Digitisation for Sustainable Development | SAIntS 2024 Graduation Keynote

SALUTATIONS

The Chair of the Board of Governors, Governors, the Headteacher, Teaching and all staff, proud parents, students, good afternoon.

SPEECH

When I was pursuing my Bachelor of Social Science degree at the University of Malawi, a number of colleagues who got to know me, and my passions, would say to me: “You will get hired by the United Nations.” They often said this as a compliment.

Now, I am the daughter of mariners – my mother was the first female captain of Malawi, and my father has had a management career as a Marine Engineer. I was raised in a gated community in the district of Mangochi – a life I now reflect back on, and consider to have been a life of privilege.

All my life, I had not heard of, nor taken interest in international relations – and by extension sustainable development. I was what most then called a brilliant kid – I got distinctions in all the sciences in secondary school, and as we were preparing for University, I had several options laid out in front of me. As someone with a passion for and a clear strength in Mathematics, I was advised that I could become a doctor… an engineer… perhaps even an accountant.

Prior to her marine specialty, my mother had studied pure sciences at the University of Malawi, and it was her heart’s desire that at least one of her children retrace her footsteps. At the University of Malawi, a degree in Law was seen as the most prestigious. However, to get into law, you needed to get into another programme, and apply after a year. Second-best to law was social sciences. I knew I had the grades, and I knew I could get in. 

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In 2011, I was admitted to the University of Malawi, then Chancellor College. I was BSoc/02/11. The registration number “02” represented my rank in class at selection, and I always wore that number with pride – second best, in a class of over 100 – both ladies and gentlemen. I enjoyed my time in undergrad, and took quite the interest in humanitarian work. My mother had a heart for people in suffering – always wanting to help, and I, borrowing a leaf from that, wanted to do more. I learn about and joined the Lions Club International as a Leo, and I was Vice Chairperson for the campus Leo Club. After I graduated, having pursued a double-major in Economics and Demography, specialising in the Socio-Economic Impacts of Women’s Empowerment, I joined the Lions Club. We did some beautiful charity work, but one thing stuck out to me: I did not feel that our humanitarian efforts to ‘help’ were sustainable. Every time we stepped out to “donate” goods, I found myself asking, “what next? What happens to these people when our donations run out?”

I made the rather (then) difficult decision to leave the Lions Club to set up my own organisation – the Ntha Foundation in 2018. In-between, I had gotten the privilege to intern with the UN Women office in Malawi, and still, I felt that we were not doing enough. 

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I have been privileged to have had quite the lovely career as a young professional: starting with an internship at UN Women in 2017, followed by an internship with the Malawi Government under the Ministry of Gender, and eventually a role as a Revenue Officer for the Malawi Revenue Authority. I resigned from that role, to focus on the Ntha Foundation, leading my team in the World Bank Digital Malawi Project, as we set up our first two innovation hubs in the country.

1 year and 2 months into running my foundation full-time, I was selected as one of 20 out of 38,709 applicants to be a part of the first cohort of the UNDP Graduate Programme, and I was matched to the UNDP Independent Evaluation Office in New York, where I have been for the past two years – supporting the National Evaluation Capacities Conference, and leading knowledge coordination for the Global SDG Synthesis Coalition. I recently incorporated my non-profit in the US, and I am presently leading the globalisation of our work and efforts digitising Africa. 

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People join the diplomatic / international relations community for many reasons, but those who join for the right reasons, join with a hope to change the world. At least that is what I and one of my former supervisors’ discussed. We spoke about how we both joined the UN with a hope to change the world, but we were humbled by the bureaucracy, and realised we could, and I quote, “only change the areas around our desks.

Sustainable development is one of the most noble causes, but when you take it global, international relations (for good reason) makes the progress slower. Picture how difficult it may have been to navigate life with your various classmates from varying backgrounds. Now put together a mix of humans from many different countries and backgrounds, with varying languages, working together towards one goal – sustainable development. We could do more. We could change a world.

Sustainable development, by definition, is an approach to growth and human development that aims to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The aim is to have a society where living conditions and resources meet human needs without undermining planetary integrity.

On the 25th of September 2015, during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, the member states adopted the SDGs, effective from the beginning of 2016 until 2030 – paving the path to solving poverty, food security, gender equality and climate change. I am certain we all know the 17 SDGs, and at risk of stating the very obvious – goal #1 is No Poverty, #2 is Zero Hunger, #3 is Good Health and Well-Being, #4 is Quality Education, #5 – Gender Equality, 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation, 7 – Affordable and Clean Energy, #8 Decent Work and Economic Growth, 9 – Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, 10 – Reduced Inequalities, 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities, 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production, 13 – Climate Action, 14 – Life Below Water, 15 – Life on Land, 16 – Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions, and the most important of all: 17: Partnerships for the Goals.

When you hear them for the first time, they sound like a lot: but you at the core of it understand that they all speak to one thing: a Sustainable Future for our World.

Previously referred to as the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF), the United Nations Sustainable Development Cooperation Framework reflects the contemporary relationship between Governments and the UN development system in collaborating to achieve the SDGs.

The Cooperation Framework represents the UN development system’s collective offer to support countries in addressing key Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) priorities and gaps. It begins and ends with an analysis of the national development landscape and SDG priorities, including through the lens of the imperative to leave no one behind.

