United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) History

3 United Nations Plaza
New York, New York 10017

Telephone: (212) 326-7000
Fax: (212) 887-7465

Non-Profit Organization
Founded: 1946
Employees: 7,000
Operating Income: $1.44 billion (2002)
NAIC: 813212 Voluntary Health Organizations

Company Perspectives:

UNICEF is the driving force that helps build a world where the rights of every child are realized. We have the global authority to influence decision-makers, and the variety of partners at grassroots level to turn the most innovative ideas into reality. That makes us unique among world organizations, and unique among those working with the young. We believe that nurturing and caring for children are the cornerstones of human progress. UNICEF was created with this purpose in mind--to work with others to overcome the obstacles that poverty, violence, disease and discrimination place in a child's path. We believe that we can, together, advance the cause of humanity.

Key Dates:

Organization is established by the United Nations.
Organization is given a permanent charter.
International Year of the Child.
UNICEF begins new focus on four basic child health measures: health monitoring, breastfeeding, immunization, and hydration.
UNICEF predicts that childhood polio will be completely eradicated by the year 2005.

Company History:

The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) is one of the world's best-known organizations devoted to the health and welfare of children. UNICEF is headquartered in New York, and works with children in 158 countries. The group works through local offices in these countries. It also operates a European regional office in Geneva, Switzerland, a special office in Brussels, Belgium, and an Office for Japan in Tokyo. UNICEF's Supply Division, which handles most of its vaccine packing and distribution, is located in Copenhagen, Denmark. UNICEF also maintains the Innocenti Research Centre, in Florence, Italy. The Innocenti is the group's main social science research arm, helping to compile data on issues relating to children and exploring policy options relating to the financing of social programs. UNICEF is a non-profit group that receives about two-thirds of its funding from governments. The remaining one-third of its funding comes from its own fundraising activities, such as its sales of greeting cards and its "Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF" campaigns, and from donations from individuals and private groups. The group is a United Nations organization that began as a response to the plight of children in the aftermath of World War II. Its mandate gradually broadened to include ongoing support for children in all parts of the world. UNICEF has been instrumental in programs to vaccinate children against communicable diseases, and is a leader in work on prevention of HIV/AIDS. UNICEF is a strong advocate for universal education, for girls as well as boys, and the agency also works to overcome violence and discrimination against children. UNICEF responds to children in emergency situations, such as supplying food and rebuilding healthcare infrastructure in war-torn areas. UNICEF also works to promote children's health and welfare in non-emergency situations, with ongoing programs that seek to curtail child labor or advocate breastfeeding, for example. UNICEF also acts as a voice for children's issues, publishing an annual State of the World's Children and many other reports on specific problems and goals

Response to Children's Needs After World War II

UNICEF was founded in December 1946. World War II was over, but the devastating effects of the war years continued to be felt by people across Europe. The United Nations was itself founded in October 1945, and it had begun operating a relief organization called the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to combat famine and disease in liberated Europe. UNRRA's initial mission was to bring relief to civilians all across Europe. The war had left millions without shelter, farming had been severely disrupted, and the population was extremely vulnerable to communicable diseases such as tuberculosis. UNRRA had existed in some form since 1943, and over the next three years it fed millions of European children and adults. By late 1946, however, the former Allies began to regroup, and as the Cold War began, Europe fell into distinct Eastern and Western zones. UNRRA was to be wound down, though its budget had not all been spent, on the tacit understanding that it was not equally welcome in all parts of Europe. However, there was still a huge need for a relief group, especially as the winter of 1946-47 threatened to become one of the worst on record.

As UNRRA disbanded, the United Nations agreed to charter a new group with a focus on the emergency needs of children in particular. Though UNICEF rose in response to World War II, the concept of children's aid had its roots in World War I. The British social reformer Eglantyne Jebb had documented the effect of that war on children, and had founded the Save the Children International Union (SCIU). SCIU believed there was no such thing as an "enemy" child, and wished to minister to children no matter what side their parents had fought on. SCIU's principles were adopted by the League of Nations in 1924 as the World Child Welfare Charter. The SCIU merged into the International Union of Child Welfare by 1946, and this group pressed the United Nations to continue to work for war-scarred children. U.S. Army film makers had also put together a 19-minute documentary, "Seeds of Destiny," which captured the wretched plight of postwar children. The film, which contained images of children begging, foraging in garbage dumps, and barely surviving in hospitals and orphanages, eventually raised $200 million for children's welfare work. It was shown at the last meeting of UNRRA's governing council, at which point the council voted to propose to the United Nations that its leftover budget be used to continue relief work for children. Thus, UNICEF came into being.

The group's first leader was Maurice Pate, an American investment banker who had worked closely with Herbert Hoover on relief efforts after World War I. Pate found children's needs after World War II to be three times greater than after World War I, and he was anxious to lead UNICEF. However, he accepted the job only if he could use the organization to help all needy children, no matter their nationality and the ex-combatant status of their governments. This was, of course, a controversial point, but Pate made clear from the start that UNICEF would put children above politics, and all would be treated equally. UNICEF brought aid to children on both sides of the civil war in Greece, for example, and brought food and medicine to children in the new country of Israel as well as to Palestinians who had been displaced.

