Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award

Remarks by Mr. Kul Chandra Gautam
Recipient of the 2008 Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award
At the Annual Meeting of the US Fund for UNICEF Atlanta
19 June 2008

Thank you Sean, for that warm and generous introduction. Ladies and gentlemen, and dear friends,I bring you greetings from the newest republic in the world – which used to be the ancient kingdom of Nepal until 3 weeks ago!As you saw in that nice video clip, I have devoted the whole of my professional life – in the service of the world’s children working with UNICEF. In my 35 years at UNICEF, I have witnessed heart-wrenching scenes of the plight of children, enjoyed the excitement of mobilizing world leaders to support child rights, and appreciated the many accolades for my modest contribution that came along the way. But receiving this award, named after our beloved Audrey Hepburn, soon after my retirement from UNICEF, is the most precious gift that I could have ever hoped for, but had not even dreamed about. So, I am overjoyed with gratitude and humility for this special honour. Thank you. Thank you so very much, from the bottom of my heart.

I have had the pleasure to personally meet Audrey Hepburn only once. But like so many others whose life she had touched, I feel like I have been her life-long friend and admirer. I recall with great nostalgia, every event where she was present, or that was dedicated to her memory.

Right now I see her vividly in my mind’s eyes, addressing the UNICEF Executive Board in 1989 – totally captivating its attention with her first- hand account of the plight of children she had just visited in the Horn of Africa.

After Audrey passed away in 1993, I recall attending a magical evening dedicated to her memory at the United Nations organized by UNICEF’s legendary leader James Grant, who had initially enlisted her as UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador.There was not a single dry eye in that event attended by many diplomats and celebrities. I was at UNICEF plaza in New York when Audrey’s beautiful statue, “The Spirit of Audrey” was unveiled. And I recall fondly attending the launching of the Audrey Hepburn stamp by the US Postal Service, at the same UNICEF Plaza, where I had the honour to deliver a tribute to UNICEF on behalf of UNICEF.Little did I imagine then that one day – today – I would be standing here wearing the Hepburn stamp in my lapel, and holding this lovely “Spirit of Audrey” statuette as recipient of the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award.

I congratulate the US Fund for UNICEF, and the Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund, so ably led by Sean Ferrer, for instituting this Humanitarian Award to carry forward Audrey’s vision, and to immortalize her “elegant spirit” as captured so beautifully in this book by Sean. UNICEF has been fortunate to have so many incredibly gifted, talented and committed Goodwill Ambassadors. But I have often wondered why is it that Audrey Hepburn shines as the brightest star among them all? Sean, I found the answer to this question in your book about your mother: “Audrey Hepburn: an Elegant Spirit”. Deep beneath the glamour and glitter, and beauty and pageantry of a Hollywood star, studded with Oscar and Tony, Emmy and Grammy awards; hidden inside the Givenchy clothes and the Ferragamo shoes, Audrey was really a UNICEF poster child. Unlike any other Goodwill Ambassador, Audrey had experienced first-hand exactly the kind of childhood problems that UNICEF has been dealing with everyday for the past 60+ years. As a child, she had suffered from hunger and malnutrition. She had been traumatized by war, and abandoned by her father. She had suffered from anemia and whooping cough, and had a near death experience when she was six weeks old. As an adult, she had 3 painful miscarriages, just like so many mothers today in developing countries. In his book, Sean reveals one great secret about Audrey – that deep inside, she was sad – sad about the plight of children in the world, which she could empathize with having experienced a traumatic childhood herself. Perhaps because I came from a small village in the mountains of Nepal, where there was no road, no school, no post office, no radio or television, no telephone, where illiteracy was near universal, and modern health service was non-existent; and I was myself a malnourished child, and I too had a near death experience, I feel I have a special connection with Audrey. And so my work with UNICEF and this Award in Audrey Hepburn’s name mean so very much to me.

Dear friends,Having a champion like Audrey Hepburn as our Goodwill Ambassador, helped UNICEF enormously to put children high on the world’s development and humanitarian agenda. As a result, although many terrible problems still remain, tremendous progress has been made in the lives of children since Audrey Hepburn’s childhood and the founding of UNICEF. My former boss and mentor, and Audrey’s good friend, Jim Grant of UNICEF, used to say that there had been more progress for children in the last 50 years – during the 2ndhalf of the 20th century – than perhaps in the previous 500 years. Consider these examples:


  • 20 million children used to die in the world annually in the 1960s. Although world population has doubled since then, the number of child deaths has been halved, to less than 10 million per year. This is 10 million too many deaths, but a huge progress nevertheless.
  • I recall in my home country of Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, child death rate has been reduced by more than 50 % in the last decade in spite of a terrible civil war that has caused many civilian deaths and destruction.
  • Smallpox used to kill 5 million people a year during Audrey’s childhood. It was completely eradicated during her life time.
  • Polio which used to cripple millions is on the brink of eradication. Deaths due to measles, one of the biggest killers of children, declined by 90 per cent in Africa in the last 7 years.
  • All of this is a testimony to the success of the UNICEF-led global campaign for child-survival, now so ably supported by the highly effective US Fund for UNICEF’s campaign under the banner: “Whatever it takes to save a child”.
  • There are more children in school today than ever before, and gender disparity is rapidly declining at the primary school level. The Audrey Hepburn Children’s Fund is making a real contribution to quality education accessible to many children.
  • Thanks to the heightened sensitivity created by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, issues such as child labour, trafficking and abuse of children, children in armed conflict and other violence against children are being systematically exposed, and action taken to address them.
  • Over a billion people have been lifted out of poverty in Asia alone in the past half century. In China 400 million people were lifted up from absolute poverty in a single generation. India is rapidly following a similar trend. The Republic of Korea has seen its per capita income increase from $100 to $17,000 in our life time.
  • Overall, children are much higher on the world’s political agenda. Increasingly they figure prominently in election campaigns, parliamentary debates and national legislation.


