PRESS CONFERENCE BY NIGERIAN AUTHOR CHINUA ACHEBE, UNFPA GOODWILL AMBASSADOR
The renowned Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, who has been appointed a Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), was introduced to correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing this morning.
Mr. Achebe, currently Charles Stevenson Professor of Literature at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, told correspondents that he was a great believer in the United Nations and its agencies. Their work might not be perfect, he said, "but the world is not perfect", he added. Those who were critical of the United Nations forget how much worse things would have been without it, he said. "Therefore it was not difficult for me to accept to be a Goodwill Ambassador." He stressed he would do what he could for UNFPA's activities. He would attempt also to bring the agency and its critics together to address problems together.
Present at the press briefing was a member of the Executive Committee of the Fund and Director of its African Regional Office, Virginia Ofosu-Amaah.
Responding to questions, Mr. Achebe stressed the need for the involvement of people in resolving problems affecting them. He observed that some thought that they should be drawing up the agenda for everybody. "When you get into this business of intervening for people, you should attempt to take them along with you, whether it's women or children or the third world, in general, and the task would be more easily done", he said.
Mrs. Ofosu-Amaah told a correspondent that it was important also that the improvement of the quality of life of people in sub-Saharan Africa was dealt with, as the problem of HIV/AIDS in the region was addressed. That was what UNFPA and other bodies in the United Nations system had been trying to do. The UNFPA had moved beyond population control in its programmes and was now looking at protecting rights -- making sure that women had the right to health and reproductive health services. It was also looking at the involvement of men in reproductive health activities. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS was the reason why more reproductive health services should be provided in sub-Saharan Africa to protect the people and to ensure a healthy labour force, she said. "In the whole effort to address the HIV/AIDS problem, we need to focus much more on education and the provision of reproductive health services and protection of women's rights as well", she added.
Responding to questions about how the many socio-economic problems of Africa could be overcome, Mr. Achebe said the work that had to be done in Africa was immense. He welcomed the emphasis on education, although it was a slow process. Education and elevating people from poverty could not be solved or done overnight. "But ultimately this is where the solution lies." Efforts should be concentrated on addressing issues of social and economic
disabilities at the root of the problem, and not simply attacking their manifestations.
Mrs. Ofosu-Amaah, replying to a question, said it was a pity that UNFPA's mandate, which was to ensure that there was good population programmes and activities in countries, had always been considered synonymous with family planning. She said that before the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development, the agency provided more than family planning programmes in sub-Saharan Africa. The UNFPA's main objective was to ensure that women and men had access to reproductive health services. It was a right which had to be ensured and protected, she said. The emphasis should be on improving the quality of life, she also said, adding that that was what the agency aimed at in sub-Saharan Africa.
Enumerating some of the agency's activities in the region, she said they included family life education programme as part of the formal and informal school system; support for research, socio-cultural research as basis for the UNFPA's programmes; and support for data collection in countries for use in programming as well as for monitoring activities supported by the Fund, other United Nations agencies and by governments as well. "So we do much more than family planning, which is one of the activities that UNFPA supports in these countries in sub-Sahara Africa", she said.
Mr. Achebe told a questioner that he had no plans to travel extensively, but would still do all he could to help UNFPA. Asked whether he saw an extension of his literary work to his appointment as a Goodwill Ambassador, he said: "I think it is an extension because my writing -- the whole idea of literature -- is that it is there to help people." Art gave people "a second handle on reality", he said. The ultimate purpose was to make passage through life a little meaningful. "Therefore when I see inequalities, disabilities of all kinds imposed upon people, I think this is my interest. I hope I will be able to bring the same concerns that I show in my characters and societies in my writings to bear on real people, going through real life. I suppose UNFPA also agrees with this."
Asked what he thought about countries getting together to form what amounted to a world government, he said it would be difficult to bring a world government about. "I think the United Nations, which is just short of the role of a world government, is in my view, the most practicable way of dealing with the question of united action." He had serious doubts, though, about a world government, he said and added, "We should aim to make the United Nations as effective as possible."
Noting that family life in western countries was in crisis, a correspondent asked what could be learned from or shared with African family values. Mr. Achebe said: "The world must be ready to listen to Africa, first of all. You have to be ready to believe that there may be some value there. This is where the literature that has been written is relevant."
Achebe Press Conference - 3 - 7 January 1999
A correspondent commented that "a chunk of Ted Turner's endowment" to the United Nations had been earmarked for population issues and wanted to know whether any other money would be devoted to Africa and if so how much? Mrs. Ofosu-Amaah said UNFPA had submitted a number of proposals for projects in sub-Saharan Africa, some of which had been approved. It was planned to submit some more, and Africa would benefit. She emphasized that sub-Saharan Africa was a priority region for UNFPA and that it was doing all it could to mobilize funds for projects in the region. One such approved project was for reproductive services in the Comoros to reduce the country's high mortality rate. There were plans to develop other projects for funding by the Turner Foundation to combat HIV/AIDS, which was a major problem in sub-Saharan Africa at present.
She also said that the Turner Foundation had shown interest in a number of projects on improving the status of women and empowering them; adolescent reproductive health; and combating HIV/AIDS.
Abubakar Dungus, an UNFPA Information Officer, who was also present at the press conference, said some of the funds received from the Turner Foundation had gone to other United Nations agencies. One such project was to help train women in Bolivia to know their rights and that they did not have to accept violence as a sign of love. They would be taught in their own languages to know what those rights were. The project had been tested in Peru, he said, adding that a documentary made on it had recently won an international film festival award in Cuba. The foundation was similarly funding projects of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), including some on harmful traditional practices.
Responding to questions about the need for information about the Fund's activities at various levels, Mrs. Ofosu-Amaah reiterated that results of UNFPA-sponsored census were analysed, and the details made available for use not only by UNFPA, but also by other United Nations agencies and governments themselves, as she had earlier indicated. The agency had carried out a lot of socio-cultural research in countries to support its activities. The Fund's programmes had been translated into various local languages.
Mr. Dungus said some UNFPA reports and publications were being published in "street-level language" and officials in the field were being taught how to communicate, using traditional media.
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