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Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response
Saving young lives worth living
UNICEF Executive Board/New York
11 September 2012
As a long-time admirer of UNICEF's work I am honoured to be among the people who guide and lead this wonderful organisation. For me there is nothing more powerful and moving than the UNICEF symbol, the image of a mother nurturing her child framed by the world and olive branches of peace. The values depicted in it are the summary of UNICEF's mission - to save and protect all the world's children, to enrich their lives and make them worth living. It is my duty as EU Commissioner for humanitarian aid, and my consciousness as a mother and a grandmother, to uphold these values and stand for this mission, for the sake of our children and for the sake of our future. Discussing with you how to do so, how to make sure that the strong partnership between UNICEF and ECHO, the European Commission humanitarian service, delivers more and better results for the millions of children whose lives are devastated by humanitarian emergencies, is what brings me to this Executive Board meeting.
Yes, the world has made progress in pursuing UNICEF's mission - for example, child mortality rates are down by 35 per cent in the last two decades. But progress is not nearly enough, as we still witness 21,000 children under the age of five dying every day. Yes, there have been great strides made in the pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals – tens of millions of men, women and children have been lifted out of poverty -- but the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots" has widened. We must face the reality that over the last decades the world has become richer yet at the same time more fragile. We all feel the impacts of more frequent and more devastating natural disasters, but they are most severe in poor countries. And it is there where armed conflicts tear apart communities and ruin people's lives - at any time some 30 to 40 countries are either heading towards a conflict, or are in the midst of a conflict, or just emerging from it. In situations of fragility, children are most at risk, with both their lives and futures at stake. This makes UNICEF's humanitarian work so very important and I am proud that we in the European Union - our member states, the European Commission, and most importantly, our citizens - are on the forefront of supporting it.
There is a lot we have achieved together - from better needs assessments to faster and more effective interventions to prevent and treat malnutrition. And we aspire to build our partnership further to make a difference for children in the midst of humanitarian emergencies - relentlessly fighting malnutrition, providing fast and well targeted emergency response, building better links between relief and development, and increasing our accountability for results, to the children we serve and to the taxpayers whose generosity funds our work.
Let me start with the key topic of malnutrition. Earlier this year I was in the emergency room of a remote field clinic in Niger where severely malnourished children were fighting for life. I can tell you the experience shook me to my core. There is nothing more deafening than the sound of silence in a room full of children whose life force is so spent they can neither cry nor laugh.
Economists tell us malnutrition costs affected countries between 2% and 8% of their GDP. But no figure can capture what it means to a child whose future physical and intellectual development is stunted by hunger or poor nutrition. No figure can measure the loss to societies of those future leaders, artists and Nobel Prize winners whose talents were never allowed to shine. We know they are there, among the 171 million children under five that are affected by stunting, the 55 million who suffer from acute malnutrition, the 20 million victims of severe acute malnutrition.
We also know we are at a critical junction in the fight against hunger. After years of decline the number of people who go to bed hungry is rising again - and children are at highest risk. Population and middle class growth pushes up demand for food while erratic weather destroys harvests more often, and use of agricultural land for biofuels takes it away from production of food crops. We all pay a price - for those of us who are better off it is just a higher price at the supermarket checkout, but for those who have nothing or very little the price may be their lives or their futures.
In this global context, it is paramount to make the fight against hunger, especially among children under 5, priority number one - and put the necessary policies and resources in place to win it. Food security for the most vulnerable people requires action on many fronts - from land management, irrigation, storage and transport, agricultural research, energy policies, to social safety nets and food banks. It also requires humanitarian action, and I am pleased to report we are pursuing it, together with UNICEF and other partners. We in the EU have changed our food assistance policy - away from giving food to using cash and vouchers, so we don't end up feeding the hungry but killing the local farmers. This new approach is now embedded in the new Food Assistance Convention. It gives UNICEF a chance to procure food locally, and boosts the availability of more nutritious food. It also supports the move of therapeutic food production to developing countries where it is most needed. An example of it is a Plumpy Nut factory in Niger - run by a woman entrepreneur, with the humanitarian community as her reliable market.
