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Authors: Adam Fifield

A Mighty Purpose

BOOK: A Mighty Purpose
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A Blessing Over Ashes:
The Remarkable Odyssey of My Unlikely Brother

Copyright © 2015 by Adam Fifield

Frontispiece: James P. Grant holding a small child at a UNICEF-assisted center for unaccompanied children in Nyamata, Rwanda, while a worker looks on. Photograph © UNICEF/NYHQ1994-0481/PressRWANDA, 1994

Production editor: Yvonne E. Cárdenas

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from Other Press LLC, except in the case of brief quotations in reviews for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast. For information write to Other Press LLC, 2 Park Avenue, 24th Floor, New York, NY 10016. Or visit our Web site:

The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:

Fifield, Adam, author.
   A mighty purpose : how Jim Grant sold the world on saving its children / Adam Fifield.
      p.; cm.
   ISBN 978-1-59051-603-4 (hardcover) — ISBN 978-1-59051-604-1 (e-book)
   1. Grant, James P. 2. UNICEF—History. 3. United Nations—Officials and employees. 4. Child welfare—History. I. Title.
   [DNLM: 1. Grant, James P. 2. UNICEF. 3. Administrative Personnel—Biography. 4. International Agencies—history. 5. Child Advocacy—history. 6. Child Health Services—history. 7. Child Welfare—history. 8. History, 20th Century.]
   HV703.F54 2015
   [B]               2014050069


To my wife, Kathy, and my children, Will & Audrey


“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

—George Bernard Shaw,
Man and Superman
“Epistle Dedicatory to Arthur Bingham Walkley”

I had never heard of Jim Grant until about a year before I decided to write a book about him. I was aware of the organization he led, the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, mostly from its popular Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF fund-raising campaign on Halloween. In late 2007, as a journalist who recognized how precarious my profession was becoming, I decided to try something different—at least for a while. I answered a job ad for a writer and editor at the US Fund for UNICEF, a nonprofit that raises funds and awareness for the UN agency in the United States. I ended up staying for more than five years, leaving in 2013. In my second or third year there, while rummaging through a filing cabinet, I found a tattered copy of an anthology of essays about Grant that was entitled
Jim Grant: UNICEF Visionary
. It had been published by UNICEF and was out of print; Grant had been dead for more than thirteen years. I thumbed through the pages and was transfixed—how was it, I wondered, that I was just now learning about someone who
had so profoundly altered the course of recent history, who had shattered the idea of what was possible and impossible in the fight against poverty?

I was a new father at the time—I now have a son and a daughter—and felt an immediate, palpable admiration for what he had done for so many other parents around the world. Who was this man? How and why did he do this? I wanted to find out.

The following account is not a comprehensive history of UNICEF. Nor is it a thorough chronicle of Jim Grant’s life. It is a narrative that selectively focuses on key moments during his tumultuous fifteen-year tenure at UNICEF and on several relationships that were pivotal to his unprecedented achievements. Many important episodes, issues, and individuals are not included in these pages or are mentioned only briefly. This is ultimately a personal story that I hope will inspire and enlighten and perhaps trigger some contemplation of the possibilities for progress and of one person’s ability to truly change the world.


The baby was almost gone. Eyes dull, skin pulled taut over tiny bones, mouth gaping silently, he lay slack in his mother’s arms. She had wrapped him in a towel. At only a few months, his brief life was receding. Malnutrition and dehydration had staked their claims on his brittle body. It was no surprise to anyone here on the outskirts of the City of Death.

In September 1992, Baidoa, Somalia, was the epicenter of a raging famine kindled by a drought and vicious fighting. The mother and her baby had come to a medical tent in a camp teeming with sick, displaced people. About twenty other mothers and children waited there for help, though they did not look like they hoped for, or expected, much. Their despair was quiet and stifling.

