Vanessa Nakate's remarks at her appointment as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador

As delivered

15 September 2022

NEW YORK, 15 September 2022 – "Thank you, Executive Director Russell.

"It is a huge honour for me to be appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

"For a long time, I have known about the good work UNICEF does for children around the world, including in my home country of Uganda. Work on education, child protection, gender equality – all things I too am passionate about and have worked hard to champion in my own activism.

"But this appointment also feels significant to me in another important way.

"For so long, youth climate activists have been striking outside the halls of power. I started my activism in my hometown of Kampala, and have marched through countless streets, in many other countries since.

"As a student in Kampala, I was moved by the determination a fellow student was demonstrating a continent away in Sweden. And as awareness of Greta’s weekly protests grew, and as her platform grew, she did everything in her power to extend that platform to others, including myself.

"This is now my job as well. I take this appointment not as a testament to something I have done, but as something we have done, as a movement of young people.

"Yes, this appointment opens doors to halls of power. But, more importantly, it expands the opportunities I have to travel to meet children and families most affected by the climate crisis and amplify their stories on stages like this one.

"I have a story to share with you today.

"Last week, I went to northern Kenya with UNICEF to see and meet people suffering from the historic drought in the region, wreaking havoc on communities there.

"Much has been said about the impact the war in Ukraine has had on food security in this region. But far less has been said about another important factor in the Horn of Africa: and that is the impact of climate change, which has undoubtedly played a massive role.

"Four consecutive rainy seasons have failed in the last two years – killing crops and livestock and drying up water sources. Forecasts suggest the next rains are likely to fail too.

"This is the face of the climate crisis. This is what we have been warning about.

"The ongoing emergency in the Horn of Africa is depriving children of a meal, of safe water, of access to life-saving health services. It is keeping them from the classroom, and forcing their families to move.

"In June, UNICEF warned that, without immediate action, there would be an ‘explosion of child deaths’ in the region. And this is what is happening.

"On Friday morning, I met a child in a hospital in Lodwar, the capital of Turkana county. This is where the very worst cases of severe acute malnutrition are referred and treated. It was devastating for me to see, when there are available solutions that can be put in place to stop children from suffering like this. Unfortunately, this child’s family was not able to access the proper services in time for him to receive the treatment that he needed.

"By the time the sun set that evening, sadly, he had passed away. Another preventable death. Another life lost because we acted too slowly. Our response to this humanitarian emergency is too slow. Our response to the climate emergency is also too slow.

"People are dying. Children are dying. It is difficult to talk about.

"No child in the world today should die of starvation. And yet, this problem is escalating and will likely continue to get worse at the hands of climate change as food sources perish from floods, droughts and fires, people lose their livelihoods and families are forced to migrate.

"I met an 18-year-old mother named Dorcas, whose 20-month-old baby Micah was malnourished. Dorcas told me that she had not had enough food to feed Micah since he was born, and tried to explain the pain and stress of not being able to provide your child with something to eat.

"The drought means Dorcas has to travel so far to collect water that she has to sleep on the way before resuming her journey the next day.

"Thankfully, with support from UNICEF and their partners, Dorcas is able to visit a nutrition clinic where Micah can be assessed for malnutrition and receive lifesaving ready to use therapeutic food. She told me that without this support, baby Micah would not still be with us today.

"Climate activists often read about the impacts of climate change, and the statistics that show the scale of the crisis. But my visit to Kenya allowed me to learn the stories of the people, and the children, behind the statistics. Stories like Dorcas’s and Micah’s.

"Across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, almost 2 million children like Micah are in urgent need of treatment for severe acute malnutrition. In contrast, UNICEF’s three-year appeal to help families and their communities in the region build resilience is currently just 3 per cent funded.

"I have seen the impact that this funding could make. I saw how UNICEF and their partners are providing supplies and facilities for mothers to bring their children for treatment in the hardest to reach areas. I saw how the babies are weighed and measured to assess the level of malnutrition; how community health volunteers are supporting households to use special bands at home so they spot malnutrition early and take their children for further treatment.

"And I learned how we cannot save these children with normal food; they need urgent therapeutic nutrition to survive and recover.

"My experience last week underscored the importance of ensuring every child has access to safe water and can access treatment for malnutrition. We also need long term funding to help families build resilience to the effects of climate change.

"I visited a community where UNICEF has supported the installation of a solar-powered borehole and water pump that supplies taps close to homes and a school. This community has had no rain in TWO YEARS, but with these taps they are able to give their children safe water to drink and for washing. There is even a garden at the school where they are growing watermelons! This project is keeping children in school.

"But some of the impacts of climate change are now irreversible. There is only so much a community can adapt to. This is deadly clear in the Horn of Africa. This is also deadly clear in Pakistan, where one-third of the country is submerged, impacting tens of millions of people. And it is deadly clear in my home country of Uganda, which right now is also suffering devastating floods.

"These countries did not create the problem, but they are paying the price for it.

"Governments that continue to invest in fossil fuels are doing this to the children of Pakistan. Businesses that continue to refuse to curb their emissions are doing this to the children of Somalia.

"Science has told us so. This is a self-inflicted disaster. We are doing this to ourselves, to our global brothers and sisters.

"The only silver-lining is that when something is self-inflicted, it means you are in control of it.

"Governments and industry must listen to the science and follow the data, which is getting harder to ignore every day. We must reduce emissions, redefine development, generate real solutions for survival, and think innovatively about how we finance them.

"We must do this at speed and scale for children everywhere. The Children’ Climate Risk Index, which UNICEF released last year, found 1 billion children live at “extremely high-risk” of the impacts of climate change. One billion children pushed to the most extreme environments through no fault of their own.

"The top ten countries in the risk index are all in Africa. We rarely hear about the daily struggles of the children in these places – in Chad, in Guinea, in Niger.

"The communities on the frontlines only end up on the front pages of the world’s newspapers when they are dying. And that is wrong.

"More children and young people from the most affected places need to be invited into the room. We need to be listened to when we are there. And what we say should be taken seriously, and acted upon. We are the ones with the lived experience, and the children and young people are the ones who will suffer the worst impacts of climate change in the future.

"My journey mirrors that of millions of young people all over the world demanding climate action.

"The world does not want to hear about the damage our inaction is doing to the most vulnerable.

"But in this new role, I commit to representing children everywhere – but especially those from the most affected areas.

"I will stand in for them where they don’t have a seat yet at the table, and tell their stories to those who have the power to bring real change."

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Media contacts

Tess Ingram
UNICEF New York
Tel: +1 934 867 7867

Additional resources

Vanessa Nakate stands with children on dry land in Turkana County, Kenya
Vanessa Nakate interacts with students from Sopel Primary School in Turkana County, Kenya.

About UNICEF

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