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A dollar invested in children yields US$13 return
UNICEF pursues an integrated partnership approach to philanthropy in Asia
Tom King 16 May 2024
Carla Haddad Mardini (UNICEF)
Carla Haddad Mardini (UNICEF)

Hong Kong and Singapore are Asia’s dominant wealth management hubs. In recent years, the two cities have seen a stream of ultra-high-net-worth individuals open single-family offices or join multi-family offices for estate planning and investment management, among other purposes.

A recent high-profile money laundering case in Singapore has led to tighter scrutiny of family offices in the country. Yet, despite the drawbacks, the growth of family offices is likely to continue with mega-rich families securing professional wealth services and taking advantage of the growing investment opportunities across the region.

While Southeast Asia is enjoying robust economic growth and drawing in substantial investment flows, large swathes of the population in the region are struggling with high levels of poverty.

At the recent Philanthropy Asia Summit in Singapore, The Asset spoke with UNICEF’s director of private fundraising and partnerships, Carla Haddad Mardini, who hosted a panel focused on how philanthropists can invest in education to achieve lasting impact on children in Asia-Pacific.

With the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty so physically close in the region, it was a good opportunity to look into the role UNICEF is playing in harnessing this land of plenty to reduce the ranks of the poor.

The Asset: Is the growth of family offices in Singapore and Hong Kong helping your funding aspirations?

Carla Haddad Mardini: Philanthropists in the region are becoming increasingly strategic with their giving, and family offices are an efficient avenue to channel investments in a thoughtful manner.

It is heartening to see initiatives such as the Philanthropy Asia Alliance in Singapore that harness the momentum around the increasing philanthropic ambition in the region, and I am especially encouraged to see that UNICEF’s mission to shape a better future for children is resonating with these audiences.

TA: Is the generational transfer of wealth across Asia making UHNW families more aware of your purpose?  

CHM: The next generation’s interconnectedness and innovative spirit are helping to spread awareness of the urgent needs of children around the world. UNICEF’s global impact, the work we do with our partners to achieve a lasting impact at scale for children, is certainly resonating.

It’s no longer unusual to see a young person from Indonesia or India collaborating with peers in New York or London on child-centred impact investing, for example. At UNICEF, we created the “NextGen community” to harness the vision and creativity of these young people.

NextGen is a group of young investors and philanthropists who are dedicated to working with UNICEF to make a difference for children.

Since its inception, NextGen has invested nearly US$80 million in UNICEF, and as wealth passes between generations, we know that these young champions will continue to promote and support UNICEF’s life-saving work.   

TA: Are you seeing strong interest in UNICEF’s integrated partnership approach to philanthropy in Asia? Are there any hotspots or examples of projects you can expand on?

CHM: We have definitely seen an integrated partnership approach to philanthropy in the region – whether a partnership begins with a company and then transforms into a relationship with a family; or interest from a philanthropist later shifts to involve their business.

At UNICEF, we take a holistic approach to partnerships, recognizing that over 80% of businesses in Asia are family-owned, so working with philanthropists often entails a relationship with their businesses, or vice versa.

To take one example, UNICEF Thailand recently entered into a partnership with the BJC Big C Foundation to enhance early childhood development and ensure every child in Thailand has a quality start in life and the opportunity to learn and develop to their full potential.

While designing this partnership, the team worked closely with the partner to understand the family’s values and the Foundation’s capacity to define a common vision so as to deliver the best results for children.

TA: Can you elucidate on what you mean by “returns on investments in supporting children, where every dollar invested in early childhood development programmes, can yield an ROI as high as US$13”?

CHM: Investing in children’s early development and education reduces inequities, breaks the cycle of poverty, and creates societies able to respond to emerging opportunities.

To take just two examples: our studies show that for every US$1 you invest in early childhood development programmes, the return will be as much as US$13; likewise, every US$1 you invest in child immunization will bring benefits worth at least US$20.

Investing in early childhood programmes, and education, provides such significant returns because of the long-term benefits to communities and even the country’s GDP.

Educated children will earn more money in the future, thus boosting local and national economies; healthy children result in savings on healthcare expenditures and reduce the rate of lost revenue due to preventable illnesses.

TA: Can you cite any examples of the achievements in Asia made possible for children by the philanthropic partners’ commitment to UNICEF’s mission?

CHM: During the Covid-19 pandemic, UNICEF was able to secure life-saving vaccines for children and families in Asia through a massive initiative that was supported by philanthropic partners’ commitment.

This was immediate and life-saving support to communities across the region. UNICEF is the largest procurer of vaccines in the world, so we had incredible power to bring in philanthropists and donors to join us in delivering vaccines to hard-to-reach places.

TA: Does the current high interest rate and volatile geopolitical environment influence your philanthropic funding work? 

CHM: UNICEF is committed to providing essential protection to children everywhere, even in the world’s most challenging environments.

However, echoing the words of our executive director, in 2024 we find ourselves at a critical junction, where we can either embrace global collaboration and the huge potential of partnerships, or slide into a future that is less united and more economically fragmented.

It is essential to rekindle the cooperative spirit and to place children – their needs, interests, and voices – at the centre of decision-making. We will continue to work with our dedicated philanthropic partners to ensure a fair, secure future for all children.

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