UNICEF: No Room at the Inn

When Ted Turner made his impulsive billion-dollar pledge to the United Nations in September (“a good, round number” he called it), the first reaction was shock. “I nearly fell off my chair,” said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Leslie Gelb, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, added, “Wow!” The second reaction was a feeding frenzy among UN agency heads. “They’re all smacking their lips trying to get their hands on the dough,” commented an anonymous UN official.

Charity is one thing, but Turner kept his sharp business wits about him. “I have learned,” he said after his speech to the UN, “the more good that I did, the more money comes in.” Turner was careful to say that none of the money would go to administrative overhead, the UN’s principle product, but rather to the causes of refugees, landmine removal, and children. And if two of the qualifiers are “children” and “United Nations,” it is safe to say that a hefty portion of Turner’s gift will find its way to UNICEF—the United Nations Children’s Fund.

It may seem that UNICEF, almost alone among UN agencies, is a good investment: For decades, the program has enjoyed a reputation as the most effective, least politicized UN operation. Conceived as a way to bring emergency aid to starving refugee children in the aftermath of World War II, it has since become the main avenue for western governments to fight the health problems of the world’s poorest children, with a staff of 7000 in 115 countries. Unique among UN agencies, it uses its popularity to help support itself. In its “Trick or Treat for UNICEF” campaign, children collect spare change for needy children, instructed by an educational guide prepared by the Children’s Television Workshop. UNICEF Christmas cards decorate countless mantelpieces. How could any organization that counts Katie Couric as a special ambassador be controversial?

But the Vatican, with its knack for lonely dissent, has created a controversy. Last November, it formally withdrew its token annual contribution ($2000) to UNICEF. Time magazine said the action was taken “because of its involvement in Third World family planning.” Actually, the Vatican’s reasons—four of them—were more specific. It complained about UNICEF’s failure to account for contributions earmarked for “morally unobjectionable” programs; its participation in a UN manual advocating “abortifacients” for refugee women; its advocacy of liberalized national abortion laws; and its use of workers to distribute contraceptives. Rome’s action was followed by a slight ripple of reactions. The bishops of Alberta, Canada advised school superintendents not to encourage children to collect money for UNICEF at Halloween. Cahal Cardinal Daley resigned as patron of the Irish National Committee of UNICEF.

Then came the obligatory statement from Frances Kissling of Catholics for Free Choice (who came up with $2000 to replace the Vatican money):

We view UNICEF as an important organization working for the good of the child and the mother—you can’t isolate one from the other. However, we have noticed an increasingly aggressive attitude on the part of the Vatican toward international agencies, particularly with regard to family planning. This withdrawal of support is the latest and most outrageous attempt to influence international agencies and get them to act like they were religious ones.

The media generally dismissed the Vatican/UNICEF split as part of a running battle between liberal and orthodox Catholics over contraception, begun at the Beijing and Cairo conferences on women and population. But the Vatican was making a more specific charge, about UNICEF in particular—that we are seeing a “shift in UNICEF activities.” The Vatican is on to something. The most influential and respected children’s organization in the world is neck deep in crisis—mired in scandal, failing in its mission, captive to ideology, and sinking under tainted leadership. In the process, ignored and silent, children are being actively betrayed.

Killing Children in China

The relationship of UNICEF and China provides a case study of UNICEF’s moral decline. When it comes to children, China now leads the world in creative barbarism. It is a nation that has turned state orphanages into hospices, where female infants and children await painful, lonely deaths from neglect. A 19% report by Human Rights Watch/Asia describes “a secret world of starvation, disease and unnatural death, a world into which thousands of Chinese citizens disappear each year.”

In the Chinese provinces of Fujian, Shaanxi, Guangxi and Henan, overall mortality rates among institutionalized orphans in 1989 ranged from fifty-nine to seventy-two percent. The national rate of survival for a newly admitted orphan that same year was less than fifty percent. Chinese childcare workers call the process of selecting infants and children the “summary resolution” of the childrens’ medical problems.

Shanghai’s municipal orphanage has a history of deliberate starvation, torture, and sexual assault, resulting in the death of over 1000 children between 1986 and 1992. The same city bureau that runs the orphanage also runs the crematoria where the bodies are disposed, often before death certificates are filled out by attending physicians. Older children, in a position to expose their abusers, have been imprisoned, confined to mental institutions, and drugged to control their behavior.

A BBC documentary showed smuggled film of one of these “dying rooms” at a Chinese government orphanage. The narrator describes one scene: “Mei-Ming has lain this way for ten days now; tied up in urine-soaked blankets, scabs of dried mucus across her eyes, her face shrinking into a skull, malnutrition slowly shriveling her two-year-old body.” After four days of suffering, she died. “Afterwards, the orphanage will dispose of her corpse and deny she ever existed.”

