UNICEF is committed to doing all it can to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in partnership with governments, civil society, business, academia and the United Nations family – and especially children and young people.
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake on world's growing humanitarian crises
By Kristin Taylor
With numerous humanitarian crises requiring the organization’s attention and resources, UNICEF’s Executive Board opened its second regular session of 2014 with a look at how better to assist children in emergencies.
NEW YORK, United States of America, 10 September 2014 – In its second regular session of 2014, which opened yesterday, UNICEF’s Executive Board turned its attention to vulnerable children living in the midst of crisis and what can be done to ensure they are reached with life-saving aid. A record number of global emergencies have led to UNICEF having to respond to the needs of increasing numbers of children living in dire situations.
The magnitude of these crises is reflected in the size of UNICEF’s recent emergency operations. In August, UNICEF sent 1,000 tons of life-saving supplies – enough to fill 19 cargo jumbo jets – to the world’s worst humanitarian crises. With shipments going to the Central African Republic, Iraq, Liberia, the State of Palestine, South Sudan and the Syrian Arab Republic, the supply operation is the biggest in a single month in UNICEF’s history.
“From Gaza to Iraq to Syria, from Ukraine to West Africa, where the Ebola epidemic continues to rage, we have seen children become innocent victims of forces beyond their control or understanding,” said UNICEF Executive Board President H.E. Mr. Macharia Kamau, Permanent Representative of Kenya to the United Nations, in his opening remarks. “The news this past summer could lead us to despair about the prospects for the world's children, or even for humanity itself. This morning, however, I choose to focus on hope, for our future, and for our children's futures.
But emergency situations expose children to a host of deprivations that undermine their rights, such as the right to survive and develop, to access basic services like health care or water and sanitation, to attend school and to engage in play.
At the same time, the world is moving closer to the 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which set ambitious targets toward objectives such as reducing extreme poverty, hunger and child mortality; achieving universal primary education; improving maternal health; and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
The escalation of emergencies is slowing – and, in some cases, reversing – progress towards realizing these markers of a better world.
“A child suffering in a war, a disaster, an epidemic, a famine or a drought doesn’t know – doesn’t care – about the wider global context, about whether we are gaining ground or losing ground in meeting global challenges,” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in his opening remarks to the session. “He’s looking for immediate support – help – and the fulfillment of his rights to health, protection and opportunity.”
A framework for UNICEF’s emergency response
By helping establish UNICEF’s policies, programmes and budgets, the Executive Board plays a critical role in developing the framework for mobilizing emergency relief, from the management level to the field, where the abstract goals of protecting children’s rights – and lives – are made a reality.
In February, during the first regular session of 2014, the UNICEF Executive Board approved a plan to carry out thematic evaluations on various aspects of UNICEF’s work. Undergoing these evaluations underscores UNICEF’s efforts to be a learning organization, consistently strengthening its ability to carry out its mission for children.
Today members of the Board heard the results of an evaluation of UNICEF’s role as a leader of several sectors of the humanitarian system – areas of responsibility in which UN humanitarian agencies and NGOs participate at country and global levels. Coordination through the cluster approach is meant to prevent gaps and overlaps in the assistance provided during emergencies, and to facilitate engagement with governments and civil society.
UNICEF leads the clusters for nutrition and WASH, serves as a focal point for child protection, co-leads education with Save the Children, and serves as co-focal point for response to gender-based violence, alongside the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
The evaluation noted that while UNICEF has performed its roles as a leading agency well, the organization’s capacity is challenged by the number of concurrent emergencies, as well as their prolonged duration. Designed to provide focused response amid humanitarian crises, cluster response is more frequently carrying over into long-term development work, which can strain resources, reduce effectiveness and limit sustainability.
To address these concerns, the evaluation’s recommendations included establishing greater clarity on the role of cluster response, helping country offices to be better equipped to shift from the humanitarian cluster approach to more prolonged recovery and development mechanisms.
Emergency response cannot overshadow development aid
The increasing number of complex emergencies creates the potential for acute crises to overshadow development work. As Mr. Lake indicated in his opening remarks, despite increased funding support for emergencies, “the escalating demand for resources – both human and financial – is fast outstripping our current capacities.”
Access to core resources – funding that is not earmarked for a specific purpose – gives UNICEF the flexibility to direct funds where they are most needed, such as to bolster programming or respond to new emergencies. But an increase in humanitarian needs and suddenly arising crises has forced UNICEF to fund emergency response using core resources with greater frequency.
