UNICEF stands for the United Nations Children's Fund (formerly known as the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund). UNICEF is an agency of the United Nations (UN) that administers programs to aid and improve education and child and maternal health in developing countries. UNICEF employs 11,000 staff in 191 countries and territories. Eighty-eight percent of the organization's staff are located in the field. There are eight regional offices and country offices worldwide, as well as a research center in Florence, a supply operation in Copenhagen and offices in Tokyo and Brussels. UNICEF headquarters is in New York, New York. As an operating agency of the United Nations, UNICEF is headed by an executive director, who is appointed by the Secretary General of the UN in consultation of its 36-member executive board. Board members are elected by the Economic and Social Council of the UN.



After World War II, European children were facing famine and disease. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) was created as a temporary agency on December 11, 1946 by the United Nations (UN) to provide food, clothing, shelter, and health care to the affected children. In 1954, UNICEF became a permanent part of the UN and its mandate to aid children was extended indefinitely. Its name was shortened from United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund to the United Nations Children's Fund, although it is still known by its original acronym.

One of the first campaigns UNICEF undertook with its continued mandate was to work to eradicate infectious diseases that could be prevented or for which there was an effective treatment and that were widespread in many parts of the world. These diseases included malaria, yaws, tuberculosis, typhus, trachoma, and leprosy. UNICEF furnished medical equipment and supplies to countries, and the World Health Organization (WHO) provided technical support. In 1961, UNICEF broadened its focus from child health issues and began to address the needs of the “whole child,” thus beginning an additional focus on education, including teacher training and classroom equipment in developing countries.

In 1965, nineteen years after it was founded, UNICEF, which had developed a global partnership involving governments, private and non-governmental organizations, and citizens, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “the promotion of brotherhood among nations” and for emerging on the world stage as a “a peace-factor of great importance.” In 1978, WHO and UNICEF co-sponsored a conference that resulted in the Declaration of Alma-Ata on Primary Health Care (PHC). PHC involved a redefinition of health care for the poor and for rural communities by providing care “for the people and by the people” through training and employment of lay workers to provide care at the local level, with referrals to secondary and tertiary facilities as necessary.

The UN General Assembly designated 1979 as the International Year of the Child (IYC), and UNICEF served as the IYC secretariat. This role provided an opportunity for UNICEF to expand its programs to many countries.

In 1982, UNICEF initiated a drive to save the lives of millions of children each year by focusing on four simple, low-cost techniques:

UNICEF organized the World Summit for Children in 1990, which brought more than 70 heads of state and representatives of more than 80 UN member states to New York for a two-day meeting. It produced a declaration, a plan of action, and a set of goals for children's health, nutrition and education to be achieved by the year 2000, most of which were in the realm of public health. UNICEF followed up the summit with individual national plans of action to reach the goals. UNICEF also developed programs concerning child labor and land mines.

In 2000, UNICEF, along with developing country and donor governments, WHO, the World Bank, vaccine industries in both industrialized and developing countries, research and technical agencies, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other private philanthropists, formed the GAVI Alliance. This Alliance is a public-private global health partnership committed to saving children's lives and protecting people's health by increasing access to immunization in developing countries. By the end of the 1990s, nearly 30 million children born every year in developing countries were not fully immunized. In response to this statistic, the GAVI Alliance was started in 2000 with a $750 million commitment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. During GAVI's first decade, 288 million children were immunized against life-threatening diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), and yellow fever. In 2010 WHO estimated that five million future deaths have been prevented by the efforts of the GAVI Alliance.

In 2002 a Session of the UN General Assembly was convened to review progress since the World Summit for Children in 1990 and to re-commit to children's rights. It was the first such session devoted exclusively to children and the first to include them as official delegates.


UNICEF is funded entirely by voluntary contributions from governments, foundations, UN agencies, international financial institutions, individuals and businesses. In addition to regular contributions, many governments also make special contributions for specific purposes, especially during emergencies. UNICEF also sells cards, gifts, and other products to provide funds for its programs.

Another UNICEF funding source is “Trick or Treat for UNICEF.” This activity began in 1950 when a group of Philadelphia school children went door-to-door collecting money in decorated milk cartons in order to help struggling children being served by UNICEF. They raised $17.00 that first year, but since then, the practice, now using orange collection boxes, has spread to other parts of the United States, Canada (since 1955), and Hong Kong, China (since 2001), as well as other locations around the world. Millions of dollars are raised each year, and the funds are used by UNICEF to provide medicine, better nutrition, clean water, education, emergency relief, and other aid to children. In addition to trick-or-treating, the children participate in educational programs concerning poverty, diseases, and armed conflicts that affect children throughout the world and learn how they can help improve the world. Since the program started over 60 years ago, U.S. children (“kids helping kids”) have collected almost $160 million by going door-to-door and by holding fundraisers with schools or other groups.

UNICEF uses its resources for the poorest and most marginalized children because this aid often determines their chances of being educated, healthy, nourished and protected from harm. In 2011, UNICEF cut headquarters management costs without cutting programs and field staff in order to realize greater results for children. Total expenditures in 2011 were $3,819 million, with spending on programs coming in at $3,472 million. Over half of program expenditures went to UNICEF's efforts to ensure that young children survive and develop; 57 percent went to sub-Saharan Africa, which has the majority of the least-developed countries.

