have always felt that Hallowe'en is a miracle.
When I was a child, it was almost more than
I could believe that there was a single day that allowed us to miss
the next day of school, dress in macabre costumes, and successfully
solicit candy from strangers. One Hallowe'en gave credence to an
entire year of Sunday School.
The day was, of course, far too precious to
treat lightly, and as we progressed through our trick-or-treating
years, my contemporaries and I approached the event with ever increasing
A typical latter day Hallowe'en would find us
in a darkened room, hunched over a map of Toronto, debating the
relative merits of the assorted spidery groupings of neighbourhood
streets. In the background, flashlights were being tested, balaclavas
fitted, and grease paint applied.
Our own neighbourhood in Parkdale was a write-off: a succession of high-rises
with little on offer but those damnable toffees in their unmistakable
orange witches-and-ghosts wrappers, custom made for cheap and nasty
neighbours for whom there was undoubtedly an equally cheap and nasty
Hallowe'en hell. Where would we land our strike? Our eyes widened
at intelligence reports of entire chocolate bars in the Kingsway,
hauls from Rosedale that laughed plastic bags to scorn, and a house
in High Park that stirred the curiosity of other pre-pubescent appetites.
When we finally did trounce off on our foray,
the small orange UNICEF boxes we carried were, perhaps, not foremost
in our minds.
failing to otherwise stave off adulthood, Hallowe'en continues to
be a miraculous time for me. As my taste for chocolate has declined,
my responsibility for the United Nations Children's Fund Orange
Box programme has grown to compensate. Yet, as rewarding as it is
to be part of UNICEF's efforts to save the lives and improve the
quality of life of the world's children, it is impossible not to
sometimes feel unequal to the depth and breadth of suffering which
one confronts. Especially then, the miracle for me is that increasingly,
much of that suffering is being swept away by the efforts of Canadian
children on Hallowe'en.
Since 1950, when a handful of children gave
up their Hallowe'en treats and instead collected $17 in pennies
for UNICEF, the Orange Box programme has grown dramatically to become
a distinctively Canadian tradition. Last year alone, 2million Canadian
children from 4 200 schools carried the Orange Boxes and collected
$3.7million on that single day, one-fifth of UNICEF Canada's revenue
for the year. As a now vital part of UNICEF's work, the human impact
of Canada's trick-or-treating children is beyond all measure.
During the brief fifty years since its foundation,
UNICEF has been part of a human revolution which has seen the world
literacy rate double; the proportion of rural families with access
to safe drinking water soar from 10% to 65%; the under-five mortality
rate fall by two-thirds; and world life expectancy grow by 50%,
from 40 to 60 years. By any of these gauges, there has been greater
progress over the past fifty years than during the previous five-thousand
Moreover, although the cameras of the nightly
news have remained transfixed by the drama of catastrophes, viewed
through the lens of history, the previous and following decade will
inevitably come to be seen as a decisive period in the human condition.
Over the past ten years it has finally come within our power to
defeat childhood's most ancient enemies. During the window of opportunity
of the next ten years, we must hope to find the same compassion
and resolve as our children to exercise that power.
examples are legion. Measles, which kills 1 to 2million children
a year, more than war and famine combined, can now be prevented
by a 15¢ vaccination. Diarrhoeal dehydration kills 3 to 4million
children a year, but can now be easily treated at a cost of 12¢.
Vitamin A deficiency, which imperils the lives of 200million children,
can now be reversed at a cost of 4¢ to 6¢ a year. Iodine
deficiency, which harms 1.6billion people and is the world's single
largest source of preventable mental disability, can now be controlled
for less than a penny.
The bitter irony is that adult convictions seem
to be failing as quickly as these solutions are falling into our
hands. Triumphs in communications have brought a global consensus
on the major issues, advances in knowledge have yielded the instruments
to address them, and massive increases in productivity have made
the resources to deploy necessary programmes almost trivial. Only
our will has not kept pace.
We now live in an age when every child in the
developing world could be provided with full nutritional and health
care; when every primary age child could be schooled; when maternal
mortality rates could be halved; when universal access to sanitation
and clean drinking could be achieved; and when the total annual
cost would be $34billion. By comparison, we also live in an age
when instead, the world spends $400billion per year on cigarettes.
The inescapable conclusion is that no child
anywhere need suffer starvation or deprivation. So many millions
do because in the adult world, it is simply not a priority that
they should be spared.
It is for this reason more than any other that
I see a miraculous beauty in the efforts of children across Canada
this Hallowe'en. In the face of a need so great that no one can
help wanting to turn away, it is the weakest members of our society
who answer the call more loyally than any others, who provide the
strength for millions abroad.
When I send my god-son off trick-or-treating
with the sort of advice I would have greeted with contempt in my
time, I expect he will by way of reply once again recite to me his
annual lecture on the intricacies of Hallowe'en, including his UNICEF
box. "It's for kids like us, but who don't have enough to eat,"
he explains patiently. "And," he often adds with much
horror, "they can't even go trick-or-treating."
Akaash Maharaj is Chair of UNICEF Ontario's Youth Programmes Committee, a past Director of UNICEF at Oxford University, and a past Director of the Commonwealth of Nations Association for UNICEF.