The UN at 75: Time to Give Citizens a Voice

Credit: UN photo, Mark Garten

By Andreas Bummel, Lysa John and Bruno Kaufmann
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 14 2019 – Next year the United Nations will commemorate its 75th anniversary. The General Assembly determined that all the UN’s activities in 2020 shall be guided by the theme “The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism”.

In January the Secretariat plans1 to launch “the biggest-ever global conversation” on the role of global cooperation and to build a “global vision of 2045.”

The UN Charter begins with the words: “We the Peoples”. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights clearly states in article 21.1. that everyone has the right to take part in the government of their country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

Thus, it should not come as a surprise that this right to participation will now also extend to the forthcoming “global conversation”, as the UN has stated that anybody who wishes to, will be able to join.

At the same time, this is a bold statement in times of deep divides on not just the role of the UN but even more so about the role of citizens and civil society in shaping its affairs. It was only after contentious debates among member states, for instance, that a minor role for civil society was included in the formal resolution on UN75 adopted earlier this year.

The problem is well known.

Fifteen years ago, the Cardoso panel on the relations between the UN and civil society established by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan outlined2 the democratic deficit of global governance in clear terms.

They argued among other things that the UN should help “strengthen democracy for the twenty-first century” by emphasizing participatory democracy and deeper accountability of institutions to the global public.

Unfortunately, most member states had no appetite to look into this further. Despite all efforts to include non-state actors, the UN’s democratic deficit remains critical and undermines the world organization’s credibility.

The alternative People’s Assembly that was held in parallel to the UN’s summit on the Sustainable Development Goals in September in New York concluded3 that the “world is on fire” not least due to a dramatic “crisis of accountability and governance” that extends to the UN.

As well-intentioned it may be, the UN’s global PR campaign that will be rolled out in the course of next year on the occasion of the 75th anniversary will not be able to alleviate the problem unless it leads to tangible institutional change.

From our point of view the UN is an indispensable centre for global deliberation, collaboration and action. The role of the UN as conscience keeper and upholder of universal norms and values remains steadfast.

However, the notion of multilateralism needs to evolve beyond purely intergovernmental engagement and open up to avenues for public and civil society participation. In itself this is a challenging task when “civic space” remains constrained for large swathes of the globe’s population.4

A commitment to multilateralism at present should acknowledge more than ever that the UN’s success depends on strong partnerships with major groups and stakeholders across the world.

As the Earth Summit 2012 stated, sustainable development requires their meaningful involvement and active participation in processes that contribute to decision-making, planning and implementation of policies and programmes at all levels.

A global civic participation campaign5 launched today by a broad alliance of citizens’ initiatives, civil society groups and networks from across the world, jointly coordinated by Democracy Without Borders, Democracy International and CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, calls on the UN and its member states to go a step further.

The UN we need and the UN we want welcomes and seeks the input of “We the Peoples” in whose name it was established 75 years ago. Yet, there is no formal and well-structured UN instrument that enables individual citizens to influence the world organization’s work and this has to change.

A global organization that wishes to leave no one behind – as member states pledged when they adopted the Agenda 2030 – needs to include everyone.

In fact, the General Assembly has repeatedly stated the “right to equitable participation of all, without any discrimination, in domestic and global decision-making”. Informal consultations and public relations exercises to polish the UN’s image are not enough. The UN needs to lead by example through innovations in participation.

Our campaign calls for the creation of a World Citizens’ Initiative on the occasion of the UN’s 75th anniversary. This new and innovative instrument will enable global citizens to submit proposals to the General Assembly or the Security Council if they manage to collect sufficient support from fellow citizens across the world within a specified time.

Similar participatory mechanisms already exist in many cities, regions and countries worldwide. A powerful example is the European Citizens’ Initiative, the first transnational tool of modern direct democracy. It helps to understand how a World Citizens’ Initiative could function.

Certainly, many technical details need to be discussed and political will mobilized. Still, we emphasize that a World Citizens’ Initiative is feasible and that the UN and member states will be able to overcome all challenges if they are actually interested in the participation of “We the Peoples.”

