Intended for healthcare professionals

News Extra [these Stories Appear Only On The Web]

Loss of Unicef post raises concern among child nutrition pressure groups

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 29 September 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:720
  1. Owen Dyer
  1. London

    Non-governmental organisations working in the field of child nutrition have expressed their alarm at proposed staffing changes at Unicef, the United Nations children's fund. They say the changes will undermine implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.

    The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), an umbrella organisation representing 200 local groups in 100 countries, is concerned that Unicef plans to abolish the post of headquarters legal officer in the nutrition section. The post is currently held by David Clark, a lawyer who advises national governments on how to implement the code in their regulation of the marketing of breast milk substitutes.

    Unicef has been under new leadership since May, when the former US secretary of agriculture Ann Veneman was appointed executive director. But Unicef says the proposed changes have been under consideration since before Ms Veneman's appointment. IBFAN says that the number of legal support staff at Unicef's New York headquarters has been dwindling for several years.

    In a letter sent earlier this month to Ms Veneman, IBFAN's regional coordinators argued that the proposed abolition of the legal post “would have a profound negative effect on the survival and healthy development of thousands upon thousands of infants and young children.”

    “The implementation and monitoring of the International Code at national level is an essential contribution to the creation of an environment in which each mother can make the best choices about infant feeding. The Code helps to ensure that parents are protected from multi-million dollar commercial pressures,” said the letter.

    A reply from Alan Court, director of the Unicef's programme division, said: “We have come to the conclusion that more help is required than Unicef headquarters alone can provide. The urgent challenge we face is to build a strong legal network for infant feeding where it will have the most impact—in the countries themselves.”

    Lida Lhotska, IBFAN's European regional coordinator, said: “We'd be delighted if Unicef would also train people at the local level. We've been saying that for years. But instead they're abolishing this post when they have no capacity at country level. We know their local organisations well, and there are no lawyers working on this anywhere. Decentralisation is the buzz word, but to those of us familiar with the programme this sends a clear signal that Unicef is no longer prepared to stand firmly behind the code.”

    Patti Rundall, policy director of the UK charity Baby Milk Action, said Unicef's central legal office had been of “immense value” over the past 25 years. “The baby food industry, led by companies such as Nestlé, would be overjoyed if this post is to go. The companies are extremely skilled at lobbying and do everything they can to confuse policy makers. To abolish this post at this time, before other structures are in place, is extremely dangerous.”

    IBFAN has again written to Unicef to register its dissatisfaction at the previous response and to urge the organisation to reconsider its decision. Unicef's executive board will make the final decision in a meeting beginning on 29 September.

    A spokeswoman for Unicef said the organisation's commitment to the code remains as strong as ever. “We believe that strengthening the ability of countries to develop their own legal expertise is the only long term platform for compliance with the code.”

    View Abstract