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Ivory Coast: moment of promise

This Saturday, Heads of State, Ministers and Ambassadors will gather in Ivory Coast to attend the inauguration of Alassane Ouattara as president of the country.  Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria will be among dozens of world leaders travelling to Yamoussoukro, the country’s political capital, to attend the ceremony almost six months since the contested presidential elections which catapulted Ivory Coast into a political and humanitarian crisis.

The inauguration of a new president can be a moment filled with promise.  For Ivory Coast — where political, social and ethnic divisions have haunted the country for years — Ouattara’s swearing-in should be seen as an opportunity for reconciliation and renewal.  After a winter of brutal conflict, unimaginable suffering and widespread deprivation, it’s a chance to ‘force the spring’.

Urgent humanitarian needs still need to be met

As leaders arrive in Ivory Coast’s grandiose capital, they should be seized by the need to rebuild.  With the support of the international community, a degree of normality can slowly return to the lives of children who have suffered so much, and the future of the next generation can be secured.

But while this long-term perspective — required of all great statesmen — is valuable, world leaders shouldn’t be blind to the humanitarian crisis which persists throughout much of the country.  They should remember that it’s been less than two months since the end of heavy fighting between the different armed groups and forces that swept the country until Gbagbo’s arrest on 11 April. The consequences of that conflict — over one million people displaced within the country and into Liberia and other neighbouring countries, up to 3000 deaths and wholesale disruption to basic services — should remain front and centre in the minds of visiting dignitaries.

And there’s much that world leaders can do.  As Save the Children works tirelessly to meet the emergency needs of children whose lives have been devastated by the conflict, we urgently need more funds.  The UN appeal for Ivory Coast remains only 20% funded, a shortfall of $147 million.  Without more funds, urgent needs will not be met and much-needed programmes will be curtailed.

Conflict has had catastrophic effect on the country

In a country where underlying poverty levels already ran at 49%, the effects of months of political impasse, economic stasis and armed conflict have had a catastrophic effect on the availability of food, cash, clean water and fuel, and have limited access to education, health and social services.  Thousands of families have lost access to their incomes and don’t have the money to pay for food for their children. In some areas of rural Abidjan, our assessments are finding that children are only eating one meal a day, and this is comprised solely of manioc or rice.

A concerted effort is needed from the international community to support these children.  With 83 000 children still out of school in the centre, north and west of the country alone, it’s vital that international donors support President Ouattara’s new government to reopen schools and to ensure that classrooms have sufficient numbers of teachers, and adequate facilities.

For many families who have been tipped into poverty, health user fees have also become unaffordable.  While the government has temporarily lifted such fees, when this grace period ends many children will once again be unable to access life-saving care.  World leaders gathering in Côte d’Ivoire should offer practical support on behalf of Ivoirian children — including resources and technical assistance to lift user fees — as well as the symbolic support of their attendance President Ouattara’s inauguration.

Challenges past, present and future

So, while the world’s luminaries should look forward to reconstruction; they should also be conscious of the humanitarian needs of the present.  And though the international community should champion reconciliation — including through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — it must also not forget the past.

Crimes committed against children during the post-election violence — including sexual violence, killing and maiming — have now been confirmed. These are grave violations of child rights — crimes against humanity.  To demonstrate that impunity is not an option for the perpetrators of such acts, the international community should be firm in pressing for accountability and support the work of mechanisms that have been set up to provide it, including the UN Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry.

The children of Côte d’Ivoire have suffered enormously as a result of a crisis that had absolutely nothing to do with them.  When world leaders travel to the country this weekend, they should take the time to contemplate the events of the past few months, as well as the country’s future.  When they do so, it’s Côte d’Ivoire’s children who should be foremost in their minds.

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