The annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly is a key moment on the diplomatic calendar. Hundreds of world leaders head to New York to address the General Assembly and participate in various meetings and events around the city. Each day this week, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, the Global Dispatches Podcast will bring you the key highlights from the 77th United Nations General Assembly.
Day 1 of #UNGA77
Our special series kicks off with an UNGA77 curtain raiser from Elizabeth Cousens, President and CEO of the United Nations Foundation. Elizabeth Cousens is a veteran of many United Nations General Assemblies and she explains the key stories, events, moments and leaders’ speeches she will be following during High Level Week.
Next we hear from Thaís Queiroz, Youth Representative for the World Organization of the Scout Movement and United Nations Foundation Next Generation Fellow. She participated in the Transforming Eduction Summit convened by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, which was a major meeting of heads of state and civil society leaders focused on improving education access and outcomes.
Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Podcast Addict | Stitcher | Radio Public
Transcript lightly edited for clarity
Live from the UN General Assembly: Key Moments That Will Drive the Diplomatic Agenda During UNGA | What Happened at the Transforming Eduction Summit? (UNGA Day 1)
Mark L. Goldberg [00:00:05] Welcome to a special episode of the Global Dispatches podcast, live from the United Nations General Assembly. I’m your host, Mark Leon Goldberg, editor of UN Dispatch, and all week long in partnership with the United Nations Foundation. We are bringing you daily news and expert interviews from high level week in New York City. The annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly is always a key moment on the diplomatic calendar. Hundreds of world leaders head to New York to address the General Assembly and participate in various meetings and events around the city. And each day, I will bring you the key highlights from the 77th United Nations General Assembly. To kick off this special week of coverage. I am joined by Elizabeth Cousens, president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation and a veteran of many U.N. General Assembly’s. Elizabeth Cousins previews some of the key storylines that will drive the diplomatic agenda. All week long.
[00:01:12] This year’s General Assembly will shine an even brighter light than ever before on the absolute urgency of strengthening multilateralism. And that’s multilateralism at the U.N. and multilateralism in various forms.
[00:01:26] Then we are joined by Thaís Queiroz, youth representative for the World Organization of the Scout Movement, and United Nations Foundation Next Generation Fellow. She has participated in the Transforming Education Summit convened by Secretary-General Antonío Guterres that was focused on improving education access and outcomes. We discuss the key moments from that summit.
Elizabeth Cousens [00:01:52] They have aggressively been transforming education since 2002. It’s not simply investing in the curriculum, or in the classroom, or in the book.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:03] Thank you for joining us during this special week of coverage. Here is my conversation with Elizabeth Cousens, previewing the key storylines and diplomatic moments to follow during the 77th United Nations General Assembly.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:29] Thanks so much for joining me, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Cousens [00:02:31] Hi, Mark. It’s always great to be with you.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:33] So I wanted to kick off by noting the somewhat unusual circumstances surrounding the start of high level week this year. Many world leaders who normally would be in New York today are in London. What impact might the fact that so many world leaders are coming to UNGA directly from the Queen’s funeral have on the kind of diplomacy that follows in New York the rest of the week?
Elizabeth Cousens [00:02:58] Well, there is so much embodied in the life and legacy of Queen Elizabeth. You think about her 73 year reign. It’s spanned all the defining developments of the second half of the last century, starting from the earliest years of the United Nations. So her funeral almost feels like it’s a rite of world historical passage. You know, we have definitively left the 20th century behind, and we are living through such a complex series of transitions where we haven’t resolved yet what the 21st century is actually going to be about. So to me, among the many things that her death and this moment signify, it’s also that, that we have left the 20th century behind. And that is the deep point of departure for honestly every issue on the global agenda at the General Assembly and obviously beyond.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:45] You are an anchor veteran. What are some of the key storylines you’re following this week? What are the events you might be particularly looking forward to or you think might be particularly significant this week?
