Putting out many fires

Gillian Mellsop, UNICEFs representative

For the last 64 years The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has been working to reduce child and maternal mortality in Ethiopia. UNICEF also provides services in health, nutrition, WASH programs, education, child protection, crisis intervention and fostering resilience. Gillian Mellsop has been UNICEF’s representative in Ethiopia since April 2015. Recently the organization has been fighting to alleviate the adverse affects of droughts that have threatened the lives of farmers and their families. Some of the other issues that concern UNICEF are female genital mutilation and early marriage in Ethiopia. Previously she was working in Nepal and China as a representative for UNICEF. She studied Development Management at Australian National University Capital’s Tesfaye Getnet sat down with Gillian Mellsop to find out more about what UNICEF is accomplishing in Ethiopia.

Capital: UNICEF has been in Ethiopia for 64 years what would you say are the biggest accomplishments and challenges the organization has faced?

Gillian Mellsop: Ethiopia has achieved significant development progress. Through the support of UNICEF and other partners mortality for children under-five in Ethiopia has been reduced by two thirds. In primary education the net enrolment rose from 21 percent in 1996 to 93 percent in 2014 – this is a remarkable achievement. Ethiopia’s progress in reducing poverty is also significant: over the past 25 years, the number of Ethiopians living in poverty has been cut in half. However, challenges remain. For instance, progress has not always been equal. There are strong discrepancies in development outcomes between the bottom and top income groups. Progress has also not reached all parts of the population yet: while the proportion of people living in poverty has been halved, the absolute number of people living in poverty is still unacceptably high at 25 million. There are also still three million children who are not in school. Therefore, our challenge – and primary focus of our work – is on reaching those left behind. In addition, Ethiopia is prone to natural disasters. This can jeopardize the gains made from development. One of our key efforts will be in supporting the Government to help build the resilience of communities so that they can cope when shocks occur.

Capital: As the world is experiencing more and more humanitarian disasters, how difficult has it become to get funding from donors?

Gillian Mellsop: Today, an estimated 535 million children – nearly one in four – live in countries affected by conflict or disaster, often without access to medical care, quality education, proper nutrition and protection. Sub-Saharan African countries are home to nearly three-quarters – 393 million – of these children living in countries affected by emergencies. UNICEF’s donors have been incredibly generous and flexible and continue to allow UNICEF to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance to children and families in countries affected by emergencies around the world, including Ethiopia. This includes providing access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation services, basic healthcare and nutrition, access to education and support to help protect children from violence, exploitation and abuse. However, the unprecedented scale of emergencies impacts the availability of humanitarian funding. In response, UNICEF is working closely with governments to strengthen communities’ resilience to ensure that crises have minimal impact on lives and livelihoods.

This is a key strategy to reduce emergency related funding requirements in the long term and to ensure that development gains are sustainable. In addition, we work closely with governments on diversifying development funding modalities as was reflected in the outcome of last year’s Financing for Development Conference. More specifically, we support governments in their efforts to mobilize private and public domestic resources for development funding.

Capital: What is your assessment of the state of children in Ethiopia? What is the biggest current threat in their lives?

Gillian Mellsop: As mentioned previously, the situation of children in Ethiopia reflects the remarkable progress Ethiopia has achieved. Never before have so many Ethiopian children survived to see their fifth birthday, attended schools and enjoyed opportunities to fulfill their potential.

However, much needs to be done to ensure that all children benefit from these achievements. Children’s lives are most threatened in their first weeks and months of life: while under-five mortality has been reduced to 67 deaths per 1,000 live births, the vast majority, 48 of under-five children’s deaths, occur within children’s first 12 months of life.

Moreover, lack of access to safe water and adequate nutrition still present threats to children’s lives and well-being. Stunting rates among children remain high at 38 per cent.

In addition, Ethiopia is globally among the top five counties affected by natural disasters associated with the effects of climate change. The lives and livelihoods of current and future generations of Ethiopian children will be affected by recurrent natural disasters, such as floods and droughts.

Capital: How do you operate when there is political unrest in the country?

Gillian Mellsop: UNICEF has a long history and vast experience of operating in diverse contexts. Often, rapid progress and modernization lead to societal and political change and UNICEF’s in-depth country experience and strong field presence allow the organization to adapt its operation to changing contexts. Bound by the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality, UNICEF works with all partners to ensure that children continue to receive basic services under any circumstance.

Capital: International humanitarian organizations usually are criticized for mismanaging funds and mediocre work. How do you make sure that you give donors the confidence they need to continue providing UNICEF funding?

