UNICEF Executive Board: Strategic Plan midterm review and COVID-19 response reimagine a world fit for every child

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Conducted with an abridged agenda and made available for public viewing through live streaming, a strong focus on business continuity by UNICEF enabled the Board to seamlessly continue to exercise its oversight mandate, albeit in the virtual format.

“Although children may not be the face of the pandemic, too many of them will bear the brunt of it as their parents and caregivers fall sick or die; or face joblessness and the overall economic downturn caused by the pandemic,” stated UNICEF Executive Board President, H.E. Ms. Rabab Fatima, Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Bangladesh, as she opened the session. 

She emphasized that “this is not a business-as-usual annual session.” “We are not here just to take stock of our existing programmes…we are here to also see how best we can respond to, and live with, this unprecedented crisis, the impact of which is going to be felt for years to come. Now, more than ever, we need to forge effective collaborations between all stakeholders, and we expect UNICEF to play a central role in this regard.”

In her opening address to the Board, UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore said “as we move forward on efforts to contribute to UN reform, continue with the midterm review of our Strategic Plan and begin planting the seeds of our next Plan, we have an important opportunity: We can reimagine together how UNICEF will deliver even more results for children and young people.” 

Midterm review of the Strategic Plan and integrated budget

The session considered the UNICEF midterm review of the Strategic Plan, 2018-2021 and integrated budget. The review of the Strategic Plan found that UNICEF is performing well across its major result areas, however the world is not on track to achieve the child-focused targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The first two years of implementation provided UNICEF with an opportunity to learn and adapt, including by: modernizing and simplifying processes to accelerate results; increasing programmatic ambition and sharpening priorities where targets are on track; and strengthening the organization’s commitment to the United Nations development system reform, which is key to accelerating progress towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

But, according to Ms. Vidhya Ganesh, Director of the Division of Data, Analytics, Planning and Monitoring, “COVID-19 does bring increased challenges to the acceleration agenda and…risks reversing the historical trajectory of progress, which has been hard won.”

In introducing the update on the midterm review of the integrated budget, the Deputy Executive Director, Management, Ms. Hannan Sulieman, said “we are assessing the impact of COVID-19 on current and future estimates and revising strategies to limit any potential downturn in our resource mobilization results.” 

Ms. Sulieman cited the decreasing trend of less core resources received by UNICEF, which she described “a wave taking us away from meeting the funding compact target of 30 per cent of core resources as a proportion of total resources.“ She cited several efficiencies and modernization initiatives that had been undertaken by UNICEF, which had resulted in considerable savings for the organization – and for children. 

© UNICEF/UNI320751/Soares
A girl shows off the online platform on which children and parents in Timor-Leste can access a range of audio-visual material to help students continue learning during school closures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Learning Passport platform was developed by Microsoft, UNICEF and the University of Cambridge.

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

On Monday, the Board received an update on how UNICEF is responding to the pandemic. Emerging in a world marked by deep inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has fuelled an unprecedented global crisis that has quickly become a crisis of child rights. 

And, as Executive Director Fore remarked earlier that day, “COVID-19 is a trend towards more, not less inequality. The pandemic is revealing – in stark terms – a huge barrier to our dream of a better, fairer and more sustainable world.”

UNICEF is fully engaged in United Nations system-wide efforts to mount a swift, multidimensional, human rights-based response to COVID-19. The organization is striving to maintain the continuity of its programmes and operations, while responding to COVID-19 and adapting to its impacts. Together with Governments and partners, it is committed to delivering assistance to children across all affected areas – contributing both to outbreak control and to mitigate the socio-economic repercussions on children and families.

UNICEF’s actions include, among others: co-leading inter-agency efforts to counter misinformation and promote healthy behaviours; procuring and delivering critical medical supplies; and ensuring the continuity of essential health, nutrition, education, child and social protection services.

