As US interest wanes, UNICEF pivots strategy

Young Syrian students take part in a second shift class at the Vera Frangieh School in Zgharta, northeast Lebanon. Photo by: A. McConnell / UNHCR

NEW YORK — In the six years since the Syrian crisis began to push refugees into Lebanon, the U.N. Children’s Agency has managed to reach several previously unattainable goals. Lebanon’s entire school curriculum is up for review, the Ministry of Education is on its way to adopting a data management system, and local parents are actually choosing to send their kids to public schools.

Those achievements are part of a silver lining that UNICEF is increasingly building into emergency response elsewhere too. Donor dollars and attention don’t just relieve immediate needs in a crisis; they can be invested in responses that simultaneously improve the systems on the ground for the longer term.

“We would never have had the money to rewrite a whole curriculum for a country or train up all their teachers,” without the crisis, said Tanya Chapuisat, UNICEF country director. “From [Lebanon’s] perspective, they are also carrying a burden, but there are some benefits of it.”

UNICEF’s approach in Lebanon is in many ways indicative of a broader pivot within the organization. The new strategy merges development theories with humanitarian urgency. UNICEF plugs into existing institutions to build a long-term response, but utilizing the extra personnel, expertise, and funding that humanitarian crises require. Particularly in protracted crises, the approach offers a way to build something permanent, while also spending on one-off costs.

Since its founding, UNICEF has always merged development work and emergency response, but that marriage has grown even closer thanks to at least three contextual pressures. First is an increasingly distracted donor community, particularly in the United States, where the U.N. has fallen among political priorities. Second is a structural shift in global wealth. Lower and middle-income countries today are expanding their social spending rapidly, dwarfing private and donor capital in both sum and influence.

Finally, the reality of long-term displacements, grinding civil conflicts, and multidimensional poverty means that local institutions are really the only vehicles that can provide the scale needed to address the scope of humanitarian challenge. For the first two years of the Syrian crisis in Lebanon, for example, UNICEF tried to deliver education in temporary schools. The number of children, however, soon dwarfed capacity; the only way to scale was through the Ministry of Education, which now runs a second shift for Syrians.

“UNICEF has always been about national execution and systems, and it has always been about results and value for money,” Ted Chaiban, program director at UNICEF, told Devex. “Being effective means as much as possible using local structures, and reinforcing them.”

Elusive donor leadership

Global development has figured relatively low among foreign policy priorities so far under U.S. President Donald Trump. And while UNICEF is far from the only global institution at risk of being relatively ignored, the agency has historically worked closely with the United States, the only non-rotating member of the board. That consistency has also meant that Washington plays an outsized role in selecting UNICEF’s leadership, which will soon be up for grabs.

UNICEF’s current executive director, Anthony Lake, is nearing the end of his second five-year term. So far, there is little indication of who might follow or what a Trump administration might prioritize in that selection. Chaiban told Devex there was currently no information about a successor. One rumored candidate, mentioned to Devex, did not respond to requests to confirm their consideration.

“I don’t know which way President Trump wants to go, but there have been so many delays in many key appointments, that I worry that tradition may delay an important leadership assignment,” said Ariel Pablos-Mendez, professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and a former assistant administrator for global health at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The lack of chatter is in some ways indicative of the distraction in donor capitals that has pushed humanitarian actors to craft priorities in consultation with host governments, as much or more than with donors.

Domestic resources

As donors’ interest has waned, so too has their relative buying power. Domestic resources are now a far more important lever to move progress forward, both in crises and development settings. Developing countries’ health and budget expenditures are rising on average about 10 percent annually, said Pablos-Mendez.

“Domestic public and private resources dwarf the private resources — that already dwarf the donors resources in most countries,” he said. “There’s only a handful of countries in fragile states where the traditional system will remain paramount.”

As the money has shifted, so too has UNICEF’s and other donors agencies’ focus, both in advocacy as well as operations. While donors can give the extra surge that countries like Lebanon need, it’s the local government expenditure and institutions that can move the needle on change.

This is increasingly true not just in development but also humanitarian settings, where the scale and length of crises requires large operations. “It’s entry through education and health [ministries] that really will get us to the scale of impact that we need,” Vidya Ganesh, UNICEF country deputy for Afghanistan, said at a U.N. General Assembly side event last month. “Let’s call on all governments to invest.”

Part of UNICEF’s approach to leveraging that shift is to build a better case for their advice and programming. In addition to offering policy options to governments, they often now come armed with reams of data, case studies, and past interventions to prove both what works — and the ultimate net pay off.

“We have been part of dialogues and discussions not just with the ministry of health, ministry of education, or the ministries of social welfare, but with ministries of finance making the investment case,” said Chaiban.

Building better

About 40 percent of UNICEF’s annual budget goes toward responding to crises or fragile situations, according to Chaiban. While significant, those funds often wouldn’t be enough to respond independently to children’s needs for education, protection, nutrition, and the range of other considerations the agency looks after.

Instead, that money is increasingly leverage — an investment into local systems that can amp up domestic power to respond. So too is the technical expertise that the agency can deploy when countries are facing emergencies.

“I think a big part of what UNICEF has invested in is to strengthen its surge capacities, its ability to deploy and respond rapidly,” said Chaiban.

In the case of Lebanon’s school system, for example, UNICEF was able to offer significant incentives for the ministry to open its doors to Syrians. First, the agency started paying the school fees for all attendees, meaning that Lebanese parents no longer had to. They refurbished schools, improved classroom materials, and retrained teachers. A new tablet-based school database that UNICEF is currently rolling out could make attendance and child progress easier to track, reducing the risks of dropouts.  

Today, Syrians and Lebanese are roughly at a 1-to-1 ratio in public schools, says Chapuisat. “That scale of operation would never have been deliverable in the same way if we weren’t using the system,” she says. “I don’t think you can provide education to that number of children over time, consistently, without some kind of national system.”

The way Syrian children were able to plug into Lebanon’s school system is now a somewhat famous tale in the region. But it’s just one of the ways that the UNICEF team here is looking to inject traditional humanitarian programming into an overtaxed government bureaucracy. On child protection, for example, UNICEF has worked with the government to create a new standard protocol that 11 Lebanese ministries have now signed on to.

“All of these things are opportunities that have arisen because of the attention and increased technical capacity” of the Syrian crisis, says Chapuisat. “When refugees came, they really moved into the same neighborhoods as the poor Lebanese. And we provide services for all children.”

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About the author

  • Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.