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Remarks by Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director, at Security Council meeting on universal connectivity & access to digital technology in conflict & post-conflict contexts

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Good morning. On behalf of everyone at UNICEF, thank you for this opportunity to talk about the importance of universal connectivity and digital tools. Our appreciation to the Permanent Mission of Niger for the invitation.

As we speak, half of humanity is not connected to the internet — including 360 million children and young people.

For these young people, the costs are high.

It means losing out on learning and education.

It means not gaining the skills they need to find employment.

And in the broadest terms, it means perpetuating the inequalities that continue to divide communities — and the world. Between the haves and have nots. Between those who have access to opportunities and those who do not.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed this divide in stark terms.

It caused the largest disruption of education in history — affecting 1.6 billion learners across more than 190 countries.

This is especially tragic in low and middle-income countries — places where gaining an education is already an uphill struggle.

And especially so in countries enduring conflict and instability.

In all, nearly one in every four children in the world lives in conflict or disaster-stricken countries.

That means that more than 75 million children and young people are currently in urgent need of educational support in 35 crisis-affected countries.

Girls in conflict zones are especially at risk. They already face a range of challenges — including violence, abuse and psychological trauma. They’re also less likely than boys to return to school following lockdowns and the destruction of school infrastructure.

The figures are also stark for refugees. Even before COVID only half of refugee children have access to primary education, compared with a global level of more than 90 percent.

For adolescent refugees, the picture is bleaker still. Just over one-fifth of them were in lower-secondary school. And just one per cent of refugees attended university, compared to the global rate of 34 percent.

In short — we are failing a generation of young learners across conflict and post-conflict settings.

Not only denying them an opportunity to shape their minds and pursue opportunities — but a sense of normalcy, safety and growth that every child needs.

At UNICEF, we believe that as countries look to build peace, grow economies, and climb the development ladder, they must dramatically expand education for all people, no matter who they are or where they live.

And closing the digital divide is a critical step.

UNICEF and ITU have joined forces to launch GIGA, an ambitious global initiative to connect every school and its surrounding community to the Internet.

And partners are rapidly joining our work.

More than 30 Members States are now mapping-out school connectivity. They’re also working through GIGA to create investment opportunities for blended public and private sector money to build the infrastructure needed to provide universal access to the internet.

Working with my fellow co-Briefers today — Minister Sengeh [Sen-Gay], Minister Guimba [Gim-ba], and Minister Ingabire [In-Gah-Bir-Ay] — we’re developing business cases to connect almost 33,000 schools in total across Sierra Leone, Niger and Rwanda.

We’ve also joined forces to create locally developed technology — grassroots innovations that UNICEF can help take to scale.

In Sierra Leone, for example, we’ve been working with Minister Sengeh to build drone corridors, test cryptocurrency for public services, and use sophisticated satellite data to map the most vulnerable populations and their schools. All of these innovations review expanding connectivity to every community.

And the Government of Rwanda has developed one of the most comprehensive child safety online frameworks anywhere, to keep children safe when using these tools. We encourage other countries to follow this model.

So government commitment is essential.

But we also need other partners to join our work.

Ericsson has joined GIGA with a multi-year, multi-million-dollar commitment.

The European Investment Bank is now supporting our work to create financing solutions — like connectivity bonds for internet access in vulnerable countries.

The World Bank has provided our hosts, Niger, with $100 million to connect schools and villages — an exciting opportunity that UNICEF is proud to support.

UNICEF is also working with UNHCR to increase school connectivity in communities hosting refugees — while also designing and activating the tools that young refugees need to continue their education. This includes online learning tools, like the Learning Passport — a distance-learning platform we developed with Microsoft and Cambridge University.

We’re working with mobile phone companies to provide “zero rating” solutions to provide access to online learning tools — as we’ve done in Africa and Latin America.

And we’ve joined forces with companies to provide students with new learning devices that are preloaded with relevant, topical and accessible curriculum.

Our ultimate vision is about taking all of these tools — this software that serves public needs — and combining it with safe, universal connectivity.

We want to revolutionize learning and skills development for children — no matter where they live — by turning them into Digital Public Goods.

Imagine being a young person and connecting to the internet for the first time. Imagine feeling that this internet is safe for you. Imagine finding at your fingertips all the tools you need to learn, build skills, find employment, and communicate globally. All for free, as globally available digital public goods.

To bring this vision to life, we’ve launched the Digital Public Goods Alliance with Norway, Sierra Leone, and India’s iSpirit [Eye-Spirit]. This Alliance brings together open-source solutions that can support young people across every aspect of their lives.

As I’ve explained, education is a big part of this. But connectivity and digital goods can support so much more for conflict and post-conflict settings. They can become a permanent part of a country’s infrastructure as they re-build following a humanitarian emergency like a conflict or natural disaster.

This includes providing training and skills-development for young people ready to join the workforce — especially girls.

Our Generation Unlimited platform is bringing together the public and private sectors to develop and deploy new digital tools and investments to this work.

And just last week, UNICEF connected the Norwegian Digital Public Goods Alliance to GIGA. We’re now working with the Ministers here today and their teams — and many others — to develop and deploy open source software for financial inclusion, health, education and more. Software that can be shared across participating GIGA countries.

But unlocking these opportunities requires a massive global effort.

We need all countries to join early leaders like Niger, Sierra Leone, Kazakhstan, Rwanda on both connectivity and developing and scaling the digital software that can deliver solutions across a range of sectors.

We need to reach the most marginalized children and communities by pooling together the data that we — as governments, UN agencies and civil society — have to identify the gaps. Especially in conflict-affected areas and for those children on the move as migrants, refugees or IDPs.

And as always, we need funding. Join our call to raise an initial $3 billion in catalytic funding for connectivity — and $500 million for digital learning, including content, for every child, under UNICEF’s Reimagine Education initiative.

We need your help and influence. More than anyone, this Council recognizes the clear link between a child’s ability to learn and grow, and the peaceful, prosperous, and stable world we all seek.

Help us unlock the full promise of connectivity and digital tools. Not only for children, but for their communities and countries. And ultimately, for the peace of our world. Thank you.

About UNICEF

UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, we work for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

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Media Contacts

Sara Alhattab
UNICEF New York
Tel: +1 917 957 6536
Email: salhattab@unicef.org