Elizabeth Cousens [00:03:58] Well, first, UNGA is back. There will be more heads of state and government at the General Assembly than in many recent years. And that’s a powerful sign of the times and I think the importance of the global agenda to world leaders. There’s actually more of everyone coming to UNGA, more corporate leaders, more civil society activists, philanthropic leaders, city leaders. So we should definitely expect a lot more of the usual kind of traffic. But I think also a week of really serious debate and conversations. I’m sure we will see a lot of dramatic speeches. We’ll see a lot around Ukraine, strong statements about democracy and democratic institutions. I think we’re going to see a lot of bracing critique from many countries about inequity in all forms, including about legacies of colonialism that come up around everything from the debt crisis facing so many countries to the horrific flooding in Pakistan. We’ll hear a lot about climate change. You know, if there’s one speech to watch for, I would really look out for Mia Mottley’s, the prime minister of Barbados. Who is very bracing in her critiques, but also her vision for the future. I’m especially watching three spaces. First, even before the G.A. starts, we will have had a Global Africa business initiative launched over the weekend before, and it will be major. It’s being billed as led by Africans, for Africans. It’s spearheaded by the deputy secretary general of the U.N., Amina Mohammed. And it is all about mobilizing a quantum leap in investment in Africa to reap the trillions of dollars of value in Africa by mid-century. And it absolutely will flip the script. It’s not about aid. It’s about investment. And some of the most dynamic and innovative business leaders and others from the continent will be there. So that’s one really important space to watch. Second, we will see escalating alarm, rightly about the global hunger crisis. You know, with countries like Somalia and Afghanistan on the brink of famine. Hundreds of millions of people newly food insecure and really dire scenarios in the coming weeks if aggressive action isn’t taken. And last, the place that I’m really focused on myself is that we’re finally seeing young people really start to claim their place on the global agenda. You know, you’ve been watching the U.N. for a long time. So, you know, this has been building for some time, but it’s really taken a quantum leap in recent years. And, you know, as you know, this week will kick off with a summit on transforming education and it will shine the brightest light on the needs and demands of young people for the education and skills that they need for their future. And, you know, the statistics, you know, there are 300 million children who aren’t attending school in the world and over half the children in the world are seen as not reaching their full learning potential. And young people obviously stand to lose from that, but so does everybody else because, you know, it’s estimated we could add a full 11 and a half trillion dollars in value to global GDP well before 2030 if we simply closed the skills gap. So that’s a big and important space to watch that I think is going to have a lot of unfolding impact even after this week.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:59] And the second segment today is devoted exclusively to the Transforming Education Summit. So we’ll definitely dive deep into that. A couple of follow ups to your highlights. You said at the top that Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, is a key speech to watch. She has been everywhere in the weeks leading up to UNGA. I see her name pop up in all sorts of press releases. What makes her such a unique political leader for this moment?
Elizabeth Cousens [00:07:29] Well, first of all, she’s a great public servant for her own country. Her own country of Barbados is feeling a lot of the stresses and pressures that so many countries are, whether they’re island states or whether they’re battered by climate impacts, pandemic impacts, debt pressures, etc.. So in their experience, they share an experience that a lot of countries around the world do. And I think she has seen that as an inspiration not only to advocate for her own country and their needs, but actually to be a bit of a vehicle for talking about what so much of the rest of the world needs and needs differently from international institutions, from other countries in order to be able to have their citizens lead healthy, prosperous lives. I mean, countries are really staggering under not just the impact of cumulative emergencies from the pandemic to the climate crisis, but from crippling amounts of debt. And although there have been important advances over the last couple of years, and important steps taken by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, they’re just still not enough. And so she really is a champion and a powerful voice for that agenda. So that’s among the many reasons, I think, that she is everywhere and hopefully people are listening.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:40] So last week, Antonio Guterres arrived several minutes late to his pre-UNGA presser because he said he was on the phone with President Putin talking about fertilizer exports. And I, I think that underscores just how Ukraine may potentially dominate or otherwise significantly color the conversations and diplomacy happening in New York this week. How do you foresee the Ukraine crisis impacting events in New York and conversations in New York?