The group's initial efforts were focused on Europe and Japan. Dr. Ludwik Rajchman, a Polish doctor and public health specialist on UNICEF's first executive board, was instrumental in hooking the group up with the Red Cross in the Scandinavian countries, and distributing from Copenhagen vaccine for tuberculosis. UNICEF organized mass tuberculosis vaccinations across the world, and by 1951 the group had vaccinated some 14 million children. Distribution of the vaccine was not simple, as it had to be kept cool and away from light, and relief workers had to travel into remote regions to reach children in the countryside. Other UNICEF projects were less glamorous but just as necessary. The group provided millions of pounds of cotton to European governments, to be made up into diapers and infant clothing. The group also provided shoes, or leather for shoes, for European children in the 1940s. Children without shoes could not attend school in cold weather, and when they went barefoot they risked tetanus and pneumonia. UNICEF distributed two million pairs of shoes and boots across Europe in the late 1940s.

Another important goal was to get milk to malnourished children after the war. Milk was difficult to transport and to keep fresh, so the group had to import dried milk, a new invention. The milk powder came mostly from the United States, Canada, and Australia. Between 1947 and 1951, UNICEF shipped 400 million pounds of milk powder to children in needy countries, reaching approximately seven million children.

While poorly nourished children needed milk, they also had other pressing dietary needs. In the immediate postwar years, millions of children suffered from rickets, a bone-softening disease caused by a lack of vitamin D. The disease was said to affect one-third of Polish children, and other countries too had epidemics of rickets. UNICEF combated rickets with donated cod liver oil, which mostly came from Canada, Norway, and New Zealand. UNICEF had shipped some 8.5 million pounds of cod liver oil, plus seven million shark liver oil capsules, by 1951.

A Broadened Mission in the 1950s

UNICEF's charter came up for review in the United Nations in 1950. The group had already been successful in helping children in Europe and Japan, and had begun to extend into Latin America and Asia. However, the U.S. delegate to the United Nations, Eleanor Roosevelt, argued that the group was only meant to be temporary, to sustain children wracked by war, and at this point UNICEF's work could be taken over by other groups such as the World Health Organization. Roosevelt was eloquently countered by Ahmed Shah Bokhari, the delegate from Pakistan. Though Roosevelt was an esteemed figure and represented a powerful nation, Bokhari disagreed with her absolutely, and pleaded that the work of UNICEF was only beginning. Pictures of European child victims of war looked very like normal children in poor countries like Pakistan, Bokhari stated. UNICEF should not fold but continue its work with the needy children in the developing world. Roosevelt was reportedly shocked by Bokhari's presentation and felt very badly for having opposed his viewpoint. In the end, the United Nations General Assembly voted unanimously to extend UNICEF's charter for another three years. In 1953, when the issue of UNICEF's charter came up again, Roosevelt argued vociferously that the group be made permanent.

UNICEF derived its funding principally from U.N. member governments. It began fundraising on its own in 1951, with the sale of greeting cards. UNICEF director Maurice Pate was at first afraid that selling greeting cards might be too commercial for a non-profit group, and he put up his personal funds for the first run of UNICEF greeting cards, which featured a painting by a seven-year-old Czech girl. However, the group made $16,000 on its first printing of the cards, and this became a very popular fundraiser. In 1952 UNICEF asked the French painter Raoul Dufy to create a design for a UNICEF card. Dufy was the first of a series of world-renowned artists to donate designs to UNICEF. Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dali and many other notable artists contributed artwork to UNICEF to be made into greeting cards.

Helping Refugees in the 1960s-70s

Maurice Pate died suddenly in 1965. He was followed as executive director of UNICEF by Henry R. Labouisse, a New York lawyer who had helped set up the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II and headed relief work for UNRRA in the Middle East in the 1950s. Labouisse brought UNICEF's help to children who were caught in civil wars across the globe. In the Nigerian civil war, from 1967 to 1970, UNICEF brought food to millions of starving mothers and children. Because of the intense fighting, it was impossible to bring food into the breakaway southeastern province Biafra. Labouisse met with Nigeria's leader, General Yakubu Gowon, in 1968, and pleaded for UNICEF helicopters to be allowed to land food in Biafra during the evening hours. The general promised that the night flights would not be shot down, and UNICEF was able to deliver at least 12 tons of food to children on the Biafran side.

A similar situation occurred in 1970, when East Pakistan seceded from Pakistan, becoming Bangladesh. An estimated ten million refugees escaped to India during the fighting, and UNICEF found itself with the daunting task of bringing food and medicine to the displaced people living in camps. During the Biafran crisis, UNICEF developed a special liquid food for children who were too weak from malnourishment to feed themselves. This formula, called K-Mix-2, was extremely useful in India as well.

Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam intensified. UNICEF had been giving relief to children in the south of that country since 1954. North Vietnam, however, would not accept UNICEF's aid. Labouisse was able to broker an agreement in 1973 that let UNICEF into the north. UNICEF brought needed food and medicine, and also worked to rebuild schools and hospitals. Labouisse also visited the leaders of Kampuchea in 1979, and was able to get UNICEF aid to millions of displaced people in that country. Labouisse's negotiation skills were key in maintaining UNICEF's mission to bring aid to all sides of a conflict.

Labouisse's tenure at UNICEF ended in 1979, which the United Nations declared the International Year of the Child. The International Year of the Child put a focus on children in all parts of the world. The problems of children in war-torn areas were clear, but the International Year of the Child led to new programs for less obvious troubles, such as child prostitution and drug abuse. Hundreds of new organizations came into being that year, as children's problems were explored all across the globe. The prestige of UNICEF was very high at that time. Its income rose 25 percent in 1979, to $285 million from $211 million a year earlier.

"Silent Emergency" in the 1980s

After Labouisse retired, he was succeeded by James P. Grant. Grant had a new plan for UNICEF, wanting to make it more effective for more people. Grant thought that aid such as UNICEF provided was woefully inadequate given the severity of the problems of poor nations. He hoped to both make UNICEF's contributions more helpful, and to strengthen existing social structures within communities that used UNICEF's aid. Grant came up with the phrase "silent emergency" to describe the ongoing effects of poverty on children. By this he meant that children's lives were routinely threatened in ways that didn't merit bold headlines and front-page pictures. He focused UNICEF on four basic strategies to bolster child survival. These were child growth monitoring, so that parents and health workers could detect malnutrition in very young children; breastfeeding, which was markedly better for children than infant formulas; immunization against six common diseases; and oral rehydration, a simple practice that could reverse the often lethal effects of infant diarrhea.

In UNICEF's 1982 report, The State of the World's Children, Grant advocated a global focus on these basic steps to ensure children's health. Grant met with leaders all over the world to promote the new program. UNICEF's most marked success over the 1980s was the increase in child immunization rates. In many parts of the developing world where vaccination rates had been below 10 percent, rates increased to around 50 percent by the end of the 1980s, and were at 80 percent by the mid-1990s. Other aspects of the four basic strategies took longer to implement. Though bottle-fed babies had been shown to be many times more vulnerable to malnutrition and disease in poor communities, UNICEF had only partial success in promoting breastfeeding in the 1980s. In 1990, UNICEF, in partnership with the World Health Organization, relaunched its breastfeeding campaign. UNICEF began certifying hospitals as "baby-friendly" if they complied with certain guidelines that promoted breastfeeding. Some countries, such as Mexico, made fast gains with this new program. Mexico's infant mortality rate fell by one-third between 1990 and 1994.

The 1990s and Beyond

With its focus in the 1980s on key steps to child survival, UNICEF also developed new ways to track and measure children's health. In 1993 it began putting out a new annual report called The Progress of Nations. This was a compendium of statistics relating to child health, and it allowed for easy comparisons of countries with similar problems or similar incomes. Overall, the news was good. By 1995, UNICEF's State of the World's Children found that for 90 percent of the world's children, rates of disease and malnutrition were falling.

James Grant died in 1995, and he was succeeded by Carol Bellamy. Bellamy was a corporate lawyer, a former New York state senator, one-time president of the New York City city council, and the former director of the U.S. Peace Corps. Bellamy had a pragmatic focus, encouraging UNICEF outposts to increase their data collection so that the effects of aid programs could be better interpreted. Bellamy also cut costs and streamlined operations. As she came into UNICEF, many problems afflicting children seemed to be getting much better. Polio was close to being eradicated world-wide, due to UNICEF's long campaign to provide polio vaccine. By 2000, polio was still found only in sub-Saharan Africa and in South Asia, and UNICEF believed the disease would be conquered by 2005. However, AIDS continued to claim lives and leave children orphaned, particularly in Africa, and the 1990s saw armed conflicts in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, the Congo, and other places, continuing to put children's lives in jeopardy even when great gains had been made in fighting hunger and disease. Bellamy's motto was "survival for what?," meaning that children had to have something worthwhile to grow up into. She also stressed the development of children as an entry point into the greater development of a society as a whole.

Principal Operating Units: Supply Division; Innocenti Research Centre.

Principal Competitors: Children's Defense Fund; Save the Children; Soros Foundation.

Further Reading:

  • Black, Maggie, Children First: The Story of UNICEF, Past and Present, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Spiegelman, Judith M., and UNICEF, We Are the Children: A Celebration of UNICEF's First 40 Years, Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.
  • "The Rotary Foundation Honors UNICEF," M2 Presswire, May 23, 2000.
  • "UNICEF Report: UNICEF Says Eradication of Polio in Sight," Africa News Service, July 23, 1999.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 58. St. James Press, 2004.