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UNICEF enjoys the unique privilege of maintaining a global research centre for children based at the nearly 600-year-old Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence, Italy. Established in 1419 by the influential Silk workers Guild, Innocenti can be viewed as one of the earliest efforts by secular authorities to elevate the concerns of the most vulnerable children to the level of civic priority.

While UNICEF is a very recent arrival at Innocenti, in many ways leading innovations in care, protection and the rights of children can be seen as emanating from this institution beginning in the Renaissance and continuing till today.

Six Hundred Years of Care for Children at Innocenti

Ospedale degli Innocenti, the building which houses both the Office of Research – Innocenti and its host organization the Istituto degli Innocenti, is arguably the oldest continuously operating children’s care institution in the world.

The building was commissioned in 1419 specifically to house and care for the city’s orphans and abandoned children. It was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, considered by many the most important architect of the Renaissance, having designed and engineered the imposing dome of the city’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore. The Spedale was in fact Brunelleschi’s first architectural commission.

The Spedale is one of the first great architectural creations of the Renaissance. It represented a completely new concept in hospital design. Based on the architecture of a palazzo, with a grand façade, loggia and graceful courtyards more in the style of an aristocratic residence rather than a public institution for the care of abandoned infants and children.

Before the end of the 1400s, the Spedale was accepting hundreds of children annually, for the most part illegitimate offspring of noble or wealthy citizens or the children of families too poor to care for them adequately. To ensure that people would not hesitate to bring children to the hospital for care and lodging, a practice of anonymity was instituted from the very beginning. Thus, initially, infants could be left in the pila, a basin near the main entrance. In 1660, the pila was replaced by the rota, a circular, revolving container positioned in an opening in the wall near the entrance in such a way that an abandoned infant could be placed in it outside the building. The rota was permanently closed in 1875.

Children were immediately baptized and then breastfed by resident wet nurses; many were later sent to wet nurses in the countryside and then placed in foster care until about 7 years of age, when they would be returned to the Spedale. The boys were taught to read and write and, after two more years, were put up for adoption, usually as apprentices to craftsmen. The girls were placed as household servants or set to work in silk or wool production, washing and weaving cloth.

A child in care at the Spedale in the 1400s might have spent as few as two years actually on the premises as the hospital officials attempted from the moment of admission, to provide children with a family setting. Adoption and apprenticeship contracts, drawn up when children were older, stipulated that the children must be treated as if they had been the adoptive parents’ own sons or daughters. In their record-keeping, the personnel often referred to the institution as the ‘famiglia’ (family) or the ‘casa’ (home). At the height of its activity, the Spedale had more than 3,000 children in its care.

The Spedale continued to take in orphans during the first half of the 1900s. It was particularly active during both World Wars, offering shelter not only to orphaned children, but also to refugee families. Its function as a large residential care institution was terminated in the early 1980’s.

The Istituto degli Innocenti now provides temporary shelter for local women and children at risk. It hosts a nursery school, a children’s crèche and pre-natal service. The Istituto is developing new approaches to the provision of day care, basic education and assistance for children and families in distress. It serves the Tuscany Regional Government in an advisory capacity on these subjects. A vast archive contains records for all children cared for from the arrival of the first foundling in 1445. UNICEF and the Istituto degli Innocenti collaborate on a number of research projects and maintain a joint research library facility.

Arrival of UNICEF at Innocenti

Inaugurated by Executive Director James Grant in 1988 as the UNICEF International Child Development Centre, with a broad mandate to contribute to an “emerging global ethic for children,” research quickly became a defining mission and the institution’s name soon evolved to Innocenti Research Centre, and finally to the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti.

Following ratification of the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989, a range of research projects at Innocenti contributed significantly in shaping UNICEF’s adoption of the human rights-based approach to development. Innocenti pioneered much early work on child protection as UNICEF’s mandate expanded in this area. Numerous Innocenti studies in the 1990’s focused on what were deemed “emerging issues” such as child trafficking, children in conflict with the law and child labour.

