UNICEF Executive Board-10 September 1998

Statement by Mr. Kul C. Gautam
Regional Director EAPRO
UNICEF Executive Board
10 September 1998

The three country programme recommendations from the East Asia and Pacific region that are before the Board have been prepared in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis that has engulfed the region in the past 14 months. The Philippines and Thailand, whose Country Notes were approved by the Board in January this year, are among the hardest hit countries. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, for which a short duration country programme is being submitted, has been suffering from another kind of crisis compounded by a series of unprecedented natural calamities.

Assuming that Board members have had a chance to review our documentation, I would like to focus my presentation on how these crises are impacting on the situation of women and children, and how UNICEF supported programmes are responding, rather than to the details of the CPRs themselves. I would, of course, be happy to respond to any specific questions on the CPRs during the discussion.

There has been a great deal of analysis, and a considerable amount of finger-pointing, on the causes of the economic crisis. This has ranged from portraying the East Asian economic miracle as a mirage, questioning the very paradigm of the development model, lambasting the poor advice of international financial institutions, the shenanigans of unaccountable currency speculators and crony capitalism.

Lest the real achievements of the East Asian miracle be under-rated and undermined, it should be stated that a vital element of the development model that accorded a high priority to human development, with significant investment in basic education, nutrition, primary health care and improved status of girls and women, was and remains the jewel in the crown of this model.  Most East Asian countries have made stunning progress in reducing infant and under-5 mortality, fertility, illiteracy, and malnutrition compared to developing countries in other regions. These achievements which will serve these countries well in their recovery, should not be slighted or belittled.

Whereas the manner in which some of these countries allowed unregulated portfolio investment, irresponsible borrowing and speculative transactions to dominate their economies will haunt the countries for many years to come, the wise investment in basic social services will be seen as their saving grace. It is vital that such investment is not allowed to decline in the name of reducing budget deficits or for rescuing insolvent financial institutions. As the late Mahbub ul Haq tirelessly reminded us we should not give premium to balancing government budgets by unbalancing human lives, especially those of the poor and the vulnerable.

Unbalancing human lives – especially those of children – is indeed a spectre that haunts the countries of Southeast Asia. Already we are seeing open unemployment affecting nearly 10 million people in Indonesia and 3 million each in Thailand and the Philippines. From being a great success story in reducing malnutrition and absolute poverty, Indonesia is teetering towards malnutrition and poverty rates of South Asia. In Thailand the classic pattern of urban to rural migration is reversing in the opposite direction, as many laid off workers in urban construction sites and factories return to their impoverished rural farmlands. In the Philippines the ambitious programme of decentralization and devolution of power to local government units is being compromised as the authority, and responsibility for provision of basic social services, being transferred is not supported with commensurate resources. In Malaysia, the inability of middle class people to avail of private health care services is leading to increased pressure on public health facilities. In all these countries impoverished parents now tend to wait till the children are sick enough to take them for curative treatment, depriving them of early, cheaper, preventive health care.

The proposed country programmes try to deal with some of these realities facing women and children.

Thus, in the Philippines, the whole country programme is developed not as a classic development programme, but as a catalyst for a nation-wide child friendly movement. It seeks to make every school and health centre child friendly, every neighbourhood and workplace of parents child friendly and all development efforts public as well as private to be measured in terms of their responsiveness to a set of indicators of child friendliness. This is obviously a tall order, but one that is in conformity with the new Constitution of the Philippines.

The programme will provide strong support to local policy and institutional development, harness the power and outreach of the vibrant communications media in the Philippines, and build on the good track record of the highly goal-oriented health, nutrition, education, child protection and gender and development programmes. Among the partnerships it seeks and builds upon, the newly formulated UN Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) will be a key anchor for inter-agency collaboration.

In Thailand, the proposed country programme will support Government efforts to achieve and sustain the goals of its national Programme of action (NPA) for children; promote awareness of child rights through public education, information and communication efforts; sharpen the public’s focus on issues related to child protection, especially child labour, commercial sexual exploitation, and prevention of HIV/AIDS; and facilitate the exchange of technical expertise and programme experience with other countries in the region and globally. Social policy analysis and monitoring will be a key feature of the country programme. Working closely with UNDP, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, which are supporting social safety net programmes, UNICEF will seek to advise and assist in reducing the impact of economic crisis on women and children.

Both in Thailand and the Philippines, UNICEF is involved in quite successful private sector fund-raising. The economic crisis is threatening the viability of these efforts. The effectiveness of UNICEF supported programmes, as perceived by the general public and our potential local donors will be a key to our continuing success in resource mobilization. We have our work cut out for us in these difficult times.

Although Indonesia is not one of the programmes being presented to this Board, I would like to say a few words because of its relevance to the general theme of my presentation today. We will have a mid-term review of the Indonesia programme next month. It is already clear that this programme will have to be significantly realigned and refocused to respond to the dramatic deterioration in the situation of children. For example, the prospect of upto 5 million children dropping out of primary and secondary schools has led us to embark on a massive social mobilization programme to encourage parents to keep their children in school. In response to a massive rise in malnutrition among children under 2 years of age we have initiated a complementary feeding programme providing a nutritionally fortified, low-cost, locally packaged food. We have had generous support of several donors, and good collaboration with the World Bank in these programmes. But as our Executive Director recently pointed out more support is needed for these highly effective programmes to go to scale.

Finally, the proposed short duration programme in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seeks to provide some continuity in UNICEF cooperation over the next two years. This will complement the continuing large scale emergency programme in which UNICEF participates as part of the United Nations consolidated appeal. Whether it is this continuing emergency in DPRK, the tsunami tidal waves in Papua New Guinea or the devastating floods affecting one-fifth of China’s population, UNICEF country programmes are often called upon to adapt quickly to man-made as well as natural disasters.

For UNICEF and its partners, providing children a bubble of protection is as important in these times of emergency and adversity as it is in times of normalcy and prosperity. The current crisis in East Asia and Pacific is a testing time for the principle of  “first call for children” – a principle that meeting the essential needs and honouring the basic rights of children must command a high priority in the allocation of resources in bad times as well as good times, at national, local as well as international levels.