Saving lives with finance

While working in UNICEF offices in Africa and the Middle East, I understood the importance of securing essential commodities to improve children’s well-being. During my deployment in Liberia during the Ebola public health emergency, I saw the impact of water and sanitation supplies such as hygiene kits and chlorine, as well as the devastating long-term consequences of interrupted or suspended immunization services. However, I was unfamiliar with how those critical supplies arrived in-country and how they were financed in the first place.

Now, working with UNICEF Supply Division in Copenhagen, I have gained insight into how deeply connected financing is to child survival. Supply financing is one of the avenues that enable countries to ensure essential supplies reach children at the right time.

A child receives an injection in his upper arm
© UNICEF/UN0149109/BrownA Rohingya child is immunized in the Unchiprang makeshift refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar district during the UNICEF-supported measles vaccination campaign.

What does this mean in practice?

UNICEF typically works with low- and middle-income countries to save children’s lives, promote their rights, and help them fulfil their potential. The Supply Division focuses on countries that are leveraging their own resources and working to absorb certain functions in their supply chain. Countries like Bangladesh that are transitioning from donor support toward establishing sustained self-procurement (often referred to as “countries-in-transition”). These countries face challenges in planning and forecasting their domestic budgets for the purchase of lifesaving supplies – in other words: prepare in advance so there is enough money available when it’s needed to buy supplies so that children don’t miss out.

Bangladesh was fully dependent on World Bank financing for the purchase of vaccines. Since 2017, the country has transitioned away from this support and immunization is increasingly funded from its domestic budget. This is a positive trend, but synchronizing budget disbursements with vaccine procurement is not easy or quick to accomplish. In this regard, Bangladesh understands the value of utilizing supply financing mechanisms to eventually become self-sufficient.

What is UNICEF’s role?

Last year, UNICEF helped Bangladesh address budget-timing issues by arranging solutions that addressed temporary funding gaps as the country awaited funding availability. Since Bangladesh was experiencing a cash-flow timing issue and not a fundamental funding shortfall, UNICEF stepped in twice during 2017 to bridge the funding gap and ensure vaccines were delivered on time. This accelerated the supply of 12.8 million doses of vaccines for children which would otherwise not have been possible. Once the country’s budget is available, the ‘loans’ are reimbursed, allowing continuity of supply and avoidance of stock-outs, which means uninterrupted vaccinations.

Today, complemented with such supply financing interventions from UNICEF, the Ministry of Health in Bangladesh has earmarked $22-25 million for the purchase of vaccines for 2018.


An infant cries as he is being held by his mother, as a health worker injects a vaccine into his thigh.
© UNICEF/UN0149109/Brown;Sajeda Begum (right), a community health worker vaccinates Mohammed Hassan (13 weeks) with a second dose of Pentavalent vaccine in Panar Sheerabajar, a village in rural Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

In times of emergency, supply financing solutions can be the difference between life and death. In 2017, during the Rohingya refugee crisis in Cox’s Bazar, where 60 percent of those who need humanitarian assistance are children, UNICEF bridged the gap and facilitated the accelerated supply of education, nutrition and WASH-related commodities, even as Bangladesh awaited funds’ delivery. UNICEF ultimately secured sufficient grant funding to enable the urgent supply of items such as family hygiene kits, education school-in-a-box kits and water purification tablets which amounted to nearly $1.5 million.

Now I can fully appreciate the chain of events that led to life-saving supplies reaching children and their families in remote healthcare centres outside of Monrovia or today in Cox’s Bazar. Supply financing provides the opportunity to realize the rights of every child, especially the most vulnerable, and is a critical component for securing children’s health in early childhood, aiding their transition into the “second decade” of life.

UNICEF procures and delivers over $3 billion annually in supplies and services that are critical in fulfilling children’s rights to health, education and protection. UNICEF’s Supply function ensures that affordable life-saving supplies are available in the right quantity and of the right quality, wherever children are in need. As well as supporting UNICEF’s ongoing programmatic activities, the Supply function provides rapid supply response to emergencies.

Alvina Lim is the Evidence, Reporting and Communication Consultant working with Procurement Services, UNICEF Supply Division.

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