Newly appointed Unicef representative, RUDOLF SCHWENK, will oversee the current five-year Unicef Programme of Cooperation with Malawi which runs from this year to 2023. He takes over from the previous representative, Johannes Wedenig. In this interview with our reporter JACOB NANKHONYA, he shares his thoughts about the new role. Excerpts:
Welcome to Malawi. How do you feel about your posting to Malawi?
I am very happy to have come to the Warm Heart of Africa in the beginning of August with my family, and the welcome by the Unicef team and our partners was wonderful. I have a long and fruitful career in development work, first working for non-governmental organisations in Germany and later joining the UN in 1995. I worked in many different contexts; countries at various levels of development, diverse cultures and unique challenges.
I am excited and very much look forward to leading the work that Unicef has started in this country, supporting the Government of Malawi to improve the lives of children. There are many opportunities here to do more for children, who constitute over half of Malawi’s population. The more we do for children, the better the future for them, for Malawi and for the world. I look forward to learning more about the people and their needs so that together with all our partners we continue to build on the good work that Unicef has been doing in Malawi for the last 55 years.
What should Malawi expect during your term of office?
Unicef is implementing its new five-year programme [2019-2023] that will help the children of Malawi survive, have a seat in a classroom and realise their dreams. We want to see fewer children getting married or suffering from malnutrition or preventable illness. We want more children to benefit from advances in medicine, nutrition interventions and innovative technologies such as drones. We will help local governments design and deliver services closer to the children who need them. We will continue to support programmes that protect children from violence, and provide the rehabilitation care that survivors of violence need.
Our support will look at addressing barriers and bottlenecks that keep children away from the services they need. Laws like the recently adopted Children’s Commission law set the tone for a positive transformation in the way we support children.
Unicef has initiatives such as Data Intelligence, Drone Usage and Youth Engagement, should people expect more initiatives from the organisation soon?
Unicef is adopting emerging approaches and tools and testing how they can be applied in various contexts to benefit children. If successful, we scale them to positively impact children and young people around the world. Our goal is to find innovative solutions for the complex challenges children face.
Unicef has been leading the use of drones for development and humanitarian assistance in Malawi, beginning with the transportation of laboratory samples for early infant HIV diagnosis in 2016. In 2017, the Government of Malawi and Unicef launched the humanitarian drone testing corridor.
This corridor is a technology friendly space where academic institutions, drone solution providers and other organisations test drone solutions in a humanitarian and development context. Integrating drones into the supply chain could allow people in even the hardest-to-reach places to access essential supplies, such as vaccines. Aerial drone imagery can potentially be used to identify mosquito breeding sites, helping to combat malaria. Processing drone images through machine learning can help identify vulnerable areas and prevent cholera outbreaks. Artificial intelligence can classify aerial photographs of crops, improving crop yield estimations and helping to prevent malnutrition.
We will do more to build the skills of young people in drone technology and explore the possibilities for using drones and other technologies to make a difference.
We see the children and young people in Malawi as a critical population that can benefit from timely investments in healthcare, education and other services. These investments can lead to greater prosperity for Malawi.
From your impressions, what is the most critical issue for children in Malawi?
Early investment is critical for children. Malawi’s children are relying on us, the duty bearers, to do more so that they get not just a chance to go to school but that they learn and acquire skills beyond primary education. We need to see more than just 38 percent of eligible children making it to secondary school. If we miss out on these early years, children and their future children, will continue to be deprived.
Children deserve a life free from violence. Sadly, in Malawi one in five girls and one in seven boys experience sexual violence; two in three boys and two in five girls experience physical violence. We know that violence against children starts in the earliest years, often perpetrated by caregivers in the name of ‘discipline’. This impacts children for life and evidence shows it is transmitted from generation to generation. Together with partners, we are supporting efforts to end the cycle of violence and improve the quality of services for victims and survivors.
Is there anything about you or your office, in relation to your work, you may wish people to know?
Building and maintaining strong partnerships is key to improving children’s lives. We work closely with the Government of Malawi, at central level and in local councils. We support the Government to find better and more efficient ways of reaching more children with the critical services they need. We also rely on government staff on the frontlines, who work tirelessly to implement the programmes we champion.
We very much value the support of our strategic development partners who provide financial and technical support to keep children alive, thriving and fulfilling their potential. We also work with the police, parliament, the judiciary, academia, youth organisations, private sector, the media, communities and other UN agencies in Malawi.
Through the Funo Langa fundraising campaign, we are building a new generation of resource partners- Malawian citizens. It is rare to have fundraising campaigns in low income countries and especially a campaign that brings together the government, Unicef and the private sector to sponsor secondary school students. This campaign targets corporates in Malawi as well as individuals, asking each and every Malawian who has the means to support children in Malawi get quality secondary education.
What legacy do you want to leave after your term of office in Malawi?
I hope to one day leave Malawi knowing that my contribution and my experience helped the team do more, do better for the children of Malawi, in the spirit of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.