Delegates in Egypt conduct conference call with Russian President Vladimir Putin
CAIRO: For the first time in G8 history, children are being given an official voice at the international summit that begins this Saturday in St. Petersburg, Russia. On Friday morning, youths from Cairo had a chance to offer their views to the G8 countries’ respective youth delegates, called the Junior 8, as well as a quick chat with Russian President, Vladimir Putin, via a video conference call from the UNICEF offices in Maadi to UNICEF in St. Petersburg. Developed in partnership between the Russian government and UNICEF, the J8 consists of eight children from each G8 member country. They are expected to develop a communique on the issues they believe G8 leaders must focus on. To broaden the scope of J8 members, UNICEF and Russian officials organized conference calls with selected children from developing nations in four different locations and on four different topics: Cairo, Egypt for education, Bangkok, Thailand on HIV/AIDS, Johannesburg, South Africa, on energy and Mexico City, Mexico, on violence. Cairo’s select group of youths ranged from ages 10-18-years-old. Rania El Essawi, the UNICEF facilitator for the delegates in Cairo, said the Egyptian students were selected from among NGOs throughout the country. All have been working on service projects within their communities. “It’s a nice youth movement that’s started up here, says El Essawi.
Fifteen-year-old Mai Mohammed works with the Ministry of Youth at a youth center in Port Said. She said her biggest frustration with education in developing nations such as Egypt is unemployment that leaves students with no incentive to stay in school. Her colleague, Mohammed Essam, 15, added that quality of education was another concern. He said schools lack basic technology, often only giving students access to computers between once a week and once a month. Teacher training was also cited as a major concern, with some educators unwittingly stifling student expression and concerns.
“They think we’re just small children, explains Essam, “and that we don’t have any ideas. But we do, and we can express ourselves.
Essam enjoyed a different reception this Friday, though, as he and a handful of other students were encouraged to voice their concerns to an international forum.
The Cairo delegates outlined four basic problems of education in developing nations that they wished the J8 to consider. The first was the problem of raising and maintaining student enrollment numbers. They cited statistics that showed enrollment has declined by 80 percent, as well as pointing out a potential relationship between the numbers and destabilized conditions such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
Educational equality was also discussed, with specific mention of teacher training, and the importance of stressing girls’ and disabled students’ education in developing nations. Students warned of drop-out rates and their relationship to drug addictions. They also requested assistance in creating equality of access, and the need for exempting financially or physically disadvantaged students from school fees.
Most of the views of the Cairo delegates coincided with those formed by J8 members. In response, the J8 outlined suggestions for the G8 summit, such as funding to provide teachers from developed nations to work in developing countries, a system of vouchers for basic meals and doctors care as an incentive to keep students in school and a “Global Industry Olympics, a yearly competition for businesses to create charities while getting funding and publicity for their work.
The only sticking point amongst the students seemed to be the issue of school fees. J8 students strongly opposed any kind of fee for students and intended to make this a major proposal. But the Cairo delegates pointed out other concerns they felt created complications beyond fees.
Fifteen-year-old delegate Doaa Gamal explains, “it’s not only fees, there are other problems: children leave school to work. Students also related lack of enrollment to parents simply fearing for their children’s safety in dangerous regions, and the fact that many schools were literally destroyed in war torn areas.
Toward the end of the meeting, the Cairo delegates clamored around the microphone, eager to question President Putin, who had joined the conference call. They asked him what tangible steps would be taken toward addressing their concerns on education for developing countries.
Putin expressed an interest in making the issue a point of discussion at the summit, saying, “Education has become an important factor in the progress of the world. He also described a joint institute being developed between Egypt and Russia that he says, “will make it possible to have closer ties and provide assistance for education.
Though often expressing concern about how much the final J8 suggestions would be taken into consideration at the summit, the Cairo delegates gave off an air of excited anticipation. Mai Mohammed explains that there is a great need for hope. As of now, she says, “[Students] have no hope in the future, you know. We have to try to give them hope.