UNICEF: A Multi-Disciplinary Field Organization

Nicole Fraccaroli

From end 2015 I am the coordinator and responsible for the youth-group of UNICEF Committee in Verona (Italy) and from that moment on I started to support and uphold the values, goals and results for which UNICEF stands for.

UNICEF was created soon after the end of World War II with the title of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. The birth of UNICEF on 11 December 1946 was far from a foregone conclusion. It took a few months for the new organization to get organized, but by January 1947, Maurice Pate, who had been appointed executive director, had set up an office in Washington.[1]

UNICEF’s early programs focused on the provision of powdered milk and the establishment of feeding programs. By mid-1948, the new organization was providing rations for 4.5 million children to eat a daily meal in 30,000 locations in 12 countries.[2] In addition to nutritional needs, UNICEF soon responded to the health need of mothers and children, including vaccination against typhus and TB.[3] By 1950, the post war emergency in Europe was nearly over and UNICEF offices were closing down. The question raised about terminating all UNICEF operations. The outspoken position of the main donors was in favour of its termination, idea supported by the four permanent specialized agencies of the UN: ILO, FAO, UNESCO and WHO.[4] Anyway, UNICEF survived. UNICEF had some support from the Social Commission of the General Assembly, which stated in 1950, “that UNICEF had been one of the most promising achievements of the UN and that it had extended the influence of the organization by contributing effectively to the betterment of the situation of children in the world”.[5] Developing countries were also supportive of UNICEF and what really made the difference for UNICEF future was the speech given by Ahmed Bokhari, Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN and poet. Famously, he called an “illusion” the notion that emergency for the world’s children was over. Initially UNICEF life was extended for only three years, but after further demonstration of its effectiveness the UN General Assembly unanimously agreed to the indefinite extension of UNICEF’s temporary life.[6]

Developments in UNICEF over its first 25 years moved from heavy involvement in emergency relief, to support for mass campaigns against diseases like typhus, TB, malaria and actions to deal with child malnutrition. Much of UNICEF’s emergency relief effort had been built on the supply of dried milk powder, justified by the belief that malnutrition was the result of lack of protein in the diet. A fundamental shift in thinking happened over the 1970s when it became clear that such malnutrition was due to general inadequacies of diet.[7]

UNICEF became more conscious that children’s needs were being relegated to different social sectors, and often thereby marginalized in the process of national development planning. Therefore, in 1964 UNICEF invited a core of distinguished economists and planners, ministers, and child welfare experts to a round-table meeting in Bellaggio, the Rockefeller Conference Centre by Lake Como in Italy.[8] The Belaggio round table was defined as the most important meeting in UNICEF’s first 17 years: it triggered the change of UNICEF from a humanitarian welfare agency for children to a fully-fledged development agency, concerned with children in all aspects of life. It also marked a change in the standing of UNICEF within the UN: UNICEF was recognized within the UN to be a professional organization in its own right.[9]

On the health side, UNICEF started thinking broadly and fundamentally. Guidelines were provided by a joint study with WHO regarding the alternative approaches to meeting basic health needs of populations in developing countries. UNICEF moved with new focus into areas of basic services such as education, health, nutrition, water and sanitation.

Innovation is at the heart of UNICEF’s ability to achieve results. The Global Innovation Centre[10] helps scale up proven solutions, while a dedicated innovation fund provides financial resources to promising early-stages projects. An example of new solutions is represented by the so-called “Magic Box”. This is a collaborative data sharing platform that is made possible through the contributions of private sector partners such as Telefonica, Google, Amadeus which share their data and expertise for public good. By harnessing real-time data generated by the private sector, UNICEF can gain critical insights into the needs of vulnerable populations, and make more informed decisions about how to invest its resources to respond disaster, epidemics and other challenges. The first version of this platform was created during the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa, and a second version developed with Google in response to the Zika outbreak in 2015.[11]

From the mid-1980s, UNICEF became involved in the pat-breaking new Convention on the Rights of the Child[12]. First was UNICEF’s involvement in its formulation, then support for its adoption and ratification, and finally in helping to define what was and is meant by a rights-based approach to implementation, a process that continues today as a fundamental part of UNICEF’s program support. A UNICEF priority then became to build the capacities of governments and civil society to assess and analyse the situation of children and women in relation to the human rights instruments. UNICEF started also having a role in helping articulate the claims of the poor, marginalized children and women, and through advocacy to draw attention to their rights with decision makers or through social mobilization for the public at large.[13]

I find impossible to assess quantitatively, or even qualitatively, the direct contribution of UNICEF to the achievement of all these advances over the years. Nevertheless, UNICEF has been one of the leading players in countries and internationally, especially through its advocacy, mobilization, monitoring and financial support country by country.

UNICEF has used its legitimacy as a UN organization and its leadership to speak out for children and in order to set goals and priorities for advancing efforts to meet their needs, being able to develop its range of intervention. 

  • Footnotes:
  • 1. R. Jolly. Global Governance that works. “The vision of the two early giants, 1946-60”, Routledge 2010, at 11-12
  • 2. M. Black. The Children and The Nations, Unicef 1986, at 45
  • 3. Supra note 1, at 12
  • 4. Ibid., at 14
  • 5. Ibid., at 15
  • 6. Ibid., at 16-19
  • 7. R. Jolly. Global Governance that works. “Planning for children and the role of economists, 1960-70”, Routledge 2010, at 29
  • 8. Ibid., at 31
  • 9. Ibid., at 32-33
  • 10. It comprises an international team of experts and practitioners, with backgrounds in human-centred design, technology, change management and international development
  • 11. Office of Innovation. – Data Science and Artificial Intelligence. UNICEF, accessible at: https://www.unicef.org/innovation/Magicbox
  • 12. It came into force on 2 September 1990 and currently 196 countries are parties to the treaty
  • 13. R. Jolly. Global Governance that works. “The human rights-based approach”, Routledge 2010, at 124

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.