Ten Whats With...Dr. Susan Bissell
from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Ten Whats With...Dr. Susan Bissell

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0180/Susan Markisz.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0180/Susan Markisz.

Dr. Susan Bissell is Associate Director and Programmes Chief Child Protection, UNICEF, based in New York.  Susan joined UNICEF in 1987 where her work has taken her to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Haiti, Guatemala and Ethiopia. She holds a PhD in public health and medical anthropology from the University of Melbourne.  While completing her doctorate, she also co-produced the documentary "A Kind of Childhood" about human trafficking.  Susan is widely published and was a member of the Editorial Board of the report of the UN Secretary General’s Study on Violence Against Children which was released in 2006.

1. What is the most interesting project you are currently working on?

I actually work on programs, which are a bit different than projects in the sense that we’re trying to shift from a project by project approach to a much more systemic approach. And that includes rolling out a new strategy, approved by our board in May 2008, which provides me with a framework for working with our offices around the world in strengthening child protection systems.

Child protection covers a broad area of guidelines, systems and practical service delivery. For example, there are currently 220 million children under the age of five who don’t have a birth certificate. In many cases, that implies a lack of access to school, and if you do have access to school, you might not be able to graduate or receive your certificate of completion. It means that it’s very difficult to determine age, to work, and to get married. We are working to introduce digital birth registration across the globe to ensure that every child born on this planet has a birth certificate.

On the other end of the spectrum, we’re developing a master’s degree in child protection in coordination with Harvard University. The challenge is that child protection is interdisciplinary and/or misunderstood. Some people look at child protection and think of charitable or social work, which is important, but there needs to be solid academic base behind it.

One final thought: We now have seven or eight Security Council resolutions that feature the protection of children, and a number of these resolutions call for specific action by UNICEF.  This occupies a tremendous amount of my time because it is an incredibly intricate area of work; it’s linked to peace and security, rule of law, justice, good governance, and social justice—and it is completely unfunded. So UNICEF has to raise the money. We’re talking about reintegrating kids who have some way been affiliated with armed groups, and we’re talking primarily about an adolescent group. If we don’t get the social, economic, and academic components of reintegration, we’re going to have a vicious cycle. At this point, I feel like we’ve outdone our advocacy on these issues, and now we have to execute. It is a broad mandate, which is why we’re working much more systemically now.

2. What got you started in your career?

I don’t know how old I was at the time, but I remember seeing a picture of the vulture on a child during a famine——that struck me. In sixth grade, I organized a walk around our school to support CARE. This was a very small school in a suburb of Toronto, but we did raise some money for CARE.

While I was starting my undergraduate degree, I did some volunteer work for UNICEF and OXFAM, and that got me closer to the issues I was interested in. Between my second and third year of university I took a year off to work on an issue that moved me; I stayed in Puerto Rico, for a year and then traveled to the Dominican Republic where I connected with Ray Owen, manager of WAPA radio. A local radio station that still exists. His family kind of adopted me. I told him what I wanted to do, and he told me to concretize my career goals. And that was the birth of my realization that I needed an organizational affiliation, since I was already doing the volunteer work. So I went back and finished my degree and then did an internship in UNICEF in 1987. And I stayed.

3. What advice would you give to young people in your field?

I’m mentoring a couple of people right now. First of all, if you really want to do this kind of work, it is a challenge to get into it, but you will get there eventually. Second, there are lots of opportunities out there. If this is about your passion, your commitment, your integrity, it could be anything. And I say that because I’m very proud to work for UNICEF and I love working for this organization. But you can do this kind of work with all kinds of organizations. Third, don’t be too impatient about pursuing the “right” academic track right away. Finally, go out there and get some field experience, because that is the one thing that everyone else will not have. You can have a PhD in public health, but if you’ve never traveled to the countries in which we work, then you will not fully understand the issues. Experience is important.

4. What person, book, or article has been most influential on your thinking?

Book: Death Without Weeping by Nancy Scheper-Hughes. It was the first scholarly piece that I really threw myself into in order to help myself understand cultural relativism. Particularly when you’re working in child protection, there are a lot of standards, and they are really good standards. And you have to marry those standards with the reality on the ground.

Person: Bert Pelto. He is a phenomenal person whom I met while I was working in Bangladesh when we were really struggling to understand the lives and livelihoods of children on the streets and in some industries. He was a person I really respected and admired. He came back with the realization that children who pick garbage on the streets self-identify as recycling specialists. And I will never forget that. He greatly influenced my thinking.

5. What was the last book you finished?

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, which I read while I was visiting my sister-in-law in London. To be honest, I mainly read the New Yorker, the New York Magazine, and the New York Times.

6. What is the most overlooked problem that UNICEF faces?

The most overlooked problem that UNICEF faces is the issue of violence against children. We’re just beginning to understand the nature and extent of the consequences. To quote a phrase, ‘the cost of inaction in this area is extreme.’

7. What is the biggest misperception of UNICEF?

The biggest misperception is that UNICEF is against inter-country adoption. We are most certainly not against inter-country adoption. I think that there is some very deliberate and misleading journalism in this area. We support the continuum of care: everything from trying to support vulnerable families so they don’t have to relinquish their children; to permanent foster care; to having a child with his or her extended family on a permanent basis; to transparent and ethical inter-country adoption. We are guided by international standards like the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is saddening and it is personal. There is so much written about what my colleagues and I are trying to do in the field to fix these problems, and I think we’re making progress on addressing this misperception.

8. What is the most significant emerging global challenge?

I believe that the financial crisis is the biggest emerging threat. It impacts UNICEF on a number of levels, namely that we are a funding-based organization. But more important is the actual impact of the crisis on children and their families.  I feel like we just gained momentum on our issues, which require significant investment, and I really fear movement backwards. We rely on the generosity of individuals and corporations, and the social sector is the first to be cut.

9. What would you research if given a year and unlimited resources?

We’re conducting the first-ever household surveys around the world on violence prevalence in children, including sexual violence—part of a global public-private partnership called Together for Girls. If we were able to devote two years and unlimited funding, I would make sure that we had representation from all parts of the world, and supplement those surveys with qualitative data. This is our missing bit of information: the lived and global experience of childhood and our nuanced understanding of what that means - we would find some amazing things about children’s resilience, coping skills, and use of technology—and we would also find some horrifying things.

10. If you could pose one question to global leaders, what would it be?

What more could be done to protect children around the world from violence, abuse, and exploitation, if we put all of the world’s leading thinkers together in a room? I believe we’re at a tipping point of innovation and ideas. At the heart of many of these violations against children are political and social determinants: how do we address this? What more can we do and how? For me, it is the multiple marginalization of children. Poverty is not the only factor, or even the most important factor. There is a confluence of factors that create these situations. I call it poverty plus.  The approach we need to take is a ‘poverty plus approach’, in which we address not only the inequity of poverty, but also the discrimination and exclusion.