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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 24 · Number 2 · Winter 2007

Ann Veneman

During a December 2005 trip to India, Veneman visited an innovative UNICEF-supported project site in Rajwas Village. The project provides routine immunization and other services to help protect children. (Christie Johnston/UNICEF)

The Children's Ambassador

As UNICEF executive director, Ann Veneman '70 has dedicated herself to the welfare of the world's children.

In a center for abducted children in northern Uganda in July 2005, Ann Veneman ’70 sat among a group of children whose young lives had been filled with unimaginable horrors. The boys and girls around her were the victims of a 21-year-old guerrilla war that has created 1.7 million refugees in this Oregon-sized, East African country. It had been only two months since Veneman had been named head of UNICEF, but she was already traveling the globe to learn firsthand about the challenge before her and the world’s largest relief organization for children.

Accompanied by a translator to help her understand the Acholi language spoken in Gulu, UNICEF’s new executive director had a chance to hear the children describe their terrifying experiences. They had been victims of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which targets civilians in its armed rebellion against the Ugandan government. The LRA abducts boys and forces them to become soldiers, while capturing girls for sex slaves and domestic servants. It is estimated that more than 20,000 children had been abducted during the conflict.

Veneman met with some of the children who had escaped their captors and were now living in a camp that was providing medical and psychological support and helping reintegrate them into their home communities. After being forced to commit terrible acts as soldiers or as concubines—which left many of the girls with babies—these young people were often not welcomed back into their villages.

Veneman also met with children who had escaped abduction only by becoming “night commuters”: Each evening they fled their small, isolated villages for the safety of larger towns, returning home in the morning, traversing many miles each day.

Only recently have negotiations begun between the Ugandan government and the LRA to bring an end to what is one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts. But in the meantime, UNICEF—the 60-year-old United Nations agency that is funded solely by voluntary contributions—is helping create a safe environment for the victimized children. The organization is partnering with communities and local associations to provide material for the shelters, training for their managers, clean water and sanitation facilities, and assistance to help the children return to normal lives.

Listening to the children describe their plight, Veneman came away with “despair at their suffering—and yet full of so much hope,” she said. “The children surprised me with their optimism and their dreams about what they want to accomplish. You just hope that the resources are there so they can pursue their dream.”

War, famine, illiteracy, disease

Drop by Ann Veneman’s office near the United Nations building in New York City on a typical weekday morning, and you’ll find her hard at work as she directs her organization’s continuing effort to protect children in 156 countries around the world. A sampling of her agency’s current projects:

  • In Pakistan, Veneman toured a remote region to offer UNICEF’s support for thousands of kids left homeless by Pakistan’s devastating earthquake during October 2005. Now as the emergency phase of quake relief transitions to reconstruction and the return of displaced people, UNICEF is helping operate a feeding center for undernourished children and providing health care in village communities where there was none before.
  • In Sri Lanka, where entire towns were washed away during the tragic tsunami of December 2004, Veneman’s organization is helping rebuild old schools that had lacked even such basic facilities as toilets, equipping them with computer labs and increasing their space and the number of teachers.
  • In 21 countries of Eastern and Southern Africa, where some 5,500 children are dying every day, UNICEF works to address needs that range from medicine, clean water and nutritious food to mosquito netting that will protect against malaria.
  • In Swaziland, where 42 percent of pregnant women are HIV positive and 70,000 children have been orphaned by the disease, UNICEF is supporting more than 430 “Neighbourhood Care Points”—places where these children can receive care and support, a meal for the day and some schooling.

Ask this once-upon-a-time UC Davis political science major why she agreed to sign on as the executive director of UNICEF’s global operations (10,000 employees and an annual budget of nearly $3 billion), and President George W. Bush’s former secretary of agriculture (2001–05) will tell you she felt compelled by the importance of defending children from war, famine, illiteracy and disease.

“Children in the developing world suffer from lack of adequate health care, education, nutrition and clean water,” said Veneman. “They must also be protected from trafficking, sexual abuse, child labor and violence. The mission of UNICEF is critical to children all around the world.”

Peaches and public service

Veneman grew up on a Modesto peach farm, the daughter of John Veneman, who went on to become a member of the California State Assembly and then an undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW).

“We grew up with real farm life,” said Veneman. “My grandmother, who had the farm right next to us—my grandfather had died when he was 50—was my role model. She ran her part of the farm, and I was her little shadow.”

