UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore's remarks at Rotary International Assembly, San Diego, California, USA

18 January 2019

SAN DIEGO, United States, 18 January 2019 - "President Barry Rassin, President-elect Mark Maloney, President-nominee Sushil Gupta, Trustee Chair Ron Burton, Incoming Trustee Chair Gary Huang, International PolioPlus Committee Chair Mike McGovern.

"Rotary directors, trustees, leaders, colleagues and friends. Thank you for this opportunity.

"Together, you and the 1.2 million Rotarians from 35,000 clubs all over the world, represent one of UNICEF’s — and the UN’s — oldest and most cherished partners in our cause of peace.

"Rotary was there, when the United Nations was formed — with your former president Allan Albert participating in the discussions.

"Rotary was there as one of the 42 organizations the United States invited to serve as consultants to its delegation at the San Francisco conference.      

"Rotary was there as the United Nations drafted its charter, preamble, and articles on ECOSOC and the role of non-governmental organizations.

"But most importantly, Rotary was there — and is here — standing in unity with millions of children around the world in our shared battle against polio.

"Just as Rotary helped rally the world’s leaders around the cause of creating the United Nations in service of peace, Rotary gathered the world around the need to end this disease in service of children.

"Until your organization began this initiative, polio paralyzed or killed more than 350,000 people every year.

"Growing up, I remember the worry my mother felt that I would contract this disease.

"In the days before Jonas Salk’s revolutionary vaccine, this was a real fear for families. And when it became available, I was vaccinated.

"Realizing the great lifesaving potential of this vaccine, Rotary helped rally the world around total eradication in 1988, with the creation of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. 

"At the time, eradication seemed a distant dream, an ambitious and incredibly challenging goal. 

"Yes, the vaccine existed and was effective.

"But getting it to those pockets of unvaccinated children around the world still required overcoming some significant barriers.

"The barriers of distance and geography. We needed to focus on the hardest-to-reach children — in urban slums and remote, rural communities alike. Those areas where the polio virus thrived.

"Cultural barriers, and barriers of acceptance. Many communities, including their leaders, were deeply suspicious of vaccines, and questioned the true motivations behind the global push. The poorest and most disadvantaged communities — those at the greatest risk —  can be those with the greatest resistance to the vaccine. Yet these were precisely the places we had to reach.

"And the biggest barrier of all — securing political will and funding commitments to support our efforts. Because polio thrived in the poorest and hardest-to-reach areas, like urban slums and remote communities, reaching the children who needed it required massive amounts of funding and co-ordination among every organization committed to the cause.

"The challenge was steep. But when Rotary announced that polio was going to be a top organizational priority in 1985, it went all in.

"Raising more than $1.8 billion to the global eradication initiative.

"Joining forces with UNICEF and WHO to scale-up ambitious vaccination campaigns in urban slums and remote villages.

"Building bonds of trust with government and community leaders that the vaccine was safe, effective and necessary.

"And most importantly — helping us gather the world around our cause. Governments. Donors. NGOs. Foundations. And the business community.

"Since then, thanks to your leadership on this issue, together we’ve managed to reduce polio cases by 99.9 per cent.

"Together, we immunize over 450 million children each year. Children who otherwise would risk paralysis. Being unable to walk. Their lives diminished. Their futures dimmed.

"Together, we stand with children, and for children.

"The legacy of this true “children’s cause” is measured in tens of millions of lives saved over the years.

"But it’s also measured in the thousands of vaccination teams active in communities worldwide — people with the training, skills and commitment to ensure that these communities remain polio-free. 

"It’s measured in the systems and infrastructure developed to make immunization and disease-surveillance routine. For example, these systems were enormously helpful in tracking and addressing the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

"And we see a great opportunity to adapt this vaccine architecture even further. The service-delivery pathways we’ve developed for polio can also help us as we pursue our vision of primary health care for all.

"In October, the world gathered in Kazakhstan to call for renewed investment in primary-health-care services in every community, no matter how hard to reach.

"People must be able to access integrated health care where they live — and receive a number of key interventions in one place.

"Of course, this must include all vaccines. Especially when almost 20 million infants did not get the immunizations they need last year because they live in urban slums, remote communities or conflict zones.

"Which is why UNICEF and our partners are using these networks to scale-up other immunization campaigns, as well as water and sanitation projects and nutrition screening in India, and malaria-prevention in Nigeria. And why we’re delivering polio vaccines in concert with other vital inventions, like vitamin A capsules and deworming tablets.

"It’s why UNICEF recently launched an initiative to raise an additional $50 million to deliver integrated packages of essential services in health, nutrition, water and sanitation and education in the highest-risk polio communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Especially when polio thrives in areas that lack clean water, sanitation, or basic health services. Integrated service delivery is also a way to incentivize parents who might not want to make the long journey to have their children vaccinated — but will do so if they can receive other services at the same time.

"And it’s why Rotary’s PolioPlus Committees in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria are looking at ways to lead and implement broader development projects that not only help end polio, but help communities climb the development ladder over the long-term.

"Of course, our battle against polio is not yet won. Even one case is too many.

"But as we redouble our efforts with Rotary on this vital “children’s cause,” can we also think about our shared impact beyond polio?

"Can we work together to help children not only survive in the coming decade, but also thrive?

