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Fighting for the World’s Children: Henry R. Labouisse’s Service in UNICEF

By Diana Dayoub ’21

For development is not just roads, power plants, stepped up production in industry and agriculture. Development is people, beginning with the child.

Henry R. Labouisse at the Inaugural Meeting of the UNICEF Executive Board 

Henry Labouisse Portrait (MC199, Box 24, Folder 4).

The work of UNICEF (The United Nations Children’s Fund) has recently been under the spotlight following the exodus of millions of refugees globally, many of whom are children, due to conflicts that erupted over the past ten years. At this juncture in time where many children’s lives are at stake while conflict continues to escalate in many regions, it is worthwhile looking back at UNICEF’s history and its contribution to ameliorating children’s living conditions over many decades. The Henry Labouisse Papers (MC199) offer a valuable perspective on this subject since they document Labouisse’s career as UNICEF’s Executive Director from 1965 to 1979. Labouisse’s term played a pivotal role in shaping UNICEF’s character with his leadership extending over almost 15 years of the agency’s lifespan when it was still at its infancy. 

UNICEF was created in 1946 to provide aid to children in war-torn Europe before its activity extended to developing countries in the Eastern Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa shortly thereafter. Its mission was to assist governments in offering basic services to children living “in the shadow of disease, hunger, ignorance, and poverty” (MC199, Box 24, Folder 4). Upon his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of UNICEF in December 1965, Labouisse cited  staggering statistics in his speech that formed the driving force behind UNICEF’s programs:

The hard reality is that, in more than one hundred developing countries of the world, the odds that confront the average child today–not to say a sickly one–are still overwhelming. They are 4 to 1 against his receiving any medical attention, at birth or afterwards. Even if he survives until school age, the chances are 2 to 1 that he will get no education at all; if he does get into school, the chances are about 3 to 1 that he will not complete elementary grades. Almost certainly he will have to work for a living by the time he is twelve. He will work to eat–to eat badly and not enough. And his life will, on the average, end in about 40 years. (MC199, Box 24, Folder 4)

Labouisse receives the Nobel Prize on behalf of UNICEF in December 1965 (MC199, Box 24, Folder 4).

Labouisse’s job was multifaceted, requiring him to travel extensively in developing countries across the world to oversee the implementation of UNICEF programs, monitor their progress, and advise governments regarding the place accorded to children in national development programs. In developed countries, he met regularly with government officials to solicit financial contributions to UNICEF, its main source of income (MC199, Box 25, Folder 1). Perhaps the most demanding task was managing emergency assistance in cases of conflict where many children’s lives were at stake (MC199, Box 25, Folder 3).

Throughout his career as UNICEF’s director, Labouisse placed much emphasis on the critical role that child development plays in economic development and thus, the urgency of rendering underresourced environments conducive to healthy child growth and development. He argued that such child-centered approach to development is the ultimate long-term solution to “a shortage of persons with critical skills […] and a surplus of unproductive labour” in many developing countries. In his view, not only was UNICEF helping children eat better and avoid maladies, but it was involved in a larger development scheme of a “thoroughgoing preparation of the oncoming generation as productive adults and constructive citizens.” To Labouisse and his staff, UNICEF’s work was virtually a global project for peace since they believed that the conditions of poverty and disease that surrounded millions of children “carr[ied] with them the seeds of war itself.” (MC199, Box 24, Folder 17).

“The Music for UNICEF Concert: A Gift of Song,” UN General Assembly in New York, marking the beginning of the International Year of the Child (MC199, Box 18, Folder 8).

Under Labouisse, UNICEF adopted four main guiding principles that shaped its programs: 

