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Tullio Santini, Coordinator of UNICEF North Caucasus Programme

Tullio Santini
© UNICEF/SWZ/2006/C. Harron
Tullio Santini, Coordinator of UNICEF North Caucasus Programme

Working in the North Caucasus - An interview with Tulio Santini, UNICEF's coordinator for the North Caucasus

Would you like to describe a typical work day, if there is such a thing?
Most of my daily work is spent liaising with our field office in Nazran (Ingushetia), discussing various issues related to the progress of our programme in the North Caucasus; consulting colleagues in the Country Office; talking to colleagues from UN agencies, NGOs or ICRC, either in person or by phone; briefing donor representatives; and drafting/editing project proposals, donors reports, situation reports, inter-agency documents, etc.

And then monthly visits to the North Caucasus (NC) region?
Yes. There is no fixed schedule, but on average I spend a few days every month in the region. Such visits may have a variety of purposes: meeting our zonal office staff and visiting our numerous project sites; discussing specific issues with local authorities; accompanying key donors in their monitoring/assessment missions or senior UN officials (including from UNICEF, of course).

What are the biggest challenges facing UNICEF in the implementation of projects?
When it comes to the actual implementation of projects, the two main challenges in the region are funding uncertainty and security. Our NC programme, which has a budget of about US$ 7-8 million a year, is almost completely funded by the resources that we raise on an annual basis, including through inter-agency instruments such as the Consolidated Appeal Process (2000-2005) and Transitional Work Plans for the North Caucasus (2006-2007), as well as through UNICEF’s Humanitarian Action Report.

Therefore, raising sufficient funds has always been a serious challenge, to which I have devoted considerable energies throughout my last three-and-a-half years in Moscow. Thankfully, our programme has consistently been one of the best-funded UNICEF humanitarian/recovery operations around the world. By now key donors are confident that UNICEF is an agency that ‘knows what it is doing’ in the North Caucasus and is therefore worth investing in. The recent signing of a € 9.5m contract with the EU/TACIS, for our health and education programmes in the NC, is an encouraging confirmation of the solid reputation built by UNICEF in the region and a promising development for the future.

The second overarching challenge is security. The environment in the whole region remains volatile and unpredictable and UN agencies have to work under a particularly strict and heavily-regulated security regime, which includes the use of armoured vehicles (for Chechnya) and mobile armed escorts. Recently, it’s true, there have been significant positive developments in Chechnya, where the situation is progressively stabilizing. On the other hand, the entire region remains volatile; since my arrival in spring 2003, in fact, the security situation has even worsened in Chechnya’s neighbouring republics, Dagestan and Ingushetia.

UNICEF supported Peace and Tolerance workshop
© UNICEF/2006/Alena Svirid
Children at the UNICEF supported project on Peace and Tolerance in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia.

You mentioned the transitional work plans, could you explain more about this transition from humanitarian aid to development assistance?
The most significant dynamic to affect the overall inter-agency operation in the North Caucasus in the last couple of years has been a gradual shift from a humanitarian to a recovery or “transitional” assistance. Mid- and long-term social and economic issues are now the priority along with short-term humanitarian needs (which remain significant).

As confirmed by a recent VAM (Vulnerability Assessment Mapping), jointly conducted by UNICEF and WFP, key gaps in health, education and water & sanitation (including malnutrition, immunization levels, child and infant mortality and school attendance) continue to affect the lives of a large number of crisis-affected children and mothers, particularly in Chechnya and Ingushetia. UNICEF, therefore, still has programmes in these key areas, together with mine action. At the same time, more attention is being paid to longer term issues that also need to be addressed, such as the psychosocial rehabilitation of children, child protection issues as well as the promotion of peace and tolerance among children and youth.

It is also important to stress that UNICEF exercises a key leadership role in the region. Our agency, in fact, is currently acting as coordination focal point in four important sectors: education, mine action, water & sanitation as well as peace & tolerance.

What progress is being made regarding internally displaced children?
Up to a couple of years ago, one of the key priorities for the humanitarian community in the North Caucasus was precisely the situation (in terms of assistance and protection needs) of internally displaced persons (IDP) living in the republics surrounding Chechnya, and particularly in Ingushetia. In 1999-2000, in fact, some 250,000 people were forced to leave the war-torn republic. Gradually, over the years, IDPs have started to return to Chechnya and now only 20,000 remain in Ingushetia. We can therefore say that the peak of the IDP crisis has long gone, and more emphasis is being placed on supporting the resettlement and reintegration of the returnees, although a sizeable number of IDPs continue to be reported inside Chechnya.
This summer UNICEF completed the process of hand-over to the Ingush Ministry of Education of the remaining ‘parallel’ schools for IDP children that UNICEF, in cooperation with a few NGOs, created in 2000 and continued to support until last June. A similar hand-over is happening with the child-friendly spaces (kindergartens) that UNICEF has been supporting in Ingushetia, thus making local authorities responsible for such projects and ensuring their future sustainability.

How is violence influencing the lives of the children in the region?
The impact of violence on children in the region has been multifaceted. The large scale and indiscriminate targeting of civilians that took place during the two conflicts in Chechnya, when hostilities were at their peak and civilian settlements and infrastructure were heavily bombed, had a dramatic impact on thousands of children.

In addition, landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXO) continue to kill and wound children. According to the database that UNICEF supports – the only existing database that records landmines and UXO incidents involving civilians – more than 750 children have been either killed or wounded in the last 10 years in Chechnya.

Occasional reports produced by local human rights NGOs also refer to children who are allegedly abducted, detained or even taken hostage, particularly in Chechnya.

The psychosocial trauma of children is another impact of the violence that has affected Chechnya over the last 12 years. This has recently been recognized by the Chechen authorities, also thanks to UNICEF’s intense advocacy efforts, as one of their key priorities for the near and mid-term future. In addition, one should not forget all the serious impact on the normal physical, intellectual and psychological development of children from not having access to basic social services, such as health care, education, water, sanitation facilities.

How do you work around the political sensitivities of being based in Moscow but working on behalf of the North Caucasus region?
The extreme sensitivity surrounding the North Caucasus is definitely a paramount aspect of the work of every professional working in or on this crisis area. As far as I am concerned, I can say that at the very beginning of my assignment in Moscow I benefited considerably from my previous experience as desk officer for the Russian Federation in New York with OCHA – the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs – which allowed me to start with a fairly solid understanding of the sensitivities around Chechnya.

In addition, I invested considerable time and energy in studying the complex history, culture and anthropology of the North Caucasus region, as well as of Russia in general. Knowing the particularly complex relationship that has unfolded between the North Caucasus and Moscow over the last 300 years is a fundamental prerequisite to understand what has happened in the region over the last 15 years.

Finally Tullio, what are your hopes for the region? What keeps you going when things look bleak? 
I’ve been working on the North Caucasus crisis for over five years. Personally, I find it difficult to be optimistic about the short-term future of the region given the impact of 15 years of violence, destruction and suffering – together with the deep-rooted legacy of two centuries marked by periodic waves of violence and instability. What keeps me going is, first and foremost, my true love for the North Caucasus as well as my deep compassion for the suffering of the most vulnerable in the region, primarily all children and women.

Moreover, now that the federal authorities in Moscow are investing more in human security in the North Caucasus - and with the continued support of the international community - my hope is that the future of the region, and that of its children and mothers, can be different.






Activity report on UNICEF Programme in the North Caucasus

Related links

UNICEF North Caucasus Emergency Programme

Real lives: Children of the North Caucasus want to live in peace

Chechnya through the eyes of children

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