The Children’s Champion: Young People to the Fore

Thirty Years Ago, in September 1990, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) came into force.  

In its 54 Articles, this landmark agreement enshrines the rights of every human being under the age of 18 years of age – with education and wellbeing as central tenets of the declaration.  While the international community continues to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF’S Executive Director, talks with Kenny Kemp about her organisation’s challenges and successes—and her long-standing admiration for the work of Adam Smith.

More than a billion young people around the world are out of school because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This most shocking of statistics has galvanised Henrietta H. Fore and her team at the UNICEF as the global relief organisation reaches a significant landmark.

Ms Fore, a leading American business woman and former CEO of her family’s investment company, Holsman International, switched career and went to work at the highest level of the US Government in Washington. She was appointed to her United Nations position by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in December 2017.

Speaking in an exclusive video interview with Panmure House’s Global Gateway, Ms Fore, the former Administrator of the US Agency for International Development, and Director of United States Foreign Assistance, who was responsible for managing a mammoth $39.5 billion aid budget, said: “Child rights are important right now and must be in the spotlight. With the global pandemic, we worry that there is a sense that children are not the ones most affected when many older people have been victims. Yet, in reality, around the globe, they are being very affected. The most important concern is they are not going to school.’’

Article 28 of the 1980 Convention recognised the right of the child to education with a view to achieving this progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, and that primary education should be compulsory and available free to all. It also encourages the development of different forms of free secondary education and making ‘higher education accessible to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means’.

While COVID-19 is an attack on human health; it is also a severe assault on global education.

“This is truly a global emergency — the effects of which will be felt for years to come. And one that will require significant global generosity — and UNICEF’s programming around the world — for decades.  Children’s health, education, protection, communities and futures — everything UNICEF fights for, day in and day out, is at risk,’’ said the Executive Director in her recent board update.

Over a billion young people not in education is an ‘extraordinary’ figure for the world’, says Ms Fore, “These young people miss all of the structure and they are often missing their basic school work.’’

 UNICEF had undertaken surveys which shows that if a child even misses four weeks of school, then an average learner falls into the bottom third of the class. Education is about ensuring that elementary learning is continually reinforced to make sure basics are not forgotten.

“This is happening to children now, with them out of school for long periods of time, is putting great strain on families and increasing mental health issues. There is anxiety, depression and stress at an alarming rate. We hear it in the young and most mental health problems start by the time you are 14,’’ she says.

Concern for young girls around the world

The UN Convention expresses the importance of every child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social wellbeing, and UNICEF is working to raise awareness about a post-pandemic mental health crisis.

“We are very concerned about young girls. The notion of Child Rights at this moment in time is a very important one. Young girls have a right to education, to being heard and having a life in which there is nutrition and health, clean water. All the things we have known, and take for granted in developed countries, which allow us to live and to thrive, are under threat.’’

Ms Fore’s fear is that for many, such rights are not being realise and that we are going back 30 years. However, despite the immense challenges, she remains gently optimistic about human spirit and generosity. While the UN’s challenges are massive, and the funds required eye-watering, not everything is doom and gloom. Such challenges have to be balanced with the success in dealing with children.

Earlier in the day, Ms Fore, who was speaking from her COVID self-isolation at home in California, has been on a video call congratulating many in Africa because of the eradication of polio.

“The African continent is now free of the polio virus. 24 years ago Nelson Mandela said he wanted to kick polio out of Africa. We thought it would be impossible but it has been done. This is great news amid all the pandemic coverage,’’ she says, adding that routine immunisation programmes against measles, yellow fever, diphtheria also remain a UNICEF priority for children under five.

Education is the hope for the future

There is more optimistic news: UNICEF’sAnnual Report for 2019 showed the organisation reached 307 million children under age five with services to prevent malnutrition; it provided 17 million out-of-school children with education; gave 18.3 million people access to safe drinking water and 15.5 million basic sanitation services. Moreover, 51 million children were included in cash-transfer programmes and 21 million births were registered, a human right to give everyone statehood, in 47 countries.

Striding forward on behalf of education, another of the four big UNICEF initiatives is to connect every school in the world to the internet.

Ms Fore, who began her career working for her father’s company, says this is imperative to promote small-scale enterprise.

“We need the internet in every school so that all learners can have the opportunity of remote learning. For many, they are not going to have jobs the way we have had jobs, they will need to be entrepreneurs. We need them to learn some of the skills to make their way in the world. This is a big undertaking but we think it can be done with technologies, such as low-earth satellites and wi-fi. We want to get this done in the next three to four years so we can emerge stronger from COVID by re-imaging education.’’

Alongside this mission, urgent humanitarian assistance has been delivered in over 280 emergencies in 96 countries, most recently in Lebanon. But COVID-19 has now been layered on top of this.

“It has been a wake-up call to many developed nations. We have been too self-absorbed. With COVID, Spain, a developed country, woke up to the fact that in a quarter to a half of their schools, the children could not get online for online learning. In France and the US, parents were driving children to local libraries to get internet connection for their schooling. We have taken this all for granted, and we are definitely taking it for granted for the other half of the world this is not connected,’’ says Ms Fore.

