The new Director of UNICEF’s EU Partnership Office pays tribute to children's resilience

The new director of UNICEF’s EU Partnership Office in Brussels, Mr. Geert Cappelaere talks with us about his professional career, marked by the horrors he has seen in conflicts around the world, but also by the exceptional resilience of children.

UNICEF Office for Relations with EU Institutions
Geert stands with children at a camp for internally displaced persons in Aden, Yemen
© UNICEF/UN0262511/Abdulhaleem
05 October 2021

Our new Director, Geert Cappelaere started his work on children’s rights at the University of Ghent. In 1999, he joined UNICEF, and has stayed with the organisation ever since.

“In the countries where I have lived and worked during my UNICEF career over the past 20-25 years, I have seen the worst things a human being can do to another human being,” says Geert who has lived in Yemen, Sudan and Sierra Leone, and visited many countries at war.

"It marked me. But what struck me even more was the resilience of the children, their vision for the future and their ability to seek solutions. "

On 4 December 2018 at the Ibn Zaidoon School in Aden, Yemen, girls attend class.

How has your academic background influenced your career?

I started my academic career with a teaching diploma, followed by two masters: one in criminology and the other one in human rights. I was motivated by a passion to help the most vulnerable in society and the feeling that children needed a stronger voice, wherever they were in the world.

I was very happy to have completed my course with a master's degree in law, as this has enabled me to use law as a tool to improve the situation of vulnerable people in society.

How did your previous career prepare you for your position as Director of UNICEF’s EU Partnership Office in Brussels?

In the mid-1980s, the Belgian government asked me if I wanted to participate in the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The developments had already started in 1979, but the intergovernmental process accelerated around 1985. Belgium wanted to play a role in the project and I accepted the invitation.

There were about six child rights experts in our team and it was quite international with very good colleagues from Europe, Latin America and Africa, who became lifelong friends.

The Convention was quickly adopted and ratified by a number of countries, so we were asked to travel around the world to convince even more countries to ratify the Convention. I felt that traveling conflicted with my job at the university and therefore wanted to return to my teaching profession.

However, the then Executive Director of UNICEF asked me to join UNICEF, and I agreed, on the condition that it was limited to one year. After that first year in New York, I was asked to work in Central and Eastern Europe on children's rights with the World Bank and UNICEF. I realized that with the right approach, the United Nations can make a huge difference. At that point, I decided to stay.

What has impressed you the most during your career?

The children's resilience. It is a quality that children have and that we seem to lose as adults. Adults complain about problems, while children are enthusiastic about problem-solving.

I am thinking, for example, back to a two-hour meeting in Aleppo, in northern Syria, with a group of children who had suffered from the war, being wounded, had lost limbs or were paralyzed. We wanted to listen to their stories. What all these kids had in common was that they didn't want to spend too much time speaking about their sufferings, about the past, but more importantly, they wanted to share with me their ambitions in life, what they wanted to become later in life, about the future.

On 5 December 2018 in Aden, Yemen, UNICEF Regional Director for Middle East and North Africa Geert Cappelaere visits children in the UNICEF-supported Prostheses and Physiotherapy Center.

What will be your priorities as the new Director of UNICEF’s EU Partnership Office in Brussels?

My mission is to work with my team, the other United Nations agencies and stakeholders to further strengthen the partnership with Europe: from fundraising to public-private partnerships, including sharing of knowledge about UNICEF’s programmes and expertise.

The aim is to create a “Team Europe” where the different stakeholders, public institutions, EU Member States, investment- and development banks work together, because such a team can advance sustainable development and the humanitarian- and human rights agenda for the benefit of the least developed countries and the most vulnerable populations.

What will be the main challenges in your new position?

The political context is becoming more conservative: solidarity is in decline. COVAX – the global vaccine initiative - is a good example: 78% of us in Europe are vaccinated, while in the least developed countries, this rate only stands at 2%. This is unacceptable compared to the least developed countries, but also because the virus will continue to plague us all.

The reluctance to redefine official development assistance (ODA) is another delicate issue. How can we ensure that public funds remain not only available, but also increase so that we can continue to support the development and humanitarian agenda? And how can we harness private funding to support humanitarian- and development programmes?

These are challenges that we probably all share and that we must overcome together.

What role can children and young people play for a future where their rights are guaranteed?

Old people like me won't change the world. It is the energy and the new thinking of children and young people that we must encourage and to which we must give opportunities. We, the older generation, need to create the context to maximize that energy and dedication.

This requires investing, for example, in quality education - with the best possible pay for teachers, in children’s health care and in support of parenthood.

Is there something you would still like to achieve in your career?

 I don't need to shine. I want my role to be in the background and I want to give young people the space they need to participate in an organization like UNICEF and give their best. I want to be there to support them and serve as a sounding board.

What advice would you give young people who want to work for the United Nations?

Come work with us! I strongly believe in the multilateral system as a way to achieve a more equitable and sustainable world. Perhaps a multilateral system that’s organized slightly different, but don't be put off by the loopholes in the system. Feel encouraged to make the changes we haven't been able to make yet.

We need young people from all over the world. Let's find what unites us, not what divides us.

Geert stands with children at a camp for internally displaced persons in Aden, Yemen
Geert Cappelaere, Director of the UNICEF Regional Office for the Middle East and North Africa Visit to Lebanon on 28 May, 2019.