Elizabeth Cousens [00:09:16] The war in Ukraine was a watershed, and it is a watershed in Europe. It is a watershed in the world. When you reflect on the horrific cascade of consequences across the globe, on the food system, on the financial system, and on fuel needs for so many countries. So it will be prominent on the agenda in its own right, because, of course, as the secretary general has also said, very tragically, peace is nowhere yet in sight, but it will be prominently on the agenda because of its impact. So we started off talking about the food crisis that preexisted the war in Ukraine. Several years of record breaking droughts in the Horn of Africa had nothing to do with Ukraine but the Ukraine war and all of the restrictions and the export of food and fuel and fertilizer from that region has just had a devastating additional impact on so many countries. So it will be prominent. It’s also an important opportunity to note that some of the big breakthroughs that the U.N. itself has made in trying to take the roughest and worst edges off of this crisis. So the Black Sea grain deal that was negotiated recently was negotiated thanks to quiet, patient, stubborn U.N. diplomacy. It was a critical breakthrough, still not enough, but really important. And starting to lower food prices globally, at least partially. The fact that International atomic energy agency inspectors got into the Zaporizhzhian Nuclear plant in the middle of a hot war. You think about not only the technical mastery that they bring to that task, but the courage they clearly would need to bring to that task. That’s really important for the region and globally, you know, and of course, even sounding the alarm on the food crisis, the U.N. senior most humanitarian leader, Martin Griffiths, who I know, you know, just returned from a trip to Somalia, warning of mass famine if aggressive action isn’t taken immediately. So these are the issues where we expect and need the U.N. to do the kinds of jobs it’s doing. And there are jobs that no individual country would ever have the impartiality or credibility to do.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:25] So the U.N. General Assembly is always a moment to take stock on progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. Is there anything around the SDGs in particular this year that you’ll be looking out for?
Elizabeth Cousens [00:11:41] Yeah, well, this is clearly a make or break moment for the Sustainable Development Goals. You know, we hit the halfway point next year and leaders will come together next year for an SDG summit where they’ll do a formal taking stock of where we are and where we need to go. And it’s no secret we are terribly behind. We were behind even before the pandemic. Countries have now had the experience of getting pummeled by this series of once in a generation emergencies, once in a century emergencies. And of course, the climate emergency on top of all of that is just making it that much harder. So the U.N. begins its week, its General Assembly week this year, just as it has every year since 2015, with something they call an SDG moment in the General Assembly Hall. That’s an opportunity to call attention to some of those challenges, as well as think together about what the pathways might be to reactivate the SDGs and to really re-energize our efforts. And I think you’ll see over the coming months, certainly in the lead up to the summit next year, a series of ambitious efforts really to do fresh and dramatic new thinking about how to restart this agenda, particularly for people around the world who are the most vulnerable.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:54] So you mentioned earlier that this really was a watershed year in world history. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, epic floods in Pakistan, a food crisis, you know, layered on top of which is an ongoing climate crisis. How do you see the UN General Assembly fitting into broader trends in multilateralism? What does this UNGA this year? UNGA 77 tell us about the current state of multilateralism and what needs strengthening?
Elizabeth Cousens [00:13:27] Well, I think this year’s General Assembly will shine an even brighter light than ever before on the absolute urgency of strengthening multilateralism. And that’s multilateralism at the U.N. and multilateralism in various forms and configurations. There is not a single issue on the global agenda of consequence that can be solved by any single country acting alone. And to be honest, there aren’t that many issues on countries domestic agendas that can be solved without some form of stronger international cooperation, particularly in the context of climate change. So I think we will see that on display. We’ll also, of course, see tensions on display that are no secret. But we will see increasing urgency, bravery and I think imagination around this question of how do you renovate, how do you re-imagine, and how do you renew a sense of the value of international cooperation and the need to redouble our efforts to make it work, particularly for people around the world, again, who are really struggling and suffering.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:30] Well, Elizabeth, thank you so much for your time and good luck the rest of the week.
