Munira shares with us her experience and takeaways from this year's UN General Assembly Week.
Had you asked me last fall where I saw myself in a year’s time —my answer would not have been the United Nations General Assembly. In September 2017, I found myself on the bustling and boisterous streets of New York City. The city’s traffic worsened by the streets closed off and the additional security placed around the city. There was a sense of magnetism in the air—in anticipation for all that would unfold. September 12th marked the commencement of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), where global leaders convened to discuss the world’s most pressing issues. Though UNGA was originally designated as a forum for heads of state and diplomats, over the years it has increasingly become more accessible to the public. The 72nd United Nations General Assembly brought together not just government leaders, but also a wide range of actors from civil society, the public sector, and public life. Innovative business leaders, non-governmental organizations, celebrities, and activists alike could be found at the UN Headquarters. Various side-events held outside the walls of the UN served to continue the conversations going on at UN HQ. There was an increasing recognition that in order to tackle the world’s most complex challenges, a diversity of perspectives, skillsets, and voices would be needed—that it would take a global village.
Social Good Summit: Social good in the palm of your hands…
I kicked off UNGA by speaking at and covering the Social Good Summit as a UNA-USA blogger fellow, alongside a dynamic group of young change-makers. The summit explored the intersections of tech, new media, and social good, and touched on how technology can be harnessed to tackle the greatest global challenges. It was through this lens that the summit brought a remarkable array of speakers on stage, from UN High Commissioner for Refugees Flippo Grandi, to award-winning actress, producer, and television host Whoopi Goldberg. Even actor and UNDP Goodwill Ambassador, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who stars in Game of Thrones, was there to speak about the importance of protecting the environment and the role we play in it. Representatives from the White Helmets highlighted how everyday civilians transformed into real-life heroes by saving fellow Syrians from conflict.
I had the distinct pleasure of introducing the summit to activist and musician Madame Gandhi, and Girl Up Teen Advisor Angela Jiang, who talked about providing spaces for girls and women to lead. During my brief remarks, I urged the audience to recognize that young people are the bridge between various global issues. I went on to emphasize that we must give young people the platform to make their voices heard and invest in their advancement and progress via education. As UN Youth Envoy Jayamatha Wickramanay powerfully declared earlier in the day, “It’s no longer a question of whether young people can take the lead, it’s whether the rest of the world can keep up with them”.
The Social Good Summit, like many of the events taking place during UNGA, had multi-dimensional conversations. Conversations were not only taking place within the venue, but also in digital spaces online. Hashtags were used to create virtual conversations and recap the summit’s key takeaways. The summit’s presence in the online space democratized the knowledge being shared, making it accessible for almost everyone.
I spent much of the day live-tweeting up a storm and providing coverage on the official Youth Observer Instagram and Facebook accounts at the Digital Media Lounge, where bloggers, journalists, and other influencers gathered to provide comprehensive coverage of the day’s events and speakers.
Young Leaders X World Leaders = Global Leaders
In a world in which this generation of young people is the largest in history, it only makes sense that young people should have a seat at the decision-making table. At the High-Level Young Leaders X World Leaders breakfast, young leaders literally had a seat at the table. The event was co-hosted by the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, and the Permanent Missions of Denmark and the United Arab Emirates to the UN. The breakfast facilitated a meaningful discussion amongst youth leaders and leaders from government, the private sector, and the UN. The goal was to discuss meaningful ways to engage young people in achieving the global goals for development. The Minister of State for Youth Affairs of the United Arab Emirates and the youngest government minister in the world, HE Shamma bint Suhai Faris Al Muzrui, argued, “Youth are not a problem to solve but a force and an energy to harness”. Participants raised fascinating points about the importance of not simply telling young people to be engaged in global affairs, but also inspiring them to take action.
It is in our world’s best interest to normalize meaningful youth engagement, given the worldwide demographics of the largest youth generation in history. It should be common practice for young people to not only claim seats—but also sit at the helm and lead!
Want to change the world? Educate girls.
One of the most inspiring and fulfilling experiences I had at the United Nations General Assembly was when I attended two events that touched on the importance and urgency of investing in global access to education. Although strides have been made to meet goals on primary schooling globally, secondary schooling still remains out of reach for countless children. In addition, girls face a disproportionate amount of barriers in attaining an education with over 130 million girls currently out of school. I had the distinct pleasure of taking part in an event at the headquarters of the UN centered on this very issue. The event, entitled Financing the Future: Education 2030, was co-hosted by the Kingdom of Norway, Republic of France, Republic of Malawi and Republic of Senegal, and co-organized by the Education Commission, Education Cannot Wait, Global Partnership for Education, ONE, Malala Fund, UNESCO, and UNICEF. The event convened key stakeholders including the Norwegian PM Erna Solberg, French President Emmanuel Macron, Malawian President Peter Mutharika, Senegalese President Macky Sall, Secretary General of the UN Secretary General António Guterres, and Noble Laureate Malala Yousafzai. A call to action was made to increase funding for education and various countries and organizations re-committed to advancing the cause of universal access to education. A representative from the World Bank made the poignant point that investing in girl’s education is not simply the right thing to do but the smart thing to do. The positive ripple effect of investing in a girl’s education is undeniable.
Following that event, I headed over to the Sesame Workshop where the Center for Universal Education at Brookings hosted a talk on ‘Empowering girls through education’. Founder of the ground-breaking Prerna girl’s school in India, Urvashi Sahni, recounted how the institution changed the lives of more than 5,000 girls and their families. When asked about this success, she credited a curriculum that includes lessons on female empowerment alongside academic courses. The Prerna school not only provides its female students an outlet through which to speak about personal encounters with gender discrimination, but also educates them on their human rights. Following founder Sahni’s keynote address, a panel featuring the school’s founder, a teacher, and alumnus-turned-educator demonstrated the return on investment of educating one girl. One of the panelist had been a former student of the school. After transforming her own life, she returned to her alma mater to transform the lives of the next generation of girls—a powerful testament to the work of the school.
I wrapped up the week at the SDG Media Zone, where I spoke alongside other panelists about the value and necessity of youth engagement. I spoke about not waiting for permission to lead. If a role that you want does not exist, create it. The world is ultimately lead by those who dare to step up.
I couldn’t help but walk away from UNGA feeling not only re-invigorated and informed, but excited and hopeful about the future. There is no one way to tackle these global issues—be it hunger or gender equality. It’s truthfully about using your platform and your skillsets to contribute to the global village.
The world needs innovative companies that create devices to ensure that no mother dies giving life. The world needs data scientists who provide accurate and relevant data to create effective policies to combat poverty. The world needs public figures willing to leverage their following to champion the causes that affect that most vulnerable and marginalized. The world needs passionate young people who do not accept the status of the world—but relentlessly push for a better world.
The world needs you.