Interview with Nicholas Alipui, UNICEF NY HQ

Poverty and Inequality

Nicholas Alipui, Director of Programmes, emphasizes how an equity focus and human rights go hand in hand in programming: UNICEF’s equity approach is the most practical “expression” of a human rights approach to programming for children. In very personal words he talks about his experience and global challenges for UNICEF.

Interview conducted in April 2013 || New York, NY

Q: How do you define equity for children?

A: The most important thing for me about equity is that it is the most practical expression of a human rights approach to programming. I say this categorically because at a very personal level, the basic principles of human rights, particularly the universality of children s rights, have been a focus since my early days working for children in complex emergencies, and experiencing just how vulnerable, the poorest, the most disadvantaged and excluded children are in emergencies and in situations of conflict. That’s where you see the biggest misalignment of resource allocation. This field experience has led me to defend the universality of rights as the backbone of my professional orientation, and is also the reason why I firmly believe in generalizing the equity narrative and the refocus on equity in all our work in UNICEF. UNICEF’s Mission statement talks about reaching the most disadvantaged and excluded children and we are as an organization committed to this mandate which is about striving to reach and protect the rights of the last child and making every effort to equalize opportunities for him or her. Putting the last child first in terms of our programing approach, re-focusing our resources, technical strategies, and partnerships to get the best possible results for that last child is the most effective practical translation of a rights-based approach to programming.

Q: So you see this as a way to reach universality?

A: Yes I do. For 25 years UNICEF and partners have been pushing for coverage of key interventions. For immunization, as an example, we have been celebrating 75 to 80% coverage as success for more than a decade. We reached a point in 2010 some five years before the target date of the MDGs where it became clear to us that 80% coverage had become insufficient to achieve the breakthrough in maternal and child health and development that we aspire to see. The tough question we asked ourselves was: what about the 20 % of children we have not been reaching all these years and whether the same strategies would work? It is clear that the same strategies that got us to 80 % coverage are now woefully inadequate to achieve the ambitious results we need to help us reach universal coverage even with proven interventions. At the time we wrote the guidelines on the rights-based approach to programming for UNICEF in the late 90s the most strident feed-back was that it was all very conceptual and theoretical ….people asked where the practical programme response was. For me it has been as still is the equity refocus and the accompanying deliberate efforts to identify and reach the most disadvantaged and excluded that UNICEF is pursuing.

Q: And how does this practical response look like? How do you implement the equity approach?

We got all our country programs to more purposefully re-analyze the situation of children in all countries focusing especially on the most excluded children and to make sure that our support in county was for programmes, strategies and interventions that are actually aligned with addressing their priorities, zeroing in on the bottlenecks and barriers that entrench inequities as a programmatic priority. We found in many instances as we pursued this refocus that there was significant variance between the priorities emerging from our re-analysis of the situation and our country programme strategies and interventions and resources which would be addressing something different. We found also that as a result of track record and legacy, we kept right on doing the same things …except in emergencies where we responded directly to the needs of the most vulnerable children directly. Now it is a priority for us to reach that last child first in our equity refocus because that will get us closer to universality.

Q: UNICEF tries to get more to the most disadvantaged children. What about all other children, children of the middle class for example?

A: One of the first lessons we learned when we began to more clearly refocus our work on the most disadvantaged and excluded children was to discover the deleterious interplay of overlapping and multidimensional aspects of inequities and the underlying factors that entrench these disparities. We demonstrated the inter-connectedness of multiple determinants and factors driving inequities and the overlapping deprivations children suffer, highlighting the fact that there are different degrees and types of disparities that occur simultaneously and which define the depth of inequality. They tend to be concentrated on the most disadvantaged, where you find the whole spectrum of the types of disadvantage like abuse, poverty and so on. We discovered that the same deprivations, disadvantage, and feelings of exclusion that children face, exist also in middle-income countries as well as in the industrialized countries. Look at the impact of Katrina in the USA, the spiraling violence in inner cities across some middle-income countries in the Latin America region and in the USA and look at suicide rates in East Asia Pacific and Europe and you will see that vulnerabilities are quite universal to children only that they impact children in overlapping and multiple permutations depending on where they are located in this spectrum. From the perspective of universality, UNICEF must focus on all children everywhere all the time and commit to maintaining a universal presence worldwide. We have seen that the condition of children even in rich countries can quickly change. The only difference is that rich countries are often better prepared to respond.

Another lesson has been that the distribution of poverty and its impact on children no longer neatly fits our definitions and categorizations of least developed countries etc. Child poverty and deprivation in our world is extended all over. Today, the largest concentration of people who are poor is in fact in middle-income countries. From this angle, it is possible to get a good reading of the multiple deprivations, disadvantage and exclusion that children face regardless where they live. Even in rich countries there are severely traumatized children from violence including domestic violence and so the mandate for children must not be confined only to one type of context.

