Ann Veneman, UNICEF’s executive director
Ann Veneman, UNICEF’s executive director, has just returned from a trip to Sierra Leone and Liberia where she met Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman president of Liberia and the first elected woman president in Africa.
“It was a fabulous meeting, a good substantive discussion. We talked about redevelopment, agriculture, health care, nutrition and how all of that comes together. She worked for the World Bank and the UN development program. She ran against a soccer star and was elected primarily because women turned out to vote,” Veneman recalled.
If anyone appreciates the challenge of being the first woman to shatter a seemingly unbreakable barrier it’s Ann Veneman.
In 2001, the Modesto native became the first woman to head the United States Department of Agriculture, which with its 111,000 employees and $113 billion budget is the equivalent of the sixth largest corporation in America.
In 1995, Veneman became the first woman to head the California Department of Food and Agriculture. She was the first woman deputy secretary at USDA, the second highest position at the agency.
She was also the first woman to head the USDA’s International Affairs and Commodity program division, which she says has helped her immensely as UNICEF director.
“I’m very thankful for my government background particularly the international exposure at USDA and running the USDA’s feeding programs like WIC and food stamps.
“In my job, you meet with heads of state and ministers and the fact you’ve been in a ministerial position in the biggest country of the world helps you understand not only what they’re dealing with but it also gives you some credibility.”
In 2002, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and successfully treated.
Principled, strategic and tenacious, Veneman’s focus has always been policy rather than politics.
Since she started at UNICEF in May 2005, Veneman, 59, has spent up to half her time traveling – and not always easily. On one trip, she spent two nights on a plane, a night in Hanoi and then flew home to New York.
By her reckoning she’s visited at least 60 countries. Few can imagine the horrors she’s seen.
Child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Liberia’s neighbor. Staggering mortality rates for mothers and children under five. Lack of decent drinking water or sanitation. Famine. Children orphaned by AIDS.
According to UNICEF statistics, the world’s least developed countries — 785 million of the planet’s 6.6 billion inhabitants– have more than 1.1 million children living with HIV. Mortality rates for mothers and children under five are twice as high as the rest of the world. Only 36 percent of the population has adequate sanitation and just over one-fourth attend secondary school.
“It’s hard to see it. Whether it’s being in hospitals and seeing little tiny babies suffering from AIDS or suffering from malaria or extreme malnutrition. All of that is very difficult to see,” said Veneman, who on her most recent trip met a young woman who was raped at 12 and had both arms chopped off between the wrist and elbow.
“One of my earliest trips was in Southern Africa. We went to this program helping children who had lost their parents to AIDS. All these young children orphaned by AIDS. Such a tough life ahead of them, yet they were all hopeful. There was sadness but at the same time hopefulness.”
In January, Veneman went to Haiti – the Western Hemisphere country with the highest infant and maternal mortality rate.
She visited more than half a dozen programs supported by UNICEF including a shelter for street children, a hospital which treats 3,000 children each month for malnutrition and a center that offers counseling to children victimized by armed violence.
“Forty percent of the children are not getting regular vaccinations for childhood diseases,” Veneman said in a UNICEF press release after the trip. “You find it very difficult to believe you’re only a three-hour plane ride from New York.”
Veneman and UNICEF are improving health care, educational opportunities and basic protection for millions of children in over 150 countries.Backed by an annual budget of $3 billion – all from voluntary contributions — 10,000 UNICEF workers improve lives in every African nation, every country in South America. India. Asia.
“We’re giving more money than the World Bank in many countries,” said Veneman adding that often UNICEF is better known abroad than the United Nations.
UNICEF touches millions of lives in many ways.It champions gender equality, educational opportunity, improved nutrition and increased vaccinations.
There’s plenty of work to be done: In developing countries, upwards of 50 percent of the population are under 24 years of age.
UNICEF’s focus differs depending on a country’s level of development. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, for example, both nations need help in every area UNICEF works.
“Emerging countries like Latin America, where the incomes are coming up, still have big issues but you don’t have to rebuild a health care system in Latin America or protect against trafficking, child soldiers or child abuse,” Veneman said.
Part of her work as, what amounts to, the chief ambassador for UNICEF is rushing emergency aid to overseas crises like earthquakes or other natural disasters.
Veneman already had her share of crises as head of the USDA.
Weeks after taking office, Veneman confronted the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Europe. On December 23, 2003, she announced the discovery of one Washington State cow suffering from mad cow disease.
As with the foot and mouth disease outbreak, Veneman took immediate steps to neutralize any potential health threat.
“At this time of year many Americans are making plans for the holidays and for food. We see no need for people to alter those plans or their eating habits or do anything but have a happy and healthy holiday season. I plan to serve beef for my Christmas dinner,” Veneman said at the time.
It turned out the cow was from Canada.
A centerpiece of Veneman’s managerial style is accountability: setting goals and measuring progress toward achieving them. At UNICEF, Veneman has made attainment of the Millennium Development Goals the agency’s charge.
The goals, adopted by the members of the United Nations in 2000, seek major improvement in the quality of global life by 2015, particularly for children. Among the goals are to end gender disparity in education, reduce by half the number of people living on less than one dollar a day and halt and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS.
While achieved those goals was included as part of UNICEF’s mission prior to Veneman’s appointment, she has instilled a sense of urgency in reaching them. An urgency echoed by Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary General in the 2007 progress report on the goals.
“There is a clear need for political leaders to take urgent and concerted action, Ki-Moon wrote in the report’s forward.
“When I came here I felt strongly that the world has set these goals, goals agreed to by heads of state from developed and developing countries alike. These goals are mostly about children. They’re based largely on work UNICEF has done over the years,” Veneman said.
“There wasn’t enough focus in individual country offices on how that individual country was achieving the goals, what progress had been made, what remained to be done.
“We’re now gathering better data, measuring results, trying to understand where the gaps are and take the knowledge from one country and transfer it to another about what works and what doesn’t. I think we’re finally starting to see very good progress.”
Veneman has also tightened UNICEF’s fiscal and budgeting practices as well as instituting a number of managerial improvements.
She also delights in working with UNICEF’s goodwill ambassadors and in the partnerships UNICEF forges with other children’s groups. She just celebrated the 80th birthday of Roger Moore, an ambassador. Mia Farrow is an active ambassador as is Shakira. Vanessa Redgrave, Veneman says, has become a friend.
One of UNICEF’s partnerships is with Special Olympics to expand opportunities internationally for child with disabilities. Veneman attended the Special Olympics Games in Shanghai.
“I told Tim (Shriver), ‘The only person I want to meet is your mother.’ I’m not kidding when I say that opening ceremony was as good if not better than the two real Olympics I saw. Beijing was concerned because they did such a good job.”
Veneman, raised on a Modesto peach ranch, was leery of moving from Washington D.C. to New York but now, when she has the luxury of not traveling, she loves living in the self-proclaimed Capitol of the World.
A lawyer by training, Veneman is the daughter of Jack Veneman, who played a key role in the political career of Leon Panetta, which, in turn, helped launch her own career in government.
During her tenure at USDA, the agency received its first clean financial audit. She also created a program aimed at enhancing agricultural opportunities for young people called “Leaders of Tomorrow.”
Of her current job, she says:
“Raising awareness is almost as important as raising money. Understanding that the United States is not the way the world lives is a very important thing. We live in a very global world and we need to care about the people that don’t live like we do and remember there are many people in need and we have so much more than everybody else.”
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