The ninth annual Patrick O’Meara Lecture brought UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore to Indiana University via Zoom to discuss the UN agency’s work in education, healthcare, and the pandemic crisis. UNICEF, established in 1946 to provide relief to children and mothers after World War II, operates in over 190 countries and is one of the most trusted developmental organizations in the world for its long history improving the lives of young people.
Attended by over 600 people, the lecture was followed by a Q and A with the lecture’s namesake, Patrick O’Meara, who is IU’s former Dean of International Programs, Vice President for International Affairs, and current Special Advisor to the President. Known as IU’s ambassador to the world for his work in global engagement, O’Meara published books on Southern Africa, the widely used textbook Africa, and Indiana University and the World, a history of IU’s global engagement from 1890-2018.
At the front of Director Fore’s mind is the coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted the education of 1.6 billion children. Ensuring that these children have access to high-quality education is of monumental importance during this crisis.
“Covid-19 has caused the largest disruption in education in history, affecting a generation,” she said. If this disruption is not dealt with positively, it could result in a loss of 10 trillion dollars of global income, affecting individuals, families, and nations.
The pandemic is threatening numerous other systems, as well: water, sanitation, healthcare, and the economy. UNICEF is working with local partners around the world to support all these systems.
UNICEF’s massive reach includes this kind of work in many difficult circumstances, including North Korea, Syria, and Yemen, the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis.
The pandemic is an opportunity to strengthen these systems, particularly by scaling up alternative pathways to deliver education, Director Fore argued. Closing the digital divide between those who have access to the Internet and those who don’t can serve that aim. UNICEF’s goal is to provide digital learning solutions to 3.5 billion children and young people by 2030.
“This could be one of history’s great equalizers,” Director Fore said.
The task will not be easy. It will require getting support from the G7, the G20, and local and national governments. Public-private partnerships in telecommunications and other areas of delivery will also be necessary.
But Director Fore is energetic and driven to make it happen. “We are built for this, and we have to get out there and change our world and make it better for young people,” she said.
Fore also discussed UNICEF’s role in the alleviating the pandemic. The role is massive. UNICEF has already delivered critical PPE to hundreds of countries, and it is now deep in the process for preparing the delivery of vaccinations. This process includes procuring half a billion syringes in the near term and another billion syringes next year, plus boxes to dispose of them safely and a network of refrigeration systems to transport vaccines around the world.
In the Q and A after the lecture, Director Fore answered questions about her day-to-day work, how this generation of young people is different than previous generations, and how students and recent graduates can get involved in global service.
Director Fore’s passion for her work shone brightly in the discussion, and she clarified some of the largest challenges and biggest opportunities facing the world.
“We need to move the momentum of the world into investing in the next generation, in the children and the young people,” she said.
Increasing one’s language skills, regional expertise, and policy knowledge can all help in this mission.