Lisa Szarkowski is the Vice President for Public Advocacy and Strategic Communications at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.
Hurricane Sandy greeted me on arrival in Port au Prince on October 24th. When I left the island a few days later, the skies were clear and my heart was lighter.
As focal point for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s emergency response, I was in Haiti to survey post-earthquake progress UNICEF and partners have made in the areas of education, nutrition and child protection.
With each return trip, I see improvement in the removal of debris and the expansion of essential services for children. This trip, I was able to preview the first major benchmarking survey on the health and well-being of children pre- and post-earthquake. The data was solid, and revealed dramatic, measurable progress.
Pre-earthquake, less than 50% of children were enrolled in primary school – that number has increased to 77% for 2012. For years, malnutrition has contributed to the deaths of young Haitian children, or stunted their growth and irreversibly diminished their mental capacity. With UNICEF’s help, the number of acutely malnourished children has been reduced by half – from 10% to 5%.
The situation in Haiti is nowhere near what it must be for all children to get the best start in life, and grow to their full potential. The survey also identified areas that have not improved, and some that have had setbacks. But some of the most dangerous byproducts of intractable poverty – child mortality, malnutrition and lack of education – have experienced meaningful improvement.
A few weeks after the earthquake, in 2010, I picked up a piece of rubble from a school that had been shattered. Though it looks like an ordinary cement fragment, it contains the innocence and enthusiasm of the students it once sheltered, some of whom did not survive. It inspires me to push ahead when I encounter difficulties. They deserve nothing less than our best efforts at all times.
When the development, survival and health of children are at stake, nothing will ever be fast enough to satisfy those of us who work toward these goals. Children’s lives and futures are the most sacred of priorities – whether in Haiti, Syria, Mali or Sri Lanka, we need the world to stay engaged, hold us accountable, and continue to donate so that the progress continues.