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‘Committed not to fail'
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 04 - 2019

UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Regional Director for the Middle East Geert Cappelaere was in Cairo earlier this month as part of his responsibility for the fund's activities in 20 countries in the region. While in Egypt, he took part in World Health Day with the World Health Organisation (WHO) office in Cairo and praised government efforts to ensure that every person in Egypt has access to quality healthcare.
“Very good progress has been made, but we are not there yet,” Cappelaere said. “There are still too many women, men, boys and girls in Egypt that do not have access to the quality healthcare to which we all have committed. This is a fundamental right, and in order for that right to turn into reality every single person in every single country needs to benefit.”
“I know that it is a top priority for the president, the government and the minister of health. With that commitment we will achieve universal health coverage. With the support of organisations like UNICEF and WHO we can make it happen,” he said.
In his interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Cappelaere particularly focused on healthcare for children. “It is very important that children understand that their parents understand what to do in order to lead a healthy life. One of the problems we see here in Egypt is obesity among children, so it is not children being under-nourished as we see in other countries but children who are malnourished by eating the wrong food,” he said.
“It is also important that children and parents know about hygiene practices, that it is important to wash your hands before every meal, for example. It is important that mothers are supported in breastfeeding because that is the best possible food for a child in its first six months,” he added.
Access to healthcare in Egypt was also inequitably distributed between rural and urban areas, Cappelaere said. “It is going to be a long journey if we are committed to reach every single person throughout Egypt, but with the efforts we are making we are taking small steps forward. So what we need is to continue the journey together,” he said.
Cappelaere also commented on his responsibilities in other regional countries where the situation was made worse by conflict. “Children in Syria, for example, but also Syrian children living in neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey, are hugely affected by war, as are children in Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Palestine. There are unfortunately so many countries in the region whose people find themselves in the middle of conflict, where millions and millions of children are suffering and having negative impacts on their health.”
UNICEF could help, he said, because it was operating in the midst of such conflicts to bring healthcare assistance to children. “We guarantee for these millions of children in armed conflicts a minimum of healthcare, education, access to water, protection and nutrition. UNICEF is doing a tremendous job in these countries, at times even performing miracles.”
“However, there is one thing UNICEF cannot do, and that is to stop the wars. It is calling upon all the countries and any country with influence for the wars to stop, because the wars are not made by children, but children are the first and biggest victims of them,” he said.
“We have seen eight years of war in Syria and four years of war in Yemen. For close to 70 years, we have the Palestinian question. The conflict in Sudan in Darfur has been going on for decades. The world is not giving enough attention to the calls for these conflicts to stop, and this is leading to more children suffering.”
Asked whether the situation of children in the Arab region had improved since the 2011 Arab Spring, Cappelaere said that “with so many conflicts raging through the Arab region and with so much instability and so many economic and fiscal challenges, I think it is important to say that today the children in the region are not in a good place.”
“There is a lot of positive news for children in the region, but unfortunately the number of children suffering is increasing by the day. This part of the world has always stood for caring for children. It has been part of the world that is committed to a good life for children. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. We all need to work very hard to ensure that the Arab world is a good place for children.”
Despite the problems, Cappelaere said he was optimistic, however. “I am always optimistic. We have to be optimistic for the children. When we want to have universal health coverage in the region, we need to be working together with the governments concerned. I am blessed with the partnership between UNICEF and the WHO that is going to help us guarantee a better life and better healthcare for children.”
“Ahmed Al-Mandhari, regional director of the WHO in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and myself have both committed not to fail. We have committed that we will stand with the people in the region to help ensure that every person has access to good healthcare,” he concluded.

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