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Karin Sham Poo, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director, addresses the Barcelona Forum 2004

Remarks by Karin Sham Poo, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF:

Nobel Laureates, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

At any one time on the globe, there are approximately 2 billion children walking and living among us.  Two billion people whose experience of life is still short enough for us to call them our children.  Two billion young bodies and young minds that house enormous human potential and which we collectively deem worthy of special protection and care.

What is it about childhood that we hold so dear, in our own lives and in the universal experience of life? 

The answer might be found in our DNA, in the secret code of instinct passed down through the ages.  Or it could be in our knowledge of human development, in our science and our understanding of the unique transformative processes of childhood.  Or perhaps the answer is embodied in our civilized moral and legal codes, built upon the inherent frailty of each individual life and the recognized need for common protections.

I suppose each of these plays its own distinct role in our special regard for that part of life we call childhood, but I prefer to imagine that the most profound explanation lies within our own memories of childhood – and the dreams that those memories inspire in us even until our dying hours.


UNICEF was born in 1946, in the embers of World War II.  The mission for which it was founded was simple: to help meet the special needs of war-affected children.  It was implicitly understood that rebuilding war-torn societies must begin with children.

A few years later, no one could imagine closing UNICEF.  The idea of investing in children as a way of bringing long-term positive change within societies had grown roots. And so the mission of UNICEF was extended to all the forgotten children of the world, the children whose nations were too poor and undeveloped to offer the gifts that we knew were within the world’s power to give. 

And so here we are, and here I am, honored to be representing UNICEF among such august and accomplished company. 

As a group, you and I have been asked to explore the modern incarnation of war among  people and societies, and to offer thoughts on how we might find new pathways toward peace and democracy commensurate with the threats to humanity that face us in this fragmented era.

In 1965, UNICEF was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  We were then, and today we remain, humbled by the honor.  The truth is that, at the time, we were barely beyond childhood ourselves. And it was certainly not a time of peace, anymore than today is. 

Looking back on an organizational life now nearly sixty years in the making, it remains clear to us that it was not the deeds of UNICEF that the Nobel Committee was recognizing in 1965, but the idea of UNICEF.  It was not UNICEF’s aspirations as an institution, but the global aspiration for our children and for our future that was being honored. 

It was our collective human memory of childhood, and the dreams born of those memories, that were being acknowledged.  


It was Mother’s Day in North America and in some European countries this past Sunday.  Although today looked upon, with some skepticism, as a way to sell greeting cards – and I should note here that UNICEF does not carry Mother’s Day cards in its line – this holiday started as something else.  It was born as part of the anti-war movement in late 1800s America.  It was intended as a day of solidarity among the mothers of soldiers everywhere, a universal wish for peace.

This should come as no surprise.  Mothers hold the deepest aspirations for their children, they are the keepers of great dreams as to what their children may turn out to be, and they dream in turn of a world that is fit for their children.

On this past Mother’s Day, in a church in Manhattan, a minister – who is also a mother – spoke about war and mothers and dreams.  The news and pictures from Iraq were on her mind, and she observed that neither the mothers of those US soldiers involved in abuses of prisoners, nor the mothers of those Iraqi men who were abused, would ever have dreamed this future for their children. 

Indeed not.  Who would dream of such a world for their own children?

However different the lives of parents, however high or humble their station, it can be said that their aspirations for their children are remarkably alike:  To be safe and happy in childhood; to grow up healthy and strong; to live long and prosper (to quote a great philosopher); to do good, even great deeds; to receive respect and love; and to have children of their own.

Our dreams for our children are remarkably universal.  And it is in these universal dreams that UNICEF believes our pathway to a more just and peaceful world resides.  It requires us to invest in the simple dreams we hold in common – but to do so visibly, powerfully, inclusively, and in tempo with local needs.

A principle mission of the United Nations, especially for the humanitarian and development agencies such as UNICEF, is to help build countries where these dreams are able to take root and flourish.  It is our mission – given to us by the nations and people of the world – to invest in human potential. 

But we cannot do it on our own.  We need far more outside support than the governments of the world are at present providing, in resources, leadership, and true commitment. 


When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of UNICEF, then-Executive Director Henry LaBouisse, said:

“…to me, the great, the most important meaning of this Nobel award is the solemn recognition that the welfare of today’s children is inseparably linked with the peace of tomorrow’s world.”

Forty years later we see that truth more clearly than ever.  We see children dying amidst conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, DRC, Burundi, Sri Lanka , Colombia, Sudan, and many more.  We see them being killed in Gaza, Tel Aviv, Madrid, Nairobi, New York, Riyadh, Istanbul, and Bali.

And we know that the conflicts that bring about this suffering cannot be separated from the overall state of the world’s children. 

The world has set goals in recognition of the importance of investing in children.  It did so in 1990, and again in 2002.  In between, every nation on earth agreed the Millennium Development Goals, six of which are related to investment in children.  All of these documents tell us one thing, something we all understand: there is no better way to change the world than with children. 

As a former banker I can say with absolute confidence that there is no better return on investment for any country, in the medium and long run, than investing in children.

Yet we must ask why we continually fall short of the goals we set.  Already, most nations are far from where they need to be if they are to reach the Millennium Goals, or to even to come close, by 2015.

I think it is easy for governments to buy-into the goals drawn up by others, to sit down at the UN and sign up.  But they see it as harder to turn around and sell those goals to their own people.  This goes for governments of both developed and developing nations.  And so we continually fall short.

Perhaps investing in children is a hard sell, but I don’t think so.  It just takes the right leaders to sell it.  Leaders who understand the aspirations we all share, who grasp both the fears and joys within our memories, who can sell us faith in our own dreams.  We believe those leaders must come from all sectors, not just government.  They probably already know who they are.  In media, inacademia, in business, in civil society.  In the armed forces.

The cost itself is not that great – take less than $100 billion a year from war and related markets and invest it instead in health, education, equality and protection.  And just watch what can happen.

It is by no means too late to turn the tide and achieve the Millennium Development Agenda.  It is very much within our capacity to do it. 

In the end, it’s about quality leadership, ladies and gentlemen. That’s what we at UNICEF believe.  Provide every child a loving environment, fortify each child’s health, give every child a quality basic education, and allow every child to grow to adulthood in dignity.  If we have leaders who do only these few things we will have radically changed our world.

We have the know-how. We have the technology.  We have the resources.  We even have the shared dreams.  All we lack is the leaders who will take us there – in both rich countries and poor.

And that is a matter for every one of us, from every country, to take to heart.  



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