Veneman to lead United Nations Children’s Fund

WASHINGTON – Outgoing Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman will become the new head of the United Nations Children’s Fund. Her appointment as executive director of UNICEF will become official May 1.

Veneman, whose successor, Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns, is expected to be confirmed by the Senate tomorrow, had been tight-lipped about her future plans after she resigned as secretary but announced Tuesday she was taking the UN position.

She cited USDA’s work in improving conditions around the world through development activities, direct food assistance such as Food for Peace and science and technology initiatives for increasing agricultural productivity as among her proudest accomplishments at USDA.

“I am pleased that my new role in leading UNICEF will provide opportunities to do even more, and I’m proud to join an organization with a nearly 60-year history of alleviating suffering and saving the lives of the most vulnerable,” she said in a farewell address to USDA employees today.

“For me the work of the past four years is not ending. It is just taking another form. There will be new challenges and new faces, but there will continue to be common goals and opportunities to work with old friends.”

United Nations sources were quoted as saying Veneman was UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s first choice to head the agency, which has more than 7,000 employees and offices in 150 countries. USDA, in contrast, has about 24,000 employees in nearly as many nations.

Veneman had indicated last fall she hoped to remain in her post of agriculture secretary as President Bush began his second term. But she submitted her resignation to Bush in November along with a number of other first-term cabinet members.

Bush subsequently nominated Johanns, citing his experience on his family’s dairy operation. Johanns, an attorney, practiced law in Omaha before being elected to the state legislature and then as governor.

Veneman thanked USDA’s employees for their government service during her remarks at the USDA Headquarters Building in Washington.

"Sometimes when we bounce like a pinball from one major issue to the next, our appreciation for everything that you do might go unspoken or unnoticed,” she said. "Our accomplishments are only possible because of the team behind them, and we have an outstanding team.

“I am always impressed at the ability of USDA, not just to adapt to change but to anticipate it. When new challenges emerge the resources of this Department are mobilized on a dime. Over and over again when there is a crisis USDA is on the front lines – whether it is an outbreak of animal or plant diseases or a natural disaster like a forest fire, hurricanes or the recent tsunami.”

She cited improvements in the farm economy and new trade agreements with other countries as other milestones of her tenure at the Agriculture Department.

“We have enjoyed tremendous successes such as a historically strong farm and rural economy, record exports, new trade opportunities and growing markets for alternative uses,” she noted. “Scientific advances that are opening new frontiers for food and agriculture are giving new hope to feed the hungry.

The administration’s historic commitment to resource conservation including record conservation funding and the President's Healthy Forests Initiative were among other accomplishments along with quick and effective implementation of the most complex farm bill ever and improvements in the delivery of our programs and services such as nutrition assistance, E-government, and a focus on civil rights.

But she said much remains to be done in improving conditions for much of the world’s population.

“Today 1 billion children around the world live in poverty; 640 million children or one in three worldwide live without adequate shelter; 400 million have no access to safe water; and 270 million of them have no health care of any kind,” she noted. “About 121 million primary school age children, most of them girls, are not in school. Around the world millions of children every year are forced into slavery or sexually exploited. All of these factors take a terrible toll.”

The average life expectancy of a child born in Japan in 2003 was 82 years, while in Zambia it was 33, for example. The number of children who have been made orphans by HIV/AIDS is 15 million.

Sources said that Johanns was expected to be among several new cabinet members to be sworn in tomorrow.

A native of Osage in northeast Iowa, Johanns encountered little opposition during confirmation hearings before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry on Jan. 6.

In one of his last official acts as Nebraska’s governor, Johanns submitted a $6 billion, two-year budget to the Nebraska legislature.

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