Beyond football – Pelé’s humanitarian dimension and support for breastfeeding

As we all mourn the loss of Pelé, regarded by many as the world’s greatest football player ever,  CLICK HERE for a piece from Kul Gautam, a former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, explaining more about Pelé’s humanitarian work and his support in the 1980s and 90s for a UNICEF breastfeeding promotion campaign. The campaign featured a poster with Pelé’s mother –  patting her son on the shoulder saying: “Of course, he is the best football player in the world. I breastfed him!”   As Kul Gautam says, the campaign led to a  dramatic increase in breastfeeding saving thousands of Brazilian lives.  Click HERE and HERE  for some of the evidence.

UNICEF and WHO Joint Statement on Breastfeeding 31 July 2022

CLICK HERE  for a tribute to IBFAN friends Gerson da Cunha and Peter Greaves who helped spearhead the campaign, building social mobilization actions around breastfeeding – with postmen and firemen promoting breastfeeding and short breastfeeding messages on every bank receipt!

Statement by Dr Tedros

Pelé Beyond Football

by Kul Chandra Gautam (Kathmandu, Nepal).  Wednesday, June 27, 2018

KATHMANDU, Nepal, Jun 27 (IPS) – Kul Chandra Gautam, a former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations, is author of a forthcoming memoir: “Global Citizen from Gulmi: My Journey from the Hills of Nepal to the Halls of United Nations”.

Pele’s example has inspired millions of young people to join the ‘beautiful game’ and contribute to building a peaceful and prosperous world fit for all our children.  As billions of people around the world—including millions of Nepalis—are glued to their televisions watching the 2018 World Cup, I wish to reminisce about the humanitarian dimension of a great football star who is currently not in the pitch. Pelé.

Everybody knows Pelé as probably the best football player in the world in history. But few people know about his important contribution to other great social causes. Unbeknownst to many of his fans, Pelé helped save the lives and improve the health of millions of children in Brazil.

He also helped promote such worthy global causes as ecology and environment, sports and development and peaceful resolution of conflicts as goodwill ambassador for the UN, UNESCO and UNICEF.

Pelé and breastfeeding

In the 1980s and 90s, UNICEF was involved in promoting many innovative methods of social mobilization to influence child-friendly public policies in Brazil. One example was promotion of breastfeeding to enhance child health and to reduce the high rates of infant mortality and malnutrition.

Due to the aggressive marketing of baby milk formulas by private multinational companies, breastfeeding had declined dramatically to the point that in the 1980s only eight percent of Brazilian mothers exclusively breastfed their babies during the first six months. UNICEF explored how best it could help reverse this dangerous trend.

Efforts to promote breastfeeding by the Ministry of Health and by concerned pediatricians were not producing the desired results in the face of very aggressive and deceptive advertising by the infant formula companies. In its search for who might be the most respected and credible messenger whose advice mothers would pay attention to, UNICEF came up with the most unusual yet obvious choice: Pelé—Brazil’s most popular and the world’s best football player.

It did not take much effort for UNICEF to convince Pelé to lend his name to this worthy mission of saving the lives and protecting the health of millions of Brazilian children. Decline in breastfeeding affected all segments of Brazil’s population but the worst consequences were among the poorest.

Many poor women were influenced by formula advertisers who presented bottle-feeding as the healthy and glamourous alternative to breastfeeding. Rich and beautiful women were shown as preferring bottle-feeding over breastfeeding. Even doctors and nurses in hospitals were enlisted by infant formula companies to influence new mothers to switch to bottle-feeding.

As the world’s leading child health organizations, UNICEF, WHO and the International Pediatric Association, had uncontested scientific evidence that breastfeeding was the best nutrient for infants, and that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and continued breastfeeding for up to two years with gradual introduction of healthy weaning foods protected children from infection, malnutrition and common childhood diseases.

With rare exceptions, all mothers are capable of breastfeeding which has many lifelong advantages for infants as well as for their mothers and society as a whole.

With such arguments UNICEF convinced Pelé to be its champion for breastfeeding. It helped prepare an attractive poster that was plastered all over the country in which Pelé’s mother was shown patting her famous son on the shoulder and saying: “Of course, he is the best football player in the world. I breastfed him!”

This poster became the centre-piece of a breastfeeding promotion campaign that led to a dramatic increase in exclusive breastfeeding to almost 40 percent within a few years. The lives of thousands of Brazilian children were saved and health of millions improved as a result of this campaign.

As UNICEF’s Chief for Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1980s, and later as its global Program Director, I had the opportunity to visit Brazil many times and witness the impact of Pelé’s contribution—along with that of the Catholic church and Brazil’s vibrant media—in that country’s impressive progress in child survival and development.