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East: UNICEF Finds Futures of Ex-Communist Countries Jeopardized By Child Poverty, Illness

  • Eugen Tomiuc

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is warning that more than a decade after the fall of communism, the development of younger generations in many countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union remains jeopardized by child poverty, insufficient educational reforms, and illness. UNICEF says in a new report that the fast-growing number of drug-related HIV/AIDS cases throughout the region could threaten the social progress of future generations.

Prague, 3 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A United Nations agency is warning that countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union need fresh approaches to protect children and young people from new risks and help them benefit more from emerging opportunities.

UNICEF says that despite democratic, economic, and social achievements since the fall of communism, young people in many states of the region are confronted with growing poverty, insufficient education, and new health threats.

UNICEF, in a report titled "Social Monitor 2002," identifies the rapid-growing number of HIV/AIDS infections as the main threat to the social development of the region's future generations.

The report, published this week (30 September) by UNICEF's Innocenti Research Center in Florence, Italy, looks at trends in the region's social development over the past 12 years. Gerry Redmond, one of the authors of the report, told RFE/RL: "The main purpose of the 'Social Monitor [2002'] is to look at trends over time in the well-being of the women and children in former communist countries in Europe and Central Asia. We look at trends in social and economic development in a whole range of areas, such as incomes and poverty, development of population and fertility, education, health, and children in special need for protection, such as those in institutions or those who are at risk from the law."

Redmond says HIV/AIDS is spreading rapidly, with the number of cases reported in the entire region increasing from 12,000 in 1995 to one million in 2001. He points to the fact that HIV/AIDS affects mostly youngsters and is spreading particularly fast in the Commonwealth of Independent States and the Baltic countries. "Undoubtedly, the main threat is HIV, certainly in the CIS countries and Baltic states. HIV is growing rapidly in this region -- it's growing more rapidly in some [of these] countries than in any other place in the world. It is harming mainly young people and it's being spread mainly through injecting drug use, which you could see as perhaps being brought about in part by the social and economic stresses of transition."

However, the report points to the fact that HIV -- often regarded as a problem affecting only drug users -- is spreading into the mainstream population.

UNICEF's findings about HIV/AIDS corroborates the conclusions of another report issued this week by the U.S. National Intelligence Council (NCI), a U.S. government center for mid- and long-term strategic thinking.

In its report, NCI lists Russia in a group of five countries in which HIV/AIDS cases are estimated to triple by the end of the decade, from 14-23 million currently to 50-75 million by 2010. The other countries are China, India, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. According to the report, titled "The Next Wave of HIV/AIDS," the number of cases in Russia alone is set to reach 5-8 million by the end of the decade.

The report says that up to one-third of prospective military conscripts in Russia are deemed unfit for service because of HIV and chronic hepatitis from drug use. The document concludes that HIV/AIDS could become a security threat for the countries cited.

UNICEF's "Social Monitor 2002" says that, in addition to HIV/AIDS, other illnesses, such as tuberculosis, also are on the rise. The incidence of tuberculosis -- a disease associated with poverty -- has risen 50 percent on average, the most affected countries being Kazakhstan, Romania, Ukraine, and Estonia.

The document says one of the causes for the spread of tuberculosis is that, despite better economic performance and an increase in national incomes in many of the region's 27 countries since 1998, poverty overall appears to have risen.

UNICEF's Gerry Redmond says women and children are particularly vulnerable: "If we look at things which may influence women's and children's poverty, such as employment or public expenditure, we find that these are often falling and not rising very quickly. And in some countries, we've got clear information that poverty is actually rising, such as in Estonia or Kyrgyzstan. On the other hand, poverty has actually decreased in Russia, which is quite a good thing."

However, the reports says three out of 10 Russian children still live in poverty. Furthermore, Russia's mortality rates for those aged 20 to 24 were higher in 2000 than at any time since 1989, while male life expectancy is about 59 years, lower than in India.

"Social Monitor 2002" also singles out Romania and Moldova as the only two countries in the region where the real per capita gross domestic product (GDP) continues to be under 1989 levels.

The report says poverty and social inequality are causing an increase in the number of infants under public care. It finds that the number of institutionalized children was on the rise in 2000 in eight countries in the region.

Nevertheless, education and academic performance throughout the region remained at relatively high standards, despite the hardships of transition. But the report says the region is split into two groups of countries.

One group is made up of very poor countries such as some in Central Asia, where educational infrastructure has been severely damaged, neglected, or even destroyed by conflict, and which have difficulty providing even basic education or paying teachers' salaries.

In richer Central Europe, students continue to perform well, and the level of instruction in science and math is similar to that in Western Europe. Levels of education in Russia and the Baltic states do not fall much behind that of Central and Eastern Europe.

But the report says the ability of students to apply their academic knowledge and skills in three areas -- mathematics, science, and literacy -- is under that of their Western counterparts.

This may be partly due to an approach to teaching called factology. Factology, which was widespread during communism and which is still common across the region, relies on memorization of facts rather than applied learning.

The document points to the fact that the relatively good academic performance of the region's youngsters is chiefly prompted by their parents' individual efforts, and not by a reformed education system.

It recommends gradual reform, where more applied methods are brought into the curriculum on a steady basis.

Gerry Redmond says the "Social Monitor 2002" is a general guide rather than a specific policy prescription and is intended to initiate public debate: "We certainly do hope that both nongovernmental organizations and governments and the public use information such as is in this report to start, to initiate debates about the welfare of women and children in the different countries and to initiate proposals for how their welfare can be improved."

The document's conclusion is that fresh approaches are needed now more than ever to help young generations protect themselves against risks and benefit more from new opportunities.

(UNICEF's "Social Monitor 2002" is available on the Internet at http://www.unicef-icdc.org/presscentre. The NIC's "The Next Wave of HIV/AIDS: Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, India and China" is available at http://www.cia.gov/nic/pubs/index.htm.)

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