Poverty and lack of health care go together. UNICEF reported that about 19,000 children under age five die each day from preventable causes, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Globally people are living longer with the exception of Africa where health risks that are decreasing in other areas are still major problems, including infectious diseases, childhood illnesses and maternal death.[i] Although health care is expanding and the Millennial Generation is generally healthier than their parents’ generation, youth face health hazards from AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, malaria, illegal drug use, suicide, wars, malnutrition, and unclean water that could be eradicated with enough funding. Leaders of developing countries go to developed nations for health care when they get sick, not trusting their own hospitals.
Poverty leads to stunted growth of children, illiteracy, and lower survival rate for girls, a great waste of potential talent. Girls suffer most from poverty because families allocate scarce resources to boys’ health care and education. Traditional patriarchal biases against females aren’t limited to poor rural villagers, as shown by the selective abortion of girls in well-to-do Indian and Chinese families.
UNICEF reports that 21,000 children die each day from preventable causes. They die before their fifth birthday of pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea and other diseases.[ii] Diarrhea and pneumonia are preventable diseases, but are the biggest causes of death of young children. UNICEF reports that more than 1.4 million children die each year due to unsafe drinking water. The 2030 Water Resources Group predicts that the world may face up to a 40% gap between demand and supply of water by 2030 as the middle class expands in developing nations.
The World Bank estimates that it would cost $10 billion to save 2 million children’s lives a year. In contrast, world military spending was $1.74 trillion in 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.[iii] The US spent around $500 billion in a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to costofwar.com. Although most world religions teach the virtues of helping the poor, there’s a gap between belief and action to ensure that all children grow up healthy and well educated with an equal start.
But money doesn’t guarantee health. Even though the US spends more on health care than other countries, Americans are less healthy than people in comparable countries and have a shorter life expectancy, according to a report by the US National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.[iv] A Harvard study found that 45,000 deaths a year are attributable to not having health insurance and the medical care that could have prevented death. The US also loses more years of life to alcohol and other drugs than other wealthy countries. Many of these health problems disproportionately affect children and adolescents. US teens have the highest rate of pregnancies of affluent countries and are more likely to have sexually transmitted diseases. Deaths from injuries and homicides are higher than in comparable countries, as is obesity.
Poverty is an issue in developed countries, as about 13 million children in the EU, 16 million in the US, and 30 million children in 35 developed countries live in relative poverty, as reported in UNICEF’s Report Card 10.[v] The Scandinavian countries are at the top of the list of well-being in prosperous countries as usual, and the bottom five with the most poverty are Spain, Bulgaria, Latvia, the US, and Romania. A 2012 UNICEF study reported that the US has the second- highest rate of child poverty in the developed world with an alarming rate of 23% (Romania has the highest rate) and the second-highest rate of teen pregnancy (Mexico has the highest).[vi] Rates of child diabetes and asthma are rising, along with consumption of junk food and sugary drinks.
Obesity levels doubled in every region of the world between 1980 and 2008, contributing to increased rates of diseases such as cancer and diabetes, according to the World Health Organization.[vii] The WHO reported that the obesity rate doubled in the last three decades, joining smoking as a main cause of chronic disease. At least 700 million people will be obese by 2015. The highest obesity rates are in English-speaking countries and Mexico.[viii]
Almost 17% of children in the US are obese, as are almost 7% of children globally; the problem aggregated by the spread of US fast food. The health costs associated with about 12 million obese American children are huge, including the increase of diabetes. Childhood obesity rates have climbed in the US for 30 years, with the exception of cities like New York City, Philadelphia and Los Angeles that developed programs with standards for healthy foods in school cafeterias. Overeating junk food and lack of exercise contribute to the fact that American men ranked at the bottom of life expectancy and women only one step from the bottom in a 2011 study of 17 industrialized nations. The gap has widened in the past three decades rather than improved.[ix]
In the US, this may be the first generation of children to be less healthy than their parents as 18% of children are obese. Soft drinks are the top source of calories. These problems and some solutions are explored in an HBO documentary The Weight of the Nation, which estimates that less than 1% of Americans meet the eight criteria for cardiovascular wellness (weight, cholesterol, exercise, etc.). The one in five children who live in poverty face health challenges and this poverty rate has gone up by 50% since 1973, especially in black families.[x] As a consequence, the health costs to the US are $150 billion a year, half of it paid for by government health care.
Global teens start sexual activity earlier than in traditional times as marriage age is rising, exposing them to risk of AIDS and other STDs. Around 40% of the world’s new HIV infections occur in young people ages 15 to 24, due to ignorance and lack of condoms and medication. An estimated 2.2 million adolescents are infected with HIV, about 60% of them are girls and 1.8 million are in Sub-Saharan Africa.[xi] Many young people don’t know how to avoid the HIV virus, especially in rural areas. Betha, a 17-year-old Kenyan girl, has a naïve solution; “I would change the mode of dressing to ensure that there is no rape to decrease the spread of HIV/AIDS.”