Gillian Mellsop: This year’s World Humanitarian Summit has highlighted the global humanitarian community’s strong commitment to improving humanitarian performance and efficiency.

Delivering humanitarian programs in difficult contexts indeed comes with higher risks. UNICEF manages risks through robust monitoring of our programs. Our strong field presence (in eight regions of Ethiopia) and regular financial monitoring of organizations we work with allows us to ensure that programs are being delivered as intended.

Capital: One of UNICEF’s projects in Ethiopia is working in refugee camps in Ethiopia, What is the situation like in Gambella? We understand there were issues with providing education to the children due to lack of funding.

Gillian Mellsop: Ethiopia is host to the largest refugee populations in Africa. Currently, there are 783,340 refugees in the country. Ethiopia’s incredibly generous open door policy requires a large amount of resources and coordination to ensure that all refugee children are provided with essential services and are protected from harm.

UNICEF is working closely with the Government, UNHCR, and other partners to provide essential services for refugees and host communities, including for the nearly 342,000 refugees in Gambella region.

In terms of education for refugee children, the Government of Ethiopia, UNICEF and other partners recognize ever child’s fundamental right to education. UNICEF continues to work with its partners on establishing learning facilities that provide quality education to both refugee and host community children. In 2016, UNICEF has worked closely with the Regional Education Bureau, UNHCR and NGO’s to provide 76,500 refugee and host community children and young people with schooling opportunities.

Over the past year, UNICEF provided financial assistance for the construction of 32 primary classrooms in the Gambella refugee camps – acknowledging that this is but a small contribution to the significant needs towards the full school enrolment of refugee children. UNICEF continues to advocate both within Ethiopia and internationally for greater investment in educational services for refugee children as we see this as critical to ensuring that children and young people have the foundational skills to succeed in later life.

Capital: What about those who have been affected by the drought during the last two years, how is UNICEF helping families build back their livelihoods?

Gillian Mellsop: Although the recent drought has been one of the most severe in Ethiopia’s recorded history, the Government’s strong leadership and Ethiopia’s robust social service and social protection systems have ensured that the impact on lives and livelihoods was, relatively, minimal. However, 9.7 million people require food assistance and 420,000 children are expected to require treatment for severe acute malnutrition in 2016.

UNICEF continues to invest in systems, such as the health extension and the productive social safety net programmes, to build national capacities to respond to crises in an effective manner.

For instance, under the overall leadership of the Government, in 2016, UNICEF and partners have ensured that nearly four million people in humanitarian situations had access to safe water. With UNICEF and partners’ support, between the onset of the El Nino driven drought in June 2015 and September 2016, 483,283 children under five with severe acute malnutrition were admitted to therapeutic care and more than 1.1 million children and women affected by the drought had access to essential health services.

Capital: In the future how does UNICEF plan to carry out its activities in Ethiopia?

Gillian Mellsop: Looking back at more than 60 years of history in Ethiopia, UNICEF is very proud of the contribution the organization has made to the country’s remarkable progress. As mentioned before, many challenges remain and UNICEF looks forward to continuing to work closely with the Government in ‘going the last mile’ to reach those left behind.

As Ethiopia is rapidly transforming, and as it aspires to achieve middle income status by 2025, the support provided by UNICEF is also adapting to the country’s changing needs.

In the medium term, we will work closely with the Government and partners to achieve the targets of the Second Growth and Transformation Plan as well as the Sustainable Development Goals, which includes a strong focus on inclusive growth.

UNICEF will also provide support to the Government in its efforts to eliminate child marriage and FGM/C by 2020 which is one critical element in ensuring that girls and women in Ethiopia can be the drivers of future development.

In addition, state of the art brain development research has shown the incredible benefits of investing in children’s early years. UNICEF and partners look forward to working closely with the Government to ensure that these benefits can be reaped in Ethiopia. Capitalizing on Ethiopia’s existing strong government systems, we will support enabling these systems to provide an environment in which human capital can develop to its full potential.

Capital: The US election has been a focus of discussion for African countries and there is fear that the US might cut development finance to the continent. Do you think that will happen, have you had discussions about this and what would be the ramifications if it does occur?

Gillian Mellsop: The US continues to be one of the leaders in terms of development financing, globally as well as in Africa. However, as mentioned earlier, the global development financing environment is changing due to a number of reasons, including the unprecedented scale of emergencies, UNICEF will work with governments to adapt to these challenges to ensure that progress for children and women will continue to be supported.