Executive Board spotlights results achieved by UNICEF in 2020 despite historic challenges
Annual session of 2021
NEW YORK, United States of America, 7 June 2021 ─ The UNICEF Executive Board’s annual session for 2021 concluded on Friday afternoon, after four days of intensive discussions and deliberations.
In his opening remarks at the start of the session, H.E. Mr. Rytis Paulauskas, President of the UNICEF Executive Board and Permanent Representative of Lithuania to the United Nations, called for equity and solidarity in the global response to COVID-19. “The most harmful effects of the pandemic have fallen disproportionately on children in the poorest countries, the most vulnerable communities,” he said. “More needs to be done to ensure equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, in particular in low- and middle-income countries.”
With a similar focus on inclusivity through her remarks, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore remarked “the world is still coming to terms with the full extent of the damage caused by COVID-19…We see it in the dwindling income of families. In the global economy, which has suffered a deep recession and now faces a long recovery…. At this moment in history, we should be fighting the virus, making our world healthy for our children and planting the seeds of recovery and development.”
Adapting and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic
With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to disrupt the lives of children, families and communities, several annual reports presented and discussed during the session highlighted the results achieved in 2020 by UNICEF and its partners, despite these extraordinary odds.
The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a global crisis, impacting all the systems that support children's development: from health and education, to sanitation, nutrition and protection. Projections are concerning: UNICEF estimates that approximately 80 million children under 1 year old may miss out on vaccines in at least 68 countries; 23.8 million children are likely to drop out of school – with girls at higher risk; and 142 million additional children were expected to fall into monetary poverty in 2020 alone.
But with exceptional disruption comes also exceptional opportunity. The pandemic necessitated that UNICEF adapt to stay agile and continue to deliver for children, and the organization responded. With its partners, UNICEF adjusted to on-the-ground challenges; its staff stayed and delivered in countries around the globe, helping communities to contain the virus while protecting health workers and children alike.
As Executive Director Fore highlighted in her annual report for 2020, in the face of the pandemic UNICEF responded quickly – leveraging its data systems, its dual humanitarian and development mandate, as well as its extensive geographical presence. UNICEF adapted its programming to a changing world, prioritizing the scale-up of community-based and digital solutions – from real-time monitoring of the pandemic and the needs it created, to case-management of children protection cases, online education and cash-transfer programmes. It found the means to adapt its services and programming to overcome the barriers imposed by pandemic-caused transportation and logistical challenges.
So too did the Executive Board adapt its working methods to ensure uninterrupted governance and oversight of the organization’s work. The Board changed from in-person meetings at the United Nations secretariat to fully utilize virtual platforms for its informal briefings and formal meetings, leveraging these revised modalities in order to fulfil its mandate. For the 2021 annual session, the availability of simultaneous interpretation into all United Nations official languages combined with the virtual meeting – a first for a UNICEF Executive Board session – was warmly welcomed by the delegations, and was in full alignment with the UN commitment to multilingualism in all of its proceedings. The ability to follow the meeting in several languages opened up the discussions and debates to additional delegates.
Taking stock of results achieved for children in 2020
In 2020, UNICEF was able to achieve results for children in several areas, “results that include, but also extend far beyond” the COVID-19 response, as noted by Executive Director Fore.
In collaboration with its extended partner network, the organization supported the public health response; the continuity of essential social services; and the creation of new partnerships, such as the COVAX Facility, to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines.
In its annual report on humanitarian action, UNICEF reported that, by the end of 2020, 235 million people – one in 33 people worldwide – were in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. That represents a significant increase from the 1 in 45 people in need when the year began, which was already the highest figure in decades.
Mr. Manuel Fontaine, Director of the Office of Emergency Programmes, said that in 2020 there had been an exponential growth in humanitarian needs. In response to COVID-19, the organization launched its first-ever global emergency response in its history. UNICEF responded to new and ongoing humanitarian crises in 2020, responding to 455 humanitarian situations in 152 countries, reaching millions of children with life-saving, gender-sensitive and disability-inclusive interventions, including treatment for severe acute malnutrition, measles vaccinations, emergency water supply interventions, and mental health and psychosocial support services.
As speakers acknowledged, these results could not have been accomplished without the commitment of the UNICEF staff – out of whom 10 teams were recognized for their outstanding work during the annual Staff Team Awards shown at the end of the session.
Executive Director Fore commended the staff who serve and support children and communities around the world. “Faced with the gravest global crisis in generations” she said, “UNICEF made sure that children did not face COVID-19 alone.”
This is particularly resonant as the organization approaches its 75th anniversary – a milestone that offers UNICEF the opportunity to reflect, to rededicate itself to its mission, and to reimagine what is possible for millions of children.
During a special focus session on Wednesday morning, invited guest Dr. Christopher Elias, Chairperson of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s Oversight Board, highlighted the fruitful collaboration with UNICEF and incredible progress made over the years, including in eradicating wild polio from the African continent. He noted, however, that the remaining challenges had been exacerbated by the pandemic. The UNICEF Director of Polio Eradication spoke of the two countries where the wild polio virus remains in circulation, as well as places where cases linger due to vaccine-derived polio. Key to ending outbreaks lies in timely detection, high quality vaccination campaigns, strengthened routine immunization and use of the novel oral polio vaccine, he said.
Looking ahead: UNICEF’s work over the next four years
The Executive Board considered the draft of the new Strategic Plan, 2022–2025. The development of the plan has involved broad engagement with the Member States through workshops, consultations and briefings, including a joint briefing on the Strategic Plans of UNDP, UNFPA, UNOPS, UNICEF and UN-Women. The Plan will be informed by lessons learned by UNICEF and partners, especially during the response to COVID-19, and will reflect the voices of more than 200,000 children and young people across the world, drawn from a first-of-its-kind process of wide-ranging consultation.
With a focus on driving systemic change, the new Plan will be crucial in accelerating action towards the Sustainable Development Goals, in light of the major setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As speakers emphasized, innovative finance and digital transformation will be an important part of UNICEF’s work in the years to come.
The final Plan will be presented to the Board for its approval at the second regular session in September, and will be accompanied by the integrated budget that will support efforts to achieve the organization’s goals over the next four years.
By the end of the session, the Board had formally adopted eight key decisions. Executive Director Fore said, “throughout an extraordinary year, UNICEF has stood with children, with young people and with their communities.” She added, “the results we discussed, the results we celebrate, are possible because of this Board’s support, oversight and guidance.
Ambassador Paulauskas said that the Board should be “encouraged by the many ways in which UNICEF, including in collaboration with other United Nations entities, was able to respond rapidly and effectively to the new situation on the ground.”
He closed the meeting by wishing all in attendance good health, and shared his hope for great strides towards the end of the pandemic by the Board’s next meeting in September.
The Executive Board will convene for its 2021 second regular session from 7 to 10 September.