Nearly one in every seven people in the world go to bed hungry, and over 10,000 children die each day from malnutrition or a preventable disease, according to Oxfam. Nearly 200 million children are chronically malnourished. Around 27% of all children in developing countries are underweight, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, while obesity plagues children in developed and some emerging countries like China. Every minute 300 children die because of chronic malnutrition and almost half a billion children are at risk of permanent stunting over the next 15 years.[xii] Nearly half of India’s children under five suffer from stunting.[xiii] Malnutrition is the underlying cause of at least one-third of the eight million deaths each year of children under age five, reports Doctors Without Borders. The World Bank estimates that it would cost around $10 billion a year to end malnutrition, the amount Apple is accused of underpaying in its 2012 taxes. In an interview with Justice Sambo, 17, who lives in rural South Africa, he said that the staple corn porridge is highly refined, while in previous generations ground the corn by hand preserving its food value. The very unhealthy Coke-Cola is ubiquitous, even given to babies.
From Viet Nam, Khue, 16, came to the US to go to high school where she observed:
Somehow being born in a “too good” condition, having everything we want turn us into indifferent people. Since I moved to America, I haven’t met any teens here that are really ambitious. They don’t really know what they want. I was seriously shocked to see my friends at school dump half of their dish everyday. An American boy told me “Don’t forget you’re in America” when I asked him. It hurts me a lot and I think that in college when I major in a science subject, I will figure out a way to preserve food.
Khue is correct in her concern about wasted food, as 30 to 50% of the food produced doesn’t make it to consumers because of problems in distribution or throwing away food that doesn’t look perfect. Water is wasted as well as about 70% of the water used by humans goes to agriculture. 
The Copenhagen Consensus 2012 project gathered 65 experts to research how to tackle global poverty.[xiv] They concluded the most important investment would be to tackle malnutrition since UNICEF reports that 28% of children in developing nations are malnourished. Adequate nutrition and inexpensive deworming enables students to learn and prevents stunted brain development. It only costs $25 a year per child for nutritional supplements and medical care. Less than $1 a year deworms a child.[xv] Researcher Peter Orazem reported that the most effective strategies for school success are providing nutrition supplements, informing families about education’s positive impact on future earnings, reducing school fees, and giving families cash or food payments for school attendance and health checkups. An assembly of university students at the Copenhagen Consensus conference voted micronutrients as the #2 priority and malaria treatment as #1.
A documentary titled Growing Change: A Journey Inside Venezuela’s Food Revolution (2012) explains why hunger exists.[xvi] It blames industrial agriculture’s chemical monocrop practices growing corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice that have decimated an additional 1% of farmland each year for the last 25 years and led to the extinction of 75% of the world’s crop varieties. The filmmakers believe that organic farming can feed the world and refer to Venezuela as an example of food sovereignty where local producers are empowered. Local farmers and fishermen’s cooperatives took control of production away from large corporations, and in cities neighbors share urban gardens and fish production in aquaculture in tanks.
Venezuela implemented land redistribution and reform, diversified crops, cooperatives, low interest loans, access to buyers as in open-air farmers’ markets, and fair trade. Community power is encouraged in over 25,000 community councils that monitor food quality and distribution. Subsidies are provided at Mercal stores for poor people who before often only had one meal a day of bananas and fish; these programs reduced malnutrition to 6% in the last decade.
Another way to boost food production is to help men and women work together to share resources, as in a district in Kenya where Bishop Titus Masika heard that local women were forcing their daughters to become prostitutes in order to earn money for their families.[xvii] To bring more income to families, Masika got together local experts to teach organic farm methods, how to store rainwater for irrigation and how to plant drought-tolerant crops. Husbands were encouraged to work with their wives.
In Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty, the authors list their solutions to hunger: expand development aid, create a global fund to aid small farmers in Africa similar to funds to combat AIDS and malaria, international organizations like the African Development Bank and the World Bank should invest in agricultural infrastructure such as irrigation, use new seed technology, don’t use food for biofeuls, and establish an international grain reserve for times of food shortages.[xviii] African farmers, where women are up to 80% of the agricultural labor force, are implementing solutions such as rainwater harvesting, solar drip irrigation, and planting indigenous crops. (A problem is three quarters of world land grabs occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa.)