We are convinced that the UN, member states, civil society and global citizens alike will benefit from the direct link a World Citizens’ Initiative will establish, and that its creation will represent an important step forward for the UN.

Clearly, a World Citizens’ Initiative is a proposal that is complementary to other important efforts such as the inclusion of major groups and civil society in the UN’s work or the establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly.

The World Citizens’ Initiative is a proposal that is in line with the concept of people-centered multilateral cooperation in a spirit of global citizenship and it is in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, among others6 . It may be a key element in the long-sought revitalization of the General Assembly.

We urge the UN and member states to study the proposal and to launch open and inclusive preparations for the creation of a UN World Citizens’ Initiative. Civil society groups and individual citizens are invited to join the campaign and help us build the necessary political momentum and public pressure for transformation.

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Campaign Targets UNESCO’s Tie-up with ‘Saudi Spies’

A protest against the welcoming of Mohammad bin Salman at Downing Street, last year. Rights organisations have started an online petition against the involvement of bin Salman’s Misk Foundation with the United Nations Educational Scientific And Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Youth Forum being held in Paris next week. Courtesy: Alisdare Hickson/CC by 2.0

By James Reinl
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 14 2019 – The United Nations faces renewed criticism over its partnership with Saudi Arabia’s Misk Foundation amid revelations that the charity is headed by the mastermind of a recent Twitter spying operation.

An online petition against the tie-up has received some 6,000 signatures, with organisers saying the U.N.’s cultural agency, UNESCO, should “have nothing to do” with Misk, the private charity of Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler Mohamed bin Salman. 

The campaign comes days before Misk takes part in the Nov. 18-19 UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris, and days after revelations that Misk official Bader al-Asaker led a Saudi effort to gather private details about dissidents via their Twitter accounts.

“Thousands of people are urging UNESCO to cut ties with Misk, a fake Saudi charity that’s really a front for spying run by the Saudi dictator as he tries to track and kill critics,” Sunjeev Bery, director of campaign group Freedom Forward, which organised the petition, told IPS.

“It’s time for the world to wake up and realise that you cannot dance with a brutal despot without becoming implicated in their public relations efforts. The Saudi dictatorship uses its international affiliations to hide the violence it deploys to silence opponents.”

Bery says Misk is used by the powerful crown prince as “propaganda” to divert attention away from Riyadh’s spying operations, a crackdown on critics and the “mass slaughter” during its military operations in neighbouring Yemen.

UNESCO has worked with Misk since 2015 in a deal worth $5 million to the Paris-based U.N. agency. Misk promotes young entrepreneurship at glitzy gatherings in New York, Paris and elsewhere, featuring such speakers as soccer legend Thierry Henry.

UNESCO spokesman Alexander Schischlik said the agency and Misk have co-hosted several events in recent years, and that Misk had helped select a candidate to take part in this month’s forum at UNESCO headquarters.

“It is our role and obligation to work with all member states within our mandate,” Schischlik told IPS. 

“We will continue to do so. Saudi Arabia has been a valuable partner in many issues, including heritage protection, and culture.”

Critics of the tie-up point to revelations this month that Misk’s secretary-general, al-Asaker, ran a Saudi effort to track down dissidents using Twitter, and claims last year linking him to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Last week, the United States Department of Justice charged three men of spying for Saudi by digging up private user data of suspected dissidents and passing it to Riyadh in exchange for cash and luxury wristwatches.

A 24-page FBI complaint accuses two former Twitter employees and an individual who previously worked for the Saudi royal family as being part of a spy ring that tapped private data from thousands of accounts.

The document does not name Asaker or the crown prince, but references to “Foreign Official-1” and “Royal Family Member-1” have been identified as Asaker and prince bin Salman, who is the kingdom’s de facto ruler and is better known as MbS. 

Asaker runs MbS’ private office and heads Misk, which promotes entrepreneurship in Saudi, where high unemployment rates and a demographic bulge of youngsters raise tough questions for an economy that seeks to wean itself off oil.

The complaint describes Asaker cultivating Twitter employees and paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars to discover the email addresses and other private details related to Twitter accounts that had criticised the kingdom.

