The message from the New York Times in late January was: if you wish to be commemorated for a productive life, be a famous writer, producer and director of plays and not a person who is most responsible for saving the lives of 3 million children in the world every year.
George Abbott, age 107 died on January 31, 1995 and his illustrious playwright career on and off Broadway merited a page one story in the Times, an excellent editorial and a massive feature story on his lifelong activities and prizes.
James Grant, 72, director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) since 1980, died of cancer on January 28, 1995. Through his catalytic lawyer’s mind, his relentless travels to persuade world leaders to adopt on-the-ground, cheap, simple life-saving public health measures for little children, he, more than anyone else, advanced world immunization rates from 20 percent to 80 percent for the third world’s children against six major diseases.
Many other infants were saved through his advocacy for increased breast-feeding, which among other benefits, cut the incidence of deadly diarrhea very significantly. One of the last countries he persuaded to adopt the international guidelines against the provision of free infant-formula to maternity facilities was, ironically, the United States.
I had the pleasure of accompanying him last year to a meeting with Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala to urge the Clinton Administration to resist the lobbying of the large infant formula corporations and stop what UNICEF calls “the cycle of infection and malnutrition.” Secretary Shalala went to Geneva and joined the rest of the world in favor of curbing these free samples that hook poor young mothers into infant formulas and away from breast-feeding.
He convened dozens of leaders of nations at a global convention on the well-being of children in 1990 to great media coverage. He was instrumental in the drafting of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which most countries, but not the United States, have ratified.
The New York Times did not think that James Grant’s passing merited a page one story or an editorial. He received a picture and a few paragraphs on the obituary page. There was no massive feature on his remarkable abilities to get political leaders to work together to mobilize public health programs that actually reached hundreds of millions of families and their children.
The James Grant who took the spectacular findings of cheap life-saving research — such as oral rehydration salts, that he always kept in his pocket to demonstrate a pennies cheap method of preventing death from diarrheal disease — was not worthy of mass media notice. After all, in a world of bureaucratic posturing, he merely got great things done against the odds.
Since the New York Times did not prominently recount his contributions, the lemming-like three television networks did not either. They couldn’t spare one minute for this great man’s work from the daily splashes of the O.J. Simpson trial. Only CNN and national public radio gave their viewers and listeners a sense of the man and his missions.
Twenty five hundred people crowded into the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York for his memorial service. They valued James Grant. Among them was Hillary Clinton who announced that finally the United States would sign the 1990 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, subject to Senate ratification.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Grant said he had never been more hopeful in his life. With the end of the Cold War, he believed that a small reallocation of the world’s one trillion dollar annual military budget could eradicate poverty worldwide. How small — just five percent or $25 billion a year! That is the sum that Americans spend on beer each year.
Grant believed that the poor countries could contribute two thirds of the $25 billion with the rest coming from the industrialized world. By using proven techniques, including programs designed to empower women as key local agents of change, and with recent advances in science and technology, communications and social mobilization techniques, “we estimate that an additional $25 billion per year is all that would be needed” to eradicate poverty worldwide,” said Mr. Grant over and over again.
Weakened by cancer, he still managed to meet with 40 world leaders last year in their countries. No matter what their preoccupations, James Grant told them in words that made them listen: “The children should be the first to benefit from mankind’s successes and the last to suffer from its failures.”
On the floor of the U.N. one Ambassador after another spoke with unusual feeling. The Ghanian Ambassador said: “My own little brothers, sisters, cousins and their friends in rural Africa, your indefinite departure has left them orphaned. They have lost their father and they are crying.”
Too bad the editorial and newsworthy judgment of the New York Times took leave from their sense of the heroic that 28th day of January. Too bad especially for the young people who read the Times for they may never know what they missed.