Global climate change with droughts, flooding and cyclone, and swarms of locusts in Horn of Africa destroying crops, are taking a massive toll alongside man-made conflicts, where rocket attacks are continuing in war-zones, and the curtailing of human rights. UNICEF is working to give relief to one in every four children in conflict areas around the globe. Wars are creating the massive displacement of peoples and the flight of millions of refugees to safe havens.

Generous spirit of humans is still needed

UNICEF, with a budget of between $6 and $ 7billion to raise each year, still requires governments and individuals to make generous contributions. Two-thirds is funded by governments, while the remaining third is by corporations, private giving, philanthropy and individuals.

“We depend on the generosity of our fellow humans. We have our people working in almost every country in the world and while the spirit of our teams on the ground is very high, we need more resources,’’ says the UNICEF Director, who previously worked looking after the dollars and quarters as the 37thDirector of the United States Mint.

UNICEF is striving to build stronger health through its immunisation programme, better nutrition and sanitation. The organisation has had to scale-up to respond to COVID-19. It is delivering clean water, handwashing supplies, such as soap and hygiene gels that those in the West take for granted, and medical kits to schools and clinics, and in shelters and camps.

"Despite extreme market conditions, the UNICEF’s Supply Division is maintaining a growing pipeline of vital supplies like gowns, masks, gloves, oxygen concentrators, and diagnostic tests. In total, we have completed more than 1,400 air shipments since March — including shipments of COVID-19 supplies to over 95 countries. We are scaling-up our community engagement to promote simple but effective health interventions, like handwashing and physical distancing,’’ said a recent report.

In large tracts of Africa, where water is already a scarce resource, washing hands regularly to stop the spread of infection is a difficult matter.

“In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, they don’t have water and a bar of soap which makes it very difficult for a doctor in a hospital or in a clinic, or a teacher in a school, asking children to wash their hands. Most private homes have no clean running water,’’ adds Ms Fore.

Before lockdown, Ms Fore was travelling extensively in her role listening to what young people had on their mind.

“The number one things they say to me is: ‘We want a modern education. We don’t want what you had in the last century’. They tell me, ‘We want to look forward and we want to learn some skills’. Young people appreciate they will have to make their own way in the world and make their own job. And we’re on this.’’

Ms Fore is clear that we are now entering a different kind of world and we will not be returning to the old ways of unnecessary travel and visits. There will be more tele-visiting to see the UNICEF’s work in the field and ‘that we are going to adapt’.

Ms Fore remains optimistic despite the dreadful hardships for many children made worse by COVID-19. “Our children are the greatest resource for humanity’s future. We must do all we can to nurture and keep them safe and healthy.’’

Real-life lessons from Adam Smith 

Henrietta Fore was invited by the Adam Smith Global Foundation to give the Adam Smith lecture in Kirkcaldy in March 2020 before the pandemic lockdown. Sadly, this event was postponed and the UNICEF Director is hoping that it might well take place in the future, if not in person in Scotland, then by video-link.

“Adam Smith was right about many, many things. He talked about the earthquakes in remote places and the consequences for people... and how we all have to look beyond our borders and extend our compassion to others less fortunate,’’ she says.

Born in Santa Barbara, California, her father had Scottish blood while her Swiss mother once ran a grocery store in Hastings, Ms Henrietta Holsman Fore studied history at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, but loved mathematics and economics.

“I came from a family in California that was in business [it was a major food milling and manufacturing company], so economics was interesting for me. It meant something to me right away. In my Freshman year, I was introduced to Adam Smith andThe Wealth of Nationsand I was fascinated. I loved the premises and the fact he was able to articulate them within a historical context.’’

She became interested in Smith’s ideas of self-interest and the importance of competition in business, rather than the prevalence of monopolies.

“You realise that when you work in organisations, of whatever size or type, that part of your job as a leader is to make sure that you have incentives for your people to do things that would help the institution. That becomes self-interest,’’ she says.

“The premise that you will benefit from competition because you will make better products, and they will be at a better price. In a way, business people want to be a monopoly and yet you realise, if you are an athlete or anyone else, that competition does make you better. You start watching what your competition is doing and you learn from that. With supply and demand, if there is a need, someone will create it.’’

She said that Adam Smith connected with her across the centuries. And she is looking forward to giving her address in Scotland if and when things open up once again.

Ms Fore’s Dinner Party Guests in Panmure House

If you could have supper with Adam Smith in Panmure House, in Edinburgh, who would you like for your guests?

“We’d have a very interesting evening’s discussion over a glass of wine with the following:

Sir Issac Newton,the mathematician and astronomer and one of the most influential scientists.

Sir Winston Churchill,the former war-time British leader and Prime Minister.

Albert Schweitzer,the German-French philosopher and humanitarian. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,the president of Liberia from 2006 to 2018, and joint winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011 with Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman.

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth,the reigning British Monarch.

Sir Walter Raleigh,English explorer, politician and writer.

Sandy McCall Smith,Scottish author and former medial professor

David Hume,philosopher of the Scottish Enlightenment and friend of Adam Smith.

John Stuart Mill,economist, philosopher and proponent of utilitarianism.

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