It was not the first time that Asaker made headlines. Last year, Turkish pro-government daily Yeni Safak reported that the head of Saudi hit squad that killed dissident journalist Khashoggi phoned Asaker four times as the gruesome operation was carried out.

Transcripts of the calls were never published, and it remains unclear whether Asaker was involved. Saudi officials initially denied links to Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, but later described a “rogue operation” that did not involve MbS.

The CIA has concluded that the prince ordered the hit, according to reports. Saudi officials point to a trial in Saudi of alleged plotters, in which Asaker is not a defendant, but which has been widely criticised for lacking in transparency.

The U.N. has faced repeated blowback over its ties with Misk. In September, the U.N.’s youth envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, pulled out of an event she was co-hosting with Misk at the last minute amid controversy over Khashoggi’s murder.

The Global Economy of Pulses: Impressive Gains and the Way Forward

By Boubaker Ben Belhassen and Vikas Rawal
ROME, Nov 14 2019 – Pulses are highly nutritious and their consumption is associated with many health benefits. They are rich in proteins and minerals, high in fibre and have a low fat content. Pulses are produced by plants of the Leguminosae family. These plants have root nodules that absorb inert nitrogen from soil air and convert it into biologically useful ammonia, a process referred to as biological nitrogen fixation. Consequently, the pulse crops do not need any additional nitrogen as fertilizer and help reduce the requirement of fossil fuel-based chemical nitrogen fertilization for other crops. Expansion of pulse production, therefore, can play a vital role in mitigating the effects of climate change.

Boubaker Ben Belhassen

Between 2001 and 2014, the global production of pulses increased by over 20 million tonnes. This increase came about primarily on account of an increase in the production of common beans, chickpeas, cowpeas and lentils. Globally, between 2001 and 2014, the annual production of dry beans increased by about 7 million tonnes. In the same period, the annual production of chickpeas went up by about 5 million tonnes, that of cowpeas by about 3.8 million tonnes and that of lentils by about 1.6 million tonnes.

While pulses are produced in all regions of the world, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa together account for about half of global production. Cultivation of dry bean, a category comprising many different types of beans, is the most widespread across different regions of the world. In 2012-14, sub- Saharan Africa accounted for 24 percent of global production of dry beans, Latin America and the Caribbean for about 24 percent, Southeast Asia for about 18 percent, and South Asia for about 17 percent. South Asia accounts for about 74 percent of chickpea production and 68 percent of pigeonpea production. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 96 per cent of the production of cowpea, a legume specific to arid regions. North America is the biggest producer of lentils and dry peas.

India is the biggest producer and consumer of pulses. Indian demand for pulses is a major driver of the global economy of pulses: India accounts for about 24 percent of global production of pulses and 30 percent of global imports. In contrast with stagnation of production of pulses from 1960s through 1990s, the last 15 years have seen a doubling of production of pulses in India. In 2017, India produced about 23 million tonnes of pulses.

Concerted efforts of agricultural scientists and breeders under the aegis of CGIAR institutions and national agricultural research systems (NARS) have played a critical role in facilitating the growth of pulse production over the last fifteen years. Research on pulses under CGIAR is led by ICRISAT, ICARDA and CIAT. Significant work has been done by these institutions to conserve genetic resources of pulse crops and also develop new cultivars. Currently, ICRISAT holds 20 764 accessions of chickpeas and 13 783 accessions of pigeonpeas, ICARDA has 11 877 accessions of lentils and CIAT holds 37 938 accessions of Phaseolus beans. In addition, many national gene banks hold substantial repositories of genetic resources. For example, national gene banks in India have over 63 000 accessions of different pulse crops. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, adopted by the 31st Session of the Conference of FAO in 2001, has provided the institutional framework for international collaboration in using these genetic resources. These genetic resources have been used to develop short-duration and disease-resistant varieties, and varieties that can be grown in diverse climatic conditions across the world.

