UNICEF regional director Sigrid Kaag to the Yemen Times:”I want to put Yemen in the spotlight” [Archives:2008/1141/Reportage]

March 27 2008
Sigrid Kaag, UNICEFs MENA regional director: Yemen must learn from its achievements in order to speed its progress.
Sigrid Kaag, UNICEFs MENA regional director: Yemen must learn from its achievements in order to speed its progress.
Childrens education is a priority for UNICEF in Yemen, as educated girls have a better chance at growing up to become healthy and productive members of their society.
Childrens education is a priority for UNICEF in Yemen, as educated girls have a better chance at growing up to become healthy and productive members of their society.
UNICEF's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, Sigrid Kaag, recently visited Yemen in an effort to mobilize and invigorate increased support from the nation's leaders for the rights of women and children.

She visited Sana'a governorate's Sanhan district and UNICEF projects in Aden, where she inaugurated the Voluntary Counseling and Testing Centers established with UNICEF support as part of community-based HIV/AIDS initiatives.

Yemeni authorities with whom Kaag met expressed their appreciation for UNICEF's role in Yemen and were touched by the sense of commitment and compassion she demonstrated.

Yemen Times Editor-in-Chief Nadia Al-Sakkaf interviewed Kaag during her visit.

Putting a human face on statistics

Sigrid Kaag had read about Yemen, talked with others who have been here and even seen it in the news – but nothing compares to seeing it for real. In this her first time to the country, she is visiting in her capacity as regional director to take a firsthand look of UNICEF's program of cooperation and hold intensive consultations with partners and stakeholders.

Although she was unable to generalize because she hadn't been able to see much of the country during her three-day visit, Kaag was touched by the humanity and warmth of the Yemeni people. She also was impressed at their immense identification with UNICEF.

“I saw that they realized that we mean what we say. Our credibility and genuine concern for women's and children's welfare has brought UNICEF close to the community,” she commented.

Meeting with people and observing projects in the field has given Kaag a better understanding of Yemen and its issues and how the organization's work is contributing to the development of women and children in Yemen.

“My visit was excellent and very constructive. I was moved by the hospitality and the openness of Yemeni people at all levels, right from the very top authorities to the local communities,” Kaag commented.

She was even more impressed by the women she met, especially those in the field. Joined by a team of development partners, she visited a hamlet in Sanhan district on the outskirts of Sana'a where she mingled with women and young girls participating in a literacy initiative as part of acceleration efforts in girls' education.

Women are the ones mobilizing the community, actually going from house to house to advocate women's literacy within the framework of UNICEF's project in the area.

“It was amazing to see how women in their 40s and 50s took pride that they already are in third grade,” Kaag remarked, “I was humbled.”

Political leaders

During her brief visit, Kaag met with numerous Yemeni officials, starting with the prime minister and then the ministers of education, finance, health, interior, justice and social affairs, among other officials.

She appreciated the fact that all were committed and understood the significance of the nation's challenges, describing many of the Yemeni leaders as “competent” and “positive.”

“We talked about obvious issues, as well as sensitive ones like child smuggling, children in conflict, etc., but I pressed more on the causes of the problems Yemen is facing and they all boil down to poverty and illiteracy, so now, we must shift from acknowledging the problems and designing strategies to implementation,” she noted.

Apparently, the main problem is in implementation, as most strategies are in place and Yemen's leaders realize the nation's priorities and fully acknowledge that these are the issues to tackle. The problem with execution lies in either capacity, the human force or funding.

UNICEF works within the framework of national strategies and in line with its own mandate. In Yemen, it's priorities are focused on mothers' and children's health, children's education, particularly for girls, water and sanitation and more recently, protection from abuse and neglect.

However, Yemen's health allocation in its national budget is only 4.6 percent, as compared to 18.4 percent for education, while the child protection allocation is negligible; therefore, much more attention must be attached to these issues in terms of budget and efforts.

Millennium Development Goals

Of all the MDGs, Yemen is closest to achieving the second one ensuring that all children complete primary school; however, there's a need to increase efforts to attract those with the necessary skills in order to catch up with the other goals.

As for how Yemen may be able to catch up, Kaag suggested that the nation could improve via social mobilization. “Yemen is a young state, so now that the strategies are in place, we need to mobilize civil society and communities to take ownership of their issues,” she said.

Although Yemen faces obvious constraints regarding resources, a vast and varied terrain and limited capacities, Kaag noted that its resolve to achieve the MDGs is impressive; however, she believes it must come from the bottom up, at the grassroots level where citizens begin making different decisions in their daily lives, in order to effect change.

She noted that Yemen is a country with an interesting mix and numerous challenges preventing it from achieving the development goals. Yemen generally is grouped with Sudan and Djibouti in its development indicators, which are very low.

Now is the time to expand partnerships and replicate successful models in order to save time and effort. According to Kaag, while Yemen as a nation has policies that should be celebrated, at the same time, it must examine its achievements and attempt to replicate them nationwide.

Because UNICEF's role is to help Yemen with technical expertise and support, “I want to put Yemen in the spotlight, to advocate for this country's development struggle and highlight its continuous need to be supported,” Kaag stated.

Yemen in the region

Including Yemen, Kaag is responsible for 16 countries in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Although Yemen has the region's lowest indicators, Kaag feels that it contains a very interesting mix that makes it rich in its versatility. “With its language, religion and culture, Yemen is exemplary in the region – it's like a mosaic of the Middle East,” she said.

She added that it is a nation with tremendous challenges whose people have the willingness to convert those challenges into opportunities, yet there's also a need to attract more investment to the country and develop the skills of its labor force