This was the case with the violence in Sudan’s western Darfur region. When I was only one year old, my family was forced to flee, finding refuge first in Yemen, and then in the United States via the visa lottery. Within a decade, the conflict had turned into genocide. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, millions were displaced, and millions more were affected in myriad other ways.
Government forces and their militia allies, known as the Janjaweed, were able to carry out these atrocities with impunity, thanks largely to a tactic that sounds all too familiar today: Calling stories of the atrocities “fake news”. And well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning individuals alike constantly talked about the people most affected, while those most affected were nowhere to be found.
When the most vulnerable people are constantly relegated to the periphery of the discussion, it becomes far easier to downplay the urgency of the problem.
A similar mistake was made in Sudan last year, when courageous young people led large-scale protests against Omar Al Bashir’s regime. Their efforts were successful: Bashir, who had ruled Sudan for 30 years, was toppled, and may yet be handed over to the International Criminal Court to face charges of war crimes and genocide in Darfur. But, with the most vulnerable left to fend for themselves against the most powerful in the protests, many lives, including that of my 15-year-old cousin Mohamed, were needlessly lost.
His death, like the deaths that followed, was completely preventable. It broke me and our entire family to know that after decades of fighting for our lives, the youngest among us were still dying.
The same dynamic is apparent in the global fight against forces like poverty, gender inequality and climate change. Consider the refugee crisis: There are currently 70.8 million displaced people worldwide, the highest number in recorded history, and far too little is being done to protect them.
These are not short-term disruptions. On the contrary, 78 per cent of refugees remain refugees for upwards of five years, and some as long as 20 years. Entire generations are being born into conflict and instability forced to make homes in new countries if they’re lucky, or languishing in overcrowded refugee camps if they are not. Under such conditions, the quality education, economic opportunity and healthy living conditions promised by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have become virtually impossible to deliver.
The SDGs, agreed by 193 countries in 2015, could be a game-changer, dramatically reducing global inequality and improving standards of living by 2030. But efforts to implement the SDG agenda are largely failing to engage those who are suffering the most. With those who are supposedly leading the charge often isolated from the real-world experiences of the most vulnerable, it should be no surprise that they are doing far too little, and avoiding accountability for their failures.
This is where activists come in. Supporting the implementation of the SDGs requires not only drawing attention to the plight of those who are at the greatest risk, but also highlighting the voices of the world’s most vulnerable people. If we are to achieve the SDGs, we must focus on the people who are most directly and immediately affected by the world’s greatest challenges, and we must hold accountable those who are most capable of and responsible for solving said challenges: Our leaders.
With a decade left to achieve the SDGs, this must be the year when world leaders finally take decisive action. This means fulfilling the objective, championed by Goodall, of planting a trillion trees by 2030 and heeding the calls of Alaa Murabit, a medical doctor and SDG advocate, for an inclusive approach to security. It means supporting Jaha Dukureh, an advocate fighting female genital mutilation who works tirelessly to protect girls and women from that and other acts of violence. And it means ensuring that those who are most vulnerable are at the forefront of the process, every step of the way.
If there is anything I have learned in the years I have spent fighting for justice, whether for the people of Darfur or the world’s refugees, it is that the most vulnerable people cannot afford to wait for change. The world must be made aware of the stakes: Every delay, every concession and every failure costs lives.
Emtithal Mahmoud, named one of BBC’s 100 Most Inspirational Women, is a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and the author of Sisters’ Entrance. ©Project Syndicate, 2020. http://www.project-syndicate.org