Vikas Rawal

With the increase in globalization and trade liberalization across the world, the last two decades have seen a particularly large increase in international trade of pulses. Between 2001 and 2013, the quantity of pulses exported went up from about 9 million tonnes to about 14 million tonnes. There has been a considerable increase in Asia’s dependence on imports of pulses, primarily on account of an increasing shortfall in domestic supply in India and China’s transformation from being a net exporter of pulses to being a net importer. On the other hand, Canada, Australia and Myanmar have emerged as major exporters of pulses. High prices of pulses in the past decade have made farming of pulses attractive in these countries.

Experience of many countries over the last two decades shows that considerable improvement in the yields of pulses can be achieved with greater adoption of improved varieties and scientific agronomic practices. Large, industrial-scale farms in developed countries like Canada and Australia benefit from economies of scale, particularly in the deployment of machines, and higher use of improved varieties of seeds, inoculants and plant protection chemicals. On the other hand, pulse production on smallholder farms in most countries continues to be characterized by low yields and high risk. Given the low and uncertain returns from pulses, most of the smallholder production takes place on marginal soils, on land without irrigation facilities and with little access to technological improvements. Smallholder producers of pulses in developing countries lack access to improved varieties of seeds, knowledge about appropriate agronomic practices, and resources for buying modern inputs. Consequently, yield gaps on smallholder farms are high. In countries marked by smallholder production, pulse crops remain unremunerative compared with other competing crops. Low levels of per hectare margins act as a double disadvantage for smallholder producers of pulses: given the small sizes of their farms, low per hectare margins result in abysmal levels of per worker and per farm incomes.

The growth of pulse production over the last decade-and-a-half has been a result of concerted public action towards developing improved varieties and identifying suitable agronomic varieties, to make cultivation of pulses attractive for farmers under diverse agro-climatic conditions and economic contexts across the world. Increasing support to smallholder pulse production in the form of public extension services, provision of improved technologies and inputs, and availability of credit and insurance facilities can go a long way towards closing yield gaps on smallholder farms and making production of pulses more remunerative. The key lies in simultaneously ensuring that production of pulses is remunerative for smallholder producers and prices of pulses are affordable for consumers.

Boubaker Ben Belhassen is Director, Trade and Markets Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and Vikas Rawal is Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The Trade and Markets Division of FAO recently released a report titled The Global Economy of Pulses that can be accessed here:

Art Helping Women to Highlight Gender-based Violence at ICPD25

Ann Kihii (25) spends time with other young women from poor communities in Nairobi and use embroidery to create images that tell a story about the daily challenges they face. They also get a chance to discuss the issues among themselves in a safe space. Credit: Mantoe Phakathi / IPS

By Mantoe Phakathi
NAIROBI, Kenya, Nov 14 2019 – While women find it hard to talk about their painful experiences, some have found a way of expressing themselves through art. Women, trained as artists, from Nairobi’s informal settlements Kibera and Kangemi, have produced a beautiful quilt that tells stories about their daily challenges.

Displayed at the Pamoja Zone of ICPD25, the quilt is used to lobby delegates to rally behind girls and women by ensuring that they enjoy sexual reproductive rights and end gender-based violence.

Being able to express yourself through art

While the embroidered quilt is a beautiful piece of work, each square that forms part of it it is sewn by different women who are expressing their sad experiences.

“I live in a community where violence against women is the order of the day,” she told IPS. “Unfortunately, women find it hard to talk about it.” Ann Kihiis (25) is one of the young women who have turned out to be a fine quilt maker. Using small square pieces of fabric, she sewed an image of a woman who was experiencing violence in her marriage.

In the same image, there is a shadow which she says symbolises the anger and hurt that an abused woman carries with her all the time unless she is able to talk about it and heal from the experience. Although she has never been in an abusive relationship, she said observing it from a young age in her family and community has traumatised her.

Ann Kihii showcases the quilt that she contributed in making where she designed an image of a woman in an abusive relationship who always carries the anger and hurt. Credit: Mantoe Phakathi / IPS

“I love art and this is a way of creating awareness about gender-based violence and letting people know that it’s okay to talk about it,” said Kihiis.

She said she is aware that women who are abused end up believing that they do not deserve to be loved, something that is not true.