With UNICEF in the lead and our support, there is now much better application of rapid needs assessment at the outset of hunger crisis, and better chance to catch malnutrition at an early stage. Last year I saw UNICEF teams in Kenya funded by ECHO moving around the countryside with a mobile unit. Mothers with their children would be running from all sides at every stop - and get access to UNICEF's help to prevent and treat malnutrition. With EU support, UNICEF has scaled up its action against malnutrition across the Horn of AFRICA, Sahel, Yemen and Pakistan - and we are committed to do more.
Let me move to the issue of speed in humanitarian emergencies, which is essential if we are to save more lives. This is why we strongly support UNICEF's decision to adopt the Corporate Emergency Activation Procedure and the efforts it has made to set up its emergency response capacity and the rapid response teams. We already see the benefits of these decisions - from the Horn of Africa to Pakistan, DRC and Yemen - UNICEF is present at the outset of an emergency, often with prepositioned stocks and well grounded in the local communities staff. Earlier this year I saw a rapid response team in action in the Kivus in DRC - taking care of displaced families, and preventing malnutrition from taking hold of their children.
Anticipating crises and acting early saves lives and also saves money. This is particularly important as we witness how because of a changing climate millions of vulnerable people no longer have time to recover from a drought or a flood before another one overwhelms them. We know that on each euro or dollar or yen invested in resilience the return is 4 to 7 times higher. To reduce loss of life and suffering and to reduce damage we must do more to build the resilience of communities to stand ready to face disasters. UNICEF and ECHO do exactly this in Central Asia and Central America by partnering with governments to educate children on disaster risk and preparedness.
It is also where I see UNICEF as a bridge between the worlds of humanitarian and development aid. UNICEF has a global agenda with its network of national societies working close to the ground with local communities. It promotes education and health care services - fundamental ingredients for development and This is at the very heart of building the resilience we now see as the best defence against more frequent and more severe crises.
For our part, we have in recent months launched important projects – backed up by serious investment from our EU Development colleagues – to strengthen and build resilience in sub-Saharan Africa. We call these projects SHARE for the Horn of Africa and AGIR for the Sahel region.
We also pay special attention to the victims of long-lasting and protracted crises that no longer attract international attention. 15% of ECHO's annual budget is earmarked to "forgotten crises", humanitarian crises that are neglected by much of the international humanitarian community and public attention. As always, children suffer the most - but fortunately for them UNICEF is among the few organisations most likely to be acting in such places, like Yemen, Columbia, the Central African Republic, DRC or Sri Lanka.
The challenges we face are enormous but I am confident that together we can face them down. We acknowledge that in an Age of Austerity our resources are stretched ever more thinly. So we need to up our game and work together on finding new ways to better anticipate the next crisis, to pre-position resources in areas where they are likely to be most needed and to better account for our actions and show results to all stakeholders, including our own tax-payers.
This is why we strongly support the Transformative Agenda and I am pleased to see that UNICEF is making a solid contribution to Valerie Amos's efforts to ensure a more effective, accountable and well-coordinated humanitarian response through improved leadership.
And finally let's not forget that we can always do more to explain to the world what we do and how we live up to the shining example of the UNICEF symbol. For this reason I am delighted that we will shortly launch a new joint web-portal so that millions of internet users can see for themselves what our partnership means and achieves.
As we in the European Commission celebrate the 20th anniversary of ECHO, we have chosen the words "we care, we act" as our motto. I believe it also expresses the foundation of our partnership with UNICEF - we care about the world's children, we act for the betterment of each and every one of them. My heartfelt gratitude goes to all UNICEF staff around the world for their hard work, often in harsh and dangerous conditions, in the name of children. I am grateful to Tony Lake for increasing the visibility of the humanitarian work of UNICEF and its partners.