The Human Rights Watch/Asia report goes on to describe a well-organized system of child labor:

The orphanages also rented out space on its ground to a number of privately-owned companies and supplied them with child labor for an additional fee, a practice which apparently dates back to the early 1980s . . .  Although orphans performing child labor were nominally considered paid employees, receiving a monthly salary of eight yuan (around one U.S. dollar). . . . [S]taff teachers, who were responsible for managing these funds, often succeeded in withholding most of this money by making ‘deductions’ from childrens’ wages on pretexts such as poor workmanship or unexcused absences from work.

This comes on top of a widely described and condemned regimen of coerced abortion, a practice categorized as a “crime against humanity” at the Nuremberg trials. In pursuit of China’s one child policy, women are harassed by government agents until they submit to abortion or sterilization. The Puebla Institute describes one instance of aggressive Chinese family planning from the Laing Zhou region: “Local authorities, using the slogan, ‘It is better to have more graves than one more child’ attacked [two Catholic] villages and forced hundreds of villagers to flee for their lives . . . The authorities reportedly attacked and looted homes, arresting people indiscriminately and torturing the elderly.”

All these human rights abuses received considerable international attention in 1996, and again during the Chinese premier’s recent visit to the United States. In fact, the Human Rights Watch/Asia report on the murder of Chinese orphans ended with a specific appeal to UNICEF to “make a through reform of the country’s orphanage system their highest priority.”

Yet when UNICEF issued its 1997 edition of The State of the World’s Children, running to 107 pages, there was not a single reference to China’s orphanages. Not one mention of China’s forced child labor. Not one allusion to Chinese sweatshops where children work for less than one dollar a month. Not a line about little girls tied to beds or strapped to toddler chairs and left in freezing rooms to die. On the contrary, the UNICEF report praises China for passing legislation on child rights that supposedly guarantees Chinese citizens “the right and obligation to receive education.” It goes on to criticize the treatment of children in the United States at several points.

UNICEF’s main involvement in China is promoting its “Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative”—a campaign to promote . . . breastfeeding. And by UNICEF’s accounting, China is the most “baby-friendly” nation in the world. Of the 6000 hospitals that have earned UNICEF’s Baby Friendly Hospital designation, fully forty-two percent are in China. During a recent tour of China, according to local news reports, UNICEF inspectors “warmly congratulated China for its success in promoting baby-friendly activities.” Experts from UNICEF said they were “deeply impressed by what they saw during the assessment.” Finally, they applauded the “superb evidence of the commitment of government, the health system, and many other sectors of society to assuring systematic support to mothers and babies.”

Under pressure, UNICEF finally agreed, months ago, to set up a pilot program to train workers in Chinese orphanages, dedicating a token $850,000 to the effort. But even in taking this action, executive director Carol Bellamy’s explanation was illuminating: “The whole idea is to try to avoid having children in institutions in the first place.” The ultimate answer to China’s murder of orphans is, of course, more birth control. This is not a blind spot, it is a world-view—not an aberration, but a culmination. UNICEF has become part of an international culture of woman’s empowerment, narrowly defined as the absence of offspring. The best thing that can be done for suffering children, in this view, is ensure that there are fewer of them. But this involves a shift—from viewing children as objects of compassion, to viewing them as problems in need of solving. This may be many things, but it is not the ideology of an organization that purports to serve children. This shift in UNICEF’s purpose explains its shallow, dubious commitment to Chinese children. UNICEF seems to accept China’s gross cruelties on the grounds that the nation has engaged in the grim but necessary duty of population control.

Corruption From the Top

As with every UN organization, part of this crisis of mission is financial. According to UNICEF’s own budget advisory committee, twenty-five percent of UNICEF’s budget pays for headquarters and staff in New York, Tokyo, Geneva and Brussels, four of the most expensive cities in the world. This doesn’t include the twenty-five to forty percent that national support committees are allowed to skim from fundraising for their own use. One suspects that Ted Turner would never invest in a business this top heavy with management, but the eyes of charity are often blind. Good motives hide bad balance sheets.

In the field, things only get worse, degenerating from waste to theft. In 1994, a UNICEF office in Kenya was expanded to deal with a sudden flood of refugees from nearby Somalia, and the agency pumped in thirty-seven million dollars. An audit later found that ten million dollars was missing. In Somalia itself, UNICEF’s emergency aid project suffered complete breakdown. Auditors found “the non submission of donor reports, the absence of control over staff personal accounts, presumptive fraud, overpayments of the daily subsistence allowance, theft, and the improper disposal of equipment.”