Art brings women together

On the same quilt, other artists made images depicting crime, drugs and teenage pregnancy. For example, there is an image of a young girl who is sitting on a desk with a baby on her back. This, according to Bobbi Fitzsimmons, a quilter from the Advocacy Project is the story of a young girl who was abandoned by her father after falling pregnant. When she fell pregnant for the second time, she decided to take control of her life and returned to school even if it meant studying with much younger learners.

Bobbi Fitzsimmons, a quilter from The Advocacy Project, trains women groups across the world to express the challenges they face by using embroidery, painting and applique to raising awareness so as to get support in addressing gender-based violence and sexual reproductive health rights. Credit: Mantoe Phakathi / IPS

“Art is a very effective way of expressing oneself,” she said. “What’s more, the women came together while working on the quilt and discussed their issues, in what was a safe space for them to talk.”

The Kenyan women artists are trained by the Kenya Quilt Guild under Fitzsimmons’ directorship.

The United National Population Fund (UNFPA) funded The Advocacy Project to train the women. They also funded the exhibition of quilts from women in other parts of the world. For example, there is a quilt from Nepal on display with squares of paintings through which a group of women from the Eastern part of the country expresses themselves after they were treated for uterine prolapse, a painful condition affecting 600 000 women in Nepal. Another quilt donning the walls of the Pamoja Zone is one from survivors of sexual violence from the Democratic Republic of Congo, while another depicts child marriages in Zimbabwe.

In total, 18 quilts are on display at the exhibition, where delegates are fascinated by the stories.

Karen Delaney, the deputy director of The Advocacy Project believes that through this initiative, women do not only come together to talk about their issues but they also get a lifetime skill for income generation. Credit: Mantoe Phakathi / IPS

In making the quilts the artists are trained to use the following skills: beadwork, painting and applique.

“Apart from the opportunity of bringing together the women, they gain skills that they can use to generate income for the rest of their lives,” said Karen Delaney, the deputy director at The Advocacy Project.

This Time Around ICPD25 Commitments Will Be Met Says UNFPA …

Bettina Maas / UNFPA Ethiopia. Credit: Crystal Orderson / IPS

By Crystal Orderson
NAIROBI, Kenya, Nov 14 2019 – The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA Ethiopia country representative, Bettina Maas speaks to IPS at the ICPD25 Nairobi Summit and she says she is optimistic that this time around that the three critical commitments; bringing preventable maternal deaths, gender based violence and harmful practices, as well as unmet need for family planning to zero will be realized.

Crystal Orderson spoke to Maas at the Nairobi Summit.

Will Artificial Intelligence Help Resolve the Food Crisis?

Credit: Food Tank

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Nov 14 2019 – When UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a global appeal for “zero hunger” on World Food Day last month, he provided some grim statistics rich in irony: more than 820 million people do not have enough to eat, he said, while two billion people are overweight or obese.

“It is unacceptable that hunger is on the rise at a time when the world wastes more than one billion tonnes of food every year.”
Still, the United Nations is hoping for the eradication of extreme hunger by 2030 as part of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

How realistic is this? And can Artificial Intelligence (AI), touted as the new panacea for some of the world’s ills, help facilitate increased agricultural crops and farm output?

In a New York Times article titled “Harvesting Corn, Wheat and a Profit” October 13, Tim Gray points out that as the world’s population rises, from the current 7.6 billion to nearly 10 billion in 2050, the United Nations has estimated that 70 percent more food will be needed by then, but it will have to be produced on just five percent of arable land.

But AI, meanwhile, is on the move with farmers operating self-guided tractors guided by GPS navigation systems, drones being used to monitor crops, AI being employed in irrigation and robots likely to take cow hands’ jobs.

Asked if there is a role for AI in agriculture, Sonja Vermeulen, Director of Programs, CGIAR System Organization, told IPS: “Absolutely. CGIAR’s role in this is creating and scaling up affordable AI and big data solutions – so they are relevant and accessible to a wide diversity of farmers regardless of gender, culture, wealth or literacy.

For example, CGIAR (described as a global partnership that unites international organizations engaged in research for a food-secured future and formerly known as the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research ) won former UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon’s innovation prize for work using big data to better predict rice harvests from weather patterns so farmers can match planting places and times (and save a lot of money), she said.

