Leading the global youth movement – MPP student interviews Ahmad Alhendawi

Ahmad Alhendawi, originally from Jordan, served as the first-ever United Nations Secretary General Envoy on Youth. Alhendawi is a strong advocate for youth empowerment, having held the responsibility to represent 1.8 billion young people globally as the UN Youth Envoy from 2013 to 2017.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Ahmad Alhendawi, the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Ahmad Alhendawi, the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. Photo: UN.

He voiced the issues and concerns of young people and opened the doors of the United Nations to the global youth population, aiding young people to engage with representatives and policymakers in order to have their voices represented in global agendas and resolutions. Alhendawi went on to serve as the youngest UN senior official before taking on the role of 10th Secretary General of the World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM).

At the end of Alhendawi’s tenure as the UN Youth Envoy, I was honoured to receive from him the Youth Assembly’s 2017 Outstanding Youth Delegate Award, and I was delighted when, a few weeks ago, he accepted my request for interview.

Syed Shoaib Hasan Rizvi (centre) receives the Outstanding Youth Delegate Award from UN Youth Envoy Ahmad Alhendawi (right) and Secretary General Representative H.E. Simona-Mirela Miculescu (left).

Syed Shoaib Hasan Rizvi (centre) receives the Outstanding Youth Delegate Award from UN Youth Envoy Ahmad Alhendawi (right) and Secretary General Representative H.E. Simona-Mirela Miculescu (left). Photo: Johnny Vacar.

As the first-ever UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth, you visited more than 80 countries. What were some of the greatest lessons you took away from those visits?

I took away the ability to understand how similar young people are around the world in their aspirations for a better life. We often think that young people are different because they live in different countries, when in fact they all aspire to better education, decent job opportunities to support their families, and to have mental and physical health. What is different between countries and young people around the world is how advanced or behind they are in terms of realising these opportunities. Some young people today are fighting for survival, while others are in a more stable situation.

Inequality is one of the biggest impediments for development and for the realisation of human rights. We often talk about the ‘developing world’ and the ‘developed world’. I learned it would be more accurate to talk about ‘developing citizens’. A wealthy person living in one of the poorest countries may have access to better education and healthcare compared to a person living in poverty in a developed country. So in a globalised world, the issue is inequality and the unequal  distribution of wealth.

I also realised that the world is at a tipping point when it comes to acting on big challenges. I feel we are facing issues of ethical leadership, such as climate change issues and terrorism, which cannot be dealt by the traditional boundaries of nation states – they need to be dealt with by global cooperation.

There are 68.5 million displaced people in the world. Of those 68.5 million, over half (53%) are children and young people. Given the reality that adolescence is a critical time for identity formation, mixed with the fact that there is a lack of quality of education in refugee camps, what can be done to support and protect the growing population of displaced young people?

This is a major issue in our world today. In fact, I often hear about this so-called ‘refugee crisis’ and I constantly challenge this populist narrative because I believe we have instead a crisis of solidarity. Victims are paying the highest price, with generations of young people and children spending their prime years in refugee camps, being displaced or waiting.

I am proud of the work we have done at the United Nations by introducing Resolution 2250 at the  Security Council on Youth, Peace, and Security, which really helps engage young people in peacebuilding, as peacemakers and agents of change.

International cooperation bodies like United Nations are most important today and supporting them is the way forward, despite the challenges they face. I think we, the citizens of the world, need to continue to support the need to build bridges between nations and invest in these organisations. These organisations in turn need to show more effective strategies to engage with 21st century problems. Many of these bodies were created after the Second World War and need innovation to face modern complex issues.

About 73 million young people are unemployed worldwide. Social entrepreneurship is a sector that could create skill-development opportunities and jobs while addressing social needs that may serve youth worldwide. How can stakeholders participate in supporting youth-led social enterprises?

Social entrepreneurship is by definition an attempt to have an economically profitable and sustainable enterprise with a social conscience and social objectives. I think to do that you need to engage the whole spectrum of society. You need awareness created by the civil society and you need legislations that will support young entrepreneurs to grow their business. At the same time you need the market powers, banks, and financial institutions and investors to really show faith and confidence in supporting youth projects.

Let me give you an example from a visit I had in an African country where I learned that the interest rate was almost at 30% for a young person who would like to start a project. The ecosystem needs to be conducive for this generation to realise their potential. Some of the biggest innovations today are coming from this demographic. Where there is a proper ecosystem giving young people access to proper loans, credit or investors, freedom from corruption, and the ability to pitch their ideas – they are remarkable.

