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Romanian Business and Economic Weekly, Capital, talks to UNICEF Representative Edmond McLoughney about the impact of the crisis on children

How does the economic crisis affect the children from poor countries? I imagine they  were also in a difficult situation before the crisis began?

It is having a dramatic effect. Globally, the number of people who are extremely poor is expected to increase by about 53 million this year, which is one-third more than 2008. Most of them are children. The increase in poverty will almost certainly lead to an increase in infant and child deaths. One estimate claims there will be an additional 200,000 to 400,000 additional infant deaths per year on average between 2009 and 2015 if the crisis persists.  A World Bank study estimates that for every one or more unit fall in GDP, there will be an increase in average infant mortality among girls of 7.4 deaths per 1,000 live births, and an increase of 1.5 deaths for boys. This also highlights the fact that the crisis has a greater impact on girls and women than it does on males.

 How can governments help these children? Do they have sufficient funds for helping  them? Or is it rather a problem of attitude?

 Government revenues are going down everywhere while the welfare bill goes up. So what can be done? It’s a big challenge, but not an impossible one. Attitude is indeed important. Governments need to recognize the moral imperative of protecting the most vulnerable members of the population – the children – at all times, and especially at times of crisis. But how many governments think like this? How many prioritise children and give them first call on scarce resources especially at a time when there is increased pressure for government money from so many strong lobbies? Who is going to be the lobbyist for children? UNICEF tries to be a voice for children to the extent possible and tries to mobilize civil society organizations, politicians, government officials and public figures around actions for children. Among the actions we advocate are:
1. Strive for greater efficiency in social spending and eliminate wastage;
2. Monitor the situation closely to identify those most affected and give them priority in health, education and social protection.
For example, immunization programmes and other basic health services must be maintained; school attendance must be kept up using incentives like school feeding and conditional cash transfers; and maintaining the nutrition for the most vulnerable. In other words, at the very least keep children healthy, nourished and educated. Otherwise the human and economic costs will be much larger in the years to come. Developed countries also need to increase their assistance to poor countries at this time. The World Bank has called on developed countries to devote 0.7% of their stimulus packages to poor countries. The Bank says it would represent only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of billions spent on bank bailouts, but could make a huge difference to the millions of children and families who are victims of a crisis not of their making.      

How can you explain that the US Government gave last year billions and billions of dollars for saving the banks, but they don’t release so much money for children’s programs?  Which is the top priority?

It was not just the US Government which provided billions for bank bailouts. It was governments everywhere in the developed world. The thinking seems to be that if this is not done, the whole economy will collapse and everyone will suffer: rich, poor and middle-class alike. But there is no reason why rich countries can’t do the bank bailouts AND provide extra funding to get vulnerable children and families through the crisis. There is going to be a big bill to pay when this is all over anyway, but the bill will be much larger if money is not also spent now on protecting the poor. If the right measures are not taken, children will grow into poor, unhealthy and uneducated adults and in the long run society will pay a lot more. So, it would also be short-sighted to stint on anti-poor measures for children right now.

Which is the best way for UNICEF to find money for the children, especially now, in these difficult times?

This is one of the big challenges our fundraisers are facing at the moment. Our main donors are the developed countries and they have cut back on their development assistance budgets. Obviously we are trying to persuade them that they should maintain their contributions to UNICEF because the needs of children are even greater now. Hopefully we will be successful. The public and private sector contribute about a third of UNICEF’s resources through National Committees. Individuals make monthly pledges through their banks; they buy UNICEF cards and products and so on. One would expect that these contributions will drop but surprisingly, and happily, they have been sustained during previous economic downturns. Of course there has been nothing as bad as this one since UNICEF was formed in 1946, so we are working hard and keeping our fingers crossed that income will be sustained. If not, we’ll just have to cut back, but in the meantime we are working hard on the matter and remaining optimistic. 

Do you think that after the crisis ends, things will be easier for the poor children? 

I don’t think there will be any quick improvement because all those mountains of debt will have to be repaid. I think there will be an inevitable time lag between the resumption of economic growth and an increase in social spending. However, if governments do the right thing now – prioritise, target and be more efficient – then children can come through the worst without too much pain.