Other experts focus on increasing women farmers’ access to resources such as information, credit, and owning land, as they are ones who more often grow food that feeds the family rather than industrial crops like cotton or tobacco. “Women have higher standards, and have been shown to better allocate the household budget as well as feed their families with more nutritious food. One of the biggest links between poverty reduction and malnutrition is directly related to the status of women,” said the director of The International Food Policy Research Institute. [xix]
The World Health Organization reports that about 2.6 billion people--half the developing world, don’t have access to latrines and 1.1 billion people lack clean drinking water. UNICEF reported that nearly 780 million people didn’t have access to clean water in 2012; as a consequence water-borne diseases kill over 1.4 million children every year.[xx] Most of the 1.6 million people who die from diarrheal diseases are children under age five. UNICEF reports that every 22 seconds a young child dies due to lack of clean water.
Lack of water also means villagers can’t grow vegetable gardens and may have poor diets. In rural South Africa, water has to be fetched in plastic jugs carried on wheelbarrows to a tank filled by government trucks once a week. This means no showers or flush toilets--sponge baths with a bit of water and outhouses. A few homes do have piped water available, as the ANC government has promised for years. However, corrupt officials siphon off funding. Jeanette Colbert lived there for seven years and visited recently. She reports that markets sell processed foods and sweets that are considered modern, along with Coke-Cola. When she went to visit people, she was usually offered coke and bread. The main meal is refined corn meal, supplemented with meat if affordable. She saw babies being fed these kinds of sugary processed foods. An elementary school principal without knowledge of nutrition told Colbert that it’s just important to fill the child’s stomach. As a result of this poor diet, diabetes and hypertension is common.
In India, a woman in a middle-class family lives in the floor above her sister-in-law in the family compound; “Just getting the daily bucket bath is challenging. The water runs for so many hours only two or three times a day and then it is off and the sister downstairs uses more of the water than we do.” Power is also inconsistent.
In most African cities, only 10% of the population is connected to sewers: UN-HABITAT set up a Safer Cities Programme in response to a request by African mayors. In Shanghai, the poor use chamber pots and some toss the contents out their windows as a cyclist warned me when I was there (see my photo of a chamber pot). However, in China only 4% of the population is without toilets, while in India 54% of the people don’t have them.[xxi] The others must use fields, although the World Health Organization calls this the riskiest sanitation practice. As I’m writing this on a train, I see Indian men squatting in the fields along the train track, but no women as they have to find more distant bushes that may harbor snakes. I saw men urinating on city streets but women don’t have this freedom. Access to toilets can be regarded an indication of the effectiveness of democracy vs. one-party rule. If I was a poor mother, I’d rather live in China than India.
When he was in first grade, Canadian Ryan Hreljac learned that many youth didn’t have access to clean water: Ryan decided to raise money to build wells in Uganda. By age 12 he raised more than $2 million for projects in eight countries. Another young Canadian activist, in Ontario, 13-year-old Robyn Hamlyn is leading a campaign for cities to become “blue communities” in their water use. Motivated by the documentary Blue Gold: World Water Wars (2008), Robyn is concerned about the world water crisis. She stated, “I do believe in the power of one and I do believe that if we band together, we can change that reality.”[xxii] She focuses on writing and speaking to city councils in her area.
[i] “Global and Regional Mortality,” Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, December, 2012.
[iv] “Americans Have Worse Health Than People in Other High-Income Countries,”National Academy of Sciences, January 9, 2013.
[v] May 2012.
[vi] Saki Knafo, “US Child Poverty Second Highest Among Developed Nations,” Huff Post, May 30, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/30/us-child-poverty-report-unicef_n_1555533.html#slide=1028865
If current trends continue, the Earth could warm by 4 degrees Celsius in 50 years, according to a World Bank report. The danger zone will happen when atmospheric concentrations of CO2 reaches 450 parts per million. It is now at over 400, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
[vii] Simeon Barnett, “Global Obesity, Hypertension Rates Rise, WHO Says,” Bloomberg.com, May 16, 2012.
[viii] “Why Are 6 of Top 7 Fattest Countries English-Speaking Ones?” Medical News Today, September 24, 2010.
[ix] Jim Toedtman, “Face the Mortality Gap,” AARP Bulletin, March 2013.
[x] Paul Buchheit, “For Shame, Wealthy America,” Buzzflash, February 11, 2013.
[xi] “Progress For Children: A Report Card on Adolescents,” No. 10, UNICEF, April 2012, p. 23.
[xii] Save the Children report, “A Life Free from Hunger,” 2012,
[xiii] “Most of World’s Stunted Children Live in India, Says Lancet,” OneWorld South Asia, January 28, 2008.
[xvi] Rental available on
[xvii] Marion Davis and Cathy Farnworth. Transforming Gender Relations in Agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. August 22, 2012.
[xviii] Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman. Enough. Perseus Book Group, 2009.
[xix] Joe Hitchon, “Food Policies Failing the World’s Hungry,” Inter Press Service, March 16, 2013.
[xxi] Stephen Kurczy, “World Toilet Day, Christian Science Monitor, 2010.
[xxii]Denis Langlois, “Teen Pushes Water Awareness,” Sun Times, March 16, 2012.