About UNICEF Nigeria

History of UNICEF in Nigeria


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History of UNICEF in Nigeria

Nigeria was one of the very first African countries where the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) established a programme of cooperation. UNICEF’s work for the survival, protection and development of Nigerian children has continued ever since. Today UNICEF is still working in partnership with many stakeholders including children and families to achieve national and international goals instrumental in the fulfilment of children’s rights.

1952-1959: the pioneering years

UNICEF was created in December 1946 by the United Nations to provide assistance to European children facing famine and disease after the Second World War. The organisation soon started to expand its programme to other continents and in 1952, UNICEF Executive Board approved aid for Sub-Saharan Africa for the first time. In 1953, UNICEF’s mandate was extended to become the UN development agency for children. That same year, in October, the first basic agreement was signed to establish UNICEF presence in Nigeria and subsequently an office was opened in Lagos.

Mass disease control
UNICEF’s first interventions in Nigeria were related to endemic disease control through mass campaigns. The emphasis then was on the control of leprosy and yaws.

The first African campaign was in Nigeria in 1952-1953. Efforts continued throughout the fifties into the early sixties. By the mid-sixties, yaws was no longer considered a significant public health issue.

UNICEF and WHO carried out their first leprosy project in Nigeria. Thanks to a new drug, the treatment of the disease had greatly improved and thousands of children were spared its disfiguring effects.

Malaria was another priority and one of the pilot projects in Africa was in Sokoto Province of Nigeria.

Development of Maternal and Child welfare Services
UNICEF also supported the development of basic rural health services for mothers and children.

In 1954, the UNICEF Executive Director recommended an apportionment of US $6,600 to Nigeria for the provision of 500 midwifery kits and training of personnel to encourage the expansion of domiciliary delivery within the expanding maternal welfare services. This constituted the first UNICEF assistance of this type to Nigeria.

This very first project is a good example of the strategies used by UNICEF to develop ‘maternal and child welfare’ services: training, pilot projects and supplies.

As reports revealed widespread malnutrition among African children, UNICEF started providing skimmed milk to underfed children. Research was carried out to better understand the prevalence, causes and prevention of malnutrition. A Department of Food Science and Nutrition was established in the University of Ibadan in collaboration with the London University, FAO and WHO.

Following successful promotion of milk conservation in European countries, UNICEF began assisting with milk conservation in Sub-Saharan Africa. The first milk-drying plant supported by UNICEF in Africa was approved for Nigeria in 1954. The objective was to produce and distribute dry milk for infants and young children.

UNICEF also focused on the education of mothers as another strategy to combat malnutrition.

1960-1970: the Development decade

With the independence of African countries, a new direction for UNICEF emerged from a combination of its own experience and from the expressed needs of the new governments. Aid to mass campaigns against endemic disease was reduced and more attention was given to the extension of polyvalent health services and preventive aspects of public health.

The focus of the programmes was on:

  • Mothercraft/Homecraft projects as a strategy to expand adult education
  • Community development
  • Rural education
  • Nutrition and food production

Throughout the decade, increasing resources were allocated to education programmes, reflecting the higher priority placed by African governments on basic education. UNICEF provided support for textbook production and continued its programme for health and nutrition education in schools.

UNICEF also supported training of health staff in the field of nutrition. In 1965, a regional course in Nutrition was developed through a cooperative programme between the Universities of London and Ibadan.

As countries planned their national development, the concept of ‘country programming’ as an integrated package of activities, began to develop. UNICEF started advocating for the needs of children to be an integral part of the process of national planning.

UNICEF increased its presence in the field. In 1961, only 33 UNICEF staff were based in sub-Saharan Africa. By 1971, there were 137. In the early sixties, the office of the Regional Director for Africa, previously based in Paris, was established in Lagos. By 1970, the Regional office split into three Sub-Regional offices: Abidjan, Kampala and Lagos, which operated as regional office for Ghana and Nigeria.

1967- 1970: Nigerian civil war
In May 1967, the Nigeria civil war led to a humanitarian crisis that posed a challenge for UNICEF. The United Nations mandate did not allow it to intervene in civil conflict without the permission of the national Government. However UNICEF insisted that its mandate was to provide assistance to all Nigerian children – including those in the secessionist area – without taking sides. UNICEF asked the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to fly its emergency aid into the disputed territory.

