Wars that now kill more civilians than soldiers are prodding the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to resume a largely abandoned emergency role.
''There are probably more children caught in armed conflict today than [anytime] in the last 50 years,'' says UNICEF's new executive director Carol Bellamy.
By UN estimates, some two million children have been killed in wars during the last decade. Millions more have been orphaned or separated from their families. UNICEF tries to reunite children with lost relatives or foster parents and supply needed food, vaccines, water, and schooling.
In recognition of its 50th-anniversary year in 1996, UNICEF will issue a new study on Dec. 11 on the effects of armed conflict on children, along with its annual ''The State of the World's Children'' report. The latter focuses on progress in child health, nutrition, and education.
Yet just how much attention UNICEF, one of the UN's best-known and most-admired agencies, now should devote to children in emergency situations is a matter of some controversy.
UNICEF was founded in 1946 as a humanitarian agency to meet the emergency needs of children after World War II. In the early 1950s, the agency took on a broader, long-term development role. Emergencies again are intervening. They absorb almost one-fourth of UNICEF's $1 billion annual budget.
''UNICEF has a special role to play with regard to children in difficult circumstances,'' concedes Lennarth Hjelmaker of Sweden, UNICEF's second-largest financial supporter. He is a vice president of the 36-member executive board that sets UNICEF policy and approves its budget. ''Yet if you talk about emergencies in a broad context - humanitarian assistance - there are many other actors in the UN family. For Sweden, it is important that UNICEF works on long-term development.''
''When it is an emergency, you have to go for it,'' says Alberto Augusto, Mozambique's UNICEF board member, ''but in terms of planning, we should always plan for long-term development.''
Ms. Bellamy, a former director of the United States Peace Corps who took on the top UNICEF post in May, stresses in an interview that UNICEF workers rarely have to rush to the scene in emergencies; usually they are there when the trouble starts. ''We are not a direct relief organization,'' she says. ''We are trying to provide some consistent normality for children, so development can continue even after the conflict goes away. I think that is where we are headed.''
Some 85 percent of the UNICEF staff works in field offices in 150 nations. One of the agency's major jobs these days is to promote and monitor progress made toward the 10-year goals set by the UN World Summit for Children in 1990. Aimed at cutting back on the 12.6 million child deaths each year that UNICEF deems ''preventable,'' the summit set specific goals ranging from a one-third reduction in the deaths of children under age 5 to universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation by 2000.
UNICEF's forthcoming ''The State of the World's Children'' report is expected to show, as last year, that more than 90 percent of the developing world's children live in nations making significant progress toward the goals.
Yet Bellamy says some goals, such as the pledge to cut maternal mortality in half, remain ''elusive.'' Also, she says, the quality of progress is not easily measured, and just sustaining progress can be a major feat. ''I know we won't hit 100 percent on everything ... but this isn't a matter of, 'Oh, you failed,' '' she says.
Still, Bellamy notes that some sharp geographical differences are emerging as mid-decade goals are monitored. Much of South Asia, for example, lags behind the goals of ensuring that at least 80 percent of all children complete primary school and of equal access to education for girls. ''The education of the girl child is a very, very key issue,'' Bellamy says. UNICEF officials say evidence is strong that educated women have fewer children and take better care of them. In Africa, primary-school enrollment has declined. Also, though sub-Saharan Africa has only 16 percent of the child population of developing nations, the region now accounts for 35 percent of all deaths of children under age 5.
Another major UNICEF concern is the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child which has been ratified by 181 nations. The treaty obligates governments to protect young children from such intrusions as sexual exploitation and full-time jobs that can threaten their health, education, or development. Last spring Bellamy announced that UNICEF, which spends a large $380 million a year on supplies, would no longer buy from suppliers that violate the convention.
Though Bellamy took on the UNICEF post with seemingly boundless enthusiasm right from the start, UN diplomats say she came into a very difficult situation.
First, she succeeded the widely respected late James Grant, who had held the job for 15 years and was the driving force behind the World Summit for Children and its very specific goals. ''It has not been easy,'' she says. ''I think it's harder to follow somebody who's been terrific than somebody who's been not great.'' Yet she calls Mr. Grant an extraordinary man of vision and says she hopes to build on that.
Second, UNICEF was facing some major charges of mismanagement. Changes would have to be made. Also, Bellamy's appointment to the job by UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was somewhat controversial. The US is the largest single financial contributor to UNICEF. An American always has held the top job. Yet European diplomats, arguing that Europe now supplies half of UNICEF's budget, lobbied hard but unsuccessfully for a European appointee.
So far, Bellamy, a former New York City Council president, is drawing high marks from many who work with her for her directness and her ''can do'' approach.
Her tremendous energy and natural openness are strong assets, says Petru Dumitriu of Romania, a vice president of UNICEF's executive board. He says he thinks Bellamy is tough enough to withstand political pressure and make needed reforms. ''She is doing a great job,'' concurs Sweden's Lennarth Hjelmaker.
UNICEF has had a number of internal problems which Bellamy has made no effort to hide.
Last spring she briefed both the UNICEF executive board and, later, reporters on the results of an investigation into charges of fraud and mismanagement involving $10 million in the agency's Nairobi office during 1993-94. Some 17 employees now have been dismissed or suspended. Terming the event a ''serious blow'' to UNICEF, Bellamy promptly appointed a new office chief in Kenya with a strong background in finance and administration.
Also openly on the table is a Booz-Allen and Hamilton Inc. report for UNICEF that pinpoints in-house problems ranging from low staff morale to tension between UNICEF's board and secretariat. The report also says that UNICEF is not well-equipped to handle such new social challenges as child abuse and street children.
''Every organization needs to look at itself and say, 'OK, what are we doing and how well are we doing it?' '' Bellamy says. ''There's no reason a 'do-gooder' organization should be any less well run or well managed than any other.''
She says her own job has proved to be one that requires her attention seven days a week and 24 hours a day. Yet she says she likes to work hard. Her two favorite activities ''for fun'' are gardening and hiking. Both are on hold for now, but next year she hopes to join a group of friends who hike in places as diverse as Wyoming and the Himalayas.
''We just put one foot in front of the other,'' she says.