The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is the body charged with promoting the rights of children across the world. The organization works in a hundred and fifty-eight countries around the world, including the one thousand, one hundred and ninety islands that form the Maldives, where Tom Bergmann-Harris heads the UNICEF country office.
The country offices of UNICEF focus on the specific needs of that country. The Maldives are scattered over a vast area, ranging from the densely populated capital, Male, to other communities of under five hundred people. The widely dispersed population makes service delivery difficult. "There is a large problem regarding the geography. A large chunk of resources have to go into transport costs. To provide education and health services in such far away and scattered communities is very difficult, time consuming and expensive," said Tom, adding. "During the monsoon season, it could be dangerous as well". Despite this, he feels that UNICEF has made real progress in the three years in which he has worked in the country.
The UNICEF program includes childhood care, fighting child malnutrition and changing the Maldives’ nutritionally poor diets, which primarily consists of tuna, rice and bread and little fresh fruit or vegetables. "Good nutrition is an essential element for children to grow and thrive as individuals. Exclusive breastfeeding and good dietary habits," he asserted, "give every child the best start in life". Tom originally trained as a nutritionist before working with UNICEF.
School enrollment and immunization rates have been raised to 99% and 98% respectively, but Tom believes that the expansion of tourism has increased the level of child abuse and neglect. Child protection has been highlighted as a priority for the organization in the country, and the UNICEF Maldives team is supporting the preparation of the first-ever National Child Protection Conference, to be held in 2005.
The relatively high rates of economic development in the country also create their own problems. "Maldives is in the process of migrating from an LDC country to a developed country, therefore it is very difficult to raise funds because most donors this that Maldives should have enough resources to deal with all the issues. But that’s not the case". Explained Tom, "What I find astonishing, and sometimes very disappointing, is that here is a country that is quite successful in using resources made available through the UNICEF program of cooperation as other resources, and it is being punished by not being given more resources".
In the future, UNICEF plans to continue its works, and advise it gives to government and other agencies working in the country. "You can make a difference. If you closely work with government and other counterparts, you can see at the end of a year what difference the interventions have made. And UNICEF is very, very well respected. Government, counterparts and others listen, even if our financial contribution is relatively limited". He said.