Inspiring climate change action through education in Africa

By Tierney Smith

Education will be a key tool to addressing climate change.

It helps young people to understand and address the impacts of global warming and can also be vital in helping them to adapt to climate change.

The role of education is widely accepted in the global frameworks to tackle climate change and sustainable development.

Article six of the UN convention on climate change specifically focuses on the challenges of communicating, teaching and learning about climate change.

Chapter 36 of the Agenda 21, set up at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, also highlights the importance of education, public awareness and training.

Across Europe and Africa, young people from United for Education and Sustainable Futures (UESF) are coming together to promote education as the central issue for driving a sustainable future and tackling climate change.

Billy Batware, from UESF talks to me about his personal experience fleeing the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the struggle he faced with his education.

As part of RTCC’s youth series, he explains why this is a topic so important to him.

What is your group doing and what areas of work do you focus on?

Our idea is based on the belief that education is a human right that should be granted for everyone. What we do is try and provide education for all. We advocate, promote and support adequate education for everyone. In our case we only focus on children and youth in developing countries.

We are motivated very much by the ideas of former US President Roosevelt, who said that democracy cannot succeed unless we express our choices and choose wisely. In other words the backbone of democracy is education. This is very much what we believe.

We think that for every developing society education is probably the number one basic element that is needed to drive them to make more sustainable choices.

We started in 2009 and are based in Vienna but have representatives around the world.

This year we focused more on developing our international network and decided to set up international representatives of our organisation, which is really a team that is made up by local people. For instance, when we look to start a project in a country, our representatives who are on the ground act as our eyes to select the right projects.

Through our representatives we make sure that our projects are really evidence based and are based on the needs of the people on the ground. We want to give them ownership of the projects.

If you look at any other initiative being run, this is one thing that I think is really missing. How sustainable are they? Both educational projects and others.

Our efforts are really based on one project at a time. We do not move from one scheme to the other without ensuring its success first. So far we have been working in Kenya – outside Nairobi – in a primary school.

It is in a very rural area and when we got there the school had no roof; children had no uniforms or books. We started out with a very small project to provide the children with some form of uniform or books.

The problem we then found was that they were going to school and then they would go home hungry and then would not come back the next day. What we did was to expand the project to also provide meals for the children when they are at school.

Then when that was sorted we started with the work of repairing the school and in doing so we realised there was an even bigger problem; the lack of access to water.

The lack of water – and water that is not clean – was leading to diseases that were keeping the children from school. We expanded the project even further to build a water well that was a very big project – the logistics of doing it in that area were quite complicated.

So we are now at the point where we have decided to provide the school with all of the necessities to make it a success story in the region before we then move forward. We do not believe it makes sense to give a small amount of money to several schools and in the end, make very little difference.

What we also do is support and advocate for education and organise and participate in different events. We were represented at the Rio+20 summit as part of a project with other organisations. We do a lot of awareness of education and its importance.

UESF believe that education is key to tackling climate change and promoting sustainable development (Source: UESF)

What results have you seen from your work so far?

I think, in my view, the main results we have seen so far are the awareness of people themselves in regards to education and the importance of that. We have seen that through the engagement from young people, not only our representatives around the world, but also the volunteers who have helped – either organising fund raising events, writing articles for us, maintaining our website. We depend very much on volunteers.

We have seen a huge increase in the number of young people who want to get involved with us. The creation of our international representatives has also at least shown us that people are interested in what we do and that is very important to us.

Although we believe that finance is a problem for many NGOs we really think that once we have a strong team, an international team who are really committed, then we will achieve our objectives.

What are the challenges you have faced in your work?

The setting up of our team of international representatives was a very difficult thing to do.

It is not easy when you are starting out as an NGO. It is not easy to get people involved in it as you have to convince people that what you are doing is different from what is already out there.

It is difficult to really get people into it; so setting up the team was very difficult. There are all sorts of legal systems that you have to go through, especially when you are young people who are still studying and do not have money; it is difficult.

In the end we managed and are now at the level where we are receiving applications from different parts of the world that want to get involved with us.

I think we are happy where we are today. It could always be better but we are satisfied and are encouraged by how the work is going so far.

What support have you seen for your activities?

We are very happy with the support that we have seen from young people because that is our demographic and it is crucial.

I like to think that our organisation is youth led, but is guided by wise (not old) people who have been there and done things and who can guide us through the technicalities of working in an organisation.

We have support from local NGOs. For instance we have very strong support from an NGO called ACUNS, Academic Council on United Nations System that is based in Canada but has an office in Austria. They have been behind us, especially in regards to giving us space to be part of the events in the United Nations, which gives us publicity. That has been very helpful.

We also have very strong support at the United States Institute for Peace. One of the directors is a very close friend of our organisation. This is really needed and is very crucial for our own credibility too. As a young organisation, led by young people we face challenges of trying to prove we are really credible.

In addition to that we also have support from different educators – especially what I call peace educators. People who are advocating for education and peace. In the end what we are trying to achieve is that once we have attained sustainable development, we will create a peaceful world.

