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Press Centre (1/2007)

2007/01/16 - UNICEF: 60 years of building a world fit for children

December ushered in the sixtieth anniversary of the foundation of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Throughout these sixty years, I have been associated in many capacities -- whether in New York, Paris or Ankara - with the humanitarian efforts of the international community. Among the signatories to the Constitution of the World Health Organisation, also founded in 1946, I am the sole survivor.

I became familiar with the work of UNICEF right from the outset. As is well known, UNICEF was originally established to be of assistance to children in Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War. Its first director, Maurice Pate, accepted the position on condition that it should serve the children of the defeated nations and the children of the victorious nations equally. Soon afterwards, he visited Ankara, where I was busy establishing a children’s hospital and an institute of child health. I requested assistance from UNICEF in order to equip these establishments. In response, he gave me an office at the UNICEF building in New York, and with the assistance of a secretary I was able to choose from a catalog the items we required.

National committees for UNICEF were gradually set up in various countries. In 1958, I became president of the Turkish National Committee. With its headquarters in Ankara, this committee opened branches in Istanbul and in many other Turkish provinces and began to carry out projects in collaboration with the local branches of the Turkish National Pediatric Society.

I was to remain president of the Turkish National Committee for UNICEF until 2003, when I was made honorary life-president, and succeeded as president by Professor Talat Halman. At the international level, meanwhile, I had served for three terms as vice chairman of the UNICEF Executive Board and chairman of the Progamme Committee, and subsequently for two terms as chairman of the Executive Board.

Since 1968, I have also continuously served as president, executive director and most recently honorary president of the International Pediatric Association. In this context, I encouraged the members to use their skills and prestige not only in the service of their own patients but also for the protection and treatment of all children. The 500,000 members of the Association began to work for Healthy Children for a Healthy World, pledging to influence policy-makers and defending children’s rights to health and development. The May 2002 United Nations Special Session for Children made it possible for us to carry this mission further.

Back in 1938, when I graduated from the Istanbul Faculty of Medicine, I quickly became aware of the high level of child mortality and the poor state of children’s health, particularly in rural areas. At that time, a third of all the babies born died before reaching their first birthdays. It was then that I first felt I could be instrumental in improving the situation. I have been fortunate enough to witness a dramatic improvement. Today, with the aid of activities such as the Child Survival Revolution initiated by UNICEF at the beginning of the 1980s, the infant mortality rate has fallen to a tenth of what it was in those days, or approximately 30 per thousand.

Sixty years ago most of our villages had no running water. All that has changed. Literacy has also increased tremendously. Nevertheless, we still have mileage to traverse. In Europe, the infant mortality rate is 8-10 per thousand, and in some countries, like Japan and Finland, it is even lower. We now have the infrastructure to catch up. In Turkey, the percentage of babies exclusively breastfed in the first four months of life is unfortunately still at a low level. It is very important to keep prepared formulas out of our hospitals and maternity hospitals. We have to work harder at this.

These are examples from my own area of specialisation: the survival and health of young children. This remains a core focus of UNICEF’s work. But other issues also remain to be tackled. Most children now live in urban areas where they are exposed to additional risks, and struggle to develop their full potential. Poverty is an important problem. Providing all children with a good education is vital not just for the well-being of the children themselves but for creating a better world.

On a global scale, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened. If 20% of the world’s population accounts for 80% of its income, then something must be wrong. In order to have peace we must eliminate poverty, especially extreme poverty. The well-to-do countries must realise that in the long run exploitation will operate to their disadvantage. We must also tackle exploitation, corruption, irredentism, xenophobia and lack of tolerance towards those of different beliefs and nationalities. Instead of teaching tolerance from a very early age, we are training child soldiers and killing them in wars.

While we have good reason to celebrate UNICEF’s 60th birthday, we are also looking forward to further fruitful cooperation between UNICEF and the nations of the world. We continue, rightly, to expect maximum support from the international community and national governments for initiatives aimed at enabling children to enjoy their natural rights. At the same time, we must go on asking the question which has goaded me throughout my career: What can I do about it? The private sector, non-government organisations and individuals everywhere have an increasingly vital part to play in fulfilling the UN vision of a world fit for children.

Professor İhsan Doğramacı is:

  • President and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Bilkent University, Ankara;
  • Honorary President of the Turkish National Committee for UNICEF;
  • Honorary President of the International Pediatric Association;
  • President of the International Children’s Center, Ankara;
  • Former Chairman of the UNICEF Executive Board.
UNICEF Turkey Country Office, Yukarı Dikmen Mah. Alexsander Dubçek Cd. 7/106, 06450 Çankaya/Ankara. Telephone: +90 312 454 1000 Fax: +90 312 496 1461 E-mail: ankara@unicef.org