Recently, the accounting firm of Booz-Allen was hired to do a comprehensive review and audit of UNICEF, interviewing 350 UNICEF managers and 750 staff. It concluded that the organization has no clear mission and no financial accountability. It hides costs from its own executive board; lacks elementary cost controls; has a staff with a “luxury hotel syndrome”; and engages in rampant staff padding and political hiring. The fastest growing components of UNICEF’s budget are research, studies, publications, travel, and consultants—and it is careful to employ a public relations staff of 400, at a cost of twenty-five million dollars a year.

The last item buys a great deal of damage control, and damage control has become quite necessary as UNICEF comes under increasing scrutiny for the failure of the operations that built its reputation. Most disturbing is the collapse of its immunization efforts. In 1980 it set itself a ten-year goal of 100 percent immunization for the world’s children from the most deadly diseases. But rather than undertake a serious, long-term effort, UNICEF adopted the strategy of creating the illusion of immediate progress. A January 1995 article in the British Medical Journal concluded, “Instead of gradually developing the health care infrastructure . . .  UNICEF injected vast sums of money and external manpower in an attempt to satisfy its donors with visible results.” One expert refers to this practice as “the parachuting in of foreign agents into countries to immunize them from above.” Another doctor reported that “workers in Ethiopia admitted falsifying the data on immunization coverage ‘because UNICEF gave them so much money, they didn’t want to disappoint them.”

The result has been one-time gains that quickly disappear when UNICEF moves along to its next campaign. In Ghana, a substantial surge in immunization coverage in 1989-90 allowed UNICEF to claim success. But those gains were cut almost immediately by forty to fifty percent when the outside resources were removed. Nigeria followed a similar pattern—peaking at seventy percent coverage in 1990, and falling to under twenty percent in 1994. In the Central African Republican, measles coverage has dropped to thirty-two percent of infants, while in Ethiopia it has plunged to ten percent. Just five African countries are on target to meet the UN goal of ninety percent immunization against measles by the year 2000.

Instead of solving these problems, UNICEF launched a major new campaign to encourage, that’s right, breastfeeding. Most experts agree that, all else being equal, breastfeeding is best, especially in poor regions with unsanitary water. But with the advent of AIDS, all else is not equal. Researchers have known since 1985 that the AIDS virus can be transmitted through mother’s milk. One study in South Africa suggests that breastfeeding increases the risk of passing HIV from mother to child by twenty-eight percent. The UN itself estimates that one third of all infants with HIV got the virus through their mother’s milk. And doctors in industrialized nations for a decade have recommended that HIV infected mothers use formula.

But UNICEF continues its quixotic Third World campaign, recommending “as a general principle, in all populations, irrespective of HIV infection rates, breastfeeding should continue to be protected, promoted and supported.” The organization, says one expert, is “in denial.”

Political Action

UNICEF’s main contributions to public health are failed or questionable. But that is increasingly beside the point. UNICEF has shifted its focus from emergency relief to political organization, practicing activism instead of compassion. The executive director of UNICEF, Carol Bellamy, is blunt: “Now that eighty percent of the world is immunized against many childhood diseases like polio and the measles, the organization [UNICEF] can look at other issues, such as war and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.” A false premise, as we’ve seen, matched with a goal irrelevant to UNICEF’s mission. The organization has clearly not been humbled by its failures. A UNICEF Deputy Director grandly states, “We have goals for the world, not the organization.”

This political preoccupation can be traced in UNICEF’s own literature. Open its 1992 annual report and you’ll find an account of UNICEF’s involvement with the “Twenty-Seven Goal Declaration and Plan of Action from the World’s Summit for Children,” the “Fifty-Four Articles of the Convention of the Rights of the Child,” the “Innocenti Declaration on Ten Steps to Breastfeeding,” along with attendance reports from the “Earth Summit” and the “Global Assembly of Women.” Much of the attention is on political manifestos, international conferences, summits and symposia. Dr. James Le Fanu, medical columnist for The Sunday Telegraph of London, notes that thirty years ago, UNICEF documents talked about, “promoting sanitation, the control of specific diseases such as malaria, yaws, tuberculosis, and trachoma, and improved child nutrition . . . The practical activities of UNICEF on which its reputation rests,” he observes, “seem to have been replaced by one activity for which all UN agencies are notorious—international declarations emerging from world conferences of experts.”