The Romanian kids are affected by the financial crisis? How?

UNICEF and the World Bank recently did a rapid assessment of the situation in Romania and we estimated that the poverty rate would increase from 5.7% in 2008 to 7.4% in 2009. The number of poor will increase to 1.59 million of whom 351,000 are children. The report found that children and youth face the highest risk of poverty, representing as much as 43 % of the poor. The report also noted that the current system of family and child allowances would be unable to adequately protect the families and children at risk of poverty in 2009. Also, that local social services are insufficient or lacking in the necessary quality to protect the most in need children in the best of times, let alone in times of crisis.    

What kind of programs do you have in Romania?

Our programs are designed to address social exclusion and disparities with particular attention to children in poverty and the Roma minority. We target our efforts accordingly with emphasis on health, early childhood development, parenting, education and child protection. Our strategies are to produce evidence of a problem, for example school abandonment, and then support the authorities to come up with relevant solutions in the form of policies and action programmes. Needless to say, most solutions involve money, so we work to leverage and influence the allocation of budgets for children. A new dimension here is decentralization, so we are increasingly working to influence budgets for children at county level. That means coming up with the evidence and the arguments to persuade decision makers that children should get priority. We fund programmes directly ourselves only when we are trying to demonstrate that something works. Then we try to convince the authorities to expand it to national level with public funding. A good example would be the case where UNICEF worked with the Ministry of Education and an NGO to develop a method and curriculum for parenting education. This started small in a few pre-schools, but is now being implemented in every county with government’s own resources.
We are also building up a fundraising capacity in Romania. This involves raising funds from the public and corporate sector to fund our activities here. But we are gradually moving towards a situation where all the funds raised here will be used for UNICEF programmes in poor countries. As the country gets better off and people get more conscious of global issues,  more funds will go abroad to where they are needed most. We had a successful fundraising activity earlier this year with Antena 2 TV to raise money for a UNICEF programme to control diarrhoea in Bangladesh. You can expect more such fundraisers over the coming years, but in the meantime, priority goes to Romania, especially in this time of crisis.

Have you received money from the Romanian Government for your programs?

The Romanian Government makes an annual contribution to UNICEF’s core resources, but we don’t get money from the Government for our programmes in the country since that’s not the way we work. We try to persuade the government to put more money into their own programmes for children, not ours, since we do not have an implementing role. Ours is an advocacy, mobilization, partnership and capacity building role.  

Do you have sufficient funds for helping the Romanian children?

Right now, we have sufficient funding. Given the fundraising climate, it may be more difficult over the next few years though. It is a situation which challenges our creativity and we are working hard to come up with imaginative and innovative solutions. 

How can you describe the Romanian situation? Is it worse than in other eastern Europe countries?

It’s hard to say at the moment. Current forecasts indicate that the Romanian economy will shrink by 4% in 2009 compared with 3% in Bulgaria and 3% in Serbia. However, Ukraine (minus 10%), Moldova (minus 6%) and Hungary (minus 5%) all have gloomier forecasts than Romania. Every country is suffering to one degree or another. 

Do you see any progress in Romania in terms of being interested in children’s protection programs and social responsibility?

There has been a lot of progress in child protection in recent years in Romania. The best example is the way the numbers of children in institutions have been reduced from around 100,000 to around 25,000. They have been removed from those grim places and put in alternative care such as foster homes or with extended families. There is still a lot of work to be done, but the trend is in the right direction and the political will is there as far as I can see. A few weeks ago Romania presented its periodic report on children’s rights to the Convention on the Rights of the Child Committee in Geneva. A lot of work went into that report and the Committee has come back with a long list of recommendations for Romania to implement in order to improve the situation of child rights (http://www.unicef-romania.ro/publicatii/general/recomandarile-comitetului-pentru-drepturile-copilului.html). The government will now review and prioritise these recommendations and set in motion a process for implementing them. It will take a lot of effort, political commitment and resources, but I am sure that the will and the way are there to do it. I’m confident that the next report 5 years from now will present a much better picture of the situation of children in the country.  

 

 
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