Folly Bah Thibault was appointed as Education Cannot Wait’s Global Champion on 25 April 2023. Through her work for Al Jazeera, France24, Radio France International and Voice of America, Thibault has become one of the most recognized and respected journalists in the world. Her coverage of some of the world’s most pressing events as a journalist for Al Jazeera is shedding light on forgotten crises across the globe.
Born in Conakry, Guinea, Thibault received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Howard University and American University in the United States. After graduating, Thibault hosted a show for Voice of America that sought to reunite families separated by conflict in Sierra Leone and Liberia. It wasn’t long before her passion for telling stories and reporting took her to Paris and Radio France Internationale, where she presented the morning show on the English Channel. She later joined France24 television as an Anchor, before joining Al Jazeera English as a Principal Presenter in 2010 and relocating to Qatar. When she’s not at Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Thibault is a sought-after moderator and public speaker. In 2019, she launched her foundation – Elle Ira à l’Ecole – which helps young girls in Guinea get an education.
ECW: Congratulations on your recent appointment as an ECW Global Champion! What do you hope to accomplish as we work together to push education in emergencies and protracted crises to the top of the international agenda?
Folly Bah Thibault: First, let me start by saying, I’m honoured to be joining Education Cannot Wait as a Global Champion. Through this role – and our collective efforts with ECW’s wide group of donors and strategic partners – I’m hoping to continue advocating for increased funding for education in emergencies and protracted crises, to leverage my networks to connect people, resources, know-how and talents, and to ensure our collective storytelling on education does not forget the 222 million crisis-impacted children and adolescents that so urgently need our support.
Education is a game changer. It lifts up lives, transforms economies and societies, and provides renewed hope for an entire generation of girls and boys whose futures have been disrupted by conflict, climate change, displacement and other crises. Taken together with other actions, education is our single best investment in building peace in our times.
I’m thrilled to be working with Education Cannot Wait. As I spoke with its donors and partners at February’s High-Level Financing Conference in Geneva, it became clear to me, ECW is a model for UN Reform and a New Way of Working.
As the UN’s global fund for education in emergencies, Education Cannot Wait is delivering across the globe with humanitarian speed and development depth. This means girls and boys in places like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Lebanon, South Sudan and beyond have a chance to go to school. And ensuring they can do it safely – to learn, to dream, to find new opportunities, and break cycles of poverty, displacement, hunger and conflict forever. ECW represents the UN at its best and I’m honoured and thrilled to be a part of this movement.
ECW: Following the example of ECW’s new donor, Qatar, which recently announced US$20 million in new funding to ECW, why should new government and private sector donors from around the world – including the Gulf States – invest in education for crisis-affected children living on the frontlines of armed conflict, forced displacement and climate-induced disasters?
Folly Bah Thibault: The new funding investment announced at ECW’s #HLFC2023 by the Qatar Development Fund in cooperation with the Education Above All Foundation provides a clear example of Qatar’s new leadership on the global stage. Qatar has stepped up, and we hope this will inspire others to do the same, as we work together to deliver on our promise of reaching 20 million children and adolescents in the next four years.
Investing in education for children affected by various crises is investing in a better future for the Middle East, the Sahel, and other regions. It’s about investing in the end to hunger and poverty worldwide, it’s investing in more resilient economies and, above all, it’s about investing in our most precious natural resource: our children.
The economic returns are impressive. For private sector donors, investing in education builds economic security, opens and expands markets, and future proofs investments to balance out risk and reward in our fast-changing global marketplace.
The social returns are equally impressive. When you teach girls to read, to write, to excel in science, technology, engineering and math, you are ensuring their equality, empowerment and hope.
For girls like Fatuma in Ethiopia, safe, holistic, quality learning environments mean access to school meals, mental health and psychosocial support, and safe and protective learning environments. For Syrian refugees like Jana and Yara, access to an education means access to new technologies, remote learning platforms and innovative learning methods that will transform the way we deliver education for the world’s crisis-impacted children and adolescents.
ECW: With COP28 on the horizon, the climate crisis is an education crisis for millions of children across the world. With climate change (drought, floods, etc.), increasingly impacting the education of children, notably in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, why is it crucial to address climate change now, including through education?
Folly Bah Thibault: Climate change has become one of the most pressing issues of our time. It affects every single person on our planet one way or another. At this year’s Climate Talks in Dubai, leaders will address how we can adapt our economy, our society and our people in the face of a changing climate. Given the power of education to transform lives and build a better world, we must connect the dots between climate action and our work to ensure education for all.
We must also consider the power of education in delivering on the targets outlined in the Paris Agreement. Not only will this activate an entire generation of responsible citizens for our troubled planet, but it will also support our efforts to deliver on our promises of a better world as outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals.
This year’s climate talks provide us with a unique opportunity to propel education – especially for the world’s most vulnerable: crisis-affected girls and boys – to the top of the climate agenda and investments across the world.