Right-wing populist movements are on the rise around the world. How can, or where do you see, young people playing a role toward supporting progressive policies?

I think young people need to engage in politics and public life. My message to young people is that ideologies are always in competition for people to follow them, especially in times of crisis.

We need to believe in cooperation and human rights. We need to believe in more than just coexistence but genuine acceptance of each other and our ability to work together despite our differences. I am a genuine believer that the world will be a better place, more competitive, prosperous, and peaceful if we respect these ideas and values.

Despite half of the world’s population being under age 30, only 2% of parliamentarians are under 30. When you launched the Not Too Young To Run campaign in 2016, you advocated that, “if a person has the right to vote, he or she should also have the right to run for office.” Your campaign, which started in Nigeria, has since spread globally, encouraging global youth representation in politics. What are the key points you would advise for young people running for office?

This campaign was interesting because it started in Nigeria, where the people wanted to lower the age for running for office. This is the same struggle we have in many different countries around the world. They were successful in Nigeria in changing the law and we have taken this effort to a global campaign.

To run a successful campaign, the message has to be genuine and clear. The most successful campaigns today are not run by PR agencies, but by people with real messages that strike the core of the issue. Campaign success also relies upon social media as a tool to democratise the discussion around current issues and as a platform for spokespersons. You need to ensure that your ambassadors are examples themselves, living the ideals that they are trying to champion.

As international organisations, we too need to accept the wisdom that we are there to echo the voice of the people and not to tell them what to do, so we need to approach people with humility and understanding. My role as a youth envoy is not to speak on behalf of young people but rather be an amplifier, to be able to give attention to the voices of young people. In the case of Nigeria, they just needed more people to listen and my job was to amplify their voice in front of governments and international organisations.

In 2015, representatives of UN member states joined forces to create an ambitious set of goals, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most of the world’s youth population resides in developing countries. Where do the greatest opportunities lie for youth in developing countries to help the UN achieve these goals by 2030? How can the UN support their participation and make their voices heard?

I think of the SDGs as a global ‘to do’ list that the world needs to get done by 2030. The goals too complex, but I believe they are achievable. There is a political will and there is long-term steady investment in making sure we achieve the goals. The report from UN General Assembly shows we are not on track yet, so we need to continue championing these goals, engage non-state actors, civil society, private sector, and others.

The majority of the population resides today in developing countries. In India 800 million people are under the age of 30, and in Africa two-thirds of the population is under the age of 30. Youth organisations – whether international, national, or local – have a role to bring development and prosperity by unlocking the potential of young people.

At World Scouting, for example, we offer training and informal education to 50 million young people. We support youth development physically, intellectually, psychologically and socially. It’s not about camping or cooking, it’s about working in teams, staying honest and determined to conquer challenges when they arise.

Combating climate change is the greatest threat for our generation, yet young people are denied a seat at the table where the policies to combat climate change are made, such as the US decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement. What role can young people play to save our tomorrow?

Young people are voters who can drive governmental change, they are consumers who can drive sustainable businesses, they are innovators who can bring new solutions and they are mobilisers who are able to speak up. No one is immune to the impact of climate change and we need to act to save the rights of this generation, future generations, and all the species on the planet. This is the power of young people today: to vote, consciously consume, innovate and mobilise.

 As the Secretary General of the World Organization of Scouts Movement, you made a historic commitment at the United Nations HeForShe IMPACT Summit 2018, pledging to support 50 million scouts as advocates for gender equality. What efforts will the World Scouts Organization set in place to achieve this ambitious agenda for gender equality by 2020? Also, how crucial are partnerships in this effort?

We want to get gender equality right. We are 50 million scouts at the World Scouts Movement of which 14 million members are young women and girls. We can do a better job at ensuring that our movement is open to all and meets the needs of all our members. This is a personal mission for all of us, to support our sisters, our friends and partners, to create a world where all are respected and equal.

What would you identify as your greatest legacy?

I am 34 years old today and I have been very privileged in my life because I was able to choose a career path that has aligned me with the values I care about. The opportunities that were presented to me for service were great honours and very worthy causes. I think being concerned with legacies is a very early question and I am in it for the long run. I hope one day if I get to retire, I will have enough time to think about that. But I am in the middle of the fight right now and we are still far from claiming big victories.

Syed Shoaib Hasan Rizvi is a Master of Public Policy student at the Blavatnik School of Government and a passionate advocate for women’s empowerment.

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