Ghost Children of Big Mango
by Philip Gourevitch
The suffering of children—whether from the afflictions of poverty, disease, or war—tends to be regarded as a greater offense to conscience than the suffering of their elders. But why? Is starvation, say, worse for a child than for a grown-up? And what of being shot? Is a youngster’s agony necessarily greater? Such a claim appeals less to reason than to sentiment—and at its core is the notion that the comparative innocence and defenselessness of children amplify any harm that befalls them. In other words, it is in the eye of the beholder that the suffering of children appears greater. That’s why, as any charity fundraiser knows, the image of a wide-eyed tot is a far superior opener of wallets than that of a wizened geezer.
Children do not create the conditions of their plight, which is another reason they are represented as universal victims. Their lack of responsibility for the crises they endure and have come to symbolize makes us feel that it is not too late—if we can only rescue them—to undo the damage. According to this conventional moral calculus, a wrong or harm suffered by a child shames us by serving as a reminder that we—adults—have failed to protect our young. So we are more distressed by the suffering of children because their woe reflects poorly upon us as a species.
To judge by the latest annual report of the United Nations children’s agency, “The State of the World’s Children 2005: Childhood Under Threat,” human beings are sorry animals indeed. UNICEF warns that the number of children afflicted by hunger, sickness, violence, and the myriad deprivations of body and soul that come with extreme poverty is growing steadily (the report claims the number is now a billion) and that efforts to reverse these trends are sorely insufficient. And if children cannot be blamed or credited for their condition, then this report is really an account of the ways that grown-ups are making a hash of the world—particularly by allowing inequality to increase and intensify of late.
Rest of the Essay
UNICEF: State of the World's Children 2005
BBC: One Billion Denied a Childhood