UNICEF's new executive director proposes a shift in priorities

Henrietta Fore, new executive director at UNICEF. Photo by: Violaine Martin / U.N.

JUBA, South Sudan — UNICEF’s new executive director, Henrietta Fore, is proposing a bold new approach for 2018.

During her first overseas trip since assuming the role at the start of January, Fore said she hopes to further blend business and development in the coming year. The former administrator for the United States Agency for International Development, who most recently served as chairman and chief executive officer of Holsman International, wants to combine her extensive development and corporate experience by connecting the business and nonprofit worlds.

“There is so much need in this world, and the private sector businesses have exceptional technologies and data capacities,” Fore told Devex.

Fore selected South Sudan as her first international trip because, as the head of the agency, you should “go to where your people are in the greatest danger,” she said.

South Sudan is currently the most violent context for aid workers, and in 2017 had the highest number of attacks on aid workers for the second year in a row. At least 95 humanitarians have been killed since the conflict erupted in 2013, and 28 died last year alone, according to the latest OCHA report. The cost of providing services in the country has escalated along with insecurity due to the ongoing conflict, as well as looting and vandalization of supplies. UNICEF estimates it will need $183 million in funding for the upcoming year.

While in South Sudan, Fore met with a former child soldier, and witnessed a World Food Programme airdrop, as well as the reunification of a mother and child.

“This is an important time for South Sudan, it’s at a crisis and we’re worried that hundreds of thousands of lives may be lost in the next lean period,” Fore said.

Devex spoke exclusively with the executive director during her trip about her global vision, philosophy, and plans for the future of the organization. The conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.

Given the increasing number of crises around the world, what are some new priority shifts in funding for UNICEF in 2018?

The crises themselves create changes to the budget. We get a core budget, what can be counted on to be flexible and that can meet any need. Donors give you budgets for certain activities like education, refugees, for vaccination and protection programs, so as the crises multiply around the world, Yemen, Syria, Cox’s Bazar, South Sudan, Uganda, all of those crises begin to add up. This means your funding priorities tend to go more humanitarian and less development — and that's something we have to find a balance for. As the world becomes heavier in conflict, it drives the need on the humanitarian side higher so as an agency, you have to save lives. But you can't forget that there is a development agenda.

Today, I was at one of the water and sanitation programs and where water coming out of the Nile was being chlorinated. The trucks were coming up and taking the water into the city. The alternative to this is a pipeline, that is a long-term development program. The trucks are a short-term humanitarian program. So you’d wish that more of the programs could find solutions that are longer term and that can last in a sustainable way.

South Sudan is the most dangerous place at the moment to be a humanitarian worker. What’s your position on pushing to get access in hard to reach areas when there's a real risk to your staff?

Humanitarian access is exceedingly important in countries like this, because the conflict drives the populations to be either internally displaced or refugees or people who are just scared.

To gain access in South Sudan, humanitarians walk a political tightrope
Aid actors providing services to the most vulnerable in Southern South Sudan say the key to their success is being able to strategically gain favor with both the government and the opposition.

Having humanitarian access for health, nutrition, and for education is extremely important, and that's one of the largest challenges for this aid community. This is the most dangerous place in the world right now for a humanitarian aid worker. Most of them accept a certain amount of personal risk, and they care so deeply about serving the populations, in our case women and children, that they would wish to get there with life saving food and aid. But as an organization, we do not want our people in harm’s way. To have an aid worker hurt or killed is a great loss, so we try to keep them safe and try to encourage that they stay safe, but also that they do their jobs.

Despite this being the most dangerous place for humanitarian aid workers, UNICEF staff has been reaching hundreds of thousands of people in South Sudan and that is a real credit to them, to their commitment to their work ethic.

You’ve had a long career in both development and business. How do you hope to draw on those experiences in your new position?

What I'm hoping is that as a team, we're going to think about ways to accelerate our programs both in the reach, the breadth, the depth, and the scale of what we can accomplish.

“Children are so fast in picking up language and technology … they're just exploding with interest. So why don't we bring all of the world to help them so that every child in the world has those opportunities.”

—  Henrietta Fore, executive director at UNICEF

There is so much need in this world and with big data you can anticipate things occurring and help to prevent many actions from taking place, like harvests. There is so much that business knows that sometimes, in a nonprofit or government institution, you don’t hear, because you live in your own areas. Children are so fast in picking up language and technology and taking new ideas and new toys, they're just exploding with interest. So why don't we bring all of the world to help them so that every child in the world has those opportunities. I'd hope to cross these worlds and bring them together.

Would this approach be a big change from the UNICEF of 2017?

Yes. Often, nonprofits and government think of businesses to give them money to fund their programs or to be a contractor to deliver something. They don't think of them as a partner to co-create with. If you're really going to have a country that has a literate, engaged, safe, protected, healthy, well-nourished population, then you will need all of the assets of business co-creating with you.

The young people cohort of the population, the demographics in Africa are overwhelming. This is an important period in a young person's life and it is a large sector in Africa. If they can get jobs and life skills, there will be an added acceleration into the growth of Africa and this would be very exciting. If we could help encourage and drive that, if we can find the accelerators that will drive these programs to reach more people in better ways, that would be a great gift to the world. We're going to be looking in every country for those accelerators. They exist, there's Canadian firms and German firms and Pakistani firms, they're everywhere. We're looking for who can help us.

Children in South Sudan are bearing the brunt of this conflict. Almost 1 million are traumatized and in need of psychosocial support, more than 2 million have been displaced from their homes and more than 70 percent aren’t in school. What is the significance of this for the future of the country and what are you most concerned about?

A country that has had five years of war is close to losing a generation of children because it means that those kids, if 70 percent are out of school, will not be literate or numerate, and without that in today's world you don't have the life skills to build a future. You don't have the ability to carry on a profession, and with many of them displaced, the professions of their parents and families, let’s say farming, they can no longer practice because they're not on their family farms.

If we don't catch them now, it's going to be a real crisis for the future of South Sudan. Soon they'll be young adults and citizens of this country. We've seen it in other war-torn areas like Liberia, where you can lose one or two generations. The sooner the conflict can stop is the key to not losing this generation.

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About the author

  • Sam mednick profile

    Sam Mednick

    Sam is a freelance journalist based in South Sudan. Over the past 12 years she’s reported on humanitarian, human interest and conflict stories from around the world. Sam’s work has taken her to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America and Europe, writing for VICE, the Associated Press, Devex, Barcelona Metropolitan and iPolitics among others. Sam also produces and hosts the Happy Melly Podcast, interviewing authors, speakers and thought leaders about what it takes to live productive and fulfilling lives.