The first baby of the new millennium will probably be born into poverty - and even if it's not, it may still end up unhappy
This Friday, somewhere in the world, a historic baby will start its journey into life. For then - the 266 days of an average pregnancy away from the turn of the year - the first child of the new millennium will be conceived.

No one will know who or where it is, as it grows towards its date with destiny spinning gently in its mother's womb. It may be born rich or poor, male or female, black, brown, yellow or white - in circumstances as diverse as the wide world itself.

Of course, each time zone will have its own millennium baby, as the chimes of the new year sound progressively over the spinning globe. Industrialised countries, however, are likely to assume an equal starting point, recognising the first baby born after its particular midnight as the landmark child.

They will certainly mount a frenzied search to discover its identity. Hospital records will be scrutinised and compared to find out which baby has pipped its rivals to the post. And - supposing it survives the lights going out and the hospital machinery failing, when the millennium bug strikes - the chosen child is likely to live with a distinction for life.

But it almost certainly won't be the first. The real millennium baby is most likely to be born with no clock in sight, with no record of its time of birth. It may not even live long enough to be given a name. For there are nine chances in 10 that it will arrive in the Third World, rather than in the West - and four in 10 that it will be born into extreme poverty.

Its life will differ dramatically depending on how it does in the lottery of birth, for the gap between the world's richest and poorest has never been wider. The wealthiest fifth of the people of the globe are 82 times better off than the poorest fifth, and account for 88 per cent of the consumption of goods and resources.

Computer "lapware" is being developed for the under-ones in rich countries, while even those lucky enough to go to school in poor countries often lack books and pencils. The internet throws wide the horizons of the wealthy minority, while more than half the world's people have never even made a phone call. New medical techniques are likely soon to be saving American babies born as early as 19 weeks after conception, while a third of the children of Niger and Sierra Leone still die before they are five.

And if the millennium baby does enjoy material prosperity, it may yet be lonely and unhappy. On present trends, an American girl will, before long, have more Barbies than classmates. And alienation increases as family life shrinks and social and commercial pressures grow: one in every 10 American teenagers has attempted suicide.

Below are the very diverse prospects facing the millennium baby if he or she is born into five different circumstances, from the hopelessness of the Aids pandemic now sweeping through Africa, to the comfort of the wealthy few. The baby, given a chance, might decide that, at these odds, it would rather not play.


EVERY YEAR more than 600,000 babies are born HIV positive - about 90 per cent of them in Africa: in some maternity wards in that continent one in every four newborns starts life with the virus. And Aids is ruining children's lives, even when they were not infected in the womb. By next year one in every five children in nine African countries will have been orphaned by the disease. Deprived of parental protection, their meagre inheritance is often seized by relatives. Stigmatised by the disease, they frequently end up on the streets. And even when other families do take them in, they are often treated harshly. Half of all Aids orphans are stunted by malnutrition, and they are less likely to go to school and more likely to be abused than other children.


ONE IN every four babies is born into extreme poverty, to families trying to subsist on an income of less than a dollar a day. Half of all the world's poorest people are children, and there are more destitute babies than ever before. Most of them live on the Indian subcontinent. Worldwide, 12 million die every year from malnutrition and preventable diseases before they are five. Those who survive usually grow up stunted both in mind and body from hunger. Their growth will be sapped by constant bouts of diarrhoea, contracted from having to drink dirty water. Fewer than two- thirds of them will start school; fewer than two-thirds of those who do will stay long enough to learn to read or write. Almost everywhere the baby's prospects will be even worse if it is born a girl.


SOME BABIES born to the world's poorest families will have relatively good prospects, for they will live in countries which have paid particular attention to primary education and to promoting the health of children and their parents. Women are 27 times less likely to die in childbirth in Sri Lanka than in the Ivory Coast, though the two countries have similar per capita incomes. Children are only slightly more likely to die in infancy in Cuba than in the US, though Cuba is 24 times poorer. Zimbabwe almost doubled the proportion of its children starting school during the 1980s, at a time when national wealth was actually shrinking. And countries that have paid particular attention to educating girls have seen infant deaths and population growth fall, and life expectancy and economic growth increase.


LAST WEEK official Treasury figures showed that two in every five British babies are born poor; a quarter of children never escape poverty. It is much the same in the United States where nearly half of all children live either below the poverty line or not far above it, and a quarter have difficulty getting all the food they need. Inequalities are particularly sharp in Anglo-Saxon countries but many children live in poverty, even as their contemporaries grow wealthier, in nearly all rich countries. Almost everywhere children from ethnic minorities are the worst off; a baby born at the millennium in the United States can expect to live nine years less if it is black than if it is white, and less long than an elder sibling born in 1995. A black American child is twice as likely to live in poverty as a white one.


FEWER THAN one in every 10 babies is born into prosperity to relatively comfortable families in rich countries or to the wealthy in poor ones. They will be better off than ever. An American millennium baby can expect to live nearly twice as long as one born in 1900, and to grow a full 3in taller. A Canadian or Swiss baby now has twice the life expectancy of a Zambian or Ukrainian one. It will be much more likely than its parents to get a white-collar job, and, in most countries, to have a much bigger house. The average American home is nearly 2,000 square feet, a 25 per cent increase since 1977; big family rooms are now about the size of the 1900 average house. And the rich-country babies' horizons are expanding dramatically, as computers and the internet enter more and more homes.