[Contents] - [Next Page] - [Previous Page]


The 1960s: Decade of development

In January 1961, the United Nations resolved that the decade of the 1960s would be the Decade of Development. President Kennedy launched the Decade at the UN in New York. Earlier, in his inaugural address as President, he had signalled a new sense of purpose in international affairs. He declared: "To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves."

The rapidly decolonizing world thus embarked on a new age of partnership. In this view, to have one part of humanity live well while the other lived in penury was morally unacceptable. But there were also strategic considerations. In the ideological confrontation between East and West, the promise of poverty alleviation was a weapon to be deployed in the building of alliances.


Photo: Training a country's traditional birth attendants in pre- and postnatal care and safe delivery techniques was a strategy to reduce maternal mortality rates and protect newborns. ©


As new countries rushed to freedom -- no fewer than 17 former colonies in Africa achieved independence in 1960 -- the climate was one of excitement and hope. The new links being forged within the community of nations seemed to open up a new era of international peace and prosperity. The countries of the 'third world', having cast off their colonial status, now also needed to cast off their poverty. But for this they needed aid in the form of funds and know-how from their richer neighbours. Thus was born the push for development, a concept which along with more conventional notions of economic investment also embraced a degree of moral and humanitarian fervour.

During the late 1950s, the United Nations had begun to adapt its institutions to take on the development challenge. It already had technical expertise within its specialized agencies but it also needed a mechanism to channel financial resources. In 1957, therefore, it established a Special Fund to support the growth of infrastructure and industrialization. This was later to be transformed into the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

At first blush, UNICEF with its modest humanitarian programme did not appear to belong to the new 'development' club. But no organization in the UN community could remain immune to the new currents of thinking. During the early 1960s, UNICEF tried to absorb the torrent of ideas and chart its own path within them. This quest was essentially guided by Dick Heyward, UNICEF's senior Deputy Executive Director and intellectual powerhouse from 1949 to 1981. In the process, UNICEF underwent the third important transformation in its history.

The turning-point was a special survey into the needs of children. This survey, initiated by UNICEF in 1960, took a year to complete, and was accompanied by 'state of the art' reports from the specialized agencies. These included: WHO, for the health needs of children; the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and WHO, for the nutritional needs of children; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), for the educational needs of children; the UN Bureau of Social Affairs, for the social welfare needs of children; and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), for the work and livelihood needs of children. The final report, Children of the Developing Countries, represented a watershed in nations' outlook on how to help their most vulnerable citizens.

The report interwove social and economic strands concerning children's well-being in a fresh and innovative way and presented a theory of development that underlined the importance of satisfying human needs during various phases of childhood and pre-adulthood. In particular, it argued that children's needs should be built into national development plans. Children should not be treated as if they were the orphans of the development process or merely its accidental baggage; they should be a focus of all policies directed at building up a country's 'human capital'. Just as over the course of the 20th century, the motto 'children first' had gained currency during times of war and sudden catastrophe, so a new version of the same motto had been articulated in the context of development.

This had major implications for the programmes UNICEF supported. They could no longer be confined to those run by sub-departments of Ministries of Health and Social Welfare. If children were a country's most precious resource, then their interests were not merely something to be addressed at times of distress. Rather, their well-being should be a specific target of investment and indeed of the whole development effort. The situation of children would have to be discussed within Ministries of National Planning, no less. And because children's concerns would have to be contemplated by research institutes and within national surveying and planning exercises, these were all activities that UNICEF would henceforth be willing to support. The importance UNICEF attached to 'planning for children' was confirmed in its special 1962 declaration of policy for the Development Decade, endorsed that year by the UN General Assembly.

The other major change was to abandon the compartmentalization of children's needs. In the future, UNICEF would consider the needs of children along with those of their parents and nurturers, and would take into account the 'whole' child. Instead of treating the child as a set of parts of which the only ones of concern were those related to physical well-being, UNICEF should be willing to address the child's broader intellectual and psychosocial needs. The immediate outcome was a change of policy whereby UNICEF for the first time -- and to the satisfaction of the countries of the developing world -- was willing to provide funds for formal and non-formal education.

Like many other members of the international humanitarian community, UNICEF set out over the next few years to show that the fields in which it was engaged lay at the heart of development. These were traditional arenas such as food and nutrition, and maternal and child health care. But they also included new ones such as education, women's issues, water supplies and sanitation. In these areas, UNICEF could provide material assistance in the form of equipment, drugs, vehicles and training stipends. In very poor environments, technical advice was futile without the wherewithal to put it into effect (Panel 8).

Because the humanitarian organizations were essentially field oriented, they learned this lesson faster than most. Other agencies focusing more on economic development had been relying largely on the formula of technical advice and cheap credit. This was a woefully inadequate response to poverty and its complex web of political, social, cultural and economic dimensions.

The humanitarian agencies, on the other hand, wanted ordinary families to receive tangible benefits. They were not interested in theoretical models derived from Western norms, only in trying to make things happen on the ground. Their vision of development was one in which pride of place went to the needs of the poor -- and in the case of UNICEF, the needs of poor children.

But by the middle years of the decade one further consideration was looming over the horizon. The demographers had discovered that recent declines in the death rate unaccompanied by matching declines in the birth rate were playing havoc with developing countries' population profiles. The kind of increase that had taken three centuries to happen in Europe was taking place in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America within 50 to 75 years.

The resulting 'population explosion' threatened to undermine all the hard-won gains of human progress and subject the planet's non-renewable resources to overwhelming strain. It quickly became an international cause calabre that all agents of development were forced to address. The technological instrument was readily available -- artificial contraception.

But at a meeting in Addis Ababa in 1966, the UNICEF Executive Board opted for the concept of 'responsible parenthood', whose primary objective was to improve the survival, well-being and quality of life of the child, the mother and the family. It did not mean that family planning was eschewed; it simply meant that family planning was seen in the broader context of maternal and child health, embracing improvements in the status of women (a harbinger of the conferences in Cairo and Beijing), promoting literacy, raising the age of marriage and avoiding unwanted pregnancies.

In 1965, UNICEF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Earlier that year, Maurice Pate, who had led the organization since its inception, died. His place as Executive Director was taken by Henry Labouisse. Under his careful statesmanship the UN's organization for children became gradually more prominent in the issues of the day. Even so, it was not until 1972 that the UN formally recognized that UNICEF was a development, rather than a welfare, organization and began to review its work under its economic and social, rather than humanitarian, machinery. And it was not until later still that the idea of investing in children would move away from the notion of philanthropy and into the development mainstream.


[Next Page] - [Go to top of page] - [Previous Page]