Focus more on poorest children: UNICEF chief

by Seana K. Magee

Kyodo News

NEW YORK — As executive director of the United Nations Children’s Fund, Anthony Lake is a fierce defender of children — especially the poorest and most marginalized — and believes they should be a focal point as world leaders gather in New York to work on a set of antipoverty goals.

“Our message will be again that it is not only important in principle, for the sake of children that are suffering around the world, that we concentrate more on the poorest and most disadvantaged children, but that (it) is the right practice for a number of reasons,” Lake said in a recent interview at his office near U.N. headquarters.

Some 140 heads of state and government have gathered for the three-day summit on the Millennium Development Goals that began Monday. The meeting was called to press for collective action on achieving a set of eight goals by 2015.

“I hope that the millions of words that will be stated at this summit will be matched then by millions more actions in the coming five years, and I think that will happen,” he said, adding that Japan has been a generous financial backer of his organization as the sixth-largest donor but also stressing that more can be done.

The objectives include halving abject poverty, reducing the number of children who die before reaching their fifth birthday by two-thirds, improving maternal health and ensuring that primary education is made universal to all.

“We discovered that in fact for every million you spend, you save more children’s lives by concentrating on the poorest communities,” the executive director added, suggesting that the “equity approach” would save 60 percent more lives of children under 5 in a high-mortality, low-income country.

Calling the approach more “cost-effective,” he also believes it “will speed us up more quickly toward the Millennium Development Goals if we concentrate more on the most disadvantaged communities and children.”

In the case of fighting polio, Lake suggested that vaccination programs in poor areas where children are at a higher risk are more effective than working in areas closer to capital cities where people are not as sick and where vaccines will have “less of a payoff.”

On the issue of child mortality, Lake readily admits he is angry that more than 22,000 children are dying unnecessarily each day from diarrhea, waterborne diseases or pneumonia. The figures are down, however, since the 1980s, when around 40,000 children died each day.

“If you flip the coin around it is inspiring to know that there are things we can do that are very cost-effective, a relatively cheap way, that can save so many of those lives and it is a wonderful opportunity we should seize if we have the support to do it,” he added, noting that simple actions, such as hand washing, being vaccinated and using inexpensive bed nets are ways to prevent the deaths.

Looking five years into the future, Lake said he aspires to be part of the UNICEF momentum to encourage others to alleviate the suffering of the poorest and most marginalized.

“I would like to see a UNICEF that had refocused on these hard-to-reach communities and that it helped or that it successfully encouraged others to move down the same path because I do believe that this can move us more quickly in all areas of the MDGs.”