The National Committees are an essential part of UNICEF's global organization and a unique feature of UNICEF. Currently, there are 36 National Committees in the world, each established as an independent local non-governmental organization. The National Committees raise funds from the private sector, promote children's rights, and provide worldwide visibility for children threatened by poverty, disasters, armed conflict, abuse, and exploitation. About one-third of UNICEF's annual income is raised as a result of the National Committees' efforts.


The UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre (IRC) in Florence, Italy was established in 1988 for conducting studies and developing knowledge on emerging issues affecting children. IRC collaborates with its host institution in Florence, the Istituto degli Innocenti, which is an organization established in the 15th century as a facility for the care and protection of abandoned children. Core funding for the IRC is provided by the Government of Italy. Financial support for specific projects is also provided by other governments, international institutions, and private sources, including UNICEF National Committees.

The goals of the IRC are to improve international understanding of the issues relating to children's rights, to promote economic policies that advance the cause of children, and to help facilitate implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. To accomplish these goals, the IRC uses these approaches:

The Centre produces a wide range of publications, often in multiple languages, that contribute to the global discussion on children's issues and include a wide range of opinions.


To accomplish the purpose of UNICEF, the organization focuses on five areas concerning education and child and maternal health.

Child survival and development

UNICEF along with governments, national and international agencies, communities, and individuals, work to end preventable child deaths by supporting effective and life-saving actions at each phase in a child's life, from prenatal care in a mother's pregnancy to effective and affordable health care through childhood and into adulthood. Existing high-impact, low-cost interventions such as vaccines, antibiotics, micronutrient supplementation, insecticide-treated bed nets, improved breastfeeding practices, and safe hygiene practices have saved millions of lives. In 2010, 7.6 million children died before reaching their fifth birthday, which is an improvement from 1990, when more than 12 million children died under the age of five.

Proper nutrition is especially important to provide every child with a good start in life. UNICEF since it was founded concentrated on nutrition programs. One in four, or 143 million under-five children in the developing world are still underweight and only 38 percent of children less than six months of age are exclusively breastfed. Specific UNICEF programs include infant and young child feeding, micronutrient deficiencies, nutrition security during emergencies, and nutrition and HIV/AIDS.

By 1977, smallpox had been eradicated from the world through the widespread and targeted use of the smallpox vaccine, which had been developed in 1796. In 1974, based on the success of smallpox eradication, WHO established the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI), for less than 5% of the world's children were immunized during their first year of life against six life-threatening diseases: polio, diphtheria, tuberculosis, pertussis (whooping cough), measles and tetanus. During the 1980s, UNICEF worked with WHO to achieve Universal Childhood Immunization of the vaccines against the six diseases, with the aim of immunizing 80% of all children by 1990. By 2010, a record 109 million children were vaccinated and global immunization rates were at 85%. The present goal is to have 90% of all children vaccinated. In coordination with the GAVI Alliance, UNICEF provides vaccines to 58% of the world's children.

In the last 20 years many new vaccines have been developed and provided by the GAVI Alliance to developing countries. These vaccines include those against hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) and the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) and rotavirus vaccine (RV). Polio and maternal neonatal tetanus have almost been eradicated, and measles deaths were reduced by 78% between 2000 and 2008. While healthcare teams are providing immunizations, they can also deliver other preventive services, such as vitamin A supplements, deworming medications, and insecticide-treated mosquito nets.

UNICEF works with WHO and other groups to introduce Life Skills Education to children around the world. Life skills “are defined as psychosocial abilities for adaptive and positive behavior that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life. They are loosely grouped into three broad categories of skills: cognitive skills for analyzing and using information, personal skills for developing personal agency and managing oneself, and interpersonal skills for communicating and interacting effectively with others.

The School-in-a-Box is part of UNICEF's standard response in emergencies and used in many back-to-school operations around the world. The kit contains supplies and materials for a teacher and 40 students. The purpose of the kit is to ensure the continuation of children's education during the first 72 hours of an emergency. The Early Childhood Development Kit was created to aid younger children during conflict or emergencies. The kit provides young children access to play, stimulation and early learning opportunities and permits them to achieve a sense of normalcy. The kit contains materials to help caregivers create a safe learning environment for up to 50 young children up to six years of age. Contents include puzzles and games, counting circle and boxes to stack and sort, board books and puppets for storytelling, art supplies, and hygience supplies.

UNICEF initiated the “Days of Tranquillity.” whereby ceasefires are arranged during war times so that children can be reached with lifesaving health-care.

UNICEF works in more than 90 countries around the world to improve water supplies and sanitation facilities in schools and communities and to promote safe hygiene practices. In emergencies, UNICEF provides relief to communities and nations with disrupted water supplies and disease. According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation, 37% of the developing world's population (2.5 billion people) lack improved sanitation facilities, and over 780 million people still use unsafe drinking water sources.

