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UNICEF in Emergencies & Humanitarian Action

UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman heads to southern Africa

© UNICEF Zimbabwe/2005/Crowe
Learnmore Phiri, 11, is an orphan. He lives with his sister in the Midlands province of Zimbabwe.

By Sarah Crowe

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, 20 May 2005 – UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman’s first field visit, to the southern Africa region, comes at a time of crisis – a quiet, unseen crisis away from the media spotlight.

From a distance it looks like just another season of failed crops and failed promises for southern Africa. Indeed, the yield of maize – the staple crop in the region – has been paltry this year, but there is far more to this crisis.

It is being called the ‘triple threat’, and arises from a combination of food insecurity, weakened capacity for governance and HIV/AIDS. It is unlike anything that has happened here before.

Alerting the world

Ms. Veneman’s visit comes in response to a request from the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa, James T. Morris, to review the situation and explore ways to alert the world to the ‘triple threat’. UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot will also be joining them.

Commenting on the situation on the eve of her departure, Ms. Veneman said: “Although sub-Saharan Africa has just 12 per cent of the world’s population, it has 42 per cent of all child deaths. There is no other region where children face so many threats, and in southern Africa the HIV/AIDS crisis is particularly devastating to children’s well-being.”

The region has the largest number of children affected by HIV/AIDS in the world, and the highest percentage of children orphaned by AIDS. Nations like Lesotho and Swaziland are particularly vulnerable, because of their small populations.

Ms. Veneman’s visit also serves to highlight the importance of early warning systems. In the 1990s, a system to provide early warning of crises was in place in southern Africa. But now the interlocking effects of climate shocks and HIV/AIDS have overwhelmed governments’ capacity to cope on their own. UNICEF, the World Food Program and other partners active in the region have a solid, functional early warning system, and are having to fill the gap.

A crisis with a child’s face

It may take an adult to understand this complex crisis, and the challenges faced by the governments of this region. But the crisis has the face of a child. With some millions of children orphaned by AIDS in the six countries in southern Africa (Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe), the strain on families is immense. Children are required to carry the responsibilities of adults, while many surviving adults are ageing and unable to cope with the new demands.

In Zimbabwe alone there are about 1 million children orphaned by AIDS. What’s worse, programmes are seriously underfunded in the country, and the extended family system cannot carry the burden.

Life expectancy has dropped drastically in the region and HIV infections are increasing at an alarming rate. However a new UNICEF-sponsored study in Swaziland, which has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world, suggests that trends may be changing.

The study showed that far fewer teenage girls in Swaziland are infected with HIV than previously estimated – indicating that AIDS education efforts there may be paying off. The study, which involved the country's first mass blood testing, indicated that younger teenage girls in particular appeared to be avoiding infection.

Governance capacity

Fundamentally, it is the inability of governments to cope with this crisis that underpins the triple threat. Across the board, the capacities of government and public sector institutions – in health, education and other areas – are being eroded by the lethal combination of HIV/AIDS and a brain drain of professionals. Governments in the region have requested financial aid to implement plans for assisting orphans and vulnerable children. But even if all the requested funding is received, it would still only meet a small fraction of the overall needs of children.

“No matter how much money is thrown at the problem, there’s a crisis of capacity within the state structures,” said Doug Webb, UNICEF ESARO regional project officer on Children and AIDS. “This is exacerbated by illness and mortality within the public work force and constant food shortages.

“We’re locked into this short term emergency response. The crisis of national capacity has become the very essence of the crisis itself. We know that countries with strong decentralized structures have a better chance of coping and responding to these shocks so it’s about investing in communities.”




May 2005:
Sarah Crowe reports from southern Africa on the crises that are threatening the children of the region. 

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