“We cannot continue with this stop-gap approach without it negatively affecting our long-term development work,” said Mr. Lake, “particularly in fragile states where tomorrow’s emergencies may lie in wait if we fail to take steps today to strengthen institutions and build the resilience of families and communities – if we fall short, in other words, in our development mission.”
Rather, he later indicated, “it’s time to make a strategic decision to stop the pendulum from swinging between the two. Emergencies and development are inherently linked. So rather than balancing long-term development and short-term emergency response, we should be integrating the two, without sacrificing either.”
The path to future development
UNICEF will continue to face challenges in responding to these major crises, as well as new ones, which are, Mr. Lake explained, “so often … caused not by a single factor, but by a toxic mixture of them – competition for scarce resources, the impacts of climate change, economic injustices, divided societies and the fraying of civil compacts that once fostered social cohesion, irresponsible governance and corruption and aggressive ambition. All long-term, endemic challenges that resist easy answers.”
“[T]he child we help today in the midst of an emergency,” he said, “will one day grow to become the adult who will carry her country along the path to future development, and assume the responsibility for the following generations.”
Responding to priority emergencies
The numerous crises that the world’s children face today demonstrate why UNICEF has had to make difficult decisions on allocation of funds. UNICEF’s humanitarian operations are currently responding to five crises designated as Level 3 emergencies – the highest classification requiring a rapid mobilization of assistance from across the organization. An emergency of this scale may be caused by a suddenly escalating disaster or crisis, or a significant deterioration within an existing emergency. Its magnitude means that responsible country and regional offices do not have sufficient resources – staff, supplies, funding or otherwise – to assist host governments and partner organizations in meeting the needs of affected children and women.
Each one of these emergencies poses a unique set of challenges and tests the limits of staff working in difficult and often dangerous conditions. Altogether, they require urgent funding and dedicated resources at every level of the organization.
A UNICEF worker distributes posters with information and illustrations on the symptoms of Ebola virus disease (EVD) and how to help prevent its spread, in Foya District, Lofa County, Liberia. April 2014.
Ebola: The worst Ebola outbreak in history – and the most recently declared Level 3 emergency – continues to accelerate in West Africa. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are bearing the largest caseloads, with 3,685 cases (probable, confirmed and suspected) reported by the end of August. But the disease has also reached Nigeria, where there have been 21 cases, and one case has been confirmed in Senegal, as of 4 September.
The unprecedented scope and duration of the outbreak has left health workers struggling to keep up – and at serious risk themselves. There are only one to two doctors available for every 100,000 people in need of care, according to World Health Organization estimates. Nurses and other health workers face short-staffing. Medical personnel are working much longer hours to keep up with demand – but doing so leaves them exhausted and more prone to making mistakes that may result in their own infection.
Prevention is the only way towards curbing the outbreak, but in many areas, misinformation and unsafe behaviours – such as traditional burial practices that increase exposure to infectious corpses – are resulting in further spread of the virus. In other instances, sick people are avoiding designated treatment centres for fear of social stigma or other reasons.
UNICEF has been delivering critical supplies such as gloves, safety goggles, protective coveralls, chlorine disinfectant and essential medicines. As part of its response, UNICEF is supporting communication for development and coordinating efforts to raise awareness of the disease, its symptoms and how to help prevent its spread. Social mobilizers are sharing critical information with local communities and distributing illustrated posters with messages on prevention and care.
Displaced Syrian children participate in an art class in a UNICEF-supported shelter in Homs, Syrian Arab Republic, March 2014.
Syrian Arab Republic: More than three years of conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic has left some 10.8 million people – including more than 5 million children – in need of humanitarian assistance. Millions have lost their homes and struggle to access basic services amid the destruction of vital infrastructure in conflict-affected areas. Nearly 5 million people affected by fighting live in hard-to-reach areas, making it extremely difficult for aid agencies to provide assistance.
In a desperate search for safety, another 3 million Syrians have fled to the nearby countries of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where they have registered or await registration with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Figures of this magnitude are hard to fathom, but they amount to the conflict having forced nearly half of all Syrians to flee their homes and one in eight Syrians to flee the country. Accounting for refugees and persons uprooted within the country, Syrians are now the largest displaced population in the world.
UNICEF is providing vital support for children inside the Syrian Arab Republic and in countries hosting refugees. Aid ranges from providing affected populations with critical WASH, health and nutrition services to helping ensure children have safe places to play and can continue learning.
