This week, I took part in the Social Good Summit in New York City, a conference examining the impact of new media and technological advancements on social good initiatives around the globe. As I reflect on my experience in the summit, two words come to mind as the overarching theme: Children First.
I am of the belief that nurturing and caring for children are not only the fundamental cornerstones of the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, but of human progress. Advancing our children advances humanity. I have seen this firsthand through my local roles in child welfare and public policy.
The theme of Children First became prevalent within the first hour of the summit with a discussion of refugee children in crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi and President of Save the Children, Carolyn Miles, both spoke eloquently about the crisis at hand and shared the sentiment that children should be able to be children. Period. Refugee children often face an uncertain future. An uncertain society. An unwelcoming community. An unprepared school.
Later on in the summit, Ertharin Cousin spoke about her work as the Executive Director of the World Food Program (WFP). Many of us were not prepared for the imagery of malnourished children that was shared prior to her talk. After watching the video, the tenor of the auditorium quickly changed. WFP, the world’s largest humanitarian agency on the front lines against hunger, is tackling the issue - one child and one family at a time. Her words spoke to me when she said, “Every faith in the world believes we should feed the hungry. That is what brings us together.”
Various other sessions included topics on the Children First Agenda. Memory Banda from Malawi inspired us all as she recounted her efforts to end child marriage in her country. Her simple phrase of "Life is difficult for girls in Malawi” just about said it all.
Other inspiring advocates included Muzoon Almellehan and Zaynab Abdi, two former refugees turned activists and leaders, who called for global access to education for all children. Both Almellahan and Abdi are advocates for the Malala Fund, an organization that raises funds for girls to go school around the world. Other topics included discussions on LGBTQ young people and their representation in the media, the Taco Bell Foundation’s investment in youth leaders, and international efforts to increase physical activity and health among young people.
As a ‘90’s kid,’ it was especially touching to also see a brief visit from Zari, a 6-year-old Afghan Muppet on the children’s educational program, Sesame Street. Education is often not an option for many girls in Afghanistan, where women have a literacy rate at around 12 percent. The inclusion of Zari as a character undoubtedly inspires the empowerment of girls in Afghanistan and around the globe.
This summer prior to the summit, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) made Children First an organizational priority, launching its first Youth Global Program for Sustainable Development and Peace. The program is a 5-year global focus on youth empowerment, designed to sharpen the organization’s response to the challenges young people face worldwide. I had the chance to speak with UNDP Administrator Helen Clark regarding this new initiative, and am very excited about its prospects. According to UNDP, how young people are supported and engaged in the process will significantly determine the prospects of the sustainable development goals and peace.
The entirety of the Social Good Summit made it clear that we must stand resolute as we strive for peace and security, and work to hold everyone accountable to the promises made for children.
As NGOs, governments, educators, advocates, and students - we must stand together – or we will fall apart. We must ask the fundamental question to our leaders – how are the children doing? That question will define our prosperity and wellness as countries, and as a global society. We must put children’s best interests at the heart of our action. We cannot fail them.
The interests and rights of children and families and the welfare of our global economy, environment, national security (and other Sustainable Development Goals) are not mutually exclusive, and we cannot act as if they are.
Proper care and primary education forms the strongest foundation for a person’s future. It requires our investment, and a priority in our hearts and policies. As Forest Whitaker said this week, “The rights of children are at the heart of the goals.” Children First.