In Uganda, UNICEF Executive Director Lake sees innovation in action, calls on global community to combat undernutrition
By Jeremy Green
KAMPALA, Uganda, 4 April 2012 – The power of innovation to tackle major challenges took centre stage during UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake’s visit to Kampala this week.
Surrounded by smiling young people, Mr. Lake texted a message on a mobile phone and in doing so, became the 105,549th member of U-report, a grassroots programme that enables youth to speak out about important community issues.
He also visited programmes promoting computer literacy among children and utilizing mobile technology to improve birth registration coverage.
Mr. Lake’s visit culminated in a high-level call to action to end child undernutrition in Uganda and around the world.
Signing up for U-report
U-report is a free SMS-based system developed by UNICEF Uganda that gives young Ugandans a say in the issues that matter most to them, enabling them to respond by free text message to polls on important topics such as reducing violence against children. Poll results are then shared with members of parliament and media outlets, and are posted on the website www.ureport.ug, amplifying the voices of youth to the highest levels.
“This is not simply about youth being able to communicate with each other,” Mr. Lake said of the U-report system. “This is about their becoming a virtual community that really is changing lives all around Uganda.”
Improving access to essential services
Mr. Lake also visited a youth centre where young people were using the Digital Drum, a rugged, solar-powered computer kiosk chosen by Time Magazine as one of the ‘Best Inventions of 2011’.
The kiosk, developed by a UNICEF-led team of technologists, is designed to provide adolescents with access to information and services – even in rural areas that typically lack access to computer technology. Digital Drums are preloaded with information about health, education, employment training and other services, helping to bridge the gap between those with access to the Internet and those without.
“Kids who would otherwise have no idea about how to use a computer are getting their first experiences on it, for free,” Mr. Lake said. “And that can change their lives.”
Mr. Lake also saw a demonstration of the new Mobile Vital Records (Mobile VRS) system, which uses mobile phone technology to instantly register infants’ births and issue birth certificates.
According to the latest national statistics, only 30 per cent of Ugandan children under age 5 are registered. UNICEF and partners aim to use Mobile VRS to boost birth registration rates to over 80 per cent nationwide by 2014.
Call to end stunting
During his visit, Mr. Lake also called on the global community to focus greater effort and investment in combatting stunting, a condition caused by chronic undernutrition in the critical period of a child’s life between pregnancy and the age of two.
At the 126th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly, Mr. Lake spoke passionately about the affliction, which causes irreversible damage to children’s physical and cognitive development.
Around the world, stunting affects an estimated 180 million children under the age of five, with far-reaching consequences on their lives and the strength of their societies. Yet, the condition is often overlooked.
“If these children were concentrated in one region, it would be seen as the emergency it is,” said Mr. Lake.
An estimated 33 per cent of Ugandan children under the age of 5 are stunted as a result of under-nutrition, according to the preliminary 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS).
But micronutrients like Vitamin A, zinc, iron and iodized salt can help prevent stunting, and such interventions are inexpensive and easy to deliver, Mr. Lake explained.
“Combatting stunting is one of the most cost-effective investments a country can make in its children’s health and its long-term strength. The science is clear and the returns are high.”