Before her father went to Washington to work at HEW, Veneman headed off to college, landing in a dorm at UC Davis in the midst of the Vietnam era. Having come from the small-town world of Modesto—the movie American Graffiti was based on life at her high school—Veneman found Davis a good place to be during this tumultuous time. Though spring 1970—“Cambodian spring,” when expansion of the Vietnam War spurred protests across the country—saw the cancellation of some finals at Davis, the campus was spared the violence that had devastating consequences for other colleges like Kent State.

In characteristic fashion, Veneman stayed focused on the job at hand. By taking a full load of courses each summer, she managed to complete her undergrad education in three years, then moved on to obtain a master’s degree in public policy at UC Berkeley, followed by a law degree from UC Hastings College of Law.

“I grew up in a family that very much valued public service,” said Veneman. “My father had been an elected politician since I was in grammar school. He was a farmer, but he was also in public service.”

After practicing law for several years, Veneman combined her family’s interests in farming and public service by joining the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There she rose through the ranks and gained a reputation as a calm, level-headed administrator who refused to panic when things didn’t go according to plan. Among her major accomplishments as a key player in the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service was helping negotiate the Uruguay Round agreement under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which opened the door to much broader markets for U.S. agricultural produce in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1991, Veneman was appointed to USDA’s second-highest position, then in 1995 she was named by Gov. Pete Wilson as secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

When President Bush tapped Veneman in January 2001 to be the country’s first female U.S. secretary of agriculture, few Washington insiders were surprised.

“I’ve known Ann since the 1980s, and the thing you have to understand about her is that she’s got this tremendous ability to find her way through very complex international problems,” said Keith Collins, now the chief economist at the USDA.

“Ann keeps everything low-key and down to earth, but you soon begin to appreciate her analytical instincts. I can remember many meetings where she’d hit you with a barrage of questions … and if you hadn’t done your homework, you could end up feeling pretty embarrassed. She has a formidable intellect—but she’s also got a great sense of humor. She knows how to laugh at herself, and she never takes herself too seriously.”

Attorney Nancy Bryson, another longtime colleague who worked closely with her as general counsel at the USDA, said, “I think Ann Veneman is a born leader. I was very impressed with the way she handled the ‘mad cow’ outbreak [a confirmed U.S. case of deadly bovine spongiform encephalopathy], back in late 2003.

“That was an extremely significant event—with billions of dollars in beef exports at stake and a major public health issue. Secretary Veneman quickly put in place a strong management response and her leadership never faltered.”

Nor was Bryson surprised, she says, to learn that Veneman had signed on as the next director of UNICEF: “One thing I noticed during our time together at USDA was her constant interest in mentoring young people as our next generation of leaders.

“I was delighted to hear that she’d taken the helm at UNICEF. It is a perfect fit for both her administrative skills and her personality.”

Miles to go

Ann Veneman is now putting those analytical instincts and energetic leadership to work at UNICEF to accomplish an ambitious list of goals that includes

  • reducing child mortality. “Over 10 million children die every year from diseases that are largely preventable—about 2 million are largely preventable with immunizations,” she said.
  • protecting children from violence and abuse. “Children are trafficked across borders for sexual exploitation or to work. We want to see the violence against women and children stopped; we want children to be protected.”
  • combating AIDS, malaria and other killers of children and their caregivers. “We have lost a whole generation in some of these countries. What does that mean for children? Not only are they losing their parents, they are losing their teachers, they are losing health-care workers, they are losing farmers to produce the food and teach them how to produce food. It’s a serious problem.”
  • providing educational opportunities. Some 115 million children are out of school; over half of them are girls. “We must work hard to achieve the goal of universal primary education.”

Fulfilling those goals is a big job that has kept Veneman so busy that when asked what she does to unwind she says: “Get some sleep.”

But she notes that UNICEF has help in achieving its mission. She is working to build partnerships—among governments, nonprofit organizations, corporations—to tackle these problems. “One of the things I hope to do in this job is coalesce partners—to make sure all the organizations are working together, that we are maximizing utilization of our resources wherever possible, that we are working toward common goals.”

Despite the magnitude of the challenge ahead, Veneman finds room for optimism. Technology, for example, is making a difference in developing countries. In India, computer kiosks in poor rural areas are providing information to illiterate women on how to care for their children. Planning is under way to use telemedicine—computer links to U.S. health-care centers—to bring new health-care tools to poorer nations. And more than once, Veneman expressed her hope that advances in science will soon lead to vaccines to combat AIDS and malaria.

She said that she never could have imagined that her career would bring her to this position at UNICEF’s helm—a spot that’s led to her share of sleepless nights but also to unequaled opportunity to make a difference in ways that impact young and old, both today and tomorrow.

“Children are the future,” she said. “If we don’t take care of the children, we won’t take care of the future.”

For more information about UNICEF, visit