Shaheen Nilofer has just concluded her tenure as the UNICEF representative in Eritrea that started in June 2019. Upon the conclusion of her mission to Eritrea, Eritrea Profile had the chance to conduct an interview. Excerpts follow...
Please tell us your reflections about the country.
I have many reflections to share primarily about Eritrea's story. I have been here for more than three years, and it is a firsthand exposure and understanding of the context where we operate. Context is everything and the stories must be told in the right manner because stories sway people and influence the policies made, the politics and the way the world order is being shaped. So, the narrative that is important to tell the rest of the world is about how Eritrea is making strides on some of the key critical indicators of children that UNICF is concerned with and is working in close partnership.
One of the most important things that I have seen recently is Eritrea's ability to engage externally. We saw Eritrea's engagement in high level political forum in July 2022 in New York. That is a global platform where Eritrea presents its national reports. That is about telling the story where Eritrea is. Although the mandate is about SDG 3 and 13, it also reflected other SDGs and how Eritrea is measuring up to on delivering its commitment.
Very recently on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we have seen Eritrea's participation in the transformative education summit, and it was the first time Eritrea presented its national commitment on transformative education for children. I am saying all this because it's important to tell that Eritrea doesn't shy away from telling its stories when it's ready and believes it has something substantive to contribute to the global landscape on SDGs for children. And I think that the time is ready now.
Eritrea has always been on track in terms of the SDG3 and 13, but it didn't necessarily think about doing the talk without first doing the walk in terms of what it believes in and what it is committed to. Speaking of the milestones, the role of UNICEF is to respond to the context and to the needs on the ground as determined by Eritrea's national priorities. We respond to the national priorities.
In the past five successive country programs, we have seen the under-five mortalities among children reduced by 74%. We have seen a reduction of about 68% in infant mortality rate. Neonatal mortality has also decreased by 49%. This might seem mere statistics, but what is most important is given the constraint and the challenge the country has faced, not only during its struggle for independence but also after independence, education, health and other essential social services have been on the forefront of its national priority. Most of the developed countries in the world are struggling with the education sector's budget, which is still below 9-10 %.
Despite all of its challenges, Eritrea commits about 14.9% of its domestic budget to education and it aims to increase it by 20 % by 2025. This is a phenomenal record not only in terms of financing but in prioritizing that every child has access to quality learning. This has resulted in an increase in primary school enrollment. Of course, this doesn't mean there are no areas of concern that we need to work on.
Another key milestone is Eritrea's rate of immunization. In addition, data is a determining factor. We have very good administrative data from the Ministry of Health, but we don't necessarily have recent and segregated data that would enable us to tell the story with confidence and evidence. And it's very important for us to engage at the global level, that is SDG and more of future goals. This is all doable not only because it's small but because there are very committed and hardworking functionaries at different levels of the administration.
One of the key reasons for the success of the implementation of the program in Eritrea is the strong community institutions which subsidize a large part of the implementation by the zoba level functionaries. To ensure there is a program on inclusive children-based assistance, the community institutions are the ones who monitor and talk to the parents and the rest of the community about the importance of education. So, to a large extent, the credit goes to the very strong community networks and institutions that I have seen in Eritrea.
Over 98% of the routine under 5 immunizations is very good. We need to bridge the gap and ensure no child is left behind. Although much has been achieved, there is a lot to be done. Eritrea is also making progress in nutrition for children under five. An example is the recent accelerated high impact nutrition strategy that seeks a multi sector intervention. We are holding talks about reviving the DMK factory in Dekemhare. That is one of the ways you ensure that Eritrea is more than capable to solve its problems using domestic solutions. The Ministry of Health has declared an ODF (Open Defecation Free) Eritrea by December 2022, and we are almost there.
Another Eritrea's achievement that I am very proud of is the barefoot doctors. There are currently about 121 barefoot doctors that have been selected through a rigorous process across the length and breadth of the country. The barefoot doctors are bridging the gaps in delivering health services specifically in rural areas. We also need to work towards ensuring the rural water supply at the community level. Although we are close to 75-80%, we are undertaking an inventory of the WASH resources across the country to see how many of these resources of water supply systems are functional and what needs to be done to ensure that communities are empowered to undertake the simple repair and maintenance at their level without necessarily depending on the government for everything. There is an element of building capacity and providing them with simple tools and equipment that enable them to take charge of these resources once provided by the government.
