Early Childhood Education

United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)


Whenever one hears the two words children and international, UNICEF immediately comes to mind. First established in 1946, the acronym stood for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. In 1953, the words International and Emergency were officially dropped but the full acronym has remained the term used to refer to the United Nation’s Children’s Fund. In many parts of the world, UNICEF is much more than an acronym, and instead embodies a philosophy that children—and particularly children in the “developing,” or Majority World—matter. That philosophy argues that children, especially those affected by challenges now rarely encountered in Western industrialized countries, deserve a chance for healthy and fully productive lives.

The establishment of UNICEF in 1946 was a result of Cold War politics. When the United States sought to substitute the Marshall Plan (reconstruction support for Allied powers only) for the existing UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (which provided support for all countries east or west devastated by World War II), the delegates of Poland and Norway objected that children’s fate should not be tied to geopolitical divides. The result of their intervention on behalf of children was the creation of resolution 57(1), establishing the International Children’s Emergency Fund. At the time the resolution went through the United Nations’ structure on December 11, 1946, the United Nations itself was only a year old. In 1953, UNICEF achieved permanent status as a UN organization. Throughout the 1950s, the primary focus of UNICEF was on children’s health and its primary activities were focused on efforts to control or eradicate epidemic diseases. In 1959 the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Those Rights included protection, education, health care, shelter, and good nutrition. In 1961 UNICEF expanded its interests from child health to the “whole child,” and child education began to play a much larger role in UNICEF.

Since 1989, with the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the 1990 World Summit for Children, UNICEF has become an ever stronger force for children’s rights, seeing such rights as the foundation for a broad set of child supportive activities. From an education and child development perspective, UNICEF has, for much of its history, not had a particularly strong early childhood focus. When it has focused on the young child it has tended to be with a health or nutrition emphasis. Commencing in the late 1990s and early 2000s, UNICEF, along with other key international players including the World Bank, greatly increased their focus on the young child. These efforts have been characterized by a holistic appreciation of the child and an emphasis on achieving a higher level of integration across the diversity of services and programs available to children. These emphases are generally being advanced from the perspective of an overall poverty reduction orientation.

It is anticipated that the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for 2015, with their strong emphasis on the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, will drive much of the global development agenda throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century. While early childhood education is not specifically mentioned in the MDG, effective arguments can be put forward regarding the role of early childhood education in achieving the MDG. Indeed, the degree to which the field of early childhood education is a key player in international development work in the period 2000-2010 is dependent upon those connections being made evident. See also United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Further Readings: Black, M. (1996). Children first: The story of UNICEF, past and present. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Web Sites: UNICEF Web site, http://www.unicef.org/about/who/index_history.html

Alan Pence