Keeping our promises to children

In the words of Nicholas Kristof, “The late James P. Grant, a little known American aid worker who headed Unicef from 1980 to 1995 and launched the child survival revolution with vaccinations and diarrhea treatments, probably saved more lives than were destroyed by Hitler, Mao and Stalin combined.”

The legacy of this “little known American” was the focus of the James P. Grant Lecture at the George Washington University on March 23, a tribute to Grant 15 years after his death. Dr. Jon Rohde delivered the keynote lecture, entitled “An Unfinished Agenda for Children.” Rohde is a professor in the James P. Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University,  Bangladesh, and former representative of Unicef in New Delhi, from 1993 to 1997.

Rohde first offered highlights of Jim Grant’s work with Unicef: putting children on the political agenda of countries around the world, promoting a focused four-point program called GOBI (growth monitoring, oral rehydration therapy, breast feeding and immunization), pursuing universal reach to all children, initiating cease-fires in war-torn countries to allow a few days for immunization of children, and unrelenting energy in carrying forward his vision to put “children first.”

A subtext running through the speech was that UNICEF, since James Grant’s death, has failed to keep his vision alive. The United States, through its lack of support for the United Nations, has turned its back on the world’s children.
Today, we have new hope for a re-commitment to children with Unicef once again taking a strong position under the leadership of Tony Grant. What would James Grant say to Tony Lake as he assumes his new position? Here are Rohde’s thoughts about what he would emphasize:

1. Focus on the unfinished agenda: reach those who are left out in order to erase social disparities in child survival.
2. Keep resources focused on children rather than on particular diseases.
3. Restore UNICEF to what it was: get UNICEF staff out into the field rather than spending most of their time doing paperwork.
4. Defend the rights of children with the same energy as adult rights are defended.
5. Promote community participation to define activities that will respond to local threats and priorities.
6. Strengthen UNICEF’s support for education, especially of girls.
7. Build alliances among all partners to eliminate competition by taking children as the integrating catalyst.
8. Plan now for the next development decade to 2025.
9. Bridge political differences in the US so that Americans can speak in one compassionate voice.
10. End the stranglehold that the military and industrial partners have over our lives and redirect the vast resources now expended on war to keep our promises to children. Rohde commented that Grant typically steered clear of issues not within his mandate for children. “Children first” was one of his mantras. Yet he knew that putting children first was incompatible with a world in which the richest country continues to dedicate vast resources to war.

In closing, Rohde remarked: “Jim Grant saw through children the chance of peace and decency for everyone. Indeed, children are a valid aim in themselves, but even more so as a means to uncover the humanity in us all and bring about a better world in the process. This is the legacy he left us – the challenge lives on.”

Blogger’s note: In a side conversation with Dr. Rohde, I asked him, “How would the US deal with all the soldiers if they are not at war?” His answer: “They can get to work rebuilding America.” Imagine soldiers helping to build schools, providing security in poor neighborhoods so that children can come and go to school without fear, participating in social programs, and providing outreach to those on the social margins. A demilitarized military working for life not death, for child survival and humanity.

Image: “Return to Innocence,” from flickr user sytoha, licensed with Creative Commons.

3 thoughts on “Keeping our promises to children

  1. John Rohde

    My thanks to David Inkey for his comment, but he’s not on target. Unicef had never been very involved in family planning, but Peter Adamson and I lobbied Jim Grant and he finally relented and supported “child spacing” as a way of improving child survival. The Vatican immediately rescinded its annual contribution to Unicef – a paltry $30,000!! That really affected Jim. Over time, I eventually convinced Jim to support family planning more strongly on the grounds of reducing maternal mortality – Rule #1 – if you ain’t pregnant, you can’t have a maternal death! He bought it and spoke often about the importance of family planning starting after the World Summit for Children in 1990.


  2. david inkey

    dear jon, i arrived in Unicef in july 1981, months after grant took office as ex dir…..Unicef had done quite a bit in family planning…..a wonderful Indonesuan woman whose name i have forgotten briefed me exensively on what had been Unicef’s fp work… i always thot highly of ur work and look fwd to more exchange……david inkey, the UN poet…..aka david burleson, UNESCO advisor to Unicef, ret..


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