Progress and challenges: Regional Director for South Asia Dan Toole visits Afghanistan

Kabul, January 28, 2008 (United Nations Children's Fund): UNICEF's new Regional Director for South Asia, Dan Toole, visited Afghanistan last week, during which time he helped launch UNICEF's flagship report, The State of the World's Children 2008, in Kabul. His four-day visit coincided with the publication's official launch in Geneva.

"Afghanistan is a country that has one of the highest infant and child mortality rates in the world," Mr. Toole said. "What isn't really known is that we have made tremendous progress in the last five years."

Mr. Toole cited a recent study by Johns Hopkins University which noted that since 2001, child mortality in Afghanistan has fallen by 25 per cent. Yet, even with this vast improvement, Afghanistan still has the world's third highest rate of mortality for children under five.

During his visit, Mr. Toole met with Government officials including President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai and the Ministers for Health, Education and Rural Development to discuss UNICEF programmes.

"I was once again impressed by the commitment of the Government of Afghanistan to invest human and financial resources to improve the daily lives of women and children in this war-torn country," Mr. Toole said afterwards.

Successes and challenges

Mr. Toole also met with the President of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, Fatemah Gailani to discuss partnering to utilize a vast network of existing volunteers.

"There have been huge successes, such as children in schools and the drop in child and maternal mortality – despite the difficult security environment in which UNICEF has been working," Mr. Toole said. "We all know there is political commitment to make a positive difference in the lives of Afghans. This now needs further and consistent investments."

When asked about what challenges UNICEF faces in Afghanistan this year, Mr. Toole said: "Without clean water and sanitation, children will become sick and we will have continued high infant and child mortality."

'The road to change'

On the final day of his visit, Mr. Toole braved icy conditions and headed up to the snow-covered Panjshir Valley to see the results of UNICEF's long-term commitment to Afghanistan. He saw how teams of community health workers travel to remote villages deep in the mountains to vaccinate children, provide basic health care and educate the communities about nutrition, health and hygiene.

Mr. Toole met with the Panjshir shura (tribal council), where he stressed the importance of children – especially girls – being allowed to finish their education.

"Afghanistan is on the road to change," Mr. Toole said. "It's on the road for improved child survival, but the road is very long and we have a lot of progress to make."