"As we speak, the world is facing a demographic crisis.

"1.8 billion young people are between the ages of 10 and 24. One of the largest cohorts in human history.

"Every month, 10 million young people reach working age. A staggering number.

"Some will continue with their education. Some will drop out. Some will never get the education or skills they need at all.

"When these young people enter the workforce, what do they find? 

"They find that the world is not creating 10 million new jobs every month.

 "They find that the skills they do have are not always a good match with the needs of today’s job market — digital skills, green technology, modern agriculture, and especially entrepreneurship.

"We are in the midst of what is known as a “fourth industrial revolution” — a period in which digital technology, artificial intelligence and robotics are forever changing how we communicate…how we generate and disseminate knowledge and information…even how we manufacture products.

"It’s an exciting moment in history. But it’s also one in which yesterday’s skills don’t match today’s job market.

"Around the world, the systems in place for education and modern-skills and entrepreneurial training are not keeping pace with the job market’s growing needs.

"Consider also the millions being left behind around the world as technology and low-cost overseas production erase jobs, close factories and narrow opportunities for a generation of young people. 

"They cannot see a better future for themselves because they’re not receiving the ladders of opportunity that they need to build this future — education, skills, training and empowerment.

"Especially if they’re girls. Will they have a chance to go to school at all? Will they be married before their 18th birthday and never have an opportunity to build a career? Will they be among the millions who become mothers while still children themselves?

"Every nation’s young people represents a demographic dividend. But taking advantage of this demographic dividend — tapping into the ideas, energies and vision of millions of our youth — means getting every young person in school, learning, training or age-appropriate employment by 2030.

"This is the goal behind Generation Unlimited — or Gen-U. A new partnership — including businesses, governments and young people themselves — to identify and scale-up solutions to support young people’s education, skills-training and empowerment. From 21st century curricula, to digital learning, apprenticeships, work-study programmes and job-shadowing opportunities.

"Can you help us? For decades, Rotary has been building bridges between Rotary clubs and young people — including through your Rotaract and Interact program.

"I see so much potential in Rotary’s long history of mentoring young leaders in this country and others. Can we find new ways to link Gen-U with the work of your Interact and Rotaract clubs to exchange ideas and engage young community leaders?

"Perhaps you’ve seen ideas or innovations in your own networks, or with the companies, foundations and communities with whom you work every day. Digital learning, affordable and portable equipment for classrooms, local apprenticeship and mentorship programmes. Solutions that could be modified or scaled-up to better connect young people with quality education or new skills. We’d love to hear about them.

"We also need Rotarians to advocate for the needs of young people in your meetings and community events. Perhaps even to organize discussions in which young people themselves can share the challenges they’re facing in getting the education and skills they need — and what we can do about it, together.

"And we need to work with young people themselves. We’ve issued a “youth challenge” in 16 countries to bring together young innovators to develop solutions. The most promising and scalable ideas will receive seed funding and mentorship from Gen-U partners.

"For example, in Kenya this year, Rotary joined forces with the Gen-U Youth Challenge for an exhibition fair.

"We saw some inspiring, youth-led ideas like online learning courses in business, engineering, science and technology. A portable, solar-powered device that contains pre-recorded lessons for children in remote communities. An online hub linking pregnant girls in marginalized communities with antenatal care. Even a student-led project to design and deliver prosthetic limbs to underprivileged youth in Nairobi. 

"When I was in Syria in December, I was yet again reminded of the potential of young people, even in the most challenging circumstances.

"I met 22-year old Hikma. She designed a special leg brace after her sister was hit by shrapnel. This leg brace will allow her sister to walk with a walking device. And more — Hikma has patented the design and plans to make it available for others injured in war.

"Hikma and others like her show us that when we let young people lead the way — when they can unleash and develop their ideas and talents — we improve their lives, but also our communities and societies, as well. 

"At UNICEF, we think that supporting young people is truly the challenge of our time. And the opportunity of our time. And we think it’s well-matched to Rotary’s long history of leadership and humanitarian service to the needs of vulnerable children, families and communities.

"So as you look ahead to another year of leadership and service, I have two calls to action for you and your district leaders:

"One — Make sure that every president and leadership team of every club in your districts is as committed as you and your international leadership are to eradicating polio. We’re in the final mile of this long marathon. Let’s finish the job.

"And two — as you begin the first month as governors and leaders in your districts, please talk to your club presidents about sponsoring and partnering with a local Rotaract or Interact club. Find out if young people in Rotary communities have equitable access to education — or the right skills to compete in today’s job market. And seek out new ideas, innovations or approaches that can help us address this issue.  

"I would even encourage you to — politely — challenge your club presidents to initiate events, debates or discussions with young people in their communities.

"Young people want to be heard — and they must be heard. As young people themselves tell us: we’re 25 per cent of the world’s population — but 100 per cent of the world’s future. We must not let them down.

"As the great American abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass said: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

"As generations of Rotarians have proven through its decades of work in America and around the world, investing in children and young people works. We can save lives. We can improve lives. We can build strong children. And we can, step by step, build a better, more peaceful future. 

"Thank you all for the inspiring work you do. For your commitment to children. For your service to children. And for all the work we will do together in the years to come."

Media Contacts

Helen Wylie

UNICEF New York

Tel: +1 917 244 2215

About UNICEF

UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

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