We need action, not words

UNICEF Youth Advocate Farzana Faruk Jhumu is on a mission to amplify voices and climate solutions from the Global South

Bangladesh is one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries despite contributing less than one percent of global emissions. Rising sea levels are causing widespread floods, affecting freshwater supplies, and destroying crops and grazing land. In 2022 alone, extreme weather events displaced more than seven million Bangladeshis and by 2050, one in seven people there are expected to be on the move.

Migration is a way of life in Bangladesh. For decades, families from around the country have been piling into the capital Dhaka in search of work and education opportunities not available in the rural areas. But in recent years, it is not just poverty and a lack of development pushing people into the Dhaka’s slums, it is also climate change.

Women and children are the hardest hit by this migration, with girls being taken out of school, and in extreme cases being forced into sex work and other exploitative practices.

Farzana Faruk Jhumu is determined to rewrite this script. The 25-year-old is a UNICEF Youth Advocate, one of more than 80 young activists, ranging from 11 to 26 years old, chosen by the UN agency to champion young people’s rights on the global stage, and Farzana has chosen to use the platform to fight for climate justice.

“Every child in Bangladesh has been exposed to some sort of natural calamity and we are all seeing the effects of pollution,” she tells Philanthropy Age. “1.5 degrees is already a death sentence for some of us,” she adds, referring to the temperature increase threshold target set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“Every child in Bangladesh has been exposed to some sort of natural calamity and we are all seeing the effects of pollution.”

Farzana, who speaks with a quiet authority beyond her years, not only wants to educate her fellow Bangladeshis on the climate crisis, but also influence policymakers, and to pave the way for future advocates, to amplify their voices in shaping the future and ensure aid money is well spent.

Climate change requires a holistic approach, she explains. “It isn’t about planting a tree or switching off your lights. Climate action is about learning how climate is related to a country's economy, to things like geopolitics, and everything else in between,” she says, in an interview on the side-lines of COP28, which took place in Dubai.

Farzana was one of more than 100 youth activists attending the 2023 UN climate change conference, taking part in panels, protests, negotiation sessions, and meetings with policymakers.

She came with clear objectives: to ensure the perspectives of young people from the Global South were taken on board, to advocate for more equitable funding for loss and damage, and to push for concrete climate action such as phasing out fossil fuels.

Dubai’s futuristic Expo City, built to host Expo 2020 and then repurposed for COP28, with its sustainable concrete, biodegradable coffee cups, and e-vehicles, feels a world away from Farzana's homeland and the slums in which she often works – where the real-time consequences of climate change and global inaction are playing out creating misery for millions.

“All climate conferences are in general detached from the reality,” she says. “When they're talking about all that fancy stuff, and using their buzzwords, they also need to understand this is all about human lives, this is all about people who are not causing this.”

But despite this - and the controversy around COP28 taking place in the fossil-fuel producing UAE and the negotiations being led by Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of ADNOC, the country’s state-owned oil company - Farzana feels partially encouraged by the event’s outcomes.

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A mother and her children sit in a flood shelter after heavy storms the Sylhet region in north-estern Bangladesh in 2022. Photo: Sultan Mahmud Mukut/UNICEF

In a surprise on the first day of the conference, the UAE official announced the operationalisation of the long-talked about Loss and Damage Fund with commitments exceeding US$700m. Managed by the World Bank, this will provide technical and financial assistance to developing countries vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.

Although happy about the fund’s launch, Farzana, says she was disappointed by the value of pledges. “I was shocked that they are talking about it being in the millions when people need billions,” she says.

The needs are indeed great. A 2022 report by V20, a group of the 20 most climate-vulnerable countries, calculated that they would have been 20 percent wealthier today if it weren’t for climate change, which has cost their economies some $525bn over the last 20 years.

In these countries, more than one billion children are at extremely high risk of the consequences of climate change. This point was made loud and clear at COP28 and governments and private donors made sizeable financial commitments towards mitigating the effects of climate change and helping communities adapt.

One such donation came from Emirati philanthropist, Abdulla Al Abdulla, the CEO of Central Hotels and Resorts, who gave US$2m to UNICEF to support climate crisis response in vulnerable communities.