Of particular concern is the pandemic’s potential negative impact on overall funding, specifically on regular resources. Together with United Nations partners, UNICEF is advocating to boost support to its regular resources, which are indispensable to providing effective and efficient support to countries and communities in this crisis and beyond. Flexible funding has already proven key in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic by reaching children and communities quickly.

Delegations largely commended the efforts of UNICEF in responding to the pandemic, underlining the need for collaborative efforts within the United Nations development system and with other partners. Many delegations expressed support for the priorities presented by UNICEF, including a focus on education and digital learning; the continuation of immunization; water, sanitation and hygiene; and mental health support for children and young people. Some delegations cautioned about the risk of online harm to children, while many delegations emphasized the importance of achieving gender results, with a particular focus on girls in crisis situations.

New country programmes

New country programme documents for Ethiopia and South Africa demonstrated the role of social protection in two very diverse contexts. The speakers discussed how measures like cash transfers help to protect children from the lifelong consequences of poverty; build human capital; and promote inclusive and prosperous societies. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 385 million children (aged 0–17) were living in extreme poverty, which denied them the chance to survive, grow and develop to their full potential. Mr. Omar Abdi, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director, Programmes remarked that the current crisis threatens to undo decades of progress made in child poverty reduction, with intergenerational consequences. 

Mirroring Mr. Abdi’s remarks, UNICEF Associate Director and Chief of Social Policy, Ms. Natalia Winder-Rossi, emphasized the role of social protection in poverty reduction, humanitarian action and acceleration of the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as UNICEF’s leadership role in the sector. 

“Evidence has shown the power of social protection to transform the lives of children,” highlighted Ms. Winder-Rossi. Beyond individual and household impacts, social protection has been proven to generate multiplier impacts in local economies.” It’s no surprise therefore that social protection is at the forefront of COVID-19 responses across the world, with over 190 countries that have taken cash transfer and related measures to cushion the impact of the crisis on families and children, added Ms. Winder-Rossi. UNICEF is playing a key role in these efforts, supporting the expansion of existing programmes, generating data and evidence to inform policies, and promoting innovation and inclusion in responses. 

Her Excellency Ms. Lindiwe Zulu, Minister of Social Development in South Africa, spoke about her nation’s social assistance programme, which is delivered mostly in rural areas of the country. She acknowledged “the consistent advocacy and support of UNICEF in the expansion of South Africa’s social protection programme”, adding that “against this background, the new country programme will contribute significantly to our development objectives by extending services that promote and protect the rights of vulnerable children.” 

H.E. Mr. Taye Atske-Selassie Amde, Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Ethiopia, reported that the country’s productive safety net programme has significantly expanded since its inception in 2005, and now covers approximately 8 million people. He reported that “UNICEF is providing ongoing support to ensure these programmes are implemented through a gender and child focus with a variety of action.”

© UNICEF/UNI343277/
On 19 April 2020, two displaced children are photographed carrying water bottles in Hadramout Governorate, Yemen. UNICEF has been scaling up preparedness and response programmes, including providing clean water and distributing basic hygiene kits to help internally displaced families across the country protect themselves against COVID-19.

Key decisions

By the end of the session, the Executive Board had adopted six decisions: on the midterm review of the UNICEF Strategic Plan and integrated budget; on the new country programmes and extensions of ongoing programmes; on evaluation items; and on the annual report on humanitarian action.

After making a tribute to the five winning teams during the UNICEF Staff Team Awards for 2019, whose work was featured in a moving video, Executive Director Fore delivered her closing remarks. She emphasized that communities, children and young people must be supported, and that “we must help them to build back better” beyond the immediate crisis. She said that a focus on education is especially urgent, and that innovations that support continuity of services should be put in place.

In closing the meeting, which she described as an extraordinary success, Ambassador Fatima stated “UNICEF is needed more than ever to support countries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and create a world in which no one is left behind. I hope that countries, in spite of their own economic challenges, will continue to prioritize the world’s children, not least through their continued financial support of this organization.”

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