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UNICEF at 65: Looking back, thinking ahead

© © UNICEF/NYHQ1949-0001/Unknown
Circa 1949, a crowd of girls at the Mary Immaculate orphanage, in Tirupattur in the North Arcot district of Madras State, have just received bowls of rice provided by UNICEF.

On 11 December, UNICEF celebrates its 65th anniversary. Created in 1946 from the residual resources from UN’s relief and rehabilitation administration, to secure the fate of Europe’s children, few then imagined that it would still be in existence today. In the six and a half decades since it was formed, UNICEF continues to assist children affected by war and crisis, but has also taken on a much broader and ever-evolving role in international development, working across political, national and social divides to provide integrated services to children and advocate for the full spectrum of their rights.

In recent years, a renewed emphasis on equity for children has become a cornerstone of the organization’s programme, policy and advocacy work. An examination of history underscores exactly why the time is now right for the world to refocus on equity, not only as a key guiding principle for development, but also as the best way to achieve the most sustainable and effective impact in human development.

The following is a brief overview of our some key periods in UNICEF’s history from 1946 to today.

Foundation and early work: 1946-59

In 1946 the lingering effects of the destruction caused by World War II were still affecting millions of people in Europe. Many were without basic shelter, adequate clothing or food. Especially hard hit were children, fully half of whom were dying before their first birthday in some affected areas. Existing relief mechanisms were being phased out.

In response to many voices of concern, on 11 December 1946 the UN General Assembly unanimously established the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to mount urgent relief programmes for children. UNICEF was directed to provide its aid ‘without discrimination because of race, creed, nationality, status or political belief’. In this way, principles grounded in rights and equity helped guide UNICEF’s work from the very beginning.

UNICEF’s founding resolution included the instruction that the organization was to work ‘for child health purposes generally’. This permitted the organization to take a broad and flexible approach in its work, and would allow UNICEF to evolve from a purely humanitarian organization into one focused on development as well as on humanitarian needs.

It also provided impetus for the mass disease-eradication campaigns that characterized UNICEF’s work in the 1950s. Major efforts were mounted, with UNICEF support, to control or even eradicate yaws, tuberculosis, trachoma and malaria. Successes were significant; for example, 30 million cases of yaws were cured, and in some areas death rates from malaria dropped to zero. But the campaigns also revealed the facts – equally relevant today – that in order to achieve, consolidate and broaden development gains, human behaviour must often change, and national and subnational systems must be strengthened and supported.

Children and development: 1960-79

By the 1960s there was ever-growing global interest in the concept of economic and social development as a key enabler for countries to overcome poverty and meet the needs of their own populations. UNICEF, faced with a torrent of ideas and having taken on board its lessons from the previous decade, decided to chart its own path by convening an inter-agency study incorporating ‘state of the art’ analyses from other UN agencies on the needs of children in their respective spheres. Several UN agencies, including WHO, FAO, ILO, UNESCO and the UN Bureau of Social Affairs, contributed to the final report, Children of the Developing Countries, which represented a watershed in nations’ views on how to support and assist their youngest citizens.

This report presented an integrated theory of child development and made the case for systematic inclusion of children’s needs in national development plans. It also changed UNICEF’s work, by expanding the scope of the organization’s engagement to include all branches of government, and by expanding its work to address the needs of ‘the whole child’, including broader psychosocial needs as well as those of parents and caregivers.

The late 1960s and the 1970s saw UNICEF take a leading role in humanitarian response in a number of major emergencies, such as the Nigerian civil war of 1967-70 and the breakaway ‘republic’ of Biafra; the 1970 cyclone that struck East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), in which half a million people drowned; and the invasion of Cambodia (then Kampuchea) in 1979 and the subsequent food shortages. In Nigeria, UNICEF was the only international organization permitted to remain on the ground after the collapse of the rebellion, and in Cambodia, UNICEF was asked to lead the UN relief effort due in part to its reputation for impartiality.

