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‘Courage and audacity’: Young voices steer change at UN meeting


Doha, Qatar – Representatives from the world’s poorest countries gathered for a five-day conference to determine how to achieve crucial development goals – from food security to access to clean energy by 2030.

But between the suits and dry speeches, young delegates stepped forward to ensure that their views were also part of the debate.

“All high-level decisions affect us, so it’s important to shape the story and make sure our voice is well represented,” Reekelitsoe Molapo told Al Jazeera.

Molapo, 28, from the kingdom of Lesotho in southern Africa, is one of 92 young delegates invited to this year’s UN conference on Least developed countries (MOLs).

There are 46 LOLs and the summit is usually held every 10 years. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was postponed twice. This was the fifth such summit, but the first where a number of round tables, forums and meetings were designed specifically for young participants to enable them to progress.

According to UN data, about 60 percent of the population in least developed countries is under the age of 25. The number of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 is expected to grow to 336 million by 2050.

Young people are the most exposed to poverty and social exclusion, depriving them of access to education and employment. UN chief Antonio Guterres spoke at the opening ceremony of the summit about “vicious circles” that prevent poorer countries from boosting economies and improving education.

Still, the young delegates shared their stories of resistance and resilience.

“I am here today not to point out how difficult the situation is, but to highlight the courage and audacity of LDCs,” said Molapo, who was selected for her social engagement in Lesotho.

In 2017, the young activist co-founded Conservation Music Lesotho, an organization that uses music to spread messages about climate change to children in her country.

By composing, interpreting and producing songs, the group has so far reached more than 5,000 students in rural areas of the country. In Lesotho, completely surrounded by South Africa, about a third of the 2.1 million people live on less than $1.90 a day.

“People may not be aware of climate change as a concept, so this is one way to make the science much more relatable,” Molapo said.

Climate change is one of the most resonant topics in youth roundtables – and rightly so. People in LDCs are disproportionately affected by the challenges of the world, including global warming, which has hit the poorest countries hardest.

Nearly 70 percent of global deaths from climate-related disasters have occurred in LDCs over the past 50 years, study finds shows.

Reekelitsoe Molapo, 28, co-founder of Conservation Music Lesotho, an organization that uses music to spread messages about climate change to children (Virginia Pietromarchi/Al Jazeera)

Htay Aung, 21, from Myanmar’s northern Shan state, was five when his parents left him in a Buddhist monastery because they couldn’t afford his education. He founded a group of 15 volunteers, each of whom donated $0.5 a week to help children aged two to ten who had been left behind in the convent.

At the age of 14, he met a foreigner, a tourist traveling around the country on a bicycle, who taught him a few words of English. That was a window to the outside world and a trigger for life, he said. He then approached all the tourists passing through to learn English, including an Israeli couple who were so impressed by his determination that they helped him apply to a school in Israel.

Htay Aung has lived in Tel Aviv for the past three years, where he started a program to teach English online to children in Myanmar. During the Conference on LDCs, he expanded his network by working with delegates from Nepal to Somalia to broaden each other’s projects.

“It is very important for us to be here because we work locally, we know what our problems are… The education we have received is so different from that of our elders,” he said, noting the importance of access to the internet and social media.

In addition to climate change, digital inclusion was another major concern among the young delegates. In least developed countries, about two-thirds of the population remains offline due to a lack of infrastructure, affordability and skills.

A study published Sunday by the International Telecommunication Union shows that the gap between LDCs and the rest of the world of internet users has widened from 27 percentage points in 2011 to 30 percentage points in 2022.

(Al Jazeera)
Khanal Prajes, 22, of Nepal, works for The Movers, an organization that broadens children’s access to education (Virginia Pietromarchi/Al Jazeera)

“Our agenda is to make policymakers aware of us,” says Khanal Prajes, 22, from Nepal.

He works for The Movers, an organization that broadens children’s access to education. “In Nepal, the main concern is road construction, but human development is not a priority at all.”

Access to education in LDCs remains a core problem. The UN estimates the average child in these countries is expected to attend school for 2.8 years less compared to the world average. There is an even bigger gap of 6.4 years compared to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“I want to strengthen my work and support government policies to include children’s issues in mainstream politics,” Prajes said.

The UN summit in Qatar proved positive for networking, he added. “You have to come from outside to be seen within.”

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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