A few years ago, the governments of Australia, Canada, Denmark and Switzerland sponsored a comprehensive study of UNICEF, concluding that its forays into political activism were compromising its ability to deliver relief assistance. The report stated that UNICEF was achieving a “limited” effectiveness in “sustained program delivery,” while the organization’s chief strength was now “advocacy.” This shift has translated directly into disturbing results on the ground. Consider an entry from a 1996 review of UNICEF programs in Ecuador:

There was praise for the program’s social mobilization efforts . . . which gave expression to the children’s views, concerns and hopes during the run-up to the 1996 general election . . .  Participants were concerned, however, by the dispersion of efforts and resources among ten programs and 211 activities, especially as supplementary funding was not received at the rate originally anticipated. The programs most affected by the funding shortfall were nutrition, young children development; and water and sanitation projects. [emphasis added.]

“Social mobilization” is funded, while nutrition, child development, and water and sanitation are not. These are priorities of an organization that has abandoned its traditional ideals.

National Family Planning

The shape of UNICEF’s new ideals are not difficult to discern, and the Vatican has discerned them correctly. UNICEF finds itself in frequent cooperation and common cause with the UN Population Fund, the World Health Organization, the International Planned Parenthood Federation—organizations that define the prerequisite of development and the rights of women as the absence of children. UNICEF employs a bodyguard of euphemisms, but its priorities are clear. A 1996 publication called Profiles of UN Organization Working in Population states,

A number of UNICEF country offices have supported family planning within their health, education and social mobilization programs . . . programs in Ghana, Myanmar, and Zambia have also supported family planning within a broader package of reproductive services.

“A broader package of reproductive services” or “efforts to prevent unsafe abortion”—these are all code words for promoting abortion itself. The document continues, “Headquarters directives have exhorted field staff to coordinate with the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) and other organizations working in family planning.”

The UN Population Fund reported in 1990 that UNICEF gave more than one million dollars to aid a Malawi project for the “development of surgical contraceptive services”—another interesting turn of phrase. In 1995, the Women’s Health Compendium prepared for the Beijing woman’s conference advocated “ready access to safe abortion services” as one of the “human rights of women.” The document added, “we especially want to acknowledge the support of UNICEF in making the printing and distribution of this document possible.”

As it stands, there is little hope that UNICEF will change its course. Its executive director since 1995, Bellamy, cannot resist these trends because she embodies them. As a New York state senator, she opposed even a “conscience clause” that would have allowed doctors and hospitals to refuse to take part in abortions because of moral and religious objections. In her previous job as head of the Peace Corps, she allowed that organization to drift as well, providing little strategic direction.

Even on financial reform, Bellamy has dragged her feet. An internal oversight committee at UNICEF charged her with presenting a “misleading” budget designed to disguise growing staff costs and reprimanded her for adding to UNICEF’s mammoth bureaucracy in New York “at the expense of project delivery in the field.” Just one excerpt:

The Executive Director estimates the overhead ratio of UNICEF to be eight and a half percent for 1996-1997 biennium. In the view of the committee, this presentation of UNICEF overhead is misleading and serves no purpose . . . Upon inquiry, the committee was informed that that administrative and program support costs for headquarters and field offices (regional and country offices) would be approximately twenty-five and a half percent of the total projected expenditure.

At some point between 8.5 and 25.5 percent, “misleading” becomes deceiving.

UNICEF is permitted to pursue this agenda by one thing: the support of the United States—its government and its people. The United States government is UNICEF’s single largest source of funding, contributing sixteen percent of its budget (Sweden is a close second). Over the years, the U.S. Committee for UNICEF, the oldest and largest of all national fundraising committees, has contributed over $507 million. Spare change collected by American children at Halloween has added another $100 million to UNICEF’s coffers.

Agencies of the United Nations have proven themselves immune to any and all pressure to reform themselves — except the pressure of withholding money. UNICEF is particularly vulnerable to this approach, as not all of its revenue comes from government. Corporations might be convinced they are complicit in an agenda they do not share—or at least that is not shared by many people who buy their products. The NEA might be encouraged to go on record that UNICEF fundraising should be kicked out of schools. Perhaps members of the media could be convinced to follow up on this sad but interesting story of a noble organization gone bad. Many Americans would be open to the message that a children’s organization that cannot bring itself to criticize China’s treatment of children has forfeited their sympathy, with or without Katie Couric.

China, in many ways, has become the moral litmus test of our time, the way that communist Russia or Nazi Germany were in others. The ideology of death camps and gulags is clearly reflected in “dying rooms.” An organization that cannot see that reflection has lost the insight characterized by its originally high ideals, and begun the ruin of its reputation. UNICEF is far down this path.


Samuel Casey Carter, formerly the associate editor of Crisis, is the president of Carter Research.