Q: What has changed with the equity focus?

A: What has become most significant and urgent is not only the need to extend service coverage and quality but also invest in empowering people to demand better services, to utilize the services that are provided and to make their feedback known. The issues of cash transfers, social protection, citizen engagement and reporting as well as communication to address social and cultural norms have become much more prominent in our programming than in the past. We are investing more now in the demand side, elevating levels of literacy and beneficiary feedback and voice and at least bringing it up as a key point of our programme strategies. In addition, the equity refocus means a multi-dimensional and multi-partner approach connecting our policy, technical and “empowerment” work more for reach, scale and sustainability.

Q: Does UNICEF address current economical and political power dynamics?

A: We have been challenged in this regard. There are three dimensions to this. One is that there is a social justice and a particularly highly political aspect to equity. The definition that I am using implies an equalizing of the playing field. Those who have the least should have more and that means someone has to have less. The challenge has been to clarify whether we are in the business of advocating for the redistribution of wealth and opportunity. The other dimension goes beyond equity to rights. Rights activism implies political activism. You can’t just have demand increase and service increase and uptake. You have to look at the political dimension. Governments make a political choice to invest or not in water and sanitation for marginalized people, and | or to invest in teachers for marginalized areas. The third dimension is that we have been told that equity does not have the same standing like human rights. Some question whether or not equity is replacing the human rights approach to development. It is not. In UNICEF we talk about both things in the same tone. Now that we have a worldwide interest in the challenge of inequity, it seems to me the best time to push for a stronger political message on equity and rights. We will be telling only half the story if we minimize the political narrative. This is especially vital for the sustainability of our efforts. When political leaders embrace and own the equity agenda because it is good for the future of the country and for children then we can be assured of the sustainability of our efforts for children.

Q: What are the main challenges for UNICEF?

A: The first challenge is governance… in the sense that equity must be everybody’s business and concern. The other dimension relates to accountability which is the companion to governance and transparency in leadership. Corruption which is a reflection of poor governance is a major concern manifesting in the form of moral corruption and corruption by embezzlement of funds, and corruption of ideals. We have people in power who appear to be indifferent to human suffering. The outrage disappears along with the urge to do something about what is wrong. Perhaps because of rising impunity and the overwhelming effect of 24 hour media exposure to bad news, people in power are tending to turn a blind eye while civil society lacks the resources to marshal stronger response and demand accountability.

Another challenge to our equity refocus arises from the risk of fragmentation of efforts. One intervention alone can not resolve all the disparities and inequities affecting children. We, therefore, are clear in our programming approach that we need an inter-sectoral and convergent strategy that brings sectors like health, education, water, sanitation and child protection together holistically around the last child. We talk about the multiple dimensions of poverty, so in programmes we should not work solely sectorally. However, because of the demand for narrow and quick short term results for specific projects and intervention, governments and UNICEF are compelled at times to go back to narrow solutions and projects. The focus on “attribution of results” brings the risk of more fragmentation and double counting of results achieved in partnership with others. Some donors do ask for “value for money” as they don’t have trust in the leadership at country level and fear corruption in programme countries. We can interrupt this vicious circle by investing in building local management capacity and social accountability in countries. If we put money into services we also must invest in empowering people to implement and be accountable for those services.

Q: More and more social services are privatized. What s the impact on children?

A: This is the reality of our life today. There should be a strong role for Governments to ensure that private service providers and practitioners observe the same clear ethical and moral standards to which we all hold ourselves when it comes to “a rights based approach to development”. We have to make universal the equity and human rights approach—something like “a Bills of Rights” which private services have to commit to. Accreditation and training is crucial for those who offer private services and such accreditation should be secured in commitment to human rights principles. Empowering people to know their rights when they go to a private social service provider is important too, making people active participants in their own interest. Equalizing pay is another vital factor. I am a strong believer in cash transfers for poor people. It helps disadvantaged people have a choice and to pay for private services if they wish.


Nick-Alipui-UNICEF-PhotoDr. Nicholas Alipui was appointed Director of UNICEF Programmes on March 18, 2008. In this capacity, he leads UNICEF’s work on overall programme policy, guidance and management intended to assist staff in the development, implementation and success of UNICEF programmes and for children worldwide.

Prior to this, Dr. Alipui served as a UNICEF Country Representative in the Philippines from 2003-2008 and as a Country Representative in Kenya from 2000-2003. From 1998 to 2000, Dr. Alipui served as Chief of the Africa Unit in the Programme Division in New York Headquarters. Dr. Alipui has also worked in UNICEF Angola, Somalia and Mozambique.

Dr. Alipui is a national of Ghana. He obtained his Bachelor’s degree in Science in 1978 and his Doctor of Medicine degree in Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1979, both from University of Cluj-Napoca, Romania.


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