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Fifty years for children

The creation of the United Nations in 1945 represented the coming of age of an ideal of international cooperation. Its immediate spur was the destruction caused by World War II, but behind this lay a longer-term desire to promote world peace. There was, however, no idea of setting up within the constellation of new institutions a special organization for children. The creation in 1946 of the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund was an accident of early cold war politics.

The prospects in Europe were grim. The winter of 1946-1947 was particularly bitter. Millions of people were still without proper shelter, fuel, clothing or food. Children especially were suffering: in some affected areas, half of all babies were dying before their first birthday. The Allies, anticipating widespread devastation at the end of the war, had established the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in 1943 to provide general assistance. But the Iron Curtain descended, and the United States Government refused to go on using UNRRA as a relief channel because it was aiding countries in both Western and Eastern Europe.

Just as UNRRA was about to be wound up, however, voices were raised at its final meeting in Geneva to protest the fate of Europe's children. The delegate from Poland, Ludwik Rajchman, was particularly vocal, and the meeting accepted the proposal that UNRRA's residual resources should be put to work for children through a UN International Children's Emergency Fund -- an 'ICEF'. Rajchman was regarded, therefore, as the founder of UNICEF. The Executive Director designate, Maurice Pate, made it a condition of his service that there were no caveats about where the aid (mostly dried milk) might go, insisting that UNICEF support equally children in vanquished as well as victorious countries. Subsequently, on 11 December 1946, a resolution of the UN General Assembly -- number 57(I) -- brought UNICEF into being. Fortuitously, therefore, the Children's Fund became part of that continuing experiment in international cooperation that has since constituted the United Nations system.


Photo: From the beginning, UNICEF has helped feed hungry children wherever they are, supporting all children equally. ©


Coincidentally and almost unnoticed, the international community had also embraced the new central principle: that children were above the political divide.

This was quickly put to the test. Some of the most important early programmes supported by UNICEF were established in East European countries -- Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia -- as well as Germany. And in the late 1940s, UNICEF provided relief assistance on both sides of the civil wars in China and Greece. It also sent aid to children in the Middle East uprooted by the creation of Israel.

UNICEF was established to help children damaged by war. But it stayed in existence to take on a much broader role. While UN Member States had not intended to prolong UNICEF's life beyond the postwar emergency, they did include in its founding resolution the phrase "for child health purposes generally," and this was to offer the Children's Fund a permanent niche in the large-scale control and prevention of diseases affecting children.

When the time came in 1950 for the UN to close down its 'ICEF', a successful lobby was mounted to save it. This time, it was the new nations of the 'developing' world that spoke up. How, asked the delegate from Pakistan, could the task of international action for children be regarded as complete when so many millions of children in Africa, Asia and Latin America languished in sickness and hunger, not because of war, but because of the age-old problem of poverty? Again, the plea did not go unheard. This was the first turning-point in UNICEF's history. In 1953, the General Assembly confirmed the children's organization as a fixture in the UN system.

UNICEF at this time dropped 'International' and 'Emergency' from its title-becoming simply the United Nations Children's Fund (although retaining its acronym). But it never abandoned the children of crisis -- those affected by war, conflict, drought, famine or any other emergency. However, its mission expanded as the post-colonial era presented it with a new challenge.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the winds of change were to blow away most of the remaining colonial order in Africa and the Caribbean. And at the United Nations, US President John F. Kennedy urged an end to the poverty in the newly independent countries of the developing world. UNICEF took up that challenge on behalf of children. This was the second major turning-point in UNICEF's history.

The 'development' era redefined the children's cause. Children previously had been seen as objects of purely humanitarian and welfarist concern -- as 'children in distress' or as 'children in poverty' -- to be taken into care or given supplementary support. Like refugees, the elderly or the disabled, children were regarded as a special group. But according to the new development perspective, children were not another cause. They were part of every cause. Among the hungry, the sick, the ill-fed, the poorly clothed, the homeless, the jobless, the illiterate and the destitute, there were always children. And unless they were orphaned or abandoned, children could never be treated in isolation from their parents and families, and especially not from their mothers.

From this perspective, a mission on behalf of children was no longer neat and self-contained. Helping nations to help their children demanded engagement in many areas of human activity. It certainly involved creating services to help children directly, such as maternal and child health, early childhood care and primary education. But it also demanded others that were not specific to children, such as water supplies and sanitation, slum and shanty town renewal, and credit facilities for women entrepreneurs.

The same breadth of concern also extended to policy. Any issue that affected whole communities also affected their children -- agriculture, industrialization, population growth, women's rights, environmental depletion and urbanization. The list grew steadily -- later including debt, structural adjustment and the post-cold war transition. And always present or waiting in the wings were the multiple predicaments of disaster and conflict.