By the early 1970s, many developing countries were achieving high rates of economic growth, thanks to transfers of capital and technical know-how from more advanced economies. But little of this growth had trickled down to the poor, whose numbers had swelled – as had the gap between rich and poor people, and between rich and poor nations. This realization sparked a new era of development thinking, one that saw a greater emphasis on initiatives that deliberately targeted the poor to help them meet their basic needs.

The 1974 oil price shock and global food shortages in 1972-74 also served to check global economic growth and resources for development. UNICEF itself was considering programme strategies that would reach poor children most cost-effectively. Its own version of the alternative order emerged from a series of key studies, and was known as the ‘basic services’ approach. This approach, developed in conjunction with WHO, evolved into the vision for primary health care articulated in 1978 in the Declaration of Alma Ata.

The Child Survival and Development Revolution: 1980-89

In the early 1980s, child mortality rates were seen as an indicator of a country’s level of development. UNICEF and its then Executive Director, Jim Grant, reversed this conventional wisdom in 1982, proposing that a direct attack on child mortality would yield dividends for a country’s economic and social development. This was the beginning of the ‘child survival and development revolution’, in which simple primary health care techniques, developed or refined over preceding decades, would be applied in a concerted effort to vanquish common infections of early childhood.

The techniques were known collectively as GOBI: ‘G’ for growth monitoring, ‘O’ for oral rehydration therapy, ‘B’ for breastfeeding and ‘I’ for immunization. GOBI was appealing because its methods were low in cost, and its appeal was enhanced by the accompanying social mobilization strategy advocated by UNICEF. The strategy enlisted support from all walks of society in the name of child survival: media, religious leaders, celebrities of all stripes, non-governmental organizations as well as UNICEF’s traditional government partners, all played a role.

At around the same time, there was growing global interest in achieving ‘universal child immunization’. These efforts involved not only UNICEF but also a wide range of organizations such as WHO, UNDP, the World Bank and the Rockefeller Foundation. Trials of national vaccination days led to large-scale immunization campaigns in countries such as Turkey, and to ‘days of tranquillity’ – ceasefires in war-affected countries for the sole purpose of vaccinating children. By the end of the 1980s, the child survival and development revolution was estimated to have saved the lives of 12 million children.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2002-0148/Susan Markisz
Children's Forum delegate Gabriela Azurduy Arrieta, 13, from Bolivia addresses the United Nations Special Session on Children in May 2002.

Children’s rights on the global stage: 1990-99

The Declaration of the Rights of the Child had been adopted in 1959 by the UN General Assembly. After a period of limited progress in formally articulating child rights, the International Year of the Child, held in 1979 on the 20th anniversary of the Declaration, succeeded in rekindling interest. NGOs working on behalf of children argued that child rights should be enshrined in law, and helped establish an intergovernmental group to begin drafting a convention to replace the 1959 Declaration.

During the 1980s, UNICEF had been involved with analysis and policy responses for what were then called ‘children in especially difficult circumstances’ – children living or working on the streets, those affected by armed conflict, suffering from exploitation or with disabilities. Recognizing the convergence among this work, the child survival and development revolution, and the movement for child rights, UNICEF threw its weight behind the work on a new convention in 1987. Its eventual support and convening capacity were decisive factors leading to the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in November 1989 by the UN General Assembly. The Convention entered into international law on 2 September 1990. Later that same month, the World Summit for Children – the first-ever Summit-level meeting with children as the main agenda item – brought together 71 Heads of State and Government at the UN.

The World Summit and its follow-up actions, together with the Convention, were the primary influences on UNICEF’s work in the 1990s. The momentum of ratification for the Convention was extraordinary, with 179 countries ratifying within five years of its coming into effect – the fastest pace ever for a human rights convention. UNICEF country offices were able to use a country’s ratification of the Convention to press for more action for children, and thereby to accelerate progress towards goals set at the Summit.

The legal protections enshrined in the Convention helped propel issues of child protection to the top of the political agenda, and paved the way for major initiatives, supported by UNICEF and many other partners, including the World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in 1996, the UN study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children in 1996, the adoption by two thirds of the world’s nations of the Convention prohibiting anti-personnel mines in 1997, and the adoption of the global agenda for eliminating the worst forms of child labour in 1997. The Convention and its protocols continue remain the foundation of UNICEF’s mission today.