  • First, UNICEF adhered to the “country approach” which stipulated that programs should be tailored to the specific development context of the country where the project is being carried out, given the diversity of national priorities and local situations of children (MC199, Box 25, Folder 1). 
  • Second, coordination with other UN agencies was central to UNICEF’s operations. Nutrition projects were implemented jointly with the World Food Programme (WFP), meetings were held annually with the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to discuss program policy, and arrangements were made with the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to plan for refugee children and mothers to benefit from UNICEF aid (MC199, Box 25, Folder 2). 
  • Third, Labouisse keenly stressed the importance of the “basic services approach” of UNICEF whereby providing basic services to children was not to be underestimated from a development standpoint but had to “be seen as the starting point from which, as economic progress takes place, more extensive and complete services will be added” (MC199, Box 25, Folder 6). 
  • Finally, UNICEF was committed to putting the local community at the center of any project. Upon visiting UNICEF’s offices in East Africa and Asia, Labouisse remarked that “often the success or failure of a project depended on whether a local official had the skill, inspiration and drive to make the project work” (MC199, Box 25, Folder 1). Thus, he repeatedly emphasized the importance of UNICEF’s reliance on local workers, volunteers and consultants from developing countries to design and shape projects.
Summary of UNICEF’s assistance to Taiwan in 1965 as an example of the contribution of UNICEF at the country level (MC199, Box 26, Folder 16). (Click to enlarge.)

UNICEF’s work was concentrated in several areas under Labouisse: education, healthcare and disease prevention, clean water provision, family planning, training local populations, and improving children’s nutrition. Evidently, these basic services are key to healthy child development. Tremendous progress was achieved in many developing countries: 

  • Education was one of the priority areas that received UNICEF support, and this included formal and non-formal education with special attention paid to girls’ education. UNICEF’s work in the field of non-formal education attempted to fill the gap in education without resorting “to the mere linear extension of formal schooling.” Those endeavors came in the form of “literacy courses, women’s education, pre-vocational and youth training” (MC199, Box 25, Folder 6). 
  • Healthcare was another area of operation in which UNICEF’s accomplishments were numerous. By 1971, UNICEF had helped equip 49,000 health centers and sub-centers for children and mothers, had provided vaccinations for 350 million children against Tuberculosis, insecticides to protect 425 million children against malaria, and medications to treat 70 million cases of trachoma, yaws, and leprosy (MC199, Box 25, Folder 4). 
  • Another important highlight of UNICEF’s work under Labouisse was the clean water programs. In 1975, UNICEF dug more than 57,000 simple wells with hand pumps while another 700 with engine driven pumps were constructed in small villages. In Bangladesh, UNICEF had an expansive clean water program that aimed at constructing 300,000 village wells (MC199, Box 25, Folder 6). 
  • The onset of the population explosion in many developing countries in that late 1960s opened another front for UNICEF aid, namely assistance to family planning programs, which was to be monitored and approved by the WHO (MC199, Box 25, Folder 2). 
  • Notably, training occupied a large place on the UNICEF priority list too since about a third of the organization’s budget in 1965 was devoted to training. Training meant anything from “practical training for illiterate birth attendants to specialized post-graduate work for nutritionists, pediatricians, and social workers” (MC199, Box 24, Folder 8). 
  • Lastly and perhaps most importantly, much of UNICEF’s work was devoted to improving children’s nutrition. This began with the vitaminization of powdered milk and extended to aiding governments in establishing national dairy industries and producing high-protein foods locally. Moreover, nudging governments to consider the effects of national nutritional policies on children was one of the main UNICEF advocacy tasks.
Labouisse meeting with a relief worker in Nigeria about the famine. Photo credit: Louis Gendron. Photo published in UNICEF News in September 1968 (MC199, Box 23, Folder 8).

Labouisse explained: 

For example, a governmental decision to convert large agricultural areas from cultivation for family consumption to cash crops can have an immediate impact upon the nutritional status of the rural poor: the farmer who used to grow beans and legumes cannot feed cotton to his family, and he may not be able to purchase adequate food with his earnings. (MC199, Box 25, Folder 9)

War on Hunger 1968 (MC199, Box 25, Folder 2).

Many of those programs and development projects seem like the natural role of UNICEF today, but the Henry Labouisse Papers offer a valuable perspective on the metamorphosis of UNICEF from a modest agency geared towards relieving the children of war-afflicted Europe to a grand, multinational complex that designs and oversees the implementation of child support projects in developing countries across the globe. It sheds light on the maturing of UNICEF’s development strategies and approaches over the decades and the agency’s efforts to empower children around the world. In 2018 alone, UNICEF provided health facilities for 27 million births, the Pentavalent (5 in 1) vaccine for 65.5 million children, and access to drinking water for 43 million children, along with many other lifesaving services that were severely lacking in some developing countries. UNICEF today has become a true champion of children.

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