Audrey would have been so happy to learn about this trend. But much of this progress has bypassed the bottom billion people in the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia. Civil wars and conflict, and the pandemic of HIV/AIDS have exacerbated the fight against poverty by weakening the economies and social fabric of many countries in Africa. Largely because of AIDS and poverty, children in many countries of Africa today can expect to live a shorter life than their parents and grand- parents. This has never happened in human history before. The recent dramatic rise in food and petroleum prices is bound to further impoverish the already poor, and as usual, children are likely to be its main victims. Much of the world’s greatest tragedies befalling children are concentrated on the bottom billion people of the world, who subsist on less than $1 a day. Please close your eyes for a moment, and think what would you do if your income was just $1 a day, or $5 for a family – for food, for shelter, for clothing, for education, for health care, for festivals and for funerals?It is this degrading poverty that kills 26,000 children every day from causes that are readily preventable.It is poverty that keeps 93 million children out of primary schools, the majority of them girls.It is poverty that lands millions of children in child labour, often in hazardous circumstances, when they should be going to school.It is poverty, debt and unemployment that lead desperate parents to even sell their vital organs like kidneys through unscrupulous middle-men to provide for their children. And when all else fails, parents are even forced to abandon their children, sell them to brothels, and work in slave-like conditions.

Dear friends, Because children bear the heaviest burden of poverty, all efforts to combat poverty must give the highest priority to children.Remember, 80 percent of human brain is formed in the first 18 months of a child’s life. Whether a child will grow to live up to his or her full human potential, or the child will be condemned to be a slow learner, and poor achiever in life, is largely determined in the first few years of a child’s life, before the child enters school. The damage caused by malnutrition, infection and poor child care in early childhood often lasts for the whole life, and it cannot be easily reversed later.This is why Audrey Hepburn decided to devote the last years of her life to fight poverty and its impact on children. Now, some say that poverty has always been with us, and it will never be completely eliminated. That maybe true in the case of relative poverty, but we simply cannot and should not accept the indignity of absolute poverty as the unavoidable fate of humanity in this world of incredible wealth and prosperity.Today we live in the most prosperous of times in human history. Last year world economic output reached US$60 trillion. According to the Forbes magazine, the number of billionaires in the world last year reached a record 1,125.At this time of unprecedented global prosperity, in which someone new becomes a billionaire every 2nd day, we have the contrasting situation of nearly 1 billion people living on less than $1 a day; 800 million people going to bed hungry every night; 1 billion people without access to clean drinking water, and 2 billion people without access to proper sanitation.What an incredibly unequal and unjust world we live in!It was this realization that made Audrey so sad – and so committed to fighting child poverty.Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights often says that poverty is the greatest violation of human rights in the world today. And children are the greatest victims of this violation of human rights. The time has come for all of us, as Audrey Hepburn would have wished, to consider the fight against child poverty everywhere, in rich as well as in poor countries, not as a matter of charity, but as a matter of human rights, and a foundation for human development. We now have a global plan of action to fight poverty in the form of the Millennium Development Goals. It is estimated that to achieve these goals, it will take massive efforts by developing countries, backed up by an additional investment of about $50 billion a year in external aid. Now, $50 billion is a lot of money. But consider that in the context of the world’s military expenditure of $1 trillion per year, or the US military spending of some $150 billion a year right now in one country – Iraq – alone. Or consider that in the context of $1 billion per day in farm subsidies that tax payers in the US, Europe and Japan pay all year around to protect their farmers against – guess what? – Competitive international trade, mostly with poor farmers in developing countries! Friends, as you can see, it is not that the world does not have enough resources to fight child poverty; it is more likely that leaders of the world – and we the citizens – do not give enough priority to combating such poverty.

As the late Martin Luther King Jr. said so eloquently, “There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will.” Or as Mahatma Gandhi put it, “The world has enough for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed.”

Dear friends, in memory of Audrey Hepburn, let us all do our best to reduce that deficit in human will, and surplus in human greed, for the sake of the world’s children. This award will certainly inspire me to redouble my own humble efforts to cultivate such human will, especially in my home country of Nepal. And I hope that all of you will also find many creative ways to support the work of UNICEF and other worthy organizations for the well-being of children.

And as we redouble our efforts to promote child survival and to combat child poverty in the world, let us also redouble our efforts to end violent conflicts and wars fueled by grotesquely excessive military expenditures. Children of the world need peace as much as they need food and water, health and education, love and a caring touch like that of Audrey Hepburn. And as Audrey said so memorably, so much of the poverty, injustice and even the consequences of natural disasters that haunt children are really man-made tragedies, for which there is only one man-made solution – peace.Peace on earth, peace for our children. Let us dedicate ourselves to promoting peace, justice and development as our collective commitment to carry forward the lasting legacy of our dear Audrey Hepburn.

Thank you.