With no apparent end in sight to the conflict, the needs continue to mount. UNICEF’s call for $770 million to cover its humanitarian response in the Syrian Arab Republic as well as neighbouring countries remained 54 per cent unfunded as of mid-August.
A boy stands in front of a shipment of emergency relief supplies at a distribution site in the northern city of Kalak, Iraq, June 2014.
Iraq: More than 1.8 million people are estimated to have been displaced by conflict in Iraq since January of this year. That figure does not include people previously displaced, nor the over 215,000 refugees from the Syrian Arab Republic staying in the country.
UNICEF is working to provide vital assistance where it is most needed, but because displaced populations are scattered across many areas, reaching them with humanitarian aid is often difficult. Of the 1,000 tons of supplies airlifted in August for children in emergencies, nearly half – including emergency food rations, tents, water tanks and tablets, jerrycans, polio vaccines, early childhood development kits and hygiene kits – went to Iraq.
Efforts are underway to provide desperately needed shelter, with 26 sites identified for camps to host an estimated 240,000 internally displaced people across Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dahuk Governorates.
Additional UNICEF support includes child-friendly spaces and classroom tents, as well as psychosocial support and educational and recreational activities.
UNICEF has provided emergency aid to members of the ethno-religious Yazidi group who were displaced by fighting in Ninewa Governorate. Thousands of families fled to Sinjar Mountain to escape the violence, where they became trapped without access to food or water.
Amid a crisis that has deteriorated rapidly over the past several months, UNICEF is dedicated to scaling up its response while continuing to assess the needs of affected populations and the funding required to assist them.
A woman waits with her infant son at a registration centre in the town of Kiech Kon in Upper Nile State, South Sudan, where UNICEF, the World Food Programme and NGO partners have deployed a rapid response mission, August 2014.
South Sudan: An estimated 1.3 million people – half of them children – have been displaced by resurgent conflict that broke out in mid-December 2013. Most are living in makeshift shelters, where they struggle to access life-saving services and to meet their basic needs. In areas like Bentiu, seasonal rains and resulting floods are exacerbating the already significant challenges of life in a displacement camp.
The dual threats of conflict and displacement are creating additional risks to children’s well-being. Violence has disrupted agricultural production, interrupting livelihoods, worsening food insecurity and driving food prices higher.
Across the country, an estimated 3.9 million people were at risk of not having enough food between June and August, with many wondering when and how they would secure their next meal. By the end of the year, nearly 1 million children under age 5 will require treatment for acute malnutrition, and malnutrition could claim the lives of 50,000 children if more is not done quickly to reverse the nutrition crisis.
UNICEF, together with the World Food Programme and other partners, has already conducted rapid response missions to 23 locations in remote areas, reaching almost half a million people, including over 95,000 children under age 5, with support in WASH, health, nutrition, education and child protection.
UNICEF is supporting therapeutic feeding programmes; administering vaccines against measles and polio; providing oral rehydration salts to help fight cholera and insecticide-treated mosquito nets to help combat malaria; supplying safe drinking water for people living in the major displacement sites; helping children continue their education through the provision of temporary classrooms; and providing child protection services, which include psychosocial support and reuniting separated children with their families.
To fund such critical responses between January and December 2014, UNICEF has appealed for $151.7 million, but as of 2 September, 47 per cent of needs still remained unfunded.
Children stand in a child-friendly space at an IDP site in Bambari, Central African Republic, July 2014.
Central African Republic: Conflict has worsened already dire conditions in the Central African Republic. Weakened infrastructure, high rates of stunting, severely limited access to safe sources of drinking water and improved sanitation facilities, and endemic poverty all contribute to the challenges children face – and to their struggle to survive.
Across the country, the crisis has affected 4.6 million people – half of them children – and left 2.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, including hundreds of thousands who have been displaced internally. To help meet their needs, UNICEF is providing assistance in health; nutrition; water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH); child protection; HIV/AIDS; and education.
Children are receiving insecticide-treated mosquito nets to help fight malaria, therapeutic care to fight malnutrition, and psychosocial support. UNICEF is supporting programmes to release children serving in armed groups, to reunite children and families who have become separated, to support survivors of gender-based violence, to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV and to teach children proper handwashing techniques that can help to halt the spread of disease.
But needs remain urgent, and of the $81 million UNICEF requires to continue its efforts, around $50 million remained unfunded as of 31 July.