UNICEF Executive Director, Henry Labouisse, came to Lagos to negotiate with the Nigerian Government. These meetings resulted in an agreement that UNICEF’s shipment would not be searched by federal troops. General Gowon was convinced by UNICEF’s humanitarian concern and neutrality.

It was estimated by UNICEF that some 5.5 million children and mothers were totally dependent on relief or food supplements. This meant that one thousand tons of supplies were needed daily in the affected area. Massive supplies of milk, protein-rich food, vitamins and medical supplies were procured by UNICEF, but the challenge was to bring them into the secessionist area.

Intense efforts by the Red Cross to open land routes for the humanitarian assistance failed. Airplanes flew ‘at their own risk’ and very soon, flights were suspended.

In September 1968, a non-governmental organization brought UNICEF supplies into the secessionist area. At the same time, the Red Cross started flights but when one of their flights was shot down in 1969, only the NGO flights continued.

By the end of March 1969, UNICEF had shipped almost 30,000 metric tons of food, drugs and medical supplies to areas under both Federal Government and Biafran control.

On 10 January 1970, the war ended. UNICEF was in a favourable position to contribute massively to the post-war relief and reconstruction efforts. Labouisse visited Nigeria again a few days after the cease-fire. He toured the affected areas extensively and took on-the-spot actions to alleviate the situation.

One of these actions was the agreement by UNICEF to pay GPB 1000 for any facilities required to accommodate children in need of treatment and rehabilitation. In April 1970, the Executive Board approved an allocation of over $7 million for rehabilitation of schools and health centres and for the expansion of children’s services in Nigeria, ‘particularly in the areas affected by the war’. By 1971, the programme had gradually lost its emergency character and became a programme of social development for Nigeria’s children.

1972- 1980: planning for children

The Nigerian economy largely recovered from the civil war and the country benefited from increased oil revenues resulting from the oil boom.

The Government had to plan how to use these new revenues; UNICEF supported country studies on the needs of children. Education was one of the high priorities with the implementation of free and compulsory primary education, which had been adopted as a policy. Another priority was health with an emphasis on the need for equitable distribution of health facilities, increased attention to preventive measures, intensified training for health workers, improved health services management and greater community involvement in the delivery of health services.
At global level, UNICEF adopted a new strategy to reach children in a more effective way: integrated basic services that would be flexible enough to be adapted by the community. The key element was active community participation in the planning and carrying out of the services. The concept of basic services slowly took shape in Nigeria, particularly through the training of traditional birth attendants and the provision of midwifery kits.

The main involvement of UNICEF in individual State health projects was in the field of basic health services, training, health education, disease control, immunisation programmes.

In 1975, the first African Nutrition Congress took place in Ibadan with UNICEF assistance. It urged all African countries to develop food and nutrition policies and set up national food and nutrition bodies to implement these policies.

In the area of education, UNICEF assisted in curriculum development, training of teaching staff and the development and testing of materials for schools.

UNICEF contributed to community development with a particular focus on women. Activities were related to adult education in the field of home improvement, sewing and embroidery, cooking, child care and income earning skills.

In 1978, Ghana operations were transferred from Lagos to Accra. UNICEF office in Lagos operated only for Nigeria.

1980-1989: child survival and development

In 1982, UNICEF proposed to eliminate common infections of early childhood using simple medical techniques such as Growth monitoring; Oral Rehydratation Therapy; Breastfeeding; Immunization.

The new Programme of Cooperation between the Federal Government of Nigeria and UNICEF covering the period 1986-1990 clearly focused on child survival programmes. The Plan of Operation documents reads: “The basic objective of the programme is to accelerate child survival through the introduction of immunization and oral rehydratation therapy, promotion of greater access to and provision of potable water as well as improved sanitation and development of a community-based Primary Health Care model.”

In 1988, nine national immunisation days had taken place during which over 18 million vaccinations were administered – the largest number achieved in 10 years. The report also noted that religious leaders played a key role, educating and mobilizing communities’.

Oral Rehydratation Therapy (ORT) had been institutionalized in the national Primary Health Care system. It had reduced hospital admissions as well as the number of deaths due to diarrhoea.