Elizabeth Cousens [00:14:34] Well, thank you so much, Mark, and I hope to see you over the course of the week.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:50] So I have attended virtually every U.N. General Assembly since 2005. And there’s a familiar pattern to the week. The Monday of high level week is typically the day that many world leaders arrive in New York and is the day that the secretary general uses his unique convening power to call a meeting on a specific global issue. And this year, Secretary-General Antonío Guterres convened the Transforming Education Summit. Several heads of state and civil society leaders, including Malala Yousafzai, addressed the General Assembly and participated in several days of meetings focused on improving access to education and education outcomes. Also participating in this summit is our guest, Thaís Queiroz, Youth Representative for the World Organization of the Scout Movement and United Nations Foundation Next Generation Fellow. Thaís, thank you so much for your time. I appreciate it.
Thaís Queiroz [00:15:51] Thank you for giving me the opportunity.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:53] So can you let listeners know what’s the point or a purpose of a summit like this? Why would the Secretary-General call specifically for a summit on transforming education?
Thaís Queiroz [00:16:05] So, as you might know, until 2030, we intend to fulfill all the stages of the Sustainable Development Goals, but to fulfill all of them, we really need education because it’s really a foundational one. It’s something that every child really knows what we are talking about and we can work together for that. It’s really foundational to talk about education. And with the COVID 19 crisis, we just saw how broken the educational system was, so than it was like this moment to really bring the focus back to education and we know what is going to be transformational for our future.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:44] And I mean, your point on COVID 19 is so real. As the parent of elementary school students in a wealthy country, it was horribly disruptive. And I couldn’t imagine just how disruptive it is if you’re not have access to Zoom or other technological tools.
Thaís Queiroz [00:17:00] Absolutely. So the impact of COVID 19 in less developed countries was even worse. But this crisis that we needed for the developing countries to understand what is the crisis that we are talking about. And then they have the resources and we know already what needs to be invested, how it needs to be invested. So this summit is really for us to bring all leaders to understand this together and be able to make this commitment and make these investments and which points we need to focus on in education.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:30] So take me inside the events of the day. I take it the summit has been going on for a couple of days. It’s culminating today with speeches by world leaders. I saw Malala’s speech, which is great. She always gives like an amazing speech at the U.N., were you in the room for that?
Thaís Queiroz [00:17:46] Yes, I was. I got goosebumps, actually, because when she said seven years ago, she was already there and she was already making this ask. It really shows, like how much we lack in commitment from leaders to come together and commit to make this change. And then also the president of UNICEF was saying they know like how much should be invested where, but still, the private sector just now is coming to understand that they also have a role to play. So it’s really all sectors of society taht should be investing in making this change happen. And it was really powerful to see Malala speaking again and say that this ask isnot new. But now there is no excuses anymore. Like with the COVID 19 pandemic, we really saw how we need to transform education, and the moment is now.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:38] So what else has been going on with this summit? What have the meetings been like and what has your participation entailed?
Thaís Queiroz [00:18:47] So the summit actually started on the 16th officially. So a couple of days ago we had the youth engagement day, so it was led by youth, and it was very powerful for me to see in the room how our message was already aligned. So as young people, we know what we want. We know that we need investment. We know that we want a holistic education. So we are talking about also non-formal education, which is the structured methods that bring us other types of skills that is not literacy and numeracy, but also literacy and numeracy is so important and still so many children are out of school or even if they are in school, they are not learning. So we could see how the messages were there. We need more inclusion of people with disabilities, of minorities, indigenous people. So we were very aligned. But still we cannot make the change alone because as young people, we are really motivated and we, we know we go to the streets. Look at the strike for climate. But we need public policies. We need governments to make a commitment, to make it mandatory, to make the infrastructure to be there. So it’s really us making this big ask from the leaders. But in this first day, the leaders were not there. In the second day, we had a moment with the civil society. So there were UN agencies. There were organizations that already work for education, presenting the projects they’re doing around education. But the most important is really the public policies. We really need the governments to commit to making these changes. And that’s the third state, which is today. So today the leaders day is where during the General Assembly, the leaders are coming together and listening to these messages. So the youth declaration that was launched on the first day is now being brought to the world leaders. And we really need them to listen to us and to commit to making these things happen and not having just empty promises, which has been with the climate until now, for example.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:53] Well, to that end, have you heard anything from leaders today or over the course of the last couple of days that suggests to you that indeed, they are taking this seriously, they are making commitments and not just paying lip service to the idea of improving education, access and outcomes.
