Remarks by Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF Executive Director Leaders on Purpose Event CEO Summit

Children wash their hands with soap at a UNICEF-supported learning centre in the Kutupalong camp, a Rohingya refugee camp, in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh.
UNI315489/Himu
Children wash their hands with soap at a UNICEF-supported learning centre in the Kutupalong camp, a Rohingya refugee camp, in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Good morning, and welcome everyone to the third annual Leaders on Purpose CEO Summit.

Wherever you are – thank you for calling in to join us.

When we met in Davos in January to discuss this Summit, none of us could have predicted how much would change in just a few months.

Nearly every part of life has been affected by COVID-19.

I know that your businesses, your employees and their families, and the manufacturing and supply chains you count on have all been deeply affected.

So many businesses – large and small, global and local – are locked in a struggle to survive.

At the same time, nearly every part of children’s lives has been affected by COVID-19.

The pandemic – and the measures to confine it, like social distancing, confinement, and school closures – represent nothing less than a children’s crisis.

It affects their physical and mental health, their nutrition, their families’ economic status, their education, and their ability to grow and develop. All of the systems that children rely on as they grow to adulthood have been put under enormous strain.

And it affects the poorest and most vulnerable most of all.

Our recent analysis conducted with Save the Children shows the number of children living in poverty has soared to approximately 1.2 billion due to the pandemic. This is a 15 per cent increase in the number of children living in deprivation in low- and middle-income countries.

But COVID-19 is not just a children’s crisis.

It also represents a crisis for the Sustainable Development Goals.

Even before the pandemic hit, the world was dramatically off-track in meeting the Goals.

COVID-19 has accelerated this. We now face a real risk that the SDGs – and their promise to “leave no one behind” – could become a casualty of the responses to the pandemic.

As governments turn to problems inside their borders, rather than outside. As donors re-calibrate their financial priorities in the near-term. As businesses like your own worry about the future. And as communities struggle to re-build the systems that have been shattered by COVID-19.

But we also see this moment as an opportunity to help communities rebuild, recover and reimagine the systems that children and families need.

Systems that can reach every person, even the most vulnerable. Systems that can drive lasting development progress, while also helping communities prepare for future disasters. And systems that, ultimately, will help us achieve the SDGs.

But we need your help to do this. The business community is critical to our success. We need your ideas, innovations, technologies, experience and market reach across all of the areas that children need.

That’s why Leaders on Purpose was created – for businesses to join our work to build stronger communities around the world.

And to do so at a time in which we are entering a “decade of action” towards the 2030 agenda for sustainable development.

As a global community, we must dramatically increase the pace and scale of our work.

Across the UN family, we’re calling for the full engagement of the business community. We need your help. And most importantly, people around the world need your help, as we help countries and communities alike build stronger systems and economies for the future.

Today, I’d like to focus on two areas in particular – education and water – where the needs are huge, and where businesses are playing, and can play, crucial roles.

First – education.

When COVID-19 hit, over 1.6 billion children found themselves out of school. It reminded us that we need nothing short of a revolution in how the world delivers learning, education, skills and training.

The growth and availability of technology means that we can deliver learning opportunities anywhere. To children living in conflict zones or refugee camps. To urban and rural areas alike.

Unfortunately, more than half of the world’s children and young people are on the wrong side of the digital divide. They don’t have the connectivity they need, putting them at a huge disadvantage.

This is not only a tragedy for the children affected.

The World Bank estimates a loss of US10 trillion in earnings over the lifetime of this current generation of children if we fail to address the global learning crisis.

In short – we urgently need to reimagine education.

UNICEF, Microsoft and Cambridge University have joined forces to put education and quality learning in the hands of every child, through the Learning Passport. It’s an online platform that gives children and youth access to their school curriculum online, wherever they are – including textbooks and instructions in their national language. Over 227 million children now being supported. It is a great example of how businesses can join forces with UNICEF to support children in their hour of need.

To expand connectivity, we’re also working with public and private partners around our GIGA initiative to expand internet access to every child, every community and every school by 2030. As part of this, we recently launched a global partnership with Ericsson to help map school connectivity in 35 countries by the end of 2023. A critical first step towards providing every child with access to digital learning opportunities.

We’re also working with mobile phone companies to provide “zero rating” solutions to provide access to online learning tools – including in Africa and Latin America.

And we want to work with more companies to provide students with new learning devices that are preloaded with relevant, topical and accessible curriculum.

We also see an important opportunity to apply this same innovative thinking as young people approach adulthood, and begin seeking out skills and training for the workforce.

They need skills for the fourth industrial revolution – digital skills, entrepreneurship and leadership skills, and community engagement skills.

As we discussed in January, the Generation Unlimited partnership is bringing together public and private partners around these needs, to develop and deploy new tools and investments to this work.

A generation of young people needs our support to shape their minds and skills for the future.

Across all of these initiatives, help us gather the resources, ideas and technologies they need to support their futures.

The second area of opportunity for businesses to help us is water.

COVID has highlighted the vital importance of sustainable and safe water, sanitation and hygiene services and infrastructure.

Handwashing is critical to staying safe from COVID-19. But what about communities that lack running water? Or households that lack even a basic toilet – let along vital supplies like soap?

In fact, 40 per cent of the global population does not have access to clean water and sanitation facilities.

We believe we have an opportunity to “future proof” water, sanitation and hygiene services through innovation, systems and technologies.

Of course, governments have a role to play, including by investing in stronger water infrastructure for the future for all communities, and by making bold national commitments to address climate change.

But our work must also include greater private sector involvement and innovation.

And in fact, that’s what we’re seeing – private and public stakeholders joining forces on this issue.

I’ve been speaking to a number of CEOs as part of the COVID-19 response.

They’re stepping-up with offers of funding and contributions in kind. Unilever and Colgate-Palmolive have generously contributed soap and other hygiene products.

They’re helping us strengthen and speed-up the supply chains for critical items like soap and sanitizer.

They’re helping us scale-up innovations for communities in need. Through our partnership with LIXIL, for example, we have designed a low-cost, low water-flow handwashing device that can help more households fulfill this basic need.

And we have launched an initiative with the World Economic Forum, WHO and the World Bank to gather more partners, ideas and funding around the need for greater hygiene.

We also want to work with businesses to help us invest in stronger water systems in the poorest and most disadvantaged communities. We must help governments build and maintain water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure. Not only as a basic need, but as an essential disease-prevention measure.

Financing is a big part of this. UNICEF is now working on a new Climate-Friendly Water Financing Facility in partnership with KOIS Invest.

Through this blended finance initiative, we have a pipeline of projects under development worth more than $500 million. We need investors, so please let us know if you’re interested.

These are just two areas of need in which businesses can help. There are many others.

From helping us deliver vaccines through the new COVAX facility. It brings together governments, manufacturers and other partners to ensure that a vaccine is delivered fairly and equitably around the world.

To our work to ramp-up innovative health solutions around pneumonia treatments and oxygen therapies.

This is our opportunity to make change happen in communities around the world. By design. Not by disaster.

To emerge stronger from this pandemic.

And to make the kind of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals that we need to make.

On behalf of everyone at UNICEF, thank you for joining us to take forward this important work. ***

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