Children at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals: 2000–2015

During the 21st century’s first decade, UNICEF’s work was shaped by the outcomes of two major global gatherings: the Millennium Summit of September 2000 and the UN General Assembly Special Session on Children of May 2002.

Echoing the approach taken at the World Summit for Children, the Millennium Summit adopted a series of time-bound, quantifiable targets: the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). All eight of the MDGs, from eradicating poverty to creating a global partnership for development, are closely linked to the well-being of children. UNICEF and its partners have sought to enable achievement of the MDGs through fulfilment of the rights of children, overcoming inequalities, improving access to basic services, and through the creation of data, evidence and knowledge about the situation of children and where they stand in relation to the MDGs.

The Special Session on Children was a follow-up to the World Summit for Children. It involved the widest possible range of civil society organizations in a major effort of planning and implementation, and enabled the active participation of children at a major UN meeting. Leaders at the Special Session agreed on an outcome document, ‘A World Fit for Children’, committing them to finishing the agenda set at the World Summit and fulfilling goals and targets for the next decade.

In the first decade of the 21st century UNICEF’s work continued on all aspects of children’s well-being. Child survival remained a core theme; global progress on child survival meant that the number of young children dying each year declined to well below 10 million, from more than 12 million in 1990 – even as the global under-five population continued to increase. UNICEF’s humanitarian work was strengthened by the updating of the Core Commitments for Children in Emergencies. Protection of vulnerable children and combating HIV/AIDS figured more prominently in UNICEF programmes than ever before, as did gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, work with and for adolescents, and partnership building. Education, nutrition, health and immunization continued to be fundamental components of UNICEF’s programming, all of which has taken a human-rights based approach with a focus on results.

Refocus on Equity: 2010 and beyond

Since 2010 UNICEF has brought to its own work, and emphasized in the global development dialogue, a renewed focus on equity.

Principles of equity were part of UNICEF’s guiding vision from the very day of its creation on 11 December 1946, and form part of its mission statement. In everything UNICEF does, the most vulnerable children and countries in greatest need are to be given the highest priority. Equity is also a cornerstone of the international agreements and compacts developed in recent decades such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Millennium Declaration that define responsibilities and guide the work of all who are concerned with furthering the well-being of children. But it has become increasingly clear that equity is not only the right thing to do, it is also potentially the most cost-effective way of achieving global goals for children.

Children in the poorest and most marginalized populations bear a disproportionate burden of disease, undernutrition, illiteracy and exploitation. Progress in nationally averaged indicators of well-being can conceal major and widening inequities for marginalized children. Adopting an equity-focused approach can simultaneously reduce disparities and accelerate progress towards the MDGs, while yielding the best results and largest development gains per unit of investment.

Like most things worthwhile, adopting equity-focused approaches will be challenging. It will present interesting and striking implications for national policies and programmes in many developing countries, and for the work of UN country teams, donors, multilateral agencies and civil society partners. It will require additional investment to overcome entrenched supply and demand bottlenecks, and to enhance data collection and analysis, monitoring and evaluation of results and progress.

For UNICEF, it is pushing us to blend our strengths of data collection and analysis, technical expertise, policy acumen and field programming, and apply it more judiciously and effectively to fulfil our mandate to the world’s most vulnerable children and families.

Throughout its history, UNICEF has continually sought and found ways to support progress for the world’s children by challenging the prevailing conventional wisdom. It has been enabled to do so by its network of vital partnerships, by experience gained on the ground and by critical review and analysis of evidence documenting the real situation of children.

From the push to integrate children into national economic planning in the 1960s, to basic services approach of the 1970s, the child survival and development revolution of the 1980s, the child rights revolution of the 1990s, and the integration of children into the MDGs in the 21st century, UNICEF has helped lead thinking and action in new directions. The equity approach continues this tradition and holds the promise of helping realize children’s rights everywhere to a degree never before possible.



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