I was in London during World War II and remember the food rationing. Everything was scarce. Afterward, I served in the British army in Germany and saw children begging for food. It was awful. The United Nations Children's Fund was born in 1946 to address these needs--to help displaced children in Europe.
In 1990 my friend Audrey Hepburn, who had been UNICEF's goodwill ambassador, asked me to be co-host of the Danny Kaye International Children's Awards in Amsterdam and to take part in a UNICEF press conference. I told Audrey I didn't know much about UNICEF. She replied that all the reporters wanted to talk about was movies. She was right; they did want to talk about movies. But Audrey wouldn't let them. She was passionate and eloquent about the needs of children, and she wanted me to get involved as well. That was my moment of epiphany: I wanted to champion children's rights, to make people aware that children must always be our priority.
And that is how I became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 1991. The agency representatives gave me a lot of homework: facts and figures and statistics. Just numbers, no faces. But when I went on my first mission, to Central America, I was finally able to put faces to numbers. That first trip in 1991 was a real education for me. I realized how easy it was to make contact with high government officials eager to meet "the Saint" and "James Bond." It was a wonderful way of getting my foot in the door and grabbing their attention.
Since then I have been on many missions and seen many atrocities, all of which have affected me deeply. One of these is the plight of street children, who are exploited and reduced to appalling living standards. On my way to the World Summit on the Environment in Rio in 1992, I stopped in northern Brazil, where I met an 11-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl, both prostitutes. The girl had been raped. Whatever she earned on the streets she gave to her mother. I asked her whether she kept any money for herself, and she said she sometimes bought a sandwich. A nun who was with them told me, "Everyone talks about the plight of the rain forest. But what good is the rain forest if there are no children left to live in it?"
Another learning experience for me was my involvement in UNICEF's campaign to eliminate iodine-deficiency disorders. Like most people, I had never heard of this problem, which causes stillbirth, dwarfism and low IQ but is easily prevented by eating iodized salt.
When I started working with UNICEF, one of the statistics I saw was that 40,000 children die every day from preventable diseases, such as measles, tetanus, diphtheria. The latest figures show that the number is down to 29,000. This gives me a certain sense of satisfaction--to know that our efforts make a difference.
On the other hand, I sometimes feel as if we are taking one step forward and two steps back. You start believing the world is getting better, and all of a sudden there is a re-emergence of measles and tuberculosis. AIDS is a problem that just seems to get worse. And in many parts of the world there's still widespread malnutrition and shortages of safe, clean drinking water.
Someone once asked me how much of the money UNICEF raises--for example, by selling greeting cards--goes to the children. It was heartening to learn that 91[cents] of every UNICEF dollar goes directly to the children.