Innocenti today plays a critical evidence gathering and knowledge building role for UNICEF and its key partners on a wide range of cutting-edge children’s issues. In recent years Innocenti has played a leading role in improving social and economic policy for vulnerable children in both poor and rich countries. It is a leading centre on impact evaluations of cash transfer programmes in Africa. It coordinates multi-country research on the drivers of violence affecting children. It plays a central role in adolescent well-being, child rights and the internet, child rights implementation, family and parenting support policy and multi-dimensional child poverty analysis.

Research is fundamental to UNICEF’s mission. The struggle to safeguard the rights of all children in all circumstances can only succeed when supported by the most reliable evidence and the latest knowledge.

RESEARCH FOR CHILDREN

The Office of Research – Innocenti is UNICEF’s dedicated research centre. Its core mandate is to undertake cutting-edge, policy-relevant research that equips the organization and the wider global community to deliver results for children. To achieve its mandate UNICEF Innocenti must work closely with all parts of its parent organization as well as a wide array of external academic and research institutions.

Innocenti’s research seeks to inform policy, guide action and also to challenge assumptions. The credibility and relevance of findings rest as much on the quality of inquiry as on independence. Innocenti’s position, firmly rooted in the global UNICEF network and fully engaged as an independent research body with leading universities and institutes in all regions of the world promotes a dynamic, real-time discourse on the generation of knowledge about children.

As the research centre for UNICEF, Innocenti is uniquely positioned to understand and respond to research questions on the ground, and to feed research into policy and practice – through its programmes of cooperation with more 150 low and middle income countries, its links to UNICEF National Committees in 33 high income countries, and as an arm of the world’s leading normative agency that shapes global policies and outcomes for children.

RESEARCH GOVERNANCE IN UNICEF

UNICEF Innocenti also supports and facilitates research conducted by other parts of its parent organization. It is responsible for developing appropriate guidelines, establishing standards of research ethics and quality, facilitating the wider organization’s research agenda, providing technical assistance and promoting best practice.

WHY FLORENCE? OUR HISTORY

UNICEF enjoys the unique privilege of locating its global research function at the nearly 600-year-old Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence, Italy. Established as a foundling shelter in 1419 by the influential Silk-workers Guild, Innocenti can be viewed as one of the earliest efforts by secular authorities to elevate the concerns of vulnerable children to the level of civic priority.

UNICEF’s presence at Innocenti was inaugurated in 1988 by then Executive Director James Grant, with a broad mandate to contribute to an “emerging global ethic for children.” Research quickly became a defining mission with provision of crucial early research support for an expanding mandate in child rights, urban programmes, social policy and protection of children, among others.

OUR PROGRAMME

Today UNICEF Innocenti maintains a small team of about 40 researchers, evaluators, knowledge management specialists, communicators, operations and support staff at its centre in Florence. UNICEF Innocenti develops its research agenda in consultation with other parts of UNICEF and with external stakeholders.

The agenda is selected to support intensified research efforts coordinated across the wider organization where there is demand for a concerted effort to build evidence, usually in a rapidly expanding intervention area. Priorities are also driven by critical issues facing children which have been either overlooked or which do not fit neatly into discreet sectors.

Current research projects:

  • Child poverty, equity and well-being: multi-dimensional deprivation analysis, and the flagship Innocenti Report Card on child well-being in rich countries
  • Social protection: the impact of cash transfer programmes in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Child protection: work on the drivers of violence against children, and family and parenting support
  • Children and the internet: investigating child rights in the digital age
  • Adolescent well-being: analysis of the structural and social determinants of adolescent well-being across sectors and throughout the life-course
  • Education: school settings, learning pathways and life skills

Emerging areas of focus include: migration, gender, and the intersection of humanitarian and development work. We also host a global network of longitudinal studies (GLORI).

CONVENING AND ENGAGING

Using the Florence location and the convening power of UNICEF, the office hosts a range of high level events, expert working groups, senior research fellows, workshops and seminars. Events bring together UNICEF staff, academics, policy makers and practitioners. UNICEF Innocenti works through partnerships with academic and policy research institutions as well as think-tanks and NGOs. Strategic communications and research engagement activities ensure that Innocenti research is widely disseminated and translates into practical impacts and policy influence.