A thin, white, slightly stooped, seventy-year-old American man walked into the tent. He wore an untucked blue short-sleeved shirt with a bulging chest pocket. He glanced around and then asked, “Can someone get me a cup of water?” His voice was crisp, his words clipped. After someone handed him
the water, he reached into his stuffed chest pocket and pulled out a plastic packet. He then produced a spoon. He tore open the packet, spilled some of its powdery contents into the cup of water, and stirred it. The solution he had made was a mix of salts and sugars that can quickly halt the deadly effects of severe dehydration. He walked over to the mother and baby and cupped the child’s head in one of his hands. He set the cup down and began to spoon the solution into the baby’s mouth. The mother’s eyes widened.

“Everything is all right,” he told her gently as he fed the baby. “He will live. Your child will live.” A man standing nearby translated the words. After about ten minutes, he stopped. He said aloud: “I want the same thing done for all the children here.” Then he left.

Jim Grant was the head of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and he was in Somalia to see how his agency was faring in an almost impossible situation. Accompanying him was UN official and former UNICEF Somalia representative David Bassiouni, who relayed this story.

A few days later, an inquiry into the child’s condition showed that Grant’s promise had been kept. The child had recovered.

Grant visited many such places over the years, places where the death of a child was nothing out of the ordinary, where it was so commonplace that it was numbly, quietly endured. Countries racked by war and disasters, but also peaceful regions devastated by a sinister force even deadlier—poverty.

In refugee camps, slums, run-down rural health centers, thatch-walled classrooms, remote mountain villages, Jim Grant
was an incongruous sight. Unrelentingly upbeat with seemingly no inhibitions, he would traipse through scenes of jubilant celebration and those of paralyzing despair. He would cheerfully join troupes of singing children. He would dance and clap his hands and laugh out loud. He would throw his arm around the shoulder of a local village chief or a reserved government minister. He would lift up babies and hold them to his cheek. Squatting amidst a throng of children, he would work the tiny crowd: “Can I get a smile? Can you give me a smile?” Himself the father of three boys, he became the most powerful champion for impoverished children the world has ever seen. They were his warrant and gave him the license to push every edge of every envelope.

And push he did. His controversial tenure would upend this venerable UN agency and forever alter the face of global health and international development. The death of millions of children every year from malnutrition and disease had been seen by many in the international community as inevitable and was even tacitly accepted. Grant changed that. As a result, the issue of children’s well-being would soar to a position of unprecedented political and social prominence. During a grievous global recession, he spearheaded a historic surge in worldwide childhood immunization rates—an astonishing achievement that many had considered simply inconceivable. He convened the largest-ever gathering of world leaders, placing the needs of the world’s youngest inhabitants squarely on the world stage for the first time. But the most important legacy of Grant’s leadership is the children themselves. His child survival revolution,
as he called it, is estimated to have saved the lives of tens of millions of children during his tenure and many millions more after his death in 1995.

By the time Grant took the helm in 1980, UNICEF was already widely respected for its independence, decentralized structure, and hands-on effectiveness. Created as a temporary agency to aid children suffering the after-effects of World War II, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund had provided clothing, health care, and powdered milk throughout postwar Europe and Asia (it had also bolstered milk production by equipping dairies in Europe and, later, Latin America). Becoming a permanent member of the UN system in 1953, UNICEF shortened its full name (losing “International” and “Emergency”) but kept its acronym. It started to outgrow its original mandate, evolving from an emergency relief operation into a broader development organization that helped the most disadvantaged children all over the world—whether they were in the crosshairs of a natural disaster or enduring the quiet horror of sickness and malnutrition. This included providing vaccines and medicines (and in the case of malaria, the insecticide DDT) for mass antidisease campaigns; supporting feeding and nutrition programs; drilling wells, building latrines, and promoting sanitation; delivering basic medical supplies and equipment to support child and maternal health; and funding the training of health workers, midwives, and volunteers. In the early 1960s, UNICEF strove to find a place for children in the emerging international development movement and in countries’ national development plans, and its programs began to
encompass other issues, including education and family planning. It has always been voluntarily funded—by governments, corporations, foundations, individuals, and others—and operates at the invitation of governments. Its assistance is designed to strengthen countries’ and communities’ services for children and is primarily funneled through partnerships with government ministries, other aid agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and local groups. For instance, while UNICEF provides vaccines and helps train immunizers, it does not actually administer immunizations; this is done by government health workers and volunteers.

BOOK: A Mighty Purpose
9.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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