Thaís Queiroz [00:21:14] Absolutely. Actually, just today, it was opened by the president of Sierra Leone and he showed how in his country they have aggressively been transforming education since 2018. It’s not simply investing in the curriculum or in the classrooms or in the books. It’s really washrooms, so young women do not need to drop out of school when they have their periods and menstrual health, and sexual education, and all of that is part of this transformation. So they have teachers having training, they have like meals, school food programs so the children can have a full meal and attend school and be able to pay attention in class. So all of this transformation has already been happening in Sierra Leone since 2018. And they see the results. They see how much has changed in quality of life, of families and of parents. And it brings benefits to society. So they are only one example. We also have, if I’m not mistaken, is Costa Rica. So the envoy for the Transformating Education Summit, Mr. Leonardo Garnier, he was prime minister of education in Costa Rica and the system there was transformed as well that they invested more of the GDP in education and it had an enormous result. So that’s the kind of transformations that are already happening by countries, and these countries are showcasing this as well. So it was really great to see these examples that things are being led by example and there is hope in making this transformation.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:22:51] And that’s what I always find valuable about summits convened by the Secretary General on the Monday before the big kick off of leaders speeches and the rest of UN week is that it provides opportunities for world leaders to kind of show off what they’ve done around a specific topic. Or alternatively it provides that an inflection point in which they can make concrete commitments for what they will do in the future. I’m curious to learn why you are participating. What’s your role in this summit and the role of The Scouts in the Transforming Education Summit?
Thaís Queiroz [00:23:28] To answer that, I think I should explain a little bit what is The Scouts Movement for those who don’t know. So The Scout Movement is actually a centenary movement of education. So it’s made by young people for young people. But we have a structured method and we are guided by our values and we are just having fun together. But while we are having fun we are learning certain skills that are really useful for our lives. So we do what we call non-formal education, which means that we have a goal to reach and we have a structure method to reach that. But it’s not the same structure that we have in formal education, for example, where you sit in classrooms and you read books. And it’s this innovative method that has been, like we have been doing this for more than a century, but this should be brought to everyone in the world like everyone should, every child and young person should have the chance of having a holistic education. So this is the main message that we’re bringing with The Scouts, to say that all other forms of education needs to receive investments as well, needs to be implemented. And we know how to do it already. We need to recognize the big organizations who are making this happen, and The Scouts are really leading in this educational aspect. So through this work that I do, through The Scouts. I was invited to be a next generation fellow for education. And I was trying to coordinate young people to be present here at the summit because we as young people, we know the transformations we want and we know how to make it happen. So it’s really crucial that we can dialog with the leaders who are making this transformation. So I was really trying to get these young people prepared because the UN has its own way of working, it’s bureaucracies. So that has been mostly what I’ve been doing. And of course, investing in non-formal education.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:23] So lastly, what would you consider success to be in a summit like this.
Thaís Queiroz [00:25:31] If countries really commit their budget for a transformative education, for a holistic education and for a social protection clause, I think that will be the biggest of the dreams. Like if all leaders really understood how important it is to invest in education and in all the structures that are around to make sure that a child can attend school and learn for real.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:58] Thank you so much for taking time. I know it’s a crazy day. I really appreciate it. Thank you to you, Thaís.
Thaís Queiroz [00:26:03] Of course. It was a pleasure.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:12] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharpe. If you have any questions or comments, please email us using the contact button on globaldispatchepodcast.com or hit me up on Twitter @MarkLGoldberg. Please rate and subscribe to our show on Apple Podcasts.