Basic education and gender equality

UNICEF works to ensure that all children, regardless of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background, or circumstances, receive their right to a quality education. UNICEF supports programs and initiatives that focus on the world's most excluded and vulnerable children, which includes the disabled, ethnic minorities, the rural and urban poor, victims of conflict and natural disasters, and children affected by HIV and AIDS.

UNICEF provides opportunities for governments, communities and parents to gain the capacities and skills they need to fulfill their obligations for children, which include ensuring the right of all children to free, compulsory quality, child-friendly schooling, even during a humanitarian crisis, in the recovery period after a crisis, or in unstable situations.

Early childhood development programs sponsored by UNICEF that focus on the most significant developmental period of life have been shown to lead to higher levels of primary school enrollment and educational performance, which in turn positively affect employment opportunities later in life. Children who start school late and lack the necessary skills to be able to learn constructively are more likely to fall behind or drop out completely, often perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

HIV/AIDS and children

UNICEF works to ensure that children, young people, and women have access to information regarding prevention, care, and treatment of HIV/AIDS, and that they have continuing access to programs such as those that provide preventative measures, antiviral and antibiotic treatments, nutrition support, psychosocial support and counseling, infant care for HIV-positive mothers, and peer support groups. Special focus is given to preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, providing pediatric treatment, preventing infection among adolescents and young people, and protecting and supporting children affected by HIV and AIDS.

Child protection

In addition, in the last ten years, UNICEF has investigated social norms that result in violence, exploitation and abuse and has promoted change in a number of countries. To promote positive norms to bring about an end to harmful practices, UNICEF uses advocacy and awareness-raising activities and supports discussions and educational programs at community and national levels. This process, with its focus on community values and human rights, activities and when combined with legislation, policies, regulations and services, can lead to positive and lasting change, such as the abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting, decrease in child marriage, and reduction in levels of domestic violence.

Policy advocacy and partnerships

Policy analysis is another focus of UNICEF's work with governments, lawmakers, the media, society, and international organizations on behalf of children and women. By analyzing economic, social and legal policies, and the circumstances and forces that affect the well-being of children and women in specific countries can be better understood and improved. UNICEF uses the standards outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child to conduct their analyses of specific policies. Analyses are shared with UNICEF'S partners so that programs and policies for the protection of children's rights can be developed and implemented.

Public health role and response

With its focus on the needs and rights of the child, UNICEF uses as much as 80% of its funds for programs that can be classified under the broad umbrella of public health. Working in partnership with governments as well as health-related organizations, especially WHO, UNICEF is active in programs ranging from immunization and oral rehydration campaigns to water and sanitation projects, and from the fight against acute respiratory infections to the elimination of polio and micronutrient deficiencies.

The world's population is at increased risk of recurring influenza pandemics, as well as other newly emerging infectious diseases, because of global changes in both animal and human population densities and ecological changes. UNICEF works with its partners to support national preparedness to respond to disease outbreaks and other emergencies. It also focuses on communication methods that can be used to mobilize communities and inform individuals of how to protect themselves from infections.

Oral rehydration therapy—
Oral administration of a solution of electrolytes and carbohydrates in the treatment of diarrhea-related dehydration.
Social norms—
Laws (not considered to be formal) that govern a society's behaviors, that is, the rules that a group uses to distinguish appropriate and inappropriate values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. These rules may be explicit or implicit and result in social control. Failure to abide by the rules can result in severe punishments, the most feared of which is exclusion from the group. What is considered “normal” is relative to the location of the culture in which the social interaction is taking place. Norms in every culture create conformity that allows for people to become socialized to the culture in which they live.
United Nations—
An international organization whose purpose is to facilitate cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace. The UN was founded in 1945 after World War II to replace the League of Nations, and whose established goals included to stop wars between countries and to provide a platform for dialogue. It comprises multiple subsidiary organizations to carry out its missions.

UNICEF partners with public personalities, including those in the performing arts or athletics, to generate public support for public health issues. Goodwill ambassadors provide support in reaching specific audiences. In the last two decades of the twentieth century, UNICEF, with its activist leadership, helped shape the agenda of international health, especially for children and mothers.

See also Diphtheria ; Disease outbreaks ; Famine ; Sanitation ; Smallpox ; Tuberculosis ; Typhus ; Whooping cough ; World Health Organization ; Yellow fever .



Connolly, Sean. UNICEF. Collingwood ON: Saunders Book Co., 2011.

Jolly, Richard. UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund). London, UK: Routledge, 2013.

UNICEF. The State of the World's Children 2012: Children in an Urban World.. New York, NY: UNICEF, 2012.

UNICEF. Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed Progress Report 2012. New York, NY: UNICEF, 2012.

UNICEF. Humanitarian Action for Children 2012. New York, NY: UNICEF, 2012.


UNICEF, 3 United Nations Plaza, New York, NY, USA, 10017, (212) 686-5522, Fax: (212) 887-7465, http://www.unicef-irc.org/ .

UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Piazza SS. Annunziata, 12 50122, Florence, Italy, 39 055 20330, Fax: 39 055 2033220, http://www.unicef-irc.org/ .

Judith L. Sims

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.