What are the impacts you are seeing in your country and local area from climate change?

If I look back over the last two or three years in Austria I find a lot of changes. The climate has changed here; there is less snow in the winter and summer is too hot. This June they recorded the highest temperature for that month ever.

There are signs of the effects of climate change. If you look at the fact that there is less snow and more heat, it means there is less water, that could lead at some point to impact on water costs or irrigation systems for instance. In the end, if the trend continues it might lead to a change in food prices.

I am happy that the government of Austria is actually doing things in these regards. They are trying to promote more use of public transport, so for instance we have a reduced prices for long-term tickets on public transportation.

They have also increased the price of parking cars in the cites, which means you more or less have to make the choice between paying a lot to park your car or taking public transportation, which is very reliable in Austria.

I can really see actions being taken on the part of the government. I have to say I am happy about it.

Of course the government can’t do anything about less snow or more heat. The fact they are at least trying to push people to use more public transportation is a step towards tackling climate change.

What would be your vision for 2050? What do we need to see this year at COP18 in Doha to achieve this?

I am very much an advocate for education and my vision would be to reduce the level of illiteracy in developing countries by 50%. If I am realistic and we could do that, it would be a step forward. Of course I would want education for everyone but realistically that is not going to happen.

What we are fighting for is to make sure that happens. It depends on how many challenges we face before then. But we are ready to face the challenges.

It will in my view require more commitments from governments. We face a lot of difficulty in that regard and it is very difficult as individuals or civil society without the commitment from policy makers.

Certainly this is something I would want to see at COP18 in Doha. It was something that was lacking in Rio and I would like to continue to see more civil society participation in these dialogues. If you look at how civil society has emerged as a major player with regards to global challenges it is really incredible. There is almost no part of the UN system where civil society is at least not present.

Sometimes they are not making any statement or recommendations but they are there and they are listening and they are making reports and talking about it in their own meetings and in their own ways.

What would help your group to move forward in its work?

Batware says young people have to fight for their own future (Source: UESF)

My group has energy; we are committed. I think all we need are the tools really. Financially we could do with more help. A financial system is crucial to keep us motivated and keep us going but I think that we need publicity, more commitment from the people we are trying to get involved in the process.

It would help to be at the main places where we can meet other NGOs, other civil society participants and to share our ideas and experiences. Financial support is very crucial – although it is not the only thing that we need.

Why did you get involved in the group? What is the role of youth groups in the climate/environmental agenda?

For me starting the group was very personal. I come from Rwanda. Rwanda is one of those countries that experienced tragedies in 1994 from genocide. I left in 1994 and I personally struggled with my education and I know from experience how important education is. It is not just a belief that if education is universal and education is important for societal development, it is also personal for me.

I was privileged to get education and benefited from that and I wanted to give back to the next generation. For them to get the opportunity, not from going through what I went through but to avoid what I have been through.

I think that the conflicts that are happening around the world, especially in developing countries and in Africa specifically can be tackled through education. If people are educated now they will understand the need for human rights, the need for respect of other people’s lives and to find other ways of solving their problems and getting answers to the conflict that they have.

There are ways of changing situations and finding solutions and one of those is via non-violent means and I think education can bring that.

If I can contribute in any way to the lessening of violence, of poverty, of diseases, through education then I will be happy.

For youth like myself, and even those younger than me, I think the world is clear. What is happening around the world effects them most, they will have to go through the effects for longer.

Not that we are saying the older people don’t care, but I believe younger people have higher stakes in this. It is their time. The future belongs to them. I am sure they do not want to inherit a world of conflict and poverty and climate change. They want to live in a world where they can feel safe and in a world where they can make history together.

I certainly believe young people have a role in this and a responsibility as in the end they cannot expect anyone to prepare a future for them, they have to play a role in this in order to achieve that.

More RTCC Youth Profiles:

Youth Profile #15: Canadian youth rise above dirty domestic policies and push for climate action

Youth Profile #14: Costa Rica’s youth eye a carbon neutral future

Youth Profile #13: Giving youth a platform at the European Parliament

Youth Profile #12: European activists demand governments put their futures ahead of ‘dirty industry’

Youth Profile #11: China’s young activists out to prove they do care about climate change

Youth Profile #10: Life on climate change’s frontline with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition

Youth Profile #9: Young entrepreneurs driving sustainability at US campuses

Youth Profile #8: Why education is key to developing climate awareness in Ghana

Youth Profile #7: Why Indonesia’s biodiversity is at the front line of the fight against climate change

Youth profile #6: Meet the African coalition that brings together 54 countries to tackle climate change

Profile #5: Bangladeshi youth fight to give world’s second most climate vulnerable country a voice

Youth Profile #4: Nepal’s youth fight to save Himalayan paradise from effects of pollution and climate change

Youth Profile #3: Canada’s climate coalition on taking on the Tar Sands lobby and fighting for Kyoto

Youth Profile #2: How PIDES are working on practical solutions to climate change in Mexico

Youth Profile #1: How Nigerian Climate Coalition are building green bridges ahead of COP18

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