UN Deputy Secretary-General: 'determination and perseverance' will help graduates reach their goals

Amina J. Mohammed

United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed is the featured speaker at George Mason University’s 52nd Annual Spring Commencement Ceremony on May 17, 2019.

Q: Before entering public service, you worked for many years in an architecture design office. That seems far removed from being second in command at the UN. What lessons can our graduates draw from your personal journey?

A: Caring was always at the core of my family—my mother was a nurse, my father was a vet, so we were always aware of the needs of those around us, both people and animals. To those graduating from George Mason this year, I say: Find something you care about, take action and, most importantly, be brave and persist in the face of adversity!

When I wanted to study abroad in Europe, my father said there was no money—so I set my mind to walking from Kaduna to Zaria—which is 76 kilometers [about 47 miles]—to raise the cash. No one believed I would actually do it, but I raised £4,000, and that was it. When I then came back to Nigeria and the job I had been promised turned out not to exist, I eventually found a job with architects and engineers and ended up building some of the hospitals and health infrastructure my home state so urgently needed.

I believe my personal journey shows that while there may not be one single, clear-cut path to achieve your objectives, determination and perseverance will get you there.

Q: You’ve said the current generation is the first to experience the impacts of climate change and the last that can prevent a catastrophe for the planet. What indications do you see that this generation will meet that challenge?

A: I am extremely heartened by the energy and dynamism we are seeing from young people today. They are torchbearers for sustainable development.

Let’s take the #FridaysForFuture protests, for instance. They are a great example of this generation stepping up and demanding action from our leaders—not tomorrow, but today. And they prove that it takes just one person to make a change. Greta Thunberg was “only” 15 years old when she started her lone strike to protest climate change, and today, thousands of young people around the world are regularly taking to the streets because of her actions.

Young people are also coming up with ideas to solve some of the greatest challenges we face. The Ocean Cleanup Project, with its goal of cleaning up the largest island of accumulated plastic trash in the world’s oceans today—the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”—was initiated by Boyan Slat, who was only a teenager when he conceived of the idea.

We need to empower our youth and give them the tools they need to succeed, not limit them with preconceived ideas of what they can or cannot achieve due to their age.

Q: The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address interconnected challenges that require global cooperation. With isolationism growing in some parts of the world, and with each country having its own priorities, how do you get elected officials to work together across cultures?

A: The negotiation of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 really is the perfect example for this. We brought together 193 different member states to agree on an overarching framework to guide us in changing our world for the better in the 15 years to come, up to 2030. We did this through an inclusive, open and transparent process, involving citizens [from] the world over and spending time on ensuring all voices were heard. This, of course, too, meant that everyone had to compromise to a certain extent. 

I believe this is key to effective cooperation in today’s climate, too. We need to think less about what divides us and more about what we do have in common, the aspirations that unite us.

 Q: George Mason University recently launched an Institute for a Sustainable Earth that will draw on the expertise of hundreds of faculty members across the university. What role does—and should—higher education play in addressing the Sustainable Development Goals?

A: Higher education is absolutely integral to achieving the SDGs. I see higher education institutions being increasingly called upon to address pressing global challenges—they lead in developing critical thinking in young minds, and support researchers to help find solutions to meet the SDGs.

And just as importantly, places like the Institute for a Sustainable Earth play a crucial role in driving our success. The combination of substantive focus backed by the support and resources of as academically distinguished an institution as [Mason] is extremely valuable. Academic institutes such as this one are able to work with policymakers, the private sector and civil society to generate innovative solutions; define how we measure and monitor our progress on the SDGs and provide the data we so urgently need to be held accountable.

Q: What is the best piece of advice you ever received, personally or professionally, and how has that advice helped shape your life and career?

A: I have had the privilege to call some of the greatest leaders of our time my colleagues, friends and mentors. When I was appointed Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on Post-2015 Development Planning, for instance, I was able to rely on the advice of Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General. His main message to me was to stay focused, no matter what. The UN is a highly political place, and Kofi kept reminding me that my main mission was to go beyond the political considerations of the day and keep my eyes fixed on the greater good: To unite all 193 member states around one common goal—a better future for all.

The final piece of advice I’d like to share is one the current Secretary-General, António Guterres, gave me: “Have nerves of steel.” Life will present you with obstacles and hardships you will not feel prepared for; it does so for all of us. In those situations, you need to believe in your own strength to move forward—which also means having the courage to ask for help and rely on those around you when you need it.