Danielle Nierenberg, President, Food Tank, described as a think tank for food, told IPS while AI, Big Data, and other technologies can hold a lot of potential for farmers of all sizes, they are not a silver bullet for solving hunger.”

“The question we need to ask with all technologies is what problem are they trying to solve and who will they help?”

Unfortunately, she said, many high-tech innovations are not helping farmers who need it the most—the world’s small and medium sized farmers who produce much of the food on the globe.

Those farmers need to be part of the research and development of new technologies so that they actually solve the challenges those farmers face, she added.

And there needs to be an emphasis on combining “high” and “low” tech innovations and making sure that farmers indigenous and traditional knowledge is respected, said Nierenberg.

An article titled “Artificial Intelligence: What AI Can do for Smallholder Farmers” in the Food Tank website, says “Imagine one hundred years ago if farmers had access to huge volumes of information about the soil profile of their land, the varieties of crops they were growing, and even the fluctuations of their local climate?. This kind of information could have prevented an environmental crisis like the Dust Bowl of the 1920s in the American Midwest. But even ten years ago, the idea that farmers could have access to this kind of information was unrealistic.”

For the team behind the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, farming is the next frontier for using artificial intelligence (AI) to efficiently solve complex problems. The team—which includes biologists, agronomists, nutritionists, and policy analysts working with data scientists—is using Big Data tools to create AI systems that can predict the potential outcomes of future scenarios for farmers.

By leveraging massive amounts of data and using innovative computational analysis, the CGIAR Platform is working to help farmers increase their efficiency and reduce the risks that are inherent in farming, according to the article.

Asked for her comments, Ruth Richardson, Executive Director, Global Alliance for the Future of Food, told IPS: “When it comes to the future of food in the climate emergency, we need to go beyond just looking to “technology” as a silver bullet solution. Instead, we need to broaden the discussion to be about wider food system transformation and interrogate whether technology is the end or a means to an end?”

After all, she said, some farmers operate using advanced technology but many globally are still reliant on small scale operations and tools. It’s important to also note that technology and innovation, more broadly, are important tools to achieve sustainable food systems but technology itself – especially the access to it — is not neutral.

Richardson pointed out that one of the biggest challenges related to technology is related to governance.

“A concentration of power and highly unequal power relations are a deep problem in today’s broken food system so we need to ensure that technology and its implementation is managed in a way that promotes equity and environmental sustainability. Any developments need to be assessed holistically with a focus on risks and trade-offs,” she declared.

Anuradha Mittal, Executive Director at the San Francisco-based Oakland Institute, told IPS today nearly 800 million people are hungry and this number is expected to grow, despite grand declarations by the governments at UN summits.

“But we already produce enough food to feed at least 10 billion people (the current population is around 7.6 billion). It is therefore essential to understand the true causes of hunger—when there is no shortage of food.”

Focus on technology driven industrial agricultural system as a solution to hunger, has created a food system that is upside down and backwards. Denying family farmers their basic rights to land, seeds, markets, and food sovereignty has rendered food producers hungry, argued Mittal.

Take the case of India – primarily an agrarian economy with 60% of its population employed in agriculture. India is world’s 14th largest agricultural, fishery, and forestry product exporter – in 2018, India accrued a $14.6 billion trade surplus of agricultural, fishery, and forestry goods.

And yet, she pointed out, farmer suicides continue to dominate newspaper headlines nationally while the country is home to the largest number of hungry people in the world. In 2017 Global Hunger Index, India ranked 100 out of 119 ranked countries.

The last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report focused on climate change and land, makes it clear that fixing our food system is imperative. Industrial food production has led to increased greenhouse gas emissions; monopoly of a few corporations over seeds to chemical inputs; monoculture production which threatens biodiversity globally; and more.

“This has made our agricultural system both a major driver of climate change—and majorly vulnerable to its effects.”.

“Instead of seeing artificial intelligence as the next silver bullet solution to hunger, we need a food system that respects and protects the intelligence of family farmers, traditional knowledge and agroecological principles of farming,” declared Mittal..

