All things must come to an end so goes the saying, and it is time for the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) country representative RUDOLF SCHWENK to wind up his tour of duty he started in 2019. In this interview with our journalist EDYTH KAMBALAME, he shares some insights of Unicef activities during his mission.
. Tell us a bit about Unicef?
. Thank you for having me as I’m leaving after four years in Malawi. I came in August 2019. Unicef works for every child across the world and we are in more than 190 countries and territories. We have been in Malawi since 1964, working with the government to ensure the well-being of every child in Malawi. The reflection that I have now, as I’m leaving, is that the office has done wonderful work with the partners, supporting the government, working with the civil society, Parliament, police and so many other stakeholders that have the interest and obligation to work for the well-being of children.
. You have just completed what one would term a challenging mission, having overseen the Covid-19 pandemic, the cholera outbreak and, lately, the cyclone. What was Unicef’s role in these emergenciest?
We set ourselves up in a way to even better support and bring results for children, and that went off to a very good start. Then, Covid-19 came. There are many crises, public health-related emergencies and the global economic crisis that has hit Malawi as well. So, as Unicef, not only did we, during the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic support essential health supplies and training health workers, we also helped the government to set up, very quickly, distance learning through radio, through the Internet, which is limited but still every child counts. Those who have access to the Internet were able to have distance learning to ensure there was safe re-opening of schools.
. Based on this, what is your assessment of Malawi Government’s capacity to handle health emergencies of such magnitude?
I think the Department of Disaster Management (Dodma) has the mechanism to respond. But I am equally happy to see that the international aid has been coming in from several African countries, also with logistics, with helicopters, search and rescue teams, from South Africa, from the UK, augmenting government [Dodma’s] capacity. And so has Unicef. We have distributed supplies worth almost half a million dollars to 10 affected districts. We have more supplies on the way.
What role has Unicef played in engaging the youth to leverage the demographic dividend?
.The best place for children is in school. We have been working with the government to improve the quality of teaching because the school enrollment is relatively okay in Malawi. It’s the quality that we need to address, and the drop-outs. I fully agree, an educated girl becomes an educated mother, and it will lead to less children with learning.
The other issue is the social economic situation. So, if you have a stable social economic development, we have seen birth rates drop in many countries to the extent that it becomes negative. Malawi is far away from that. The youth is a demographic dividend—it’s a very vibrant country, very young country, and I can tell you that there is huge potential. So, we have to support the youth, we have to empower them.
You may have heard about the African Data and Drone Academy that we started just before Covid-19 hit in March, I think, 2020. The first cohort of about 50 young students—was half from all over Africa, and half from Malawi. They learnt how to build and fly drones, and how to analyse data. So, it’s really high-tech, 21st century skills. The African Data and Drone Academy has really been something where Malawi is showing the way in Africa. The academy is now being replicated in West Africa and other places. So, what happened in Malawi is a good example to the world.
Why is it important to invest in the youth?
I’m really enthusiastic about the youth. If you give them the opportunities, I think they can go far. My hope is also with the current cyclone, as bad as it is and as much as we have to respond now, and we are responding on life-saving and on recovery, it will hopefully trigger some rethinking, because this is the strongest cyclone on record. Climate change is here, and it is affecting countries like Malawi that have contributed very little to global warming, but are hit hardest. And the young people, if you invest in them, I think they can really bring change.
. What role has Unicef played in the sourcing and distribution of Covid-19 and cholera vaccines?
.Right now, Malawi has about 25 percent fully-vaccinated people. The goal of the government is still 70 percent. The vaccination is still underway because Covid-19 may never go away. And with a very strong commitment from the government, as you remember the President decreed to have cholera included in the Covid-19 Presidential Task Force. I think we have made good progress. Now, of course, in the South, with the flooding, there is a high risk that cases may go up again. So, we have to continue to work in that area to help the prevention and the treatment.
. What have been the highlights of your work in Malawi?
. When we brought in the Covid-19 vaccines, that was one of my very proud and touching moments. Malawi was one of the first countries in Africa to receive the vaccines and Unicef, the largest buyer of vaccines in the world, was able to bring it. I remember how, impressed by Unicef’s intervention, the Minister of Health digressed from her prepared speech and said: “This is hope. This is hope for us that our loved ones are not dying, that schools can re-open, that the economy can become vibrant.” It was very touching. I have met schoolgirls who had early pregnancies and they were able to go back to school. That was, again, one of the very touching moments that I had during my time in Malawi—to see the resilience of those girls, the hope they have, that through this education Unicef is providing through scholarships for secondary education, they can become doctors and nurses and lawyers. They have these ambitions, so there’s a lot of hope. Each time I interacted with those girls it was a proud moment that we’re able to help with the support from the various donors across the world.
. Any last word?
. I would say invest in children. Despite the Covid-19 situation, I visited more than 20 districts, and I have really enjoyed meeting communities, faith leaders, the people, health workers, and teachers who are so strongly committed. We just have to help them. There is no shortage of people wanting to do good for children. I have been to Chitipa, I have been to Nsanje, and everywhere and I saw the commitment. It’s the capacity that we have to build. And we have to also ensure that while we respond to all those emergencies, we have the medium and long-term vision in mind, strengthen capacity and policies and structures, and we have been doing this. I have strong hope for Malawi. It will achieve its vision in 2063.