The Green Climate Fund, meanwhile, in partnership with the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), and Save the Children announced the launch of the world’s largest investment fund dedicated to building climate-resilient schools in vulnerable countries with an initial capital of US$70m.

“We are the innovators of locally-led adaptation because this is our only way of survival. In Bangladesh, this is in our culture; it isn't something we learned from books.”

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Farzana participating in a climate justice protest alongside other youth activist and members of Fridays for Future. Photo: UNICEF

Farzana’s interest in climate action was piqued as a child as she witnessed the influx of people moving into the city, bearing harrowing accounts of losing everything in Bangladesh’s floods and cyclones.

Herself an incomer to Dhaka, Farzana arrived in the capital when she was nine, moving from a farming village in Lakshmipur, in south-eastern Bangladesh, with her parents and younger siblings, in search of better educational opportunities. Thanks to her father’s job in the military, Farzana had a comfortable childhood, living in gated compounds and attending good schools.

Motivated by her privileged upbringing, Farzana began volunteering during her university years, teaching children in slums where formal education was lacking. Alongside basic literacy, she also gave lessons on other topics such as child rights and the effects of climate change.

It was at this time that Farzana heard about Fridays for Future, a youth-led climate movement initiated in 2018 after a then-15-year-old Greta Thunberg led a series of sit-ins in front of the Swedish parliament to shame politicians for their lack of action on climate change.

“It was very new, very surprising for me to know that, yes, we as young people can also talk to our government and we can let them know what we want,” she recalls.

Through Fridays for Future, Farzana had the opportunity to interact with climate youth movement leaders like Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate from Uganda, Luisa Neubauer from Germany, and Mitzi Jonelle Tan from the Philippines.

Together, they organised online campaigns through social media, wrote open letters to governments and international bodies, and launched Fridays for Future MAPA (most affected people and areas) in 2019.

“[Fridays for Future MAPA is] a group that gives us ‘a safe space’ as activists both in the Global South, as well as those who live in the Global North who may be from the Global South or who are BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of colour) and may feel disconnected from mainstream campaigns,” she explains.

“There is no other way, but for us to work forward or to think that we can move forward.”

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UNICEF Youth Advocate and climate justice activist Farzana at COP28 in Dubai, UAE. Photo: Dalal Alsharhan

In 2021, Farzana was invited to co-write the foreword for UNICEF's Children's Climate Risk Index report, and the following year, was named a UNICEF Youth Advocate. Since then, she has spoken at numerous high-level climate conferences worldwide, including COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh and COP26 in Glasgow, to which she sailed onboard Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior from Liverpool, and most recently COP28 in Dubai.

Initially, Farzana says her parents were worried she was wasting her time and stretching herself too thin while balancing her studies, but she eventually won them round and says they are very proud of what she does. And despite coming from a conservative Muslim background, Farzana says, “Now, not only am I travelling to different countries, but I am also working within Bangladesh, where I'm trying to engage with the government through UNICEF”.

A sizeable part of being a UNICEF youth advocate is to connect the dots between climate change and climate solutions and help create pathways for action.

For all Bangladesh’s challenges – analysts say the country need to spend at least $12.5bn by 2025 on climate adaptation measures - Farzana is at pains to point out that the country is highly resilient.

“We adapted before anyone else because we have been doing it for decades or more,” she says. “We are the innovators of locally-led adaptation because this is our only way of survival. In Bangladesh, this is in our culture; it isn't something we learned from books.”

Among these initiatives are coastal afforestation projects, climate-resilient crop cultivation, and community-led flood management and early warning systems.

At COP28, Bangladesh was recognised for its leadership in climate action, as it won the “Local Adaptation Champions Award” for promoting innovation and resilience through locally-led initiatives. Bangladesh is also home to BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, which was been working to scale and support locally led solutions and provide people with access to tools and know-how to adapt and respond to the impacts of climate change in their communities.

Sitting in the busy COP28 UNICEF Youth Hub, a small two-story building dedicated for young activists brought to life soundtrack of singing and chanting, Farzana delivers a clear message for fellow climate activists.

“Don’t lose hope,” she says. “It can be very energy-draining and sometimes it can feel very hopeless… but this is the way. There is no other way, but for us to work forward or to think that we can move forward.” - PA