Imagine what will happen if even more people are impacted by horrific climate-driven disasters like the drought in the Horn of Africa, floods in Pakistan or recurrent desertification and climate displacement events across the Sahel? Nearly half of the world’s children – approximately 1 billion girls and boys – are living in countries that are designated at “extremely high-risk” from the effects of climate change, and some estimates indicate that as many as 140 million more people could be displaced by climate change by 2050 across South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
The world’s most marginalized and vulnerable children have the most to lose. Without the safety and protection of quality education environments, they are at a higher risk of sexual exploitation, child marriage, adolescent pregnancy, child labour, recruitment by armed groups and other human rights abuses.
So how can education for all help us to address the climate crisis? Education means a pathway to peace, a pathway to reduced risks from natural disasters, a pathway to greater incomes and greater resilience in the face of future emergencies. It is a pathway to a more sustainable future.
ECW: You’ve been named as ‘One of the Most Influential Africans Working Today’. As a journalist, thought-leader and agenda-setter, how do you think education can help transform Africa and how should ECW and humanitarian partners align investments across the humanitarian-development-peace nexus?
Folly Bah Thibault: This is a unique opportunity for us to reimagine education in Africa. The continent is young, vibrant and is on the rise. By 2050, there will be about 1 billion children under the age of 18 across Africa. A dynamic population with limitless potential – but despite progress, millions of African children are still out of school. When they are in school, the quality of education they receive often lags behind.
Imagine what the world would be like if every child in Africa – and indeed every child everywhere – were able to access 12 years of quality, inclusive education. It would enhance the economy and security, and reduce displacement and migration across the continent. In other words, it’s the key to unlocking Africa’s full potential and achieving its development goals.
ECW’s investments work in partnerships with governments, donors, civil society, the private sector, UN agencies and other key partners to deliver humanitarian and development support. We do this by bringing partners together, empowering local organizations, embracing innovation, and working tirelessly to put human rights and human dignity first in everything ECW does, its investments provide the depth and impact we need to really transform education in Africa and support long-term development across the continent.
ECW: Your foundation Elle Ira à l’Ecole helps young girls in Guinea get an education. Why is girls’ education so important to you personally, and so crucial to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?
Folly Bah Thibault: I come from a family of five girls – born into a culture and a society which for a long time didn’t believe in the value of having girls and did not see women as equal members of society. In my Fulani culture, there’s long been a preference for boys. It is a very patriarchal society which sees boys as future providers while girls are often considered a burden on their family. Well, my mother’s lifelong goal – after having had five daughters – has been to change that perception. She invested all her energy in our education, to prove to society, and even to her own family, that girls, if they are educated, if they’re given the opportunity to learn, can be as successful and accomplish even more than boys. So that’s why girls’ education is important to me personally. I’ve seen what having a good education has done for my sisters and me, it’s empowered us, allowed us to become independent, to make our decisions. And that is what I want to achieve through my foundation, ‘Elle ira a l’ecole’. I want to help little girls in Africa and beyond to have a quality education, so they can have courage and independence to make decisions that affect their lives. Informed decisions on important issues like their health, their reproductive rights and careers.
Girls’ education is not only important for women’s empowerment but it’s also essential to the economic and structural development of any society. It helps break intergenerational cycles of poverty and disadvantage. Education permeates all sectors of society and affects all socio-economic and political decisions of any country. The education of girls today is the best strategy to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals because it reduces poverty in all its forms. It helps end hunger by achieving food security…Educated mothers ensure the education for their own children, thus breaking a vicious cycle of generational poverty. And as I’ve witnessed through the work of our foundation, school is not only a place of learning for many of our girls, it’s also a place of refuge, a safe haven. It provides protection against child marriage. In my home country of Guinea, the majority of girls are married before the age of 18, more than 20 percent before the age of 15. By enrolling and keeping the girls in school, we’re also ensuring that they’re not married off while they’re still underage. The longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to be married before the age of 18 and have children during her teenage years. So, educating girls is a crucial springboard for sustainable development in all its forms.
ECW: Our readers would like to know a little about you on a personal level and we know that ‘readers are leaders.’ What are some of the books that have most influenced you, personally and professionally, and why would you recommend them to others?
Folly Bah Thibault: Jacques Ellul’s ‘Propaganda – The Formation of Men’s Attitudes’ which I studied while in college, had a lot of influence on my career as a journalist. It changed the way I looked at the news media and politicians. Ellul argues that propaganda, whether its ends are good or bad is not only a threat to democracy, but the biggest threat to humanity. And authors like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie have influenced me a great deal. They’re both masterful storytellers who balance the personal, the political, intimate and historical to paint a distinct picture of the African experience. Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ is no doubt the greatest work of literature to come out of Africa. It has had a profound impact on me. I had grown up studying French literature, Victor Hugo and Camus, but Achebe’s extraordinary work was a revelation for me. It is the most powerful depictions of colonization and its impact, told in an authentic African voice. It is a timeless reminder for me as a journalist that some stories are best told by the people who live them.