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Speech: Kevin Watkins at the UNICEF Executive Board, Thursday 14 September

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Agenda Item 5, Thursday 14th September

Mr President, Executive Director and distinguished members of the Board, it is a privilege to address you today on behalf of Save the Children.

Mr President, we have watched in horror the devastation wrought by Hurricane Irma first on Antigua and Barbuda, across the Caribbean, and then the United States. We all stand with you and are ready to support affected children and their families.

In 2019, the Save the Children Movement will mark its Centenary. We can look back with pride on what has been achieved in our history. And the entire international community can look back with a sense of accomplishment at the extraordinary achievement of the last fifteen years in cutting child deaths, expanding education opportunities, and reducing extreme poverty.

But pride must not become the precursor to complacency.

As world leaders prepare to gather here next week, we are on a trajectory that leaves us perilously close to breaking promises the Global Goals made to children. In 2030, we could still see:

  • Three million children not making it to their fifth birthday
  • Over 200 million children denied opportunities for education and learning
  • More than 160 million children born and raised in extreme poverty

Changing this picture will require a strengthened focus on the most marginalised children – and Mr Lake, your leadership in keeping UNICEF firmly focussed on equity must be applauded.

There is no prospect of us delivering on our collective promise for children without a step-change in our response to humanitarian crises.

Mr President, a few weeks ago I met a 7-month-old girl called Samira in our emergency nutrition clinic in Baidoa, south-central Somalia. She had arrived weighing just 9 lbs, in a coma and suffering from severe pneumonia. Samira only just survived and happily is now back in her village.

I mention her story because it is one of hope and challenge.

The hope comes from the fact Samira was saved by a humanitarian response which held off a full-scale famine in Somalia. She is testimony to what we can achieve when we act together. But I often wonder how Samira will fare back in a community still struggling with drought. Therein lies the challenge.

Having averted a famine, this is a moment for scaled-up support to break the deadly cycles of drought and hunger in Somalia. One quarter of a million young lives are still at risk because of malnutrition. We need to keep the humanitarian spotlight on the country. But we also need long-term, predictable financing from the World Bank and other donors to build resilience. Unlocking that funding will require a write-off of Somalia’s debt arrears.

Mr President, some aspects of humanitarian crisis receive insufficient attention. There are over 10 million refugee children, most of whom are losing the opportunities for education that are their birth-right. Thanks in large part to UNICEF, we have seen progress in Lebanon and Jordan. But we simply can’t forget the half-a-million South Sudanese refugees in Uganda, or the Rohingya children fleeing to Bangladesh. It is our collective duty to protect their right to education.

I hope we can use next week’s General Assembly to address these challenges.

Mr President, Save the Children strongly supports UNICEF’s statement on the importance of flexible financing for emergency response. Unrestricted contributions are critical in supporting early and sustained action. We also support the move towards multi-year funding for protracted crises and increasing the use cash transfers.

Before concluding, Mr President, I must also mention a cause that figured prominently in our Movement’s foundation: Protecting children in armed conflict.

Much of our emergency response work is directed to children who are bombed, attacked, raped and driven from their homes. Our efforts to aid these children are often obstructed, in many cases by state actors. The perpetrators of these heinous crimes see international law and the Convention on the Rights of the Child not as precious public goods that reflect the best of humanity, but as an impediment at best and an irrelevance at worst. We must challenge this culture of impunity: countries that bomb children should be named and then held accountable.

Mr President, Mr Lake and members of the Board, it is all too easy in high-level gatherings to forget what is at stake. The children that UNICEF and Save the Children work for have names and faces. They have hope and dreams. Human solidarity demands that we act with urgency to keep alive their hope and combat the injustice that destroys their dreams.

As our founder put it almost 100 years ago, humanity owes children ‘the best it has to give’ – and we are at our best when we work together.

Thank you.

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