The 1980s were declared the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation decade. In Nigeria, UNICEF started Water and Sanitation activities in 1982. Apart from drilling boreholes, UNICEF gave special attention to hygiene education. In 1988, the National Guinea Worm eradication initiatives started in Nigeria, assisted by the Carter Center and UNICEF.

A new concern arose for UNICEF Nigeria in 1988 in the form on AIDS. The annual report documented that a total of 25 cases had been found sero-positive in the country, of which 12 had developed the disease. UNICEF’s main concern at the time was the rigorous sterilisation of needles and syringes to prevent the spread of AIDS through immunisation.

During this decade, UNICEF also decentralised its operations. Zonal offices serving clusters of an average of five States with an aggregate population of 25 million people were opened in the North-West zone in 1980 (Kaduna), the North-East zone in 1986 (Bauchi) and the South-East zone (Enugu) in 1988. This was seen as an opportunity to change UNICEF’s role in Nigeria from the promotion of nationwide programmes to the development of replicable Primary Health Care and basic services model in a small number of States. In 1988-89, Nigeria was the largest UNICEF office in Africa in terms of budget size (over US $ 9.2 million in 1988).

1990-1999: recognising children rights

In 1990, Nigeria took part in the World Summit for Children organised under the auspices of the UN in
New York and signed the 10-point Plan of Action adopted at this occasion, including a set of development goals for the year 2000.

In 1991, Nigeria ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989 by the UN General Assembly. A National Committee for women and children was set up by the Ministry of Justice to develop practical steps towards incorporating the rights of the child in Nigerian legislative and judicial systems.

In 1991, UNICEF could report some achievements regarding child health in Nigeria. The under-five mortality rate was estimated at 145/1000 births (1990). Immunisation coverage increased to above 60 per cent by the end of 1989. Over 12,000 health facilities and 24,000 outreach sites were providing Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) services throughout the country. Nigeria had introduced and followed a national Oral Rehydration Therapy policy. The Water and Sanitation programme had completed 3,000 hand-pump-equipped boreholes and set up four State maintenance workshops. About 1.5 million people had benefited from the programme.

In 1992, a National Programme of Action was adopted by the Federal Government to operationalise the World Summit goals at National level. With technical support from UNICEF, an inter-ministerial committee was also set up to track goals performance.

However in the early 1990s, UNICEF started to face a tougher environment caused by political uncertainties and the deteriorating economic situation. Immunisation coverage for DPT3 dropped drastically while the Under Five mortality rate increased.

1993 was the year for the universal iodization of salt in Nigeria, as a first step towards virtual elimination of Iodine Deficiency Disorders. In 1994, Vitamin A deficiency control was identified as the major thrust of the Nutrition programme.

The Guinea worm eradication programme reported a reduction of over 50 percent in recorded cases in 1994.

By 1994, the deteriorating economic situation had led to an increased number of children in especially difficult circumstances. UNICEF work consisted of gathering data and information on these children, creating awareness on their problems and building the capacity of NGOs.

In the mid-1990s, UNICEF Nigeria started HIV-AIDS related activities aimed at creating awareness and behavioural change.

A new programme was established under the title of ‘Advocacy and Programme communication’ in the 1996-2001 programme of cooperation. UNICEF continued its support to children in especially difficult circumstances and the development of urban basic services.

By 1999, the second Multiple Indicator survey undertaken by UNICEF in Nigeria painted a generally gloomy picture of the situation of children and showed deterioration since 1995.
However, with the transition to a democratic government, new opportunities also emerged for the realization of children’s rights.

2002-2008: Children at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals

At the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000, Heads of States and Governments adopted the Millennium Declaration and what came to be known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Each of the MDGs is linked to the well-being of children. The Millennium agenda has guided UNICEF’s work in the past years.

Today, the current programme of cooperation between UNICEF and the Federal Government of Nigeria is present in all 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory. All the programmes are represented in at least three LGAs in every state.

Key programmes are:

  • The Survival and Early Child Care programme
  • The Basic Education programme
  • The Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programme
  • The Protection and Participation Programme
  • The Planning and Communication programme

For further information on UNICEF's work in Nigeria, please contact Media & External Relations, UNICEF Nigeria Country Office:
• Lone Hvass: +234 9 4616 402; lhvass@unicef.org
• Geoffrey Njoku:+ 234 9 4616 403; gnjoku@unicef.org



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