Young People at ICPD25: ‘ We Have the Right to Sexual and Reproductive Rights’

ICPD25 Youth delegates: Michele Simon (left) and Botho Mahlunge. Credit: Joyce Chimbi / IPS

By Joyce Chimbi
NAIROBI, Kenya, Nov 14 2019 – Every day in developing countries it is estimated that 20,000 girls under the age of 18 give birth. This amounts to 7.3 million births a year.

Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are still the leading cause of death among adolescent girls, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) statistics.

Let us be heard

Born long after the Cairo Promise, the 18-year-old Michelle Simon and the 19-year-old Botho Mahlunge both youth representatives from Botswana, lament that years later a world where girls can enrol and stay in school is far from the lived reality for millions of adolescents across the globe.

“When I was 13 years old I started to see the connection between girls getting pregnant and dropping out of school. “These girls were very bright but when they left school they never returned.

I started to talk about preventing these pregnancies at that young age,” Simon tells IPS.

Simon says that 25 years after the promise, “it is very sad because those who should be protecting us have failed us. Parents cannot even close the gap between them and their adolescent”.

She argues that parents have abdicated their responsibility to the education system and the entire society. “But where is the parent’s responsibility towards adolescent health?” she asks.

Simon says that in this era of technology and information, adolescent health should not be the problem area that it is. “We cannot hide behind culture and say that ours is a conservative society.

Culture should reflect problems

“Culture evolves and it must so that it can reflect the problems we are facing,” she says.

Mahlunge says that failure to educate our young people on sexuality “is the reason so many girls are getting pregnant and infected with HIV.”

She says the continued exclusion of young people in rural areas from sexual and reproductive health and rights discussion is also to blame for the prevailing state of affairs.

“Young people in rural areas are completely vulnerable. They are so far removed from the little information and services available to young people in urban areas,” Mahlunge observes.

We need sexual health education

Denis Otundo from the Network for Adolescent and Youth of Africa says that the ICPD25 conference has a lot in store to offer adolescents.

He notes that the stigma attached to providing adolescents with comprehensive sexuality education in many African countries is unfounded.

“This Summit is very clear on what needs to be done. As early as at the age of 15 years, adolescents should start receiving information on sexuality. The focus is to provide the right information, at the right time so that adolescents can make the right decisions,” he says.

Otundo says that this information includes life skills “on how to say no to sex because this is part of promoting adolescent health. It is also about training them on identifying all forms of violence, teaching them about available channels to report violence, and how to report”.

Experts at UNFPA argue that if laws support access to adolescent sexual and reproductive health rights, this could delay early sexual debut because such rights encourage and enable young people to make sound decisions.

He says that when young people lack access to proper information, they turn to fellow adolescents for information.

Invest in young people says the Asian Population and Development Association

Dr Osamu Kusumoto from the Asian Population and Development Association (APDA) says that the capacity of countries to accelerate and achieve ICPD25 commitments is dependent on the extent to which countries invest in their young people.

“Unplanned pregnancies are a big problem in developing countries. When you have a large population of young people pregnant while they should be in school, this is a problem for the economy too,” he says.

In Kenya alone, UNFPA statistics show that many young girls are likely to have repeated pregnancies.

As many as one in five girls give birth before the age of 18 years, even worse, as a majority of then will get married. Girls between 15 to 19 years are particularly at risk of acquiring HIV.

Kusumoto says that interventions must address young people’s most pressing problems. In this way, they can stay in school and acquire the skills needed to participate in the economy.

Young people are the heart of this Summit

“Adolescents are at the heart of the Summit. All the commitments that have been made, in one way or another, touch on adolescents,” says Otundo.

He says that adolescents are the most affected by sexual and gender-based violence, and harmful practices including female genital mutilation and child marriages.

Among the private sector partners who have committed funds to deliver the Cairo promise include Plan International who will allocate $500 million to improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and adolescents by 2025.

“I speak out about unwanted pregnancies and violence against young people. I also speak out about the need to stay in school because I believe this is what we need to accelerate the promise made to us even before we were born,” Simon says.

Botho encourages young people wherever they may be “to engage and to dialogue. If you see an opportunity to hold government accountable, do not hold back.”