Why access to quality education is not a poor country issue

When Sarah Beeching first met Mohamed Sidibay in the United Nations HQ in September 2017 it was a moment she will never forget.

Following the announcement by Presidents Macron and Sall that the Global Partnership for Education financing conference would take place in Senegal, witnessed by the UN Secretary General, Malala Yousafzai and host of other eminent people, Mohamed tapped Sarah on her shoulder. He introduced himself as a youth advocate, and then, in an instant, he captured her attention ‘I was a child soldier in Sierra Leone’ he said. As though she had taken a bite from Proust’s fabled madeleine, she was transported back to a hotel room in Lomé, Togo in 1999.  Whilst attending a conference on small arms and light weapons she received a message that Foday Sankoh and Sam Bockarie wanted to meet her. Sankoh was head of the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone, and Sam ‘Mosquito’ Bokarie, his military commander.  They were holed up in the hotel in the midst of fractious and failing peace negotiations.

Mohamed Sidibay and Sarah Beeching at the Global Partnership For Education Financing Conference in Senegal

Mohamed Sidibay & Sarah Beeching at the Global Partnership For Education Financing Conference in Senegal

The subsequent meeting between these two indicted war criminals, Sarah, and a Liberian dissident lasted two hours. Two hours that were to be locked away in the furthest reaches of her mind for almost two decades.  Mohamed unleashed these memories and in an instant, both knew that they shared a common thread of understanding about a brutal time in Sierra Leone’s history.

It was a huge honour to invite Mohamed to the GPE Financing conference and witness his courage, once again, in sharing his testimony.

Mohamed Sidibay’s blog below was first shared on the Global Partnership for Education’s blog and is reproduced here with his permission.

Why access to quality education is not a poor country issue by Mohamed Sidibay

Every day we see the economic, cultural and social benefits of an educated society. We all know that education works. Yet, it seems that most of our leaders talk a lot but do too little to address the issue.

As an education activist, a former child soldier and a war survivor, I understand what war and poverty does to the mind – but I also understand the power of education in transforming lives.

What I do not understand, however, is the lack of a concerted effort to immediately and effectively tackle not an African or poor country problem, but a global one – access to quality education.

And so, when I was invited to attend and speak at the biggest ever-education financing conference in Dakar last week, with all the names and power behind it, I was skeptical.

I was skeptical because I wanted to know: why now? What has changed? Why are all these leaders gathering in Senegal in an attempt to raise money for education? Nevertheless, I went. And I am glad I did.

Dakar Conference ushers in political and paradigm shift

What I saw in Dakar was a political and paradigm shift. A realization that we can either make quality education a reality for every child and enjoy the fruit of an educated generation together, or face the opportunity costs of not doing so: war, poverty, terrorism and instability.

The money and power has always been there. What was lacking however, was prioritization, and the political capital. The Global Partnership for Education Financing Conference in Senegal did not reinvent the wheel or try to make the impossible possible, but rather shifted the focus and made education more prominent.

By doing so, they made what seemed impossible a few years back attainable. Education is not just fundamental to the SDGs’ it is, in the words of President Macky Sall, “an investment in the future; it “is sowing the seeds of human dignity in every child”. And echoing Jim Kim, President of the World Bank, investment in “grey matter” is one of the most important infrastructure investments countries can make.

Dakar witnessed a clear shift in both the momentum and political recognition of the importance of education as the driver for economic development and global security.

GPE raised the bar for youth involvement at the conference

As a youth leader and activist, what was also different at this conference was youth involvement. As young people, we are often invited to these events only to realize that we are nothing more than “token” participants. That although world leaders always say our opinions are greatly “valued”, the reality is, more often than not, they are afterthoughts.

The GPE leadership invited fewer youths this time around (22) and gave them more responsibilities. And boy did, we rise to the challenge! We all felt that we were contributing to solve a shared problem.

We came together on January 31 for a pre-conference workshop organized by GPE and Plan International. We had youth advocates from Plan, FAWE, ONE Campaign, UNHCR, UNICEF and Handicap International, as well as young people from local Senegalese schools.

We labored for the full day to give life to our youth statement delivered to the conference two days later in front of world leaders. We were weaved throughout the conference agenda as moderators, panelists, live bloggers, TED-style story tellers of our own journeys, interviews of global education leaders, as well as interviewed by global media,

Youth voices were heard

“Giving a voice to the voiceless” is a saying that has permeated the development world. I too, am sometimes guilty of saying those same words. But the reality is, those we have considered voiceless never truly lost their voice. We either didn’t want to hear them or we chose to actively ignore them.

By providing the platform that allowed youth activists and world leaders to interact in a meaningful way, GPE raised the bar for youth involvement.

To echo the words of our solidarity statement:

“Youth are not simply beneficiaries of education. We are partners in creating a better world. Youth do not need to be given a voice. We already have one. What we need is the platform of education for which our voices can be heard”.

In the words of my fellow youth advocate at the conference Salimatou Fatty, from the Gambia, “leaders…prioritize that which is most sacred to us – education. No nation has developed economically or culturally without an educated population. The opportunity costs of not investing in young people are too great to fathom. So, if we are really serious about long lasting development, why not start with that which we already know works: fund quality education.”