The Strange Politics of Saving the Children

Ellan Young
UNICEF’s executive director Jim Grant at the São Martinho children’s shelter, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1992

The United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, was established shortly after World War II to improve the lives of children worldwide, but it was facing hard times when Jim Grant took over as executive director in 1980. In the poor countries where the agency did most of its work, 15 million children under age five were dying annually, mostly from epidemics of pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea, and other killers rendered largely benign in the West by hygiene, antibiotics, and vaccines. The 1970s recession had hit these countries hard and many had in any case been taken over by cold-war dictators with little apparent concern for their most vulnerable citizens. The leaders of UNICEF’s major donors—British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and soon-to-be US President Ronald Reagan—were also no friends of the poor. Contributions to UNICEF were flagging as a mood of cynicism in foreign affairs took hold.

But Grant was relentlessly optimistic. At a retreat several months into what would turn out to be his fifteen-year directorship, he urged his staff to think big. As his colleague and friend Peter Adamson recalled years later:

The phrase [Grant] uses again and again is that he wants UNICEF to shift gears. He feels the organization has been going along nicely in second. Now he wants to see a rapid shift to third, and then fourth…. He doesn’t want to know about a five percent or ten percent a year improvement in UNICEF’s performance…. He wants UNICEF’s impact in the world to increase ten-fold, fifty-fold, a hundred-fold.

But rather than motivating his audience, he succeeded “mainly in mystifying and alarming” it, Adamson continued. Some colleagues even began to fear for the sanity of their new boss.

But in 1982, Grant had a revelation. A group of public health experts, including his friend Jon Rohde, had for years been promoting the idea that a small number of simple medical supplies, including vaccines for measles, diphtheria, tetanus, and polio as well as oral rehydration solution—a salt and sugar mixture that protects children with diarrhea from dehydration—could prevent about half of child deaths in the developing world, if only the international community would pay for them. Even Thatcher and Reagan could not ignore the argument that no child should die for lack of a five-cent vaccine. That year, Grant and his UNICEF colleagues launched the Child Survival Revolution, a worldwide campaign to make these medical supplies widely available in the world’s poorest nations.

Adam Fifield’s A Mighty Purpose: How Jim Grant Sold the World on Saving Its Children movingly recounts Grant’s dramatic life story. He was born in China in 1922, where his father was a missionary doctor and also worked for the Rockefeller Foundation. The foundation’s aims, like those of most charities, were partly political. In order…

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