February 11, 2018

Caring for the Arab region’s children

It’s a relief to hear the new UNICEF pledge to put children’s developmental needs first.
A Yemeni infant suffering from malnutrition is weighed and measured at a medical centre in Bani Hawat, on the outskirts of Sanaa. (AFP)
A Yemeni infant suffering from malnutrition is weighed and measured at a medical centre in Bani Hawat, on the outskirts of Sanaa. (AFP)

Children suffer cruelly, deeply, disproportionately in war zones, which is why it’s a relief to hear the new head of UNICEF, the United Nations’ second largest agency, pledge to put children’s developmental needs first.

In January, soon after she started the UNICEF job, American businesswoman and former USAID administrator Henrietta Holsman Fore spoke about a child development-centred approach in some of the world’s most conflict-scarred areas. It can’t just be about humanitarian objectives in crises such as Yemen and Syria, Fore said, “you can’t forget that there is a development agenda.”

She might have added that there is no more powerful sign of a society committed to rebuilding — and to a better tomorrow — than the sight of schools reopening and children in uniform heading to class even if amid piles of rubble. That’s what happened in Mosul in January last year.

Unfortunately, not enough attention is paid to the long-term consequences of years of war in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. When children are meant to be at school, far too many are in refugee camps or just on their own. Too often, the educational infrastructure is part of the collateral damage of war. At times, the region’s governments just do not have sufficient budgets.

Some 26 million children live in conflict-scarred Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, the Palestinian territories and Sudan. Their humanitarian needs are obvious — adequate housing, safe water, sanitation, health care, etc. Governments and aid organisations from the region and beyond try to address them as best they can but what of those children’s developmental needs, primarily education, the best start that anyone can have in life?

This question is rarely asked when war sweeps a land and crisis-management takes priority. In fact, it’s not being asked now, when there is dispiriting news of the toll of children’s lives from MENA conflicts in January. UNICEF said at least 83 children were killed last month in conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and the Palestinian territories. With no sign of these conflicts ending, many more children are likely to become casualties of wars that began before many of them were even born.

UNICEF’s MENA Regional Director Geert Cappelaere framed January’s tragic toll within the larger context spelt out by Fore. “Not hundreds, not thousands but millions more children in the Middle East and North Africa region have their childhood stolen, maimed for life, traumatised, arrested and detained, exploited, prevented from going to school and from getting the most essential health services; denied even the basic right to play,” Cappelaere said.

It was a pertinent reminder that the global community needs to stay engaged despite discernible signs of donor fatigue. MENA’s children are the region’s future. They must be educated and trained to become the decision-makers and doers of tomorrow.

It’s clear what needs to happen but there is no certainty it will. Dropout rates must be reduced, digital literacy enhanced and vocational training given a sharp new focus.

The world has a responsibility to the children of MENA but mostly the task devolves to Arab governments, regional institutions and civil society.

The time for action is now.

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