15 MARCH 2016


Millions of children in camps, in migrating boats, in encircled towns, on destitute shores, are covered by world media, but very little is mentioned about the role of UNICEF, officially the United Nations Children's Fund. Information on their status is habitually made available by the UN Emergency Relief Department or by the High Commissioner for Refugees, and the World Food Programme in Rome, who do their best.

Where is UNICEF?

The issue is raised more pointedly now that two books have come out on a former UNICEF leader, the irresponsible James Grant, who led it for more than fifteen years.

In 1980, when Grant was appointed to head UNICEF, approximately 14 million children under the age of five were dying every year in the developing world. The majority of those deaths were caused by just five or six common diseases often in conjunction with poor nutrition. For each of those diseases, proven means of prevention or cure were available and affordable. They simply had not been put into practice on the necessary scale. Vaccine-preventable disease, for example, was killing 4 or 5 million children a year; yet only 15% of children were being immunized. Diarrheal disease was killing another 3 million a year when cheap oral rehydration therapy could prevent most of those deaths at almost negligible cost.

By the time Grant's fifteen years at UNICEF came to an end, immunization rates world-wide had risen from below 20% to more than 70%, saving more than three million children a year. Over the same time, the number of children being crippled by poliomyelitis fell from 400,000 a year to under 100,000 a year.

Almost unheard of in 1980, oral rehydration therapy was by 1995 being used in some form by between a half and two thirds of all the families in the developing world - saving at least a million young lives annually. Iodine deficiency, the world's major cause of mental retardation, was close to defeat after 82 of 90 developing countries with iodine deficiency problems had been persuaded to pass new laws requiring the iodization of all salt. Seventeen developing countries, including some of the largest, had all but eliminated Vitamin A deficiency and the deaths, disease and blindness it had visited on so many millions of their children.

James Grant was preceded by another legendary leader Henry Labouisse, who combined Southern charm with tough professional management and was as effective with heads of state as he was in children gatherings. He was credited for building a world network of effective National Committees and for popularizing UNICEF greeting cards.

One problem with a seemingly ineffective current operation may be that it is headed by a predominantly political appointment. Anthony Lake was one of the earliest national security advisors for Democratic President Bill Clinton. He is a very capable and competent man, surely qualified for many other appointments, but not for a specialized global emergency operation like UNICEF.

It should be recalled that an early attempt at a political appointment was made in 1994 and 1995, when President Clinton persistently pushed a political appointee on Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali, who very politely but firmly requested other names. Ms. Carol Bellamy, who was rightly appointed, proved to be one of the most caring, effective and popular heads of a UN fund. Many staff members still remember her dedication and efforts to involve them and UNICEF in practical issues like the status of women in Afghanistan, Sudan, and other areas where they really needed help. Clearly the Secretary General had to pay a price later for standing on professional ground; but the children of the world received crucially needed attention.