UNICEF director Veneman prepares to step down

McClatchy NewspapersApril 23, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Globe-trotting Modesto native Ann Veneman carries a full passport and poignant memories as she departs her job heading UNICEF.

Some aspects of her five-year stint can be easily summed. The 72 countries she's visited. The 17 separate trips to Africa she's made. The 11,000 workers in more than 100 countries she's overseen as executive director of the United Nations organization.

"I've had a lot of vaccines," Veneman said with a laugh. "I've taken a lot of malaria pills."

But as Veneman approaches her April 30 departure date, part of her resume defies simple accounting.

Last summer, for example, Veneman flew commercial air to Kinshasa, the dangerously teeming capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Next, she boarded a U.N. plane bound for the cities of Goma and Bukavu in the country's eastern region. There, at the UNICEF-supported Panzi Hospital, she met a young woman named Mapensa.

In Swahili, Mapensa means "love."

Soldiers had raped Mapensa, multiple times. Then they came back and raped her again. Her husband, as a result, now shuns her. Mapensa's future, and that of her children, seems utterly bleak.

"This is not rape in the traditional sense," Veneman said. "This is brutality. This is torture."

This is apparently widespread.

Several hundred thousand girls and women have been raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo over the past decade, officials say. Since 2008, the United Nations has deemed rape a "weapon of war" as well as a "crime against humanity."

UNICEF targets the war crime in several ways. Through a "Stop Raping Our Greatest Resource" campaign, the organization trained Congo activists. Working with playwright Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues," Veneman and UNICEF have also been developing the "City of Joy" shelter in Bukavu where rape victims can restore themselves.

"She has fulfilled her mandate with immense dedication," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said upon news of Veneman's departure.

The 59-year-old Veneman knew some of what to expect when the Bush administration in 2005 helped move her into the UNICEF position. Prior to joining the organization founded in 1946 as the United Nations International Children Fund, Veneman had served four years as the United States' first female secretary of agriculture.

For sure, the graduate of Modesto's Downey High School and the University of California at Davis knew she'd be traveling in her new job.

"It's important to see the work on the ground," Veneman said. "It helps to meet with ministers, and heads of state, and it's also difficult to see on television what you are able to see on the ground; with the pictures, you don't get the magnitude of the problem."

In Haiti, for instance, she recently visited with earthquake victims, such as a 5-year-old girl whose leg was amputated. She commiserated with UNICEF workers consigned to sweltering tents because their office building had collapsed.

Sometimes, even hardship travel may seem a respite from bureaucracy.

UNICEF is smaller than the 110,000-employee Agriculture Department that Veneman ran, and it's bigger than the California Department of Food and Agriculture that she also once oversaw. In some ways, though, it's incomparable.

Representatives from 36 different countries, each with their own foreign policy peculiarities, oversee UNICEF as executive board members. This year, these overseers include the likes of Sudan, Cuba and Kazakhstan. Personnel rules can be extremely cumbersome. Even spelling has a foreign cast; UNICEF documents speak of a "programme" to be pursued.

"It's a slow process to make changes sometimes," Veneman conceded, though she added that "I think we've come a long way."

Good news, courtesy of the annual UNICEF reporting: infant and young child mortality in Afghanistan has improved 35 percent since 1990. Bad news: 22 percent of young females in Swaziland are HIV positive. Good news: 99 percent of young Iranian children are immunized. Bad news: the life expectancy in Mozambique is only 48.

From her 13th-floor office, half a block from the iconic blue United Nations' headquarters in New York City, Veneman has overseen an annual budget now approaching $4 billion. When all public and private contributions are added up, the United States accounts for more than $340 million of the total.

In turn, the agency spends more than half of its resources on sub-Saharan Africa, which is why Veneman made so many trips to the continent.

Tony Lake, a 70-year-old foreign policy specialist who has advised Democratic presidents, was tapped by the Obama administration to replace Veneman. Veneman's own future plans are still in flux.

"I'm going to be taking a little time off," Veneman said, "and I'll be looking at my options."

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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