UNICEF and the IMF: Making public resources work for children

UNICEF staffers often share stories from community visits to illustrate how we work for children where they live. But to make a difference we also must go to the halls of power where decisions are made that can have a massive impact on children’s lives.

Why would UNICEF want to talk to the IMF?  And why would the IMF talk to UNICEF?

UNICEF’s Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, went to meet with the IMF Executive Board in July, an explicit recognition that there is both common ground and interest.

Two UNICEF staffers in front of a plaque on the wall behind them that reads 'International Monetary Fund'.
© UNICEF/USA/2019/YusterJoanne Bosworth (L), Chief, Public Finance and Local Governance with Alexandra Yuster, Social Policy Chief and author, heading in to the IMF.

Many readers may know that the IMF “provides policy advice and financing to members in economic difficulties and also works with developing nations to help them achieve macroeconomic stability,” but may be less aware that the sentence in italics ends “….and reduce poverty.” We especially like that part, of course. But macroeconomic stability is also important in the long run for children; the steps to ensure it often create risks but can also create opportunities.

Watch ED Fore talk about her visit.

In short, what the IMF does matters for children – both for their wellbeing today and their opportunities tomorrow. Governments’ decisions about how to use limited public resources can make the difference between children going to school, accessing medical care, and proper nutrition, or not, especially when times are hardest. The IMF often has influence over those decisions – especially when times are hardest.

UNICEF is encouraged by the IMF’s increasing recognition that inclusive growth is the most sustainable kind, and inequality is a barrier to making it happen.  Our meeting was a chance to remind the IMF that children are poorer than adults the world over.  Reducing inequality starts with them and building inclusive growth can’t happen without them.

The IMF has taken valuable steps towards recognizing the importance of  both protecting those who are vulnerable – with their social safeguards guidance – and understanding the full value of  social spending – with their brand-new Social Spending strategy. The recent meeting was a chance to share ideas about how to take these forward, including exploring areas where the IMF and UNICEF can work together.

A bar graph depicting extreme poverty among children
© ILO/2019Children are more likely to live in poverty than adults. Globally, 385 million children are struggling to survive on less than $1.90/day.

These developments help explain the value the IMF sees in engaging with UNICEF. In fact, UNICEF and the IMF have been working together in several countries. It helps, of course, that UNICEF understands that governments’ financial resources are not limitless they come from taxpayers and governments have a duty to make the best possible use of them. That’s why we have a whole area of work called ‘public finance for children’. UNICEF knows full well that children are best served when public budgets are used efficiently, effectively and equitably – and sees how the combined strengths of our two institutions can help countries to do this better.

The director of UNICEF addresses an audience.
© IMF/2019/RobertsUNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore speaking at the IMF.

So – how did it go?

UNICEF Executive Director Fore made some points our IMF colleagues were expecting to hear and perhaps a few they weren’t. She outlined why applying a “child lens” across IMF advice and assistance makes sense for macro-economic stability: if human capital is the most important engine for growth, it’s shortsighted to leave children out of the equation. There are certainly countries which aren’t investing enough in health, education or social protection – and the IMF has a crucial role to point this out and help turn the situation around. At the same time, we have a clear common interest to ensure social spending is efficient, equitable and effective. Spending money isn’t enough; it has to be spent well if every child, including the most marginalized, is to enjoy her right to a decent education, health care, nutritious food, clean water and safe environment. All good reasons to find opportunities to work together.

The informal exchange that followed was pretty encouraging. While I can’t go into details as this was a closed-door meeting, there was clear interest in the points ED Fore raised and ideas on how to enhance our collaboration, as well as appreciation of UNICEF’s efforts to promote budget transparency and citizen engagement.

© IMF/2019/RobertsIMF staff Chris Lane and Nicolas Mombrial with UNICEF ED Henrietta Fore following the meeting.

What’s next?

We left with an open invitation to explore concrete ways to work together and a request for our Executive Director to return in a year to discuss the collaboration. My colleagues and I sat with our IMF counterparts the next day to work through some ideas to replicate our ongoing cooperation in additional countries.

The bottom line: The IMF’s mission is better served when children are protected and supported.  Still, getting there is a two-way street – UNICEF offices also must engage. We’ll be following up with colleagues around the world to encourage them to move from dialogue to action and collaboration wherever and whenever they can, so that the immense influence of the IMF is increasingly put to work for children.


Alexandra Yuster is Associate Director and Chief, Social Policy, UNICEF NYHQ.

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