The Tsunami Generation — Let's Focus on Giving Them a Fighting Chance

Carol Bellamy, UNICEF
A global conference was held in Indonesia to coordinate aid for the countries devastated by tsunamis. UNICEF proposed four fundamental priorities for children, which I believe are essential to the overall success of the relief effort, and give this devastated tsunami generation a fighting chance.

First, we must focus on keeping children alive, with an emphasis on clean water, adequate sanitation, basic nutrition, and routine medical care. These are basics that cannot be over emphasized. In Indonesia especially, survival is now the primary challenge for children in unreached communities.

Second, we must care for separated children. All relief plans must give high priority to finding children who’ve lost their families, identifying and reuniting them with their extended families and communities. Our UNICEF staff are closely involved in efforts to register and care for unaccompanied children in every country.

Thirdly, relief efforts must ensure that children are protected from exploitation. In tumultuous environments like those in the tsunami zone — where families are broken apart, incomes are lost, and hope is in short supply — children are more vulnerable. All relief efforts must be conceived and carried out in a way that reduces these vulnerabilities. In some of the affected countries, reports have been emerging of opportunistic child traffickers moving in to exploit vulnerable children. UNICEF is working closely with local and national authorities to head off these criminal activities.

Fourthly, the relief campaign must help children cope with their trauma by getting them back in school as quickly as possible, and train adults who interact with children, such as teachers and health workers, to spot the signs of severe trauma. Nothing will signal hope more clearly than rebuilding and reopening schools. Being in a learning environment gives children something positive to focus on, and enables the adults around them to go about the business of rebuilding with greater confidence. We already know that many schools have been damaged and destroyed in every tsunami country, and we are helping with assessments to find out where and when learning can be re-established.

At this point, I can't say that I’m satisfied that the global relief effort is focused enough on the one million or more children made vulnerable by this calamity. While there are many strong and encouraging relief efforts across the Indian Ocean region, some of them already showing positive results such as the prevention of major disease outbreaks, there can be no letting up.

UNICEF is devoting its own resources to these areas, and will support governments and other partners to do so as well. In many places UNICEF has been asked to lead in coordinating the international effort in key sectors such as water, sanitation, and protection.

In Aceh, the worst affected province of Indonesia, for example, we have delivered basic medicines and shelter supplies to displacement camps. Water purification supplies, recreation and school kits, and other vital materials are en route. Meanwhile, the U.N. is conducting aerial surveys of Aceh to assess the situation in outlying areas not yet reachable by road, and that measures to ensure that unaccompanied children are found, registered and cared for are underway.

UNICEF has already sent dozens of additional staff to support the efforts of its large country offices in the key areas affected.

It’s been a physically, emotionally, and logistically challenging week for everyone involved in the response effort, but if anything we need to push ourselves to the next level of urgency.

UNICEF is urging all parties involved in the global response to make the four measures for children that I have listed priorities in the coordinated relief effort. It’s been over a week since the disaster and every passing day is now critical. All of us have to focus on these priorities for saving children, and we have to do it now.

Carol Bellamy has been executive director of the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) since 1995. Prior to her UNICEF appointment, Ms. Bellamy served as director of the Peace Corps. Prior to that, she spent 11 years on Wall Street as a lawyer and banker. She was a managing director at Bear Stearns & Co, and served as chairwoman of Sloate, Weisman, Bear Stearns Capital Management, Inc. Ms. Bellamy's career in the public sector includes serving for five years in the New York State Senate (1973 to 1977). In 1978, she became the first female president of the New York City Council, a position she held until 1985. In addition, she served as a trustee for the New York City Pension System, as a member of the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, and as first vice president of the National League of Cities.