Interview with Carol Bellamy, UNICEF Executive Director

The lives of more than six million children are at immediate risk in Malawi, Zambia, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique due to a crippling combination of drought, hunger, illness and HIV/AIDS.

UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director, Carol Bellamy, toured drought-stricken Southern Africa before attending the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. She spoke to IRIN about the impact of the food crisis on children, and what she hoped the Earth Summit would achieve.

Question: A humanitarian crisis is unfolding in six countries neighbouring South Africa. How have children faired under such harsh conditions?

Answer: Firstly, the current crisis is a complicated one, magnified by deepening poverty and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I think too often when there are food shortages, people only conceive in their minds the need for food. In many cases, such as this one in Southern Africa, there is a need to intervene with a series of health activities particularly for the most vulnerable. In most cases these tend to be children.

So for example, AIDS orphans who are already often considered as outcasts are more likely to bear the brunt in times of crisis. Why? Because it is already so hard for a family to care for their own children let alone the AIDS orphans. We have seen scores of children dropping out of school because they have become the head of households after they have lost their parents to HIV/AIDS. In some cases, children can no longer attend school because they have to go and look for food and access water.

We have also seen disease outbreaks as a result of the food shortages. Cholera and measles affect children more harshly. In the three most affected countries, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, there is chronic malnourishment. There has also been an increase in stunting which affects the child long into life. This isn’t something they get over quickly.

Q: While malnourishment affects both boys and girls, evidence suggests that the girl child in times of crisis bears the brunt of hardships. Has this been the case in the sub region?

A: Yes, although malnourished children can be boys or girls, there are some specific areas where the girl child will be affected specifically by the lack of food. We do know of some instances where the girl child is fed after the boy child. In Africa, girls are infected with HIV/AIDS at an earlier age than boys. This is largely through violence and other kinds of anti-social behaviour.

Girls are generally the ones in the family who gather water which means she will not attend school because often the supply is very far from the village. If she does attend school, her day is harder because she is responsible for many other chores.

In families where parents have died of HIV/AIDS, it is usually the girl who becomes the head of the household, whether she is the eldest or not. So we see more girls dropping out of school than boys. There has also been an increase in maternal mortality as more young women are having babies.

Q: Poverty remains one of the biggest challenges facing not only the region but the continent. This despite the fact there has been decades of foreign aid to assist these countries. While widespread hunger means immediate emergency assistance, there appears to be less consideration for long-term development. I mean the region is in many ways poorer than a decade ago. Do you think aid agencies need to rethink how aid is administered?

A: One cannot blame the increase in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa on aid policies alone. Although I do think it is important to assess whether the kind of assistance administered is having some effect. We, at the UN, are now looking at what our outputs are and not necessarily what we have put into the programmes. We are looking at the results.

One has to look at everything in the region from governance, and that is not necessarily corruption, it might be over reliance. Zambia has relied on one economic factor, copper. Also as long as one single food source is identified, without diversification of agriculture, there will be ongoing poverty. Also HIV/AIDS is just eating these societies apart.

Q: Do you think governments in the region have done enough in assisting international partners during this crisis?

A: Governments have to take the lead. They can always do more, they were slow to respond but I think they are doing more now.

Q: But without adequate resources and the fact that most of these government's have to service substantial external debt, it creates somewhat of a Catch-22 situation, doesn't it ?

A: All these governments are with limited resources. It simply means that there needs to be prioritising of these limited resources. You cannot always control the weather, but you can reduce the impact of the weather.

Q: But in some countries everything is urgent and then how do these governments prioritise?

A: That is why the international community is here to help and advise. To avoid a situation such as this one, perhaps the government could deliver inputs to farmers sooner. Research needs to be done into the over reliance on a single crop.

Q: What is UNICEF doing to help people at risk in Southern Africa?

A: We are continuing our country programmes but we are also trying to intensify them and focus our efforts. We have four areas of focus, health, sanitation, education and child protection with HIV/AIDS running through all of that. In the health area, we are supporting governments with the World Health Organisation in a regional campaign to monitor an outbreak of malaria. With nutrition, we are working with the World Food Programme in nutrition surveillance.

We have intervened to provide the basic foodstuffs to the most vulnerable. Also we have extended efforts in access to clean water through the rehabilitation of existing boreholes and the establishment of new boreholes. We have focused on those boreholes closest to the village, so that children can still go to school.

Q: With so many issues clamouring for the spotlight at this summit, what would you like to take away with you from the Earth Summit?

A: Over the next decade the world should make a commitment to make sure that every school everywhere has access to clean water and sanitary facilities for girls and boys. We think that is understandable. School is the central component of any community. I hope this summit will continue to deepen the understanding that sustainable development starts with children.