The response to the problems of children thus evolved into a subset of the growing post-colonial 'science' of development, and the quest to eradicate poverty. Within this broader pursuit, however, UNICEF argued that children had to be singled out because they suffered the most acutely from poverty. As a result, they were also poverty's most sensitive barometer.

Down the years, the UNICEF response to children's needs underwent many changes. In the 1950s, it involved mass campaigns against the menace of epidemic disease: tuberculosis, yaws, trachoma, leprosy and malaria. In the 1960s, the development movement emphasized the miracles to be wrought by transferring capital and technology from rich countries to poor and by investing in human capital, including children -- 'our most precious resource'. In the 1970s, doubts about development experience grew more prominent, and disillusionment with the pursuit of economic growth led to a search for alternative approaches that were more people- and community-centred.

The 1980s brought further disappointments as the economies of many countries in Africa and Latin America went into precipitous decline and were forced into budgetary cuts and readjustment. Indeed, for many parts of the world the 1980s have been labelled a 'lost decade'-though in the case of children the 1980s can also legitimately be described as the decade in which their cause was re-found.

The rediscovery of children as a group in their own right was prompted from two directions simultaneously. The first was the child survival revolution, which was later expanded to child survival and development. In 1982, under the energetic leadership of Executive Director James P. Grant, UNICEF launched an initiative to reduce preventable child deaths from conditions such as diarrhoea and measles, which in the late 20th century ought not to be life-threatening. Indeed, some 15 million children under the age of five were still dying every year, two thirds of them from readily preventable causes. James Grant called this the "silent emergency" that deserved worldwide action. This initiative found an extraordinary degree of global resonance and helped reactivate the people-centred development agenda and increase its political appeal.

The high-water mark of the child survival and development revolution was the 1990 World Summit for Children, at the time the largest-ever gathering of Heads of State and Government -- including 71 Presidents and Prime Ministers. In all, the representatives of 159 governments committed themselves to a joint Declaration and Plan of Action on behalf of the world's children. For the first time, the global community agreed upon international goals -- at the highest political level -- to reduce rates of mortality and disease, malnutrition and illiteracy, and to reach specific targets by the year 2000.

The second factor propelling forward the children's cause was a regenerated campaign for child rights. This campaign had its genesis during and after World War I, when the right of children to special protection was first internationally acknowledged. In 1924, the League of Nations had adopted a World Child Welfare Charter. And later, after World War II, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) lobbied the newly formed United Nations to endorse this document. As a result, in 1959, the UN General Assembly passed a new version of the Child Welfare Charter in the form of a Declaration of the Rights of the Child.

During the following two decades, however, the cause of children was progressively drowned out by the noise from so many others -- the environment, for example, and world hunger. Accordingly, in an effort to bring children back to the public's attention, the NGO children's lobby pressed the UN to declare 1979 the International Year of the Child (IYC).

Rather than presenting development as the main context for addressing children's needs, IYC focused instead simply on the child. This was not a reversion to the previous welfarist approach since it involved airing many difficult issues in uncompromising terms that went beyond welfare and philanthropy -- taking the wraps off such sensitive subjects as child labour, child abuse and child prostitution. IYC was also to pave the way for a major new advance for child rights -- the replacement of the 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child with a more weighty international legal instrument.

In 1989, the UN General Assembly passed the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This entered into force in the following year, and as with the child survival and development revolution, it touched a highly responsive chord, and faced fewer obstacles to ratification than most other human rights instruments.

The year 1990 was, therefore, a watershed for children. The World Summit and the passage into international law of the Convention on the Rights of the Child were crowning moments of twin campaigns: for children at the leading edge of human development, and for children at the cutting edge of human rights.

These campaigns may have crystallized during the 1980s, but their expansion belongs to the whole course of the post-World War II and post-colonial period. In the decade of the 1990s, these campaigns have converged and begun to take on each other's colouring and perspective.

In the uncertainties of the post-cold war era, the outstanding question for UNICEF and other champions of the children's cause is whether the momentum for children will continue to grow. Amid the clamour generated by such issues as environmental sustainability, gender equality, debt forgiveness and ethnic self-determination, children may turn out to be just another concern whose moment in the sun is swiftly eclipsed. Alternatively, the new priority for 'child survival and development' and 'child rights' may actually echo a profound shift of human values and behaviour.

The following historical review commemorates UNICEF's 50th anniversary year and traces decade by decade how the cause of children internationally has evolved over the past 50 years. It explores the contribution of UNICEF against the backcloth of changing ideas in social and economic affairs, and tries to see where the children's cause is headed for the year 2000 and beyond.


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