06/13/2012 04:11 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Is This a Turning Point in Saving the Lives of Children?


It's no secret that political conferences tend to be highfalutin talk shops.

All leaders are compelled to congregate with other leaders from time to time, at what is typically referred to as a "high-level event." There, the leaders treat observers to soaring speeches or brief prepared statements, in which they dish up lavish servings of triumphalism topped off with the rhetoric of urgency.

Then the leaders go home, where business reverts to the usual.

Even the most idealistic among us accepts that a certain amount of this is a routine part of global politicking, and we grudgingly adjust our expectations accordingly.

There are times, however, when a political conference alters the trajectory of history.

Think of the Bretton Woods Conference, which jumpstarted the reconstruction of Europe after World War II. Or the 1985 Geneva Summit, where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first time to discuss diplomatic relations and the nuclear arms race -- the first step in a long thaw in the Cold War.

While it may not attract as much media attention as a war-time summit between world powers, this week DC is hosting a high-level conference, the outcome of which could mean the difference between life and death for millions of people well into the future.

On June 14 and 15, the governments of the U.S., Ethiopia and India, in coordination with UNICEF, will convene leaders from government, international agencies, civil society, the faith community, and academia to chart out "the end of preventable child deaths."

By "preventable," they mean those deaths that are caused by treatable, preventable illnesses.

It's a lofty goal. But if you consider the progress made over the last several decades, there's no reason that the goal can't be reached in the next generation.

Over the past 50 years, child deaths worldwide have dropped by 70 percent. In just the last two decades alone, the number of children under five years old who die each year has fallen from 12 million in 1990 to 7.6 million in 2010.

This progress happened for a simple reason: people applied new knowledge, spread more opportunities, and delivered new technologies that have kept more children alive.

And that's the goal of this week's Call to Action on child survival.

Yes, government leaders will deliver dazzling speeches -- reminding us of how far we've come in such a short time, and energizing us to carry the remaining work forward with urgency.

But that's not the whole point.

Front-line experts in every area of child health -- from nutrition to pediatric HIV to immunization to maternal health and family planning -- will also be present to share their knowledge, grounded in their day-to-day struggles to keep kids alive.

Together, leaders and experts will develop a new roadmap for child health that, if successfully implemented, will eliminate preventable child deaths in 35 years. The roadmap will be based on the latest evidence that demonstrates the most effective strategies and technologies that prevent children from dying.

There are two areas that I hope receive the attention they require at the conference.

First, the reductions we've seen in child deaths over the past 50 years were among children who have been easiest to reach, and who have been fortunate to reap the benefits of globalization. As a recent report on immunization by ACTION and Save the Children UK points out, an agenda based on equity -- focused on reaching children among the bottom 20% of the economic ladder -- is necessary to eliminating preventable child deaths.

Second, child health issues that have long been neglected need to come to the fore. Among them is tuberculosis, which has long been seen as an adult illness but affects an estimated million children each year.

The hard work will of course come after people return home and begin implementing the roadmap in their respective countries.

That's when it will be up to citizens to press our governments and hold them accountable for translating soaring rhetoric into tangible outcomes. It's going to take national governments, working closely with the private and non-profit sectors over decades, to provide the resources and deliver on the promises made this week.

If we can do that, 35 years from now we'll look back on this week as a turning point -- a moment when people not only gathered and grandstanded, but catalyzed action that transformed the lives of children forever.