The Cooperation Framework serves as a core accountability tool between the UN Country Team (UNCT) and the host Government, as well as between and among UNCT members for collectively-owned development results. It is supported by mandatory independent, high-quality evaluation and management responses.

As part of my work at UNDP, I started producing what is now my show, the Lessons Conversation – and our pilot episode was on the principle of “Leaving No-one Behind”. Leaving No-one Behind, and by extension “Reaching the Furthest Behind First”, is one of the 6 Guiding Principles of the UNSD Cooperation Framework: 1: Leaving Noone Behind, 2: The Human Rights Based Approach to Development, 3: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, and 4: Resilience, 5: Sustainability, and lastly 6: Accountability.

I want to focus on principle number 1: Leaving no one behind. LNOB is the central transformative promise of the 2030 Agenda, a rights-based framework that represents the unequivocal commitment of all United Nations Member States to eradicate poverty in all its forms, end discrimination and exclusion, and reduce inequalities and vulnerabilities including the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. 

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I want you to look around you – every single person that you see in this room has access to some shape or form of privilege. Most of us in this room have never spent a night without access to food, health resources, and care. These are basic human rights. When we speak about a sustainable future for all, it is that all human beings MUST have access to these basic human rights. This is the work of sustainable development.

If you are counting, it has been 9 years since the SDGs were adopted, and we are 6 years away from the 2030 mark. I quote the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, speaking in 2021:

“Regrettably, the SDGs were already off track even before COVID-19 emerged. Progress had been made in poverty reduction, maternal and child health, access to electricity, and gender equality, but not enough to achieve the Goals by 2030. In other vital areas, including reducing inequality, lowering carbon emissions and tackling hunger, progress had either stalled or reversed.” 

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The work of sustainable development continues to stall. The MDGs failed to meet all of their targets. The SDGs will also likely fail to meet all the targets. This is not just a failure of the United Nations, but the failure of us all – Governments, CSOs, NGOs, perhaps even the private sector. We all need to recourse – synthesise and learn from what works, in what context, under what circumstances, and why, to ensure our development initiatives are not failures, and that we do not fail humanity.

When I left New York in April, I sat with one of my seniors, and she spoke to me about my career. She specifically said to me: “you do not belong here, designing and coordinating reports. You are meant for bigger things. You should be over there (as she pointed at the UN Secretariat) advocating for real change on the ground.

She was right. I chose to step away for a while, to recourse the work I started in Malawi – the work of my foundation, because I am aware that here, I change more than just the area around my desk. Here, we change lives that we are able to see and measure. I believe in the work that we do, and there is no price tag that I have yet placed on my work.

Here is Africa’s most valuable resource: You. Africa is endowed with a Youth Dividend –  an estimated 500 Million young people aged between 15 – 35 years, and a median age of 19. Only one in ten youth in Africa today access Tertiary and Technical Vocational Education, whilst one in four youth are currently neither in Employment, Education or Training. Skilling Africa’s Youth is an economic imperative to unlock the immense potential the continent holds in its Youth.

Digitisation for sustainable development is a crucial element of our mission as Ntha Foundation. By leveraging digital technologies, we can create more efficient and scalable solutions to address the challenges faced by our communities. Digital tools enable better data collection, improve access to education and healthcare, and support the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises. These advancements are essential for achieving sustainable development goals and ensuring that we leave no one behind. As we continue to expand our efforts, we are committed to fostering digital literacy and innovation across Africa, empowering individuals and communities to build a more sustainable and inclusive future.

Through our Digital Skills for Africa (DSA) programme, we have built a network of over 200 ICT experts dedicated to preparing Africa’s next workforce for the 4th Industrial Revolution. In a world increasingly shaped by AI and digital advancements, it is crucial that our youth are equipped with the necessary skills to thrive. Our efforts in digitisation are about more than just technology; they are about creating opportunities for sustainable development and economic growth across the continent.

To the graduating class, I will invite you to check out the DSA platform, and see if there are any ways you can benefit. For those based in Lilongwe, please find us at the Kwathu Kowork Spaces, where we offer personal mentoring and coaching, beyond just digital skills.

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Allow me to conclude in this way: I consider myself to be one of the most fulfilled individuals on the planet – I live a life guided by and filled with love. 

As we were watching the press release on Monday, when the president, H.E. Dr. Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera addressed the nation to announce the very tragic passing of H.E. Right Honourable Dr. Saulos Klaus Chilima alongside others, my Chief Operations Officer, Victor Gondwe, asked me what I consider the purpose of my life to be. I responded: “I aim to give all my love at every turn, and the Universe continues to fill me up with more love to give.”

In my experience, it has not been working on the 20th floor in Manhattan, or receiving multiple awards as an inspiring young person. It has been giving my love to people through my work, and receiving their love in bouts of gratitude on my path.

As you graduate today and step out into the world, I urge you to become advocates for Leaving No one Behind. I want you to remember the furthest behind – those not as privileged as we are.

Stand in the gaps. Be diligent. Stand up for what is right. Be good. Be honest.

The Universe rewards goodness, and as you step into the world as the leaders of today, I wish you every kind of goodness on your path. 

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CONGRATULATIONS CLASS OF 2024, AND THANK YOU FOR LISTENING.

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