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UNICEF at 60: A brief look back, and ahead

UNICEF Image: UNICEF 60th anniversary
© UNICEF/HQ46-0001/unknown
On 11 December 1946, the new United Nations created the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund – UNICEF – to provide humanitarian relief to children in the aftermath of World War II.

By David Koch

NEW YORK, USA, 7 December 2006 – UNICEF was never meant to be here today, in the first decade of the 21st century. Yet today, a world without UNICEF is unimaginable. On the eve of UNICEF’s 60th anniversary, which will be marked with events at its headquarters in New York tomorrow, here is a brief look back.

UNICEF was brought to life in December 1946 by unanimous vote at the first session of the UN General Assembly. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, as it was then known, was to provide short-term relief to children in post-World War II Europe.

Then as now, UNICEF was funded entirely by voluntary contributions – and once the immediate post-war needs of Europe’s children had been seen to, many thought UNICEF should cease to exist.

UNICEF Image: UNICEF 60th anniversary
© UNICEF/HQ93-1196/Andrew
In the 1980s, UNICEF launched the ‘Child Survival Revolution’ in response to global economic contraction and declining overseas development assistance. Low-cost health interventions saved millions of lives.

1946-1959: An agency for children is born
Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ahmed Bokhari, argued passionately that children around the world faced an ongoing spiral of disease and poverty that stymied global development, and that UNICEF’s mission was as invaluable as ever. His argument prevailed:

  • By the time UNICEF became a permanent part of the United Nations in 1953, the seven-year-old organization was active in some 100 countries
  • In 1959, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child stated that the hunger, poverty, disease, discrimination and ignorance endured by millions of children was a violation of their basic rights, and the landscape of children’s lives was changed forever.

1960-1979 The development decades
UNICEF was to provide more than just humanitarian relief. In the 1960s and ’70s, nutrition and health, education and family issues became additional areas of focus. In this period:

  • Half of UNICEF’s spending was being dedicated to learning
  • UNICEF was in the global spotlight in 1965 as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize
  • The advent of inexpensive strategies – such as providing micronutrients, iodine, vitamin A and iron supplementation – proved effective in saving lives.

1980-1989: The silent emergency
Despite decades of humanitarian work, by 1980 some 15 million children were still dying of preventable causes each year. At this time, the ‘Child Survival Revolution’ began:

  • ‘Days of Tranquillity’ were launched to immunize children in conflict zones
  • ‘Education for all’ became a rallying cry for global development
  • Children and women found their lives increasingly engulfed by war and violence – and the expanding HIV/AIDS pandemic.

1990-1999: Recognizing child rights
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1990, went on to become the most universally adopted international treaty in history. Also during this decade:

  • The World Summit for Children brought together the largest-ever gathering of world leaders
  • Conflicts and genocide put children at risk from landmines, starvation and trafficking, and denied their right to a childhood.

2000-2006: Children at the heart of development
The Millennium Development Goals set forth in 2000 have served as a blueprint for global development toward 2015. Since the start of the new century:

  • At the UN Special Session on Children, youth participation came to the fore
  • The HIV/AIDS pandemic has affected children’s lives as never before, posing new challenges to social progress.
UNICEF Image: UNICEF 60th anniversary
© UNICEF/HQ02-0257/Vitale
Children are at the heart of the eight Millennium Development Goals. MDG 1 vows to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, and MDG 4 commits to reducing infant mortality.

Today and beyond
What began as a temporary experiment 60 years ago has grown to become the world’s leading agency for children. Today, UNICEF is active in over 190 countries, uniting people and partners to make the world a better place for future generations.

Sixty years is but a blink of an eye in the course of history, but in that brief span of time the world has become a different place for children entirely. With the Millennium Development Goals as our guide, UNICEF will continue to evolve and respond to the challenges children face in a complex yet wondrous world.

Unite for children.




Watch a compilation of great moments from UNICEF's first 60 years.
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1946-1959: An agency for children is born.
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1960-1979 The development decades.
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1980-1989: The silent emergency.
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1990-1999: Recognizing child rights.
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2000-2006: Children at the heart of development.
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8 December 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Kun Li reports on special events held today to mark the 60th anniversary of UNICEF.
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UNICEF Global Staff Association Chairperson Masood Ahmed talks about UNICEF's first 60 years and looks to its future.
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