All concerned ministries work together to get the desired outcome of ensuring comfortable learning environment for children. The MLSW is on the last leg of finalizing the national policy on social protection, which is one of the most important key milestones. This shows Eritrea's own credibility and long reputation of ensuring that equity and social justice are essential to everything that the country undertakes, including the development vision and strategy. So, within the broad framework of equity and social justice, the national social protection policy has come into effect, and we assure that this would enable the country to make sure that it delivers the necessary services for those in need.
During the times of Covid-19 [when the country was in partial lockdown], none of the essential services were disrupted and that's a commendable achievement for the government. Though schools were closed for a while, other means, such as the broadcasting of lessons on TV and radio, were applied.
What do you think can other countries in this region learn from Eritrea in terms of success on SDGs, women and children?
One of the first things that come to mind is Eritrea's remarkable performance on immunization coverage. As I mentioned, it is now close to 98%. That's a remarkable achievement. It's important to understand how change happened and the reasons for the success. And if you are able to pick up the lessons from the examples then we could have similar results in other places. So, it's important for us to realize that despite the limitations and the challenges, there are success stories to be told.
Another favorite one is the realization that it's not left to the government in Asmara to deliver results for children but the engagement and commitment that stretches down to the kebabi (sub zone level). Everyone is engaged, so there is a sense of accountability and responsibility at every level in giving back to the community. That may have been derived from the principles of equity and social justice which is essential to Eritrea's mantra to development. That's the story Eritrea could offer the rest of the world.
You have travelled to different parts of Eritrea. Please, tell us your impressions.
I am very passionate about traveling and take any opportunity to travel outside of Asmara to see things first hand and to experience actual results on the ground. Based on my own personal exposure to the cultural context of the country, I have seen how the institutions, functionaries and the school establishment and basic health centers work.
I went on a field trip at the beginning of 2020, just before the outbreak of the [Covid-19] pandemic. It was an immunization campaign at a basic health center in Foro: I saw women with young infants and kids on their own come for immunization. They knew this was a day for immunization and they were there on their own. That was very impressive and a demonstration of the acceptance of the services provided.
In many places, you have to push communities to influence them to demand services. But in this context what was admirable is that service was given without any disruption in spite of the panic the pandemic caused the world. And this also shows that you don't have to tell people how important immunization and nutrition supplements are. That is one part of the story where the communities understand and value the services. What is impressive isn't just the fact that things are available for free, but there are people lined up for that service. This also shows the commitment of the people despite the distances they have to travel. What also inspired me was the story from the barefoot doctors.
Some of the 21 female barefoot doctors I saw are mothers of three or four who dropped out of secondary school. They took rigorous training at Barentu Hospital to be barefoot doctors, paramedics and interns. The testimonies I heard from them, the pride with which they recounted their stories and the respect they earned from their community are amazing. For someone who has been a homemaker with low self-esteem to be seen as a messiah of the community who delivers health services in the remotest of the areas, carrying that paramedic bag and travelling long distances to be able to reach out to the families, children, and women is just a remarkable story.
There are so many stories to tell. I am impressed by the cultural diversity of the country and the seamless harmony in the country. There is so much love and beautiful relationships you see when you visit these areas just from the point of view of cultural diversity. What I brought as a takeaway from my trip is making sure that our structure in UNICEF also reflects that culture. We shouldn't be all the very privileged ones from Asmara. We should have representation in our structure from all ethnic groups. So there is so much to learn from the country in terms of emphasis on equality, inclusion and diversity.
What has life been like in Eritrea, and what memories are you taking with you?
I don't have the words to express it. It's one of the most beautiful countries that I have seen, not in terms of the climate but the people. Common people in the streets of Asmara, Keren, Massawa, Barentu or elsewhere are very welcoming. I just exude so much of warmth, positivity and hospitality. You don't feel a stranger in the country. People are very welcoming, and you don't feel rattled. I can walk on the streets of Asmara no matter how late it is and no one bothers me. They always welcome and nod their head in good wish. Whenever I had an opportunity, I have taken a lot of photographs. I have seen through my eyes so many good gestures, and I have them captured in my camera. I have captured those images of the people that tell so many stories that no matter what, it's important to connect people to people. That gives the utmost happiness; so, I am carrying a lot of these memories with me and I am sure Eritrea will be on my mind forever.
What are your parting words?
Children first!! Whether Eritrea is building its economy, culture, politics or anything, we need to keep children at the center of the design of any development program. I would like to thank the government of the State of Eritrea and all the ministries I have worked with for their support and cooperation and, more importantly, for prioritizing children. They make sure that no child is left behind, everywhere. I am sure that every child is looked after and is a priority for the government.