Then Prime Minister, The Hon. Bob Hawke MP, at the Sydney Candlelight Vigil, September 1990. (RESULTS Educational Fund.)


The end of September saw the 30th anniversary of the World Summit for Children – a landmark event for action on improving the lives of the world’s children and also for changes  in how RESULTS Australia and our counterparts undertake advocacy.

The anniversary received little publicity, other than a media statement by UNICEF and an interview with former UNICEF Deputy Executive Director and RESULTS Education Fund Board Chair Kul Gautam, highlighting  how the Summit became a reality, and the huge progress since then in reducing child death rates and increasing access to education.

The Summit and RESULTS’ role

Promoting the survival and development of children had been a priority for RESULTS since we started in Australia in 1986.  In 1989, we and our international counterparts advocated for international agreement to hold a World Summit for Children, including participation by Heads of Government and advocating for strong commitments at the Summit.

This pre-Summit advocacy departed from ‘business as usual’ for RESULTS. In addition to our usual actions (i.e. group members engaging with their MPs, and writing to local media), RESULTS organisations partnered with other groups to hold Candlelight Vigils – proposed by RESULTS’ founder, Sam Daley-Harris – around the world just before the event to draw increased attention to the Summit and its goals, which could otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Globally RESULTS coordinated 2,600 vigils attended by 1 million people. RESULTS Australia and our partners participated enthusiastically, organising vigils in over 20 locations (including one in Antarctica!), with then-Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, speaking to the 2,000 people at the Sydney vigil, urging those assembled to “keep it up to us.”       

The World Summit for Children was held in New York on 29 and 30 September 1990. It was described in the New York Times as ‘the largest global Summit meeting in history’ with representatives of 159 countries (including 71 heads of government) endorsing the Declaration and Plan of Action from the Summit.  The Declaration’s goals included reducing child mortality and malnutrition, increasing access to clean water and sanitation, and enabling all children to attend primary school.

The legacy of the Summit

The goals agreed at the World Summit for Children have continued to be influential: the Millennium Development Goals, agreed in 2000, were an extension of those from the Summit, which have in turn been incorporated into the current agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals. The World Bank’s Human Capital Index launched in 2018 also uses key child-health measures to determine how countries progress.

 The gains in child health and development since 1990 have been impressive: 

  • Deaths of children under five years have declined from 12.5 million in 1990 to 5.2 million to 2019 – a decrease  from 35,000  to 14,000 deaths per day.
  • The global mortality rate for under-fives has declined from 93 per 1000 births (1990) to 38 per thousand 2019).  The reduction in the child mortality rate for Australia has been proportionate (from 9.2 in 1990 in 3.6 in 2019).
  • The number of primary school age children out of school has declined from over 100 million (1990) to 59 million 2019). 
  • Childhood vaccination rates  have increased significantly (proportion of children receiving the full course of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP) vaccine)  from 75% to 86%. Vaccines to protect against the two leading causes of child mortality  –  pneumonia and diarrhoea – are now widely available.
  • The incidence of diseases which affect children primarily – malaria and polio – have decreased dramatically (and polio has almost been eradicated). 

The threat to further progress

COVID-19 places all these gains at risk. The focus of health systems on combatting the pandemic has disrupted vaccination and other health services, and school closures have greater impact on poorer families without access to on-line learning. 

We cannot afford to put progress on child mortality or malnutrition on hold while we fight COVID-19. It is essential that national and international resources and policies sustain recent declines in child mortality and accelerate progress to reach all children with life-saving interventions.

In 2020, Australia has made significant contributions to extending child vaccination in the replenishment of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and making a COVID-19 vaccine available to all through contributing to the COVAX facility.  Over the next year we will be calling on Australian to increase support for polio eradication, improve health systems, support the next replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education and commit additional resources for nutrition to sustain improvements in children’s lives. 

Mark Rice, Policy and Advocacy Manager  

Maree Nutt, former CEO of RESULTS Australia