“My basic education is what has me where I am today – but now you also need an entrepreneurial spirit and skills”

Amina Mohammed Big Interview
Amina is Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations and a former Minister of Environment of Nigeria (United Nations)

Early childhood development, Education funding, Girls' education, Right to education, Sustainable Development Goals, Teachers and learning, Technology and education, The Global Business Coalition for Education (GBC-Education), United Nations General Assembly

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed talks about education innovation, youth skills and getting more young people involved with the UN.

Amina Mohammed is the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. A former environment minister in Nigeria, she also served as a special adviser to then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on post-2015 planning and was instrumental in the Sustainable Development Goals being set.

We caught up with her during the week of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. 

Jamira Burley, Head of Youth Engagement and Skills at our sister organisation the Global Business Coalition for Education, talked to Amina about innovations in education, early years education, youth skills and getting more young people involved in global decision-making.

We are two years into the new global goals. What do you see as the greatest challenge and opportunities for the Sustainable Development Goals? And how confident are you that people around the world will come together to deliver them?

I think the biggest challenge is about keeping the momentum to achieve the SDGs. We had such an incredible process over four years, very inclusive. 

It got better each year and, at the end, everyone was in the room when we approved that framework of 17 goals. 

We had to keep the momentum with such a big agenda, with a different ask of countries. We are now looking at a “whole of development” approach and not just a piece that looks at health or education or poverty. 

Jamira Burley And Amina Mohammed

Jamira Burley, from the Global Business Coalition for Education, with Amina Mohammed

As important as they are, we’re seeing that much more needs to be done to underpin that and to deliver. So I think keeping the momentum, taking this from the United Nations into countries, around cabinet tables, is important. 

We have the UN Country Team supporting governments, civil society, business. Young people getting involved. This is a great interview because the audience needs to be part of this. Not just to hear it but engage with it.

Yesterday, I spent most of my morning engaging with Young UN, which are young professionals in the United Nations. Amazing people but how do they break through? 

Not the glass ceiling that we always see for women trying to get into those leadership but this band of older professional management … you see so much vibrancy underneath. So given the opportunity to crack through that is what we would like to do. I see that as a big issue.

The other is that this agenda needs to be supported with resources. There is nothing there that is rocket science. We all know how to deliver this on the ground. We will require different skill sets to try to implement it – but essentially, without the resources, it will be very difficult.

So 2015 was important for a number of reasons. First that we acknowledged that we needed to have sustainable development addressed and that meant the whole of development. 

Second was that it needed to be integrated. Understanding that if we don’t take care of the planet, no matter what we do to address poverty, inequalities, gender issues, it wouldn’t work.

Then of course, the financing question. How do you unlock those trillions that we need? There’s a lot of idle funding that’s around there. We need to find ways of incentivising the markets to come into these countries, which are very difficult in many cases but we know the resources are there. 

A lot of work cut out for you but I think you and most leaders who have talked about the Global Goals are definitely up for the challenge. Earlier this year, in an interview, you mentioned you use education to make a difference. So how has education helped you to get where you are today? Can you explain about the choices you made as a younger person that have enabled you to be here?

First, I was fortunate enough to have early child care. I think that we underestimated that – but over the years UNESCO and UNICEF have really pushed the importance of that first opportunity to open one’s mind for a child that is so young. 

The links have been made to how useful this is going forward. But basic education in that first nine years is also incredibly important. 

I think that that’s where we are lacking an understanding of how much we need to put in there. Not just in terms of resources but every piece that goes into it from the classroom to the teacher to the inputs to the curriculum – it’s the whole of education. 

My basic education is what has me where I am today. That first nine years was solid and was done in a place that today is about where Boko Haram was birthed.

Girls who don’t have an education are not in a good place. So education is certainly a big building block and it has to happen for everybody. 

I was in a school where, above all, boys and girls got the same access to it. I think as one went further in education, understanding how that supported the skill sets that you needed to look at different opportunities.

This whole Fourth Industrial Revolution is about a different kind of education and skill set that you need for the jobs that are going to be out there.

If I look at where we were sort of funnelled into “Do you want to be an architect, an engineer, a doctor, a lawyer?”, today it’s different. 

You need a different skill set that looks at taking advantage of opportunities that are much more of an entrepreneurial spirit and skills that you can add as you address many of the market opportunities. 

Young people understand that better because this whole Fourth Industrial Revolution is about a different kind of education and skill set that you need for the jobs that are going to be out there.

So I think education opened up huge vistas and opportunities and networks and the courage to do with those skills what you can. 

But I think what it’s done also is have me question education today and whether it’s the right type of education that we need across the universal agenda in different places. 

The jury’s still out but I think I’m leaning towards we need to rethink it. I think that we asking for economies to grow at huge rates and to join the global market to have just globalisation, to look at consumption and production and industrialisation – that needs a different skillset. 

The digital economy’s already here. Are we ready and fit for purpose for that? I think that many in our developing countries haven’t got access to that type of education. 

Teachers don’t have it. A child doesn’t learn by itself. You have to find the teachers and the instruments to help you do that.

Amina Mohammed Big Interview 4

Amina Mohammed visits a camp for displaced people in the North Kivu province, one of the regions affected by several years of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (United Nations)

I’m one of 16 children. I’m the first of my family to graduate high school and go to college. But I feel like even since I graduated from high school 10 years ago, education has changed tremendously – especially when you think about interning to the workforce. So when you talk about innovation and rethinking the global economy, do you think our leaders are ready for this transformation around education – especially looking at how innovation interlocks with young people getting jobs and opportunities?

