Skip to main content
“UNICEF will focus on reducing disparities between children living with means and those without.”

“UNICEF will focus on reducing disparities between children living with means and those without.”

Adele Khodr

Adele Khodr is the new head of UNICEF Ethiopia. She has had a long and rich career with one of the world's leading international humanitarian agency. Here, she reflects with The Reporter's Samuel Getachew on her career, on finding action oriented initiatives in the midst of foreign investment that is changing the narrative of the nation and on a new country report UNICEF is set to release on Ethiopia. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Congratulations on your new appointment. You have had a long association with UNICEF, starting with your appointment in your native Lebanon, and to Sudan and South Asia, on child trafficking issues and in nations such as Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and India on issues of maternal health and nutrition (among others). Share with me the highlights of your work?

Adele Khodr: My journey with UNICEF started in my country Lebanon where I worked for almost ten years before moving to an international career in UNICEF. I have worked in difficult duty stations where UNICEF is needed most, ranging from development contexts to emergency situations. My aim in all these countries has been to ensure that UNICEF adds value to the children and works jointly with all partners, both governmental and non-governmental. In India, with my team, we were able to contribute to polio eradication in the state of Uttar Pradesh which is the most populous state in India with about 200 million people. Responding to the drought situation and putting girls’ education on the agenda of the Government and all partners were two of my key areas of work in Afghanistan, in addition of course to working on polio eradication which remains under way. The work for children is immense and requires efforts of all partners, and not only UNICEF!

Upon your official appointment, Ethiopia’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Markos Tekle Rike noted how Ethiopia wants to strengthen the multilateralism and partnership with UNICEF in results oriented initiatives. UNICEF has been in Ethiopia for eon. Share with me some of its work in Ethiopia that has been vital in making an impact on the ground?

Indeed, I presented my credentials to His Excellency Markos Tekle Rike, State Minister of Foreign Affairs, and discussed our joint commitment to strengthening our partnership for more and better results for children.

UNICEF has been in Ethiopia since 1952. It shares with the Government and the people of Ethiopia the vision of better lives and a brighter future for all children, wherever they live and whatever their socio-economic circumstances. During this period, we have seen Ethiopia become among the first countries to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child and to achieve most of the Millennium Development Goals. Over the last two decades, under-five child mortality has been reduced by two-thirds and primary school enrolments have expanded from only about one in three children to near-universal enrolment, including for girls. Access to safe water has been expanded from 25 per cent to nearly 65 per cent of households, and stunting has been reduced from 58 per cent to 38 per cent. UNICEF is proud to have contributed to these results through its work in health, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene, education, and child and social protection. Through our annual workplans signed with the Government, we are providing technical and financial support to government ministries at federal level and various bureaus at regional level to reach children with essential social services and protect them from violence, exploitation and abuse.

There are areas, however, where we feel progress is lagging - immunization, nutrition, education and eliminating harmful traditional practices. I am looking forward to working with the Government and other partners to see how best to address these issues. For instance, I would like to see us move forward the national roadmap to end harmful practices such as child marriage by 2025 and I would also like to see accelerated progress in birth registration, which currently stands at three per cent of under-five children.

As you probably know, Ethiopia has the second largest social safety net programme in sub-Saharan Africa (after South Africa). This programme is absolutely critical for poor children and UNICEF is working to link households in the programme to other services in health and nutrition.  UNICEF’s commitment to inclusive development is guided by the belief that equitable progress is a pre-condition for social cohesion and stability. Hence our mission here in Ethiopia is guided by the ethos, For Every Child, A Better Life!

Given that Ethiopia is prone to natural and man-made disasters, UNICEF’s humanitarian and development programmes are strengthening the capacities of social service systems and communities to better cope with and recover from shocks.

Within Ethiopia, there is much effort in placing the issue of foreign investment as paramount to its development. In 2019, to donors and the recipient society of Ethiopia, why do you think development aid is still important to a nation such as Ethiopia as it transforms itself from an aid dependent nation to one that welcomes the world to invest within it?

Ethiopia’s economic growth is remarkable. GDP has increased ten-fold over the last two decades. Within this context, the role of development aid continues to change. As GDP grows, the share of development aid to GDP and government revenue declines. We are all happy when a country can increasingly rely on domestic resources to finance its development needs.

Yet, despite Ethiopia’s impressive economic expansion and ongoing structural transformation, development aid continues to play an important role in complementing the country’s development efforts. More targeted support includes strengthening the overall effectiveness and efficiency of Government systems and programmes, an area UNICEF is engaged in. Such support has a multiplier effect – an efficient and well-oiled government machinery delivers quality and equitable services to all children.

