By Jennifer Delaney and Diana Millner Concerned with global problems from HIV/AIDS to lack of education to unaffordable vaccines, the world can easily sympathize with a child in need, as the Oscar buzz around Slumdog Millionaire has shown. Less attention, however, has been paid ...

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588443_090217_slumdog12.jpg

Why Obama should appoint a special ambassador for the world's children.

By Jennifer Delaney and Diana Millner

Why Obama should appoint a special ambassador for the world’s children.

By Jennifer Delaney and Diana Millner

Concerned with global problems from HIV/AIDS to lack of education to unaffordable vaccines, the world can easily sympathize with a child in need, as the Oscar buzz around Slumdog Millionaire has shown. Less attention, however, has been paid to the broken system in Washington that, at least in theory, coordinates the labyrinth of U.S. agencies supporting orphans and other vulnerable children globally.

Today, the flow chart on foreign-aid distribution would puzzle even a string theorist. Programs that support orphans and other vulnerable children abroad are spread across a dizzying number of agencies and offices within those agencies. Yet there is no common system across agencies to track the impact of U.S. programs on children’s lives. In a 2007 study, the Government Accountability Office found that due to poor accounting standards at the U.S. Agency for International Development, “it is not possible to determine how much was actually spent on [child survival and maternal health] activities.”

Worse, all of these agencies and offices have different goals, different directives, and different evaluation processes, none of which can be compared or compiled. In Uganda, two U.S. aid agencies, with overlapping agendas, were housed in the same building, but neither knew what the other was doing — a foreign-policy version of a bad Marx Brothers routine.

In the past, the first lady would often moonlight as the country’s de facto children’s ambassador. But with 132 million orphans worldwide and 75 million elementary-school-age children out of school, more than half of them girls, a symbolic role for First Lady Michelle Obama is not enough.

The Obama administration should appoint someone with the focus and clout to untangle this mess: a children’s ambassador.

Modeled after the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, which has done wonders to lower the number of HIV-positive orphans abroad, the ambassador would coordinate U.S. efforts, keep tabs on policy, and formulate responses to issues that affect children worldwide. As the president’s envoy, the ambassador could engage heads of state and international organizations to build support for child-friendly policies, from reducing HIV transmission rates to ridding the world’s armies of child soldiers.

With strong coordination, the possibilities are vast. Under the global AIDS coordinator, the United States has made significant progress in supporting children orphaned by HIV — even if children living with AIDS are still about one third as likely to receive antiretroviral therapy as adults. Yet HIV/AIDS is not the biggest killer of children worldwide. Preventable illnesses such as malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea are to blame for the most deaths.

The survival of these children living in poverty matters for many reasons: Children raised in physically and emotionally nurturing environments are more likely to develop intellectually and socially, allowing them to better contribute to society in the future.

To his credit, President Barack Obama has made children a priority of his administration. In his inaugural address, he called on Americans to end their “indifference” toward the world’s poorest. Obama should follow up that pledge by appointing a children’s ambassador. Unlike in the movies, orphans need more than luck or a lottery ticket to be rescued from the world’s slums.

Jennifer Delaney is executive director of Global Action for Children. Diana Millner is executive director of Save Africa’s Children.

INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/Getty Images

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