“We had a great week at the UN – but young people should get more of a voice there”

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GYAS Sylvia Kakyo and Joannes Paulus Yimbesalu at the UN General Assembly (Theirworld / James Cox)

Two of Theirworld's Global Youth Ambassadors report back on a busy and rewarding week spent standing up for education at the UN General Assembly in New York.

When you’re trying to tell world leaders that education and early childhood development are vital, who better to deliver the message than young people?

That’s why Theirworld took two of our network of Global Youth Ambassadors to the United Nations General Assembly last week. Here’s what they thought of their week in New York.

But first, a quick introduction to our GYAs. 

Sylvia Kakyo from Uganda. As a result of being forced into marriage at 15, she is passionate about human rights and education, especially for girls. Sylvia is the founder and director of a grassroots NGO called Kakyo Girls Initiative.

Joannes Paulus Yimbesalu from Cameroon. An engaged advocate, he has been a GYA for three years. Joannes is studying his Masters in Leadership and Community Engagement at university in Canada. He is also a research assistant on an early childhood development programme funded by the World Health Organisation and World Vision Niger.

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Sylvia and Joannes arrive in New York for the UN General Assembly events (Theirworld / James Cox)

Joannes: We went to several events during the week – including the Secretary-General’s high-level event on education, the Global Business Coalition for Education breakfast and the launch of UNICEF’s new early childhood development report.

Sylvia: It was my first time at the UN General Assembly. It was also the first for Antonio Guterres as Secretary-General, the first for the new American and French presidents and the first for many other world leaders.

Joannes: The first thing we did was talk to some members of the Education Commission – including Graca Machel and Julia Gillard of the Global Partnership for Education. 

We spoke to them about Theirworld’s #5for5 campaign and they were very passionate. They felt investing in early childhood development is critical for every child. But often spending on pre-primary education gets overshadowed because countries have so many other problems. 

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They meet Education Commission member Graca Machel and deliver the message that countries should spend 10% of their education budgets on pre-primary – and 10% of donor aid to education should also go to pre-primary (Theirworld / Lana Wong)

Sylvia: The plan from the Education Commission to ensure all young people are in school and learning was very interesting for me to hear. The UN General Assembly, commissioners and partners – working with world leaders – will advance that plan and make significant strides towards the Sustainable Development Goal for education.

Joannes: It was a great experience when we were asked to give awards from Theirworld and GBC-Education to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, Education Commissioner and former Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. 

I have enjoyed meeting leaders like them. It made me understand more about leadership. Part of it is about listening to people and not being distant from reality.

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Our Global Youth Ambassadors meet Yasmine Sherif of the Education Cannot Wait fund (Theirworld / James Cox)

Sylvia: The best part of my trip was talking to Yasmine Sherif, the Director of the Education Cannot Wait fund. She is passionately working towards seeing children in emergencies have access to education. 

For example, the fund gave $3 million to help the Rohingya refugee children – an indication that children in emergencies will get urgent access to education. Seeing great leaders like her support such a great cause stood out for me.

Joannes: I was happy to see commitments that were concrete and very impactful. Denmark and the European Union made commitments to the Education Cannot Wait fund. But I needed to see more commitments coming from developing countries. 

I am a fan of foreign aid but countries in the global south need to realise they have to contribute more themselves. It is also very important for leaders in conflict areas to ask if their children were in the same situations, what would they do. It boils down to humanity.

Gyas Joannes Paulus Yimbesalu And Sylvia Kakyo With Jakaye Kikwete At Gbc Education Event

Joannes and Sylvia meet Jakaya Kikwete, who is championing the Education Commission’s Learning Generation plan in Africa (Lana Wong)

Sylvia: With the current situation in my country, I was able to learn how to alleviate human suffering in humanitarian emergencies where UN agencies are on the front line of helping. I believe with the support from such agencies, my work will be easier back home.

Joannes: What I did notice everywhere was the lack of youth engagement at the events. I know this is a big international gathering of heads of state but engaging young people is very important. We keep talking about the future but we are doing nothing to engage them. 

The only young people I saw were at the high-level education session hosted by the UN Secretary-General. Malala Yousafzai and UNICEF ambassador Muzoon Almellehan and two other girls were there to share their stories. 

Irina Bokova Gets Her Theirworld Award From Gyas Joannes And Sylvia With Sarah Brown

Joannes and Sylvia give the award to UNESCO chief Irino Bokova, second left, watched by Theirworld President Sarah Brown (Lana Wong)

That was very empowering – but I needed to know more than the 30 seconds they were each given. We need to bring in young people who can ask questions and challenge these leaders.

Sylvia: To be honest, young people were not given full representation. Because of this, I deeply appreciate the efforts of Theirworld for supporting the GYAs and helping us to attend this year’s UN General Assembly. 

This makes Theirworld a standout organisation that has fully seen the potential in the young generation. I would argue all other leaders, NGOs and the private sector should always consider the power of young people so that they don’t feel left out in decision-making.

Joannes: I was very excited to meet the character from India’s version of Sesame Street at the UNICEF event on early childhood development. My very first learning experiences were with Sesame Street. We would all gather round the TV and watch it. So I can now imagine it’s the same for millions of children around the world who have no other alternative. 

I have been to many UN General Assembly events before – but this was my first opportunity to meet with leaders. I can understand the challenges they face but I was really impressed to see that everyone thinks education – and pre-primary education – is critical.

It’s been a great week but I just hope that we see more concrete commitments and that we are holding governments accountable. They also need to be transparent to young people.