Furthermore, development aid is critical in reaching pockets of the population that are benefitting less from national development programmes, for instance, the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach children for whom UNICEF is strengthening the quality and availability of services. We are doing this through research, innovation and technical assistance. Recently, UNICEF partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop Arktek, a cold-chain device that is capable of storing ice-cooled vaccines for up to one month in remote locations. Capable of being transported by car or camel, the technology is enabling health posts in Ethiopia’s remote areas with no access to electricity to provide essential and lifesaving immunization to remote agrarian communities, mobile pastoralists, villages that are far from a health center.  The Government is now implementing this technology - produced by private manufacturers  - as part of its immunization programme.

This example also shows that while traditional development aid remains critical to leveraging Government resources for development, achieving national development goals will require development partners to harness the creativity, expertise and resources of the private sector, civil society, and children and young people themselves. UNICEF plays a key role in convening these partners around critical child-focused agendas.

You have described UNICEF as one that is experienced with “the know-how and the evidence from the field to be an effective partner” of Ethiopia. Tell me about that?

As the global UN-mandated lead agency on children, UNICEF brings together cutting-edge, child-focused research and strong experience in programme implementation. For instance, in Ethiopia we are generating data and evidence on children’s issues which is informing policies, plans and programmes. We are also present at major sector forums at federal level where key decisions are made. Simultaneously, we have offices in eight regions of the country which are implementing programmes with regional governments. Their experience, grounded in the everyday realities of the people they serve, is critical to informing and shaping UNICEF programmes nationally. This is what makes our uniqueness and strength: when we talk, we talk from what we have heard, seen, and experienced!

UNICEF is also set to release its next country programme ending in 2024 in Ethiopia, the year the country is hoping to reach a middle-income nation. Share with me the highlights?

The next Government of Ethiopia-UNICEF country programme of cooperation for the period 2020-2025 will support the implementation of the Growth and Transformation Plan for 2020-2025 and contribute to Ethiopia’s attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals. In all the countries we work in, UNICEF aligns itself to national priorities for children, hence our intention to align with GTP III as well as sector-specific development plans.  UNICEF’s new country programme will continue to be part of the wider UN development agenda for Ethiopia and will build on opportunities for children arising from the reform process. It will also support the Government and its partners to better prepare, plan for, and recover from humanitarian emergencies.

Ethiopia’s population is among the world’s fastest growing, with children and adolescents accounting for about half of the population. This large and young population presents a window of opportunity for accelerated progress if effective investments are made now that will enable all children to grow into healthy, productive and empowered adults. UNICEF’s next country programme will support the Government and its partners to design and implement policies and programmes that provide children and adolescents with opportunities to actualize their rights and realize their full potential.

As part of its support to the Government, UNICEF will focus on addressing the country’s unfinished development agenda through tackling bottlenecks to progress.  For instance, despite significant achievements, gender equality remains a critical unfinished agenda and a structural barrier to progress. Limited secondary school availability and the persistence of harmful practices such as child marriage, limit the likelihood of girls making the transition from primary to secondary school. They also prevent girls from obtaining the skills necessary for productive employment. The determination of the Government to empower women is an important basis for our work on reducing child marriage and ending harmful practices such as female genital mutilation.

Other unfinished items include the lack of progress in sanitation: less than seven per cent of households in Ethiopia use an improved and not-shared sanitation facility. Since inadequate sanitation, and hence diseases like diarrhea, is a major driver of malnutrition in children, attaining progress in sanitation will lead to improved overall child wellbeing. Similarly, despite significant progress in health and education, about 800,000 children in Ethiopia remain un-immunized and 2.6 million children are out-of-school. UNICEF will continue to foster innovative partnerships in these areas.

UNICEF will focus on reducing disparities between children living with means and those without. Under-five mortality, for example, is 30 per cent higher among the poorest 20 per cent of children than those from the wealthiest 20 per cent. Disparities also exist between geographical areas, with some regions and sub-regions significantly lagging behind national averages. UNICEF will support the Government’s efforts to close these gaps and ensure that economic growth and development benefit every child.

What are some of the work that are uniquely done by UNICEF, within Ethiopia and among the thousands of NGO’s operating within the country?

Our comparative advantages are many but they include having a seat at the sector table where key decisions influencing policies and programmes are being made; our field presence in eight regions; our experience in research and data; our ability to draw on a vast international network (UNICEF presence in more than 190 countries) to inform how we do business in Ethiopia; our work through national systems to ensure we reach large numbers of children;  and the support we render to the Government to strengthen its capacity to plan, manage (including financial), and monitor and evaluate programmes.

Throughout its presence in Ethiopia, UNICEF has been a key partner in pushing through ‘big-ticket’ agenda items that have transformed entire sectors and changed millions of children’s lives for the better.    

I believe each organization brings its share into the work to improve the situation of children in Ethiopia, all in line with the Government’s development agenda and also the best interests of the child. This best interest of the child should be the yardstick against which all our work is done and assessed, whoever we are!