The problem in Africa is not lack of schools but the obligation to wear uniforms

I have known Pavla Gomba, the Director of the UNICEF Czech Republic, from media for many years and so when she agreed to do an interview for my blog, I was excited. I did not ask her questions which you can find in other interviews already (i.e. what percentage of collected money is used for developmental aid) but I asked her about developmental aid, criticism of the UN and hopeful development of Africa.

I imagine you can hardly stop thinking about your work when leaving the office. How do you manage to balance your private life and your profession where you help people?

I have gone through a certain development. In the beginning I wanted to sell everything and save the world. Later on I realized that one does not need to live like a martyr to be able to help other people. When you break your leg, you want to go to a doctor with a well-equipped surgery. It will not help you if he also has a broken leg. I was born in our conditions and I try to result from them.

You have worked in UNICEF for 16 years. Has your view on developmental aid changed?

Thanks to field programs I have realized what a big difference there is between bilateral and our aid. I think bilateral aid is mainly a political and economic tool of the government. Developed countries select countries where they have their own economic interests and they condition the aid by democratization processes. On one side it is understandable, however, the aid is mostly needed in countries ruled by dictators and undergoing wars. Civilians – especially the most vulnerable ones such as women and children – pay a high price for the situation which they have no chance to influence. The UNICEF helps children all over the world. Refusing to speak with dictator regimes will not impact them.

What is the strength of UNICEF in your view?

The UNICEF is unique because it combines governmental and nongovernmental elements and it can effectively negotiate with governments. We have negotiated cancellation of the obligation to wear school uniforms in several African countries. The problem is not the lack of schools, but the obligation to wear uniforms. We work in 190 countries which enables us to intervene quickly if needed. The biggest asset are the local workers who know the local situation, connections, culture, language and traditions and hence know how to build programs in such a way that they are effective in that country.


How do you perceive the criticism of the UN?

It is interesting that the UN is perhaps the most criticized organization yet paradoxically there is an incredible demand to work for it. I dislike the fact that the UN is influenced by interests of individual states and the organization can only be as good as the decisions of the great powers. Take for example the case of genocide in Rwanda. The UN is constantly criticized for its failure but hardly anyone says that the governments of France and United States failed. It resulted in delays of intervention of several few months which were in case of genocide decisive. We live in a hard world, where the stronger one wins.

Do you have any concrete examples?

Another example is Sierra Leone, erstwhile a prospering coast country exporting agricultural products and now a very poor state. During my second visit I noticed that in the inland there are almost no wild animals. I was told that the locals kill the wild animals in order to survive because the fishermen hardly have any fish left to catch because of the fishing trawlers subsidized by the EU which ransack everything from the sea. This is a reverse side of the civilization which people hardly speak about.

I often feel that the developmental aid overshadows protection of the environment in the developing countries. Does UNICEF perceive developmental aid as connected to the environmental protection?

It is becoming a stronger trend nowadays and in case of the drinking water program we try to combine both areas and so we dig wells and plant trees which hold water. I was pleasantly surprised to see complete abandonment of plastic bags in Rwanda which happened in only one year. After landing at the airport a soldier took away my plastic bag and gave me a paper one. We have not managed this in the Czech Republic! Bhutan is another great example of protection of nature. As a part of their gross national happiness politics they believe that protection of environment cannot be sacrificed to economic development.


What is the stance of UNICEF to healthcare and boom of world population?   

People perceive overpopulation as a big issue but they do not realize that it is not caused by growing birthrate – which has been decreasing in long term in all regions – but mainly by the growing life expectancy of the population. I am often asked by people whether it would not be better to let the children die so that there would not be so many of them born but paradoxically it is exactly the contrary. The higher the infant mortality the higher is the birthrate. In countries with no social system people have many children because they want them to survive and take care of them when they retire. The priority of UNICEF is to decrease infant mortality, improve social system and mainly educate girls so that they can find employment, save money for retirement and not be dependent on their children when they get old. It is interesting that the relation between education of girls and birthrate is valid in all countries and cultures.

Do you not think that if Africa will keep on getting developmental aid, a sort of dependency will arise which will disable it to develop its own economics?

This is a very common argument but I think that the reality of Africa contradicts it. They need us increasingly less and commercial investments have been flowing into Africa. Many countries are developing their economics quickly (Ghana, Rwanda, Angola). It is important to take this into account when creating programs: for example we try to support people in the refugee camps to become independent of allocations and start to cook their own food as soon as possible. One thing is that they prepare what they like but secondly it empowers their independency and easier return to normal daily life regime. There are many more examples like that.


How come Africa is so rich and poor at the same time?

Historians would have a better say to this but my personal belief is that stronger one wins. In the past Europeans were technically and militarily equipped and created states in an absurd manner not respecting the local facts and these countries still live with a shadow of the past. I believe that if multibillion subsidies into European agriculture were cancelled, Africa would not need any developmental aid. However, we would have to be willing to open our markets to African products and be ready to give up on our food sovereignty. I am afraid that we will not live to experience this.

One sometimes has a feeling that some countries go on a rollercoaster. Up-down-up-down.

Yes, this is true. The situation changes from worse to better and vice-versa. In the 1970s, based on objective indicators Zimbabwe had the highest living standards of white people in the world. It used to export corn, beef meat and other products to the Great Britain; however, in a few decades this prospering country became a country where food aid needed to be imported. The path to the worse is easier than path to the good and it really depends on who is deciding in the country. Quite an opposite example is Sierra Leone in which I saw a huge positive progress in only six years. Earlier the connection from one city to another took six hours but recently it has taken us only one hour and we were driving on a better highway than our D1 (Prague-Brno). This investment helps to boost a trade, education and healthcare sector which benefits the local people.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about Africa that we, Europeans, have?

I am fascinated that even young people think of Africa as it used to be 60 years ago. Especially nowadays when we all watch the same movies, the same Internet and the same phone. We perceive Africa as a monolithic continent, even though individual countries and their people are different. In my favorite country Rwanda people are somehow melancholic and reserved. They are the Czechs in Africa. On the other side in Congo people are energetic, lively and meet the idea that we have about Africans. We think of Africa as a place full of wars, famines and illnesses, but less of as a place with an incredibly fast development of infrastructure, businesses and investments. But that is also a part of Africa.

Thank you for the interesting interview and I wish you good luck in the upcoming years.

Copyright: the header photo is by Petr Ulrych and other photos are from Archive of UNICEF, provided by Pavla Gomba


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