UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore announced her plan to step down from a post in which she has served since January 2018, in order to care for her ill spouse.
With a heavy heart, I have informed the UN Secretary-General and our Executive Board President of my decision to step down as UNICEF Executive Director in order to devote my energy to my husband’s serious health issue.
— Henrietta H. Fore (@unicefchief) July 13, 2021
UNICEF is the best known and most prestigious UN Agency.
It has been called “The Heart of the United Nations” — and for good reason: It has a mandate to support the health, development and safety of children around the world. In the 1980s and early 1990s, UNICEF was lead by James Grant, who used his position to champion the widespread adoption childhood vaccinations in poorer countries. This effort ushered in what is known as the “child survival revolution” which lead to a dramatic decline in childhood mortality worldwide.
Henrietta Fore was the eighth executive director of UNICEF and, like all those before her an American. (By convention and by the dictates of international politics, the head of UNICEF has always been an American. Among other reasons: The United States is the top funder to UNICEF).
Like her predecessor at UNICEF Anthony Lake — who served as Bill Clinton’s former National Security Advisor — she was someone who had successfully navigated a career in partisan policy circles. Her career in government and later at the United Nations was directly attached to the success of the Republican party winning national elections. She served as George W. Bush’s head of USAID and before that, George W. Bush’s Director of the United States Mint. When Anthony Lake’s term expired in 2018, Donald Trump recommended her as the US nominee for the post.
Just a few months after Henrietta Fore took office as executive director of UNICEF, the administration that installed her at UNICEF began a policy of systematically separating children from their parents at the southern US Border, and caging those children in inhumane, inhospitable conditions.
It was unknown whether or not a recently appointed former Republican official would respond to this affront in any meaningful way. It is generally rare for a senior UN official in her position to publicly criticize the United States — let alone for an American UN official of the same political affiliation as the government to do so.
Yet, to her enduring credit, Henrietta Fore did just that.
“Detention and family separation are traumatic experiences that can leave children more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse and can create toxic stress which, as multiple studies have shown, can impact children’s long-term development,” she said in an official statement. “Such practices are in no one’s best interests, least of all the children who most suffer their effects. The welfare of children is the most important consideration. For decades, the U.S. Government and its people have supported our efforts to help child refugees, asylum seekers and migrants affected by crises across the globe. Whether it be war in Syria or South Sudan, famine in Somalia, or an earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. has been there to help, and take in, uprooted children.”
After visiting the border the next year, she was even more direct in her condemnation of the Trump administration. “It’s hard to fathom this happening in a country with such a rich history as a champion for children in need around the world, particularly for those uprooted from their homes and communities by crisis,” she said in an official statement. “By any measure, these ARE children in need – I have met them.”
Henrietta Fore will have been the shortest serving UNICEF executive director. But by this action she helped to cement UNICEF’s reputation as an ecumenical champion for children — and her own reputation as an upstander who willfully defied the depraved actions of her own government.