I think they understand we’re got to do something about it now because they’re seeing it in the workforce. They’re also seeing the trajectory of where we’re going in terms of our economies and what industrialisation means or will mean. 

Are we ready as governments to do what we need to do? No. I think that we’re still stuck in the formal education that we need – and it is important. I will still say that formal first nine years is needed. It’s thereafter that I’m thinking through.

So what does a person need to get engaged with their economies? The full value chains in agriculture that will become so much more mechanised. I mean there is so much that makes it more easy and connects the market.

You don’t have to leave your room to do much. We don’t think the people are there yet. But I think that the goals allow us to think that through now. 

When we’re looking at countries’ plans, a Country Team from the United Nations can help governments think through. Not just do they need education and structures and teachers put into place but what type of education is going to fit the economy over the next 15, 20, 30 years? What do you do with the existing human resource stock that you have? 

Because we can talk about how we educate people going forward but what about the youth of today, who may not have the education that’s required to join the economy? 

So how do we retool them and reskill them? Is that something that the private sector should take up and be incentivised to do so or you’re still thinking about the government now creating another layer of education institutions to do that?

I think it’s a bit of both but I would lean more heavily towards the private sector who’ve got a vested interest in making sure they’ve got skilled labour.

Exactly. Because it’s going to impact their bottom line long-term.

Absolutely. I think they need to think about them. It’s not maybe a discussion that’s happened now. 

The great thing about these goals is that taking them off paper and implementing them will task us on these questions. We’re not ready for them. We’re not fit for purpose. That’s OK. 

Amina Mohammed Big Interview 3

Amina Mohammed speaks at the Global Citizen Festival, an event to encourage activism and advocacy (United Nations)

As long as we’re asking the questions and we’re getting up and doing something about it over the next couple of years to transition to “OK, now what do we do?” 

There’s lots of things that have to change. Business models will have to change. The scale at which we do this will have to be taken into account, the context in which this happens. 

We speak to the humanitarian development nexus if we’re coming out of conflict and crisis.

What is in place to rebuild communities and countries that engage their youth, so they don’t slip back into crisis and instability?

I think these are urgent things. Children want to do things immediately. It’s even worse today with technology because it’s a psyche that thinks you just press the button and things happen.

Before you can say it, you tweet something out and you can’t take it back. It’s gone and that’s it. So I think that we’ve got to do a lot to grapple with that. 

Maybe one of the mistakes that we’re making is that the people around the decision-making table are not the right mix of those who have the experience and expertise with those who know where we should be going because that’s their future and they actually have knowledge that we didn’t have. 

We had to go through books and teachers. Now you have the internet. You have social media sharing issues really quickly and that you’re absorbing so much more knowledge much quicker. 

So you are equipped to have those discussions and take those decisions. I think that that mix needs to be improved at the decision-making table.

I think that young people should be in the field. That's where your inspirations and aspirations meet and you can do things about them.

There are 1.8 billion young people around the world. Many are starting to understand the complexities of their identity as being both young people, a person of colour, transgender, maybe a member of the LGBTQ community. In that regards, how do young people infiltrate if they want to be involved in the global conversation around youth? How do they infiltrate institutions like the UN and be able to participate in how decisions are being made?

The world is a really difficult place now because our core values are being tested. No matter what ethnicity, religion, gender, whatever it is that we have, we all have a heart.

I don’t think anyone is born evil. They all have aspirations and somewhere along the line the environment changes that for better or for worse. 

I think when it comes to the United Nations, it is actually finding a way to open up the space to interact with young people within the UN. We’re thinking very hard about how do we get more people in that are younger.

This has come off the back of what the Secretary-General has pushed for – gender parity within the Secretariat and then overall in the institution by 2028. 

In just taking up that exercise, it has shown the challenges of bringing in young people. The entry point today in the United Nations is 40 years old. I mean it’s just incredible. 

We’ve got more old people for longer. But the idea is that we bring in women, that we have parity and younger people. 

Not necessarily into the headquarters – I think that young people should be in the field. That’s where your inspirations and aspirations meet and you can do things about them. 

Amina Mohammed Big Interview 2

(United Nations)

By the time you come to headquarters, it’s a bit of a wake-up call of how complex it is to get 193 countries to agree on things and that we get lost in the wording and the red lines that we have gone through so much. 

But having a good sense of people and a vibe and speaking to the global village of the UN and this town hall – that is really important. So that’s one way.

Every one of us in a leadership position has to make a concerted effort to bring you in. 

First of all, to have the conversations we’re having with you today. Today we were speaking about frontier issues, robotics and cyberspace. All of that’s alien to us because it was not in our time. 

Then the Secretary-General made space when he was in UNHCR for an innovation lab. He just says: “So why can’t we have this in every department and agency?” And why not?

He also said something else, which was we need to bring more people from the outside in. How do we create that space? 

We have interns but how do we do have more collaboration and find the base -whether it’s in academia, in other places of work or just people who are doing volunteer work who can come in?

I appreciate the representation and the work that you’re doing because you are providing a diverse voice and perspective to the conversation – but you’re actually doing the work.

My mother always said the best things and biggest things come in small packages. So this interview will go a long way just because of the audience. That’s really what makes it worthwhile doing.

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