By Kemi Yesufu
Doune Porter served as Chief of Communication in the country office of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) for two and half years, with work taking to her different part of the country. In this interview, she harps on the need for government at all levels to increase investment healthcare, education and preventing high child mortality rate from preventable diseases. She also speaks on her experience working in Nigeria. Excerpts:
You were teary-eyed when you gave your farewell speech to journalists, many of whom you worked with in the last two years as spokesperson UNICEF. Would it be correct to say, you are emotionally attached to Nigeria?
How can you be in Nigeria and not be emotionally attached to the country? It, (Nigeria) is an incredibly dynamic and exciting place, full of easy going and wonderful people. At the same time, there is so much that needs to be done. In UNICEF, we work for the good of children. There are a lot children in Nigeria and there is a lot to be done to improve their welfare, save their lives and help them grow into healthy, happy, well educated…future leaders of Nigeria. So, I’m actually broken hearted to be leaving.
Having spent the last two and half year in Nigeria, would you say reality is different from the image of the country on the outside?
I think if someone on the outside asks me this question, I would say the same things, I just said about Nigeria to them. Nigeria is an incredibly dynamic country. There so much going on and there are so many dynamic people here. One thing that shocks me is the (economic) inequity in the country. There is a story that shocked me and stayed with me, making it part of my mission in Nigeria. And it’s a story that happened right here in Kano. We had a media dialogue about two and half years ago, with malnutrition being the theme. We had a group of health correspondents with in-depth knowledge on issues affecting children. We took these journalists to a Primary Healthcare Centre (PHC), where malnourished children were being treated and the journalists were so shocked by what they saw. I had just arrived in Nigeria. I knew what malnourished children look like. I knew what the numbers are. There about two million children suffering from Sever Acute Malnutrition (SAM) annually. In every single state in Nigeria, there are children suffering from SAM and what shocked me was that journalists were surprised at what they saw. And so, it became a mission for me to spread the word about the inequity in Nigeria. We can do something about the preventable situation of children suffering from SAM. UNICEF is a small organisation pushing for change, but it is Nigeria that can bring about the desired change. Ours is to highlight models that work. Ours is to show that not only is malnutrition preventable using cheap methods, there are also cheap ways of treating malnourished children. Of course, water and sanitation is also important, because it’s key to preventing the unnecessary diseases caused by open defecation. People in villages all over Nigeria have to walk hours to get water and the water, mostly taken from the river are not safe or clean. Also, so much needs to be done to improve access to education for children. Millions of children are out of school in Nigeria, this shouldn’t be happening.
What kind of investments can the Nigerian government make to improve the lot of children?
It’s what I said earlier, that what UNICEF does is to show that there are cost-effective models to provide quality education and standard healthcare services to children. And we are asking that the people and government of Nigeria get behind such models and back the push for increasing investment in children. What we are looking at are child-friendly policies being implemented. We are urging that there is enough investment for implementing such policies.
You came to Nigeria when the Child’s Right Act had been domesticated by the Federal Government and a number of states. How useful has the law been?
We have to put policies in place and we applaud the states, who have passed the Child’s Right Act. We urge the states who haven’t domesticated the act to do so. The Child’s Right Act is a critical step towards putting in place practices to improve the lives of children. Of course, enacting a law doesn’t mean that you have put on a switch and everything is okay. You have to display political will to make a law meaningful. By showing political will, I mean, providing adequate funding for the structure and infrastructure for the law or policy to have impact. So we are always urging government from the LGA to state and federal level to invest in (Nigerian) children, to make sure they are protected and they are cared for. Our work is always about urging leaders from the community up to national level to invest in providing clean water, education , sanitary facilities for children in their communities. Investing in such areas, simply means Nigeria is investing in its future. Nigerian children are the country’s future.
You have talked about cheap models and the need to show political will when it comes to investing in children. How exactly, do think these suggestions by UNICEF can be executed, bearing in mind that we still have basic problems like mothers and kids dyeing of preventable causes?
The problem is that, these are big issues that should be addressed at all levels of government. I can’t tell you, do these three things and all the problems children face will be solved. The challenges Nigeria faces requires commitment. They require huge investments at every level in the country. You mentioned the Child’s Right Act, which deals with protecting the child. UNICEF works on child protection, birth registration, pre-natal care, vaccination, access to clean water, education and nutrition. A display of political will is required to deliver on these aspects of making life better for Nigerian children.