UNICEF began its mission in 1946 as a relief organization for children after World War II. Its mandate soon expanded to helping children whose lives were at risk in developing countries. Throughout its history, UNICEF’s priorities have been realizing the intrinsic rights of children to a basic quality of life, rights world leaders further defined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. UNICEF bases its actions on up-to-date substantial research and experience on what works to help give children the best start in life, to survive and thrive – especially in emergencies – and to go to school.
This work correlates closely with the Millennium Development Goals set by United Nations States in 2000 – and is central to meeting them. Of the 48 indicators of progress toward the Goals, UNICEF is chiefly responsible for progress in 13.
UNICEF’s Priorities are Essential for Development
UNICEF’s work can be grouped into five main strategic areas. They are all interrelated; progress in any one leads to progress in the others. Together, they make a difference for children by supporting implementation of the Millennium Summit Declaration and the world’s work toward the Goals.
They also ensure that UNICEF contributes effectively to reducing poverty, through advocacy and partnerships that create sustained investments in children’s survival, development and protection.
These strategic areas are:
Young Child Survival and Development: In support of Millennium Goal 4 – reducing child mortality – and Goal 6, malaria control, among others, UNICEF works toward comprehensive child health care in the earliest years, including the antenatal period before birth.
Toward helping young children survive and have a healthy, productive future, UNICEF advocates for and gives financial and technical support to national- and community-based education and intervention programmes on health care and nutrition. Priority areas include immunization, preventing and controlling malaria, controlling and treating diarrhoeal and respiratory diseases, eradicating guinea worm and preventing anaemia.
Health programmes ideally include antenatal care of pregnant women, and neonatal care in the first four weeks after birth, including promoting breastfeeding. UNICEF also shares advocacy, social mobilization, and research work in a supporting role to help other agencies provide emergency obstetrics.
Building upon a decades-long commitment on health, UNICEF provides vaccines to children in developing countries, and provides technical support on the complicated process of delivering them. Millions are protected from diseases like measles, polio, diphtheria and tuberculosis. Vaccination programs ideally include supplements of vitamin A and micronutrients that further boost immunity and help prevent malnutrition-related disorders.
UNICEF is also often first on the ground in declared emergencies to deliver these and other life-saving interventions, like fresh water and basic medical supplies.
Along with the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF supports local programmes that improve access to basic water and sanitation, which are in turn vital for health, development and education initiatives.
Basic Education and Gender Equality: In support of MDG 2 and 3, UNICEF collaborates with countries, donor governments and other UN agencies to promote, fund and facilitate universal primary education and gender equality.
This includes improving children’s developmental readiness for school, especially for excluded children and among disadvantaged groups, via community-sponsored childhood education and health initiatives.
In all stages of this process, through advocacy and local programmes, UNICEF works to reduce the gender gap and other disparities in access to, participation in and completion of basic schooling. This includes` supporting water, sanitation and hygiene improvement in schools to create a child-friendly environment for learning.
Using practical demonstrations and evidence-based advocacy, UNICEF seeks to help national and local governments and groups improve educational quality and retention.
Finally, UNICEF delivers school supplies and tents in emergencies as part of its Back-to-School programme, helping children return to a more normal, safe environment and protecting their right to basic education.
HIV/AIDS and Children: This disease crisis brings poverty and social devastation along with death. To combat it – which helps reach MDG 6 -- UNICEF works with nations, non-profit organizations and religious groups, youth organizations and many other partners to organize gender-sensitive prevention education, skills and service campaigns aimed particularly at adolescents.
UNICEF also works via advocacy and community outreach to help governments, communities and families support children orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
And UNICEF supports programmes that help prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS and that increase the number and proportion of women and children receiving antiretroviral drugs.
Child Protection: In support of Millennium Summit Declaration Section 6 – Protecting the Vulnerable, UNICEF advances protective environments to help prevent and respond to violence, exploitation, abuse and discrimination, and for children made vulnerable by emergencies.
Focus areas include raising government awareness of child protection rights and situation analysis, as well as promoting laws that punish child exploiters. Working through advocacy and its local offices worldwide, UNICEF helps strengthen the resources of schools, communities and families to care for marginalized children, including those orphaned by HIV/AIDS.
Policy Analysis, Advocacy and Partnerships for Children’s Rights:
This UNICEF focus area centres on Goal 8 – establish global development partnerships -- and also on strengthening national and local policies that fulfil children’s rights to survive and flourish.
Reducing child poverty is a critical part of fulfilling these rights. To that end, and to accomplish MDG 1, UNICEF promotes sustained national and global investments that leverage resources and results for children’s well being, including in emergency situations. Working with a wide range of partnerships including governments, regional bodies, and private and civil society groups, UNICEF provides input and participates in developing sector-wide approaches (SWAPs), Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans (PRSPs)and budgets.
Supporting its stand on critical issues, UNICEF also takes the lead in knowledge management: researching needs, monitoring results and keeping open records of lessons learned. Among others, UNICEF has helped to develop the following two data tools, acknowledged by governments and development agencies worldwide as leading indicators, and is itself the lead agency for monitoring global and country data on the six Goals related to children.
UNICEF devised The Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) method in the mid-1990s. An inexpensive and effective tool, MICS is a major source of data for monitoring the fulfilment of human rights and progress toward the Goals. UNICEF promotes its use, trains and assists governments in implementing the method, and presents collected data. UNICEF has also invested significantly in the development of DevInfo, software for effectively storing and presenting data in tables, graphs and maps.
Further, UNICEF promotes the active participation of children and young people in decision-making on matters concerning their own well-being. This includes activities from advocating for children’s rights to freedom of thought and expression, to creating a Web site for them to share ideas.
Progress and Challenges
The world is behind schedule for meeting almost all of the Goals. And the consequences will be suffered most by children. Millions will die or sicken from preventable diseases. Millions will see their futures dim because their governments have not provided them with basic education. Experts agree, however, that meeting the Millennium Goals is achievable by 2015. Reaching them will require a stronger commitment and focus from all countries on realizing the rights of children, and therefore toward achieving global development and peace.