Last night's Oscar darling Slumdog Millionaire is gripping millions across the globe. Audiences cheer for Jamal, an impoverished orphan from Mumbai's slums, in hopes he will hit the jackpot on the Indian edition of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Slumdog has been called "the feel good movie of the year" as Jamal miraculously overcomes a dizzying obstacle course of abuse and deprivation. He is one of 132 million children across the globe, who have lost one or both parents. Most however, do not end up on game shows with the chance to win $1 million. Most often they face a much harsher fate.
Luckily, orphans and poor children might have a new high power champion in Washington. As part of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing, she stated "I will ensure that orphans and vulnerable children continue to be a priority in the Obama administration." She added that that the global economic crisis is spiraling poor children into even more dire circumstances. The World Bank affirmed her analysis with preliminary estimates for 2009 to 2015 predict that an "average 200,000 to 400,000 more children a year -- a total of 1.4 to 2.8 million -- may die if the crisis persists".
Secretary Clinton must keep her confirmation hearing promise to the world's slumdogs. Outside of the movies, desperately poor children do not live Jamal's story. Often they are forgotten, like the other children in the movie. What happened to Jamal's friends forced to beg on the streets or sold into prostitution by crime bosses?
I hope that Secretary Clinton has seen the movie and is asking the same question, if not solely out of compassion, out of concern for national security. Dennis Blair, the U.S. director of national intelligence, recently stated "the risk of regime-threatening instability loosens the fragile hold that many developing countries have on law and order, which can spill out in dangerous ways into the international community." Slumdog aptly illustrates how orphaned and extremely poor children forced into dire circumstances often become tomorrow's gang members, sex slaves, domestic servants and militia members. Secretary Clinton should be asking "what will these children be when they grow up?"
The Obama administration has committed to doubling of foreign aid over the next four years, and children must be a priority in that effort. A 2005 Population Action International Report predicted "AIDS-affected states also could become vulnerable to political instability in the future as the staggering number of children orphaned by the disease increases the proportion of dependent people, exacerbates poverty, widens inequalities, and erodes the operational readiness of military forces." This statement is already proving true with the recent turmoil in Kenya and the ongoing instability in Somalia, Congo and Northern Uganda. But it is not AIDS alone fueling the instability, it is a perfect storm of the economic crisis, corrupt governance, gender inequality, disease pandemics and natural disasters with poor children at the eye of the storm. In 10 years these same children will be the leaders and parents of the future. US foreign aid plays a large role in the future health and education levels of poor children across the globe, as well as how they will view the US when they grow up.
President Obama and Secretary Clinton must appoint an ambassador to prioritize, and coordinate critical children's programs in the foreign aid budget. It is in the United States' best interest to help prepare impoverished children to become healthy, educated citizens contributing to the global economy and political stability, not detract from it. The president and Secretary will be instrumental in deciding how the movie ends for the millions of slumdogs and their counterparts in wealthy nations. If the economic crisis has taught us anything, it is that the fate nations and that of the "haves" and "have nots" are irreversibly intertwined. President Obama and Secretary Clinton must now demonstrate the wisdom and foresight to invest in the world's poor children to make the world a more stable and safer place for all children.
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