Czech UNICEF targets aid to Rwandan children


For a relatively small central European country of over ten million, the Czech Republic is doing its share to help needy children in Africa. Over the past four years, Czechs have donated over seven million crowns ($321 000 USD) to UNICEF, and Czech donations make-up three percent of the annual $12 million UNICEF budget in Rwanda. Although the wounds of the genocide in Rwanda are slowing healing, over 60% of the country's 8.2 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, and more than half of Rwanda's total population is younger than eighteen. Over three years ago the Czech branch of UNICEF chose Rwanda as its target-country for aid, and Pavla Gomba, Director of Czech UNICEF, explains how that decision came about, and why the association continues.

"I must say that the aid amounts to only about 20% of our budget from what we raise here in the Czech Republic because 80% is meant for either emergencies or development projects that are not very attractive for private donors, like education, for example. But we can earmark 20% of the funds we raise here and when we were in the situation of choosing our priority country, we considered several criteria. One of them was the size of the country and the size of the population, and we preferred a smaller country because we are a small country ourselves and we thought that if we helped in India or China, anything would be just a drop in a sea.

Another criteria was how much Czechs know about the country, because there are countries with urgent needs but Czechs don't know about them—they are not high on the media's radar. Yet Rwanda, because of the genocide, was still very much on people's minds.

The third criteria was the needs of children in the country, how urgent their situation is, and how much support they receive from other countries. What we see all around the world is that when there is an emergency, most countries usually receive substantial funds—except for some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, like Sudan just now. So the donors tend to support countries that they see on TV or hear about on the radio, but then in 3-4 years when the situation is better people tend to forget about these countries, and Rwanda is a typical example. The genocide is over, it's not receiving a lot of media coverage, but the needs are still there. There is a whole generation of orphans that are growing up, they were witnesses of extreme violence, many of them were raped, they still have trauma and they need support from us."

How long has Czech UNICEF been involved in Rwanda, and what concretely is happening on the ground there?

"This is our fourth year of support to Rwanda, and we have supported two types of projects. The starting point was support to street children and genocide orphans—very vulnerable children. Then we moved to support of water and sanitation programs because these are programs that support the whole community, including the orphans and vulnerable kids. One could say that it's too little to drill a well, but this project is designed so that it also supports nutrition. When there is water we can build a school canteen and children receive a daily meal. In addition, the wells are usually built at schools, so instead of walking long distances with jerry-cans for water that is not safe, children go to school, stay at school, and they bring clean water home. So the program has overlaps with nutrition and education."

As Pavla Gomba stresses, focusing Czech aid in one location is bringing real results. In January 2004 Bintou Keita was appointed UNICEF Country Representative in Rwanda, and she's currently visiting the UNICEF offices in Prague, where we met and I asked her to explain what Czech aid is doing for children on the ground in Rwanda.

"Concretely, we have received over $300 000 USD in just over three years, and more than 20 000 people have been helped with this money. These people include 10 000 pupils in five primary schools, there are two health centers which have been built (which is a lot), and 10 000 people in the local community have received aid. All this means that we have water in schools, water in the community, washrooms in schools, and we are even collecting rainwater coming through the roof in schools, which is a good example of what people can do at home. We also have separate latrines for boys and girls, which means that more girls can afford to go to school and not miss any days of instruction."

Ms. Keita revealed that while 94% of Rwanda's children enroll in primary school, only half of them complete their basic education. Yet with improved sanitary conditions in schools, the chances that girls, especially, will finish their studies, is significantly higher.

While Czech aid to Rwanda has not eliminated child labor and vast poverty in the central African state, it's clear that some things are changing for the better.