Today the world celebrates International Youth Day and the power of young people. In recognition of this day, I recently spoke with Ahmad Alhendawi, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. Excerpts from our interview are below. This has been lightly edited for length and readability.
Jenni Lee: Can you describe your role as the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, and what are your goals in the position?
Ahmad Alhendawi: I first work to bring the United Nations closer to young people by promoting more mechanisms for youth participation and by bringing more information in a youth-friendly manner to young people around the world.
Being an envoy means being a messenger, so I carry the message of the United Nations to young people and also try to bring their voices and aspirations back to the UN and to Member States.
My work is guided by four key principles. The first is participation, and by participation I mean making sure that young people can participate with the United Nations at all levels.
The second is advocacy, and by advocacy I mean we need to advocate for a stronger youth agenda and to bring more attention to youth issues.
Third is making sure we are focusing on better harmonizing the work of the UN and its different projects and programs. To do that, we have now for the first time in the UN something called the System-wide Action Plan on Youth, which brings all different actors in the UN system to work in a coordinated manner on youth issues.
The fourth principle is partnership, and by partnership I mean reaching out to different constituencies and connecting different stakeholders in youth issues, including the private sector, academic institutions, and others to continue coordinating closely with Member States on youth issues.
I try to make sure that more attention is given to youth issues, so I consider myself externally as an advocate and internally as a harmonizer for the UN’s work on youth.
JL: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has made working with and for youth a top priority. Why is this important, and what is the UN doing to engage youth?
AA: The Secretary-General has made it clear that youth is a top priority for the organization. What we need to do is not only provide services and opportunity for young people, but also partner with them and provide them with more mechanisms to participate in decision-making.
What the United Nations is doing now is first providing a coordinated plan for all agencies to work together on youth issues. We also established a new program called the UN Volunteer Youth Program, allowing young people from 18-years-old to volunteer with the United Nations.
Other areas that we are targeting include making sure that different mechanisms are enabling young people to participate with the UN. Areas of focus for us include education. We work through the Global Education First Initiative to make sure that it focuses on post and primary education and making sure we are bridging the gap between the education system and the labor market needs.
We work to promote economic empowerment for young people. We don’t talk only about the need to create jobs – that’s extremely important – but we believe also that we also need to empower young people economically by allowing them to have access to credit and coaching to start small and medium enterprises and to innovate, and by encouraging young entrepreneurs.
We work also on other areas including political participation, the protection of rights, and health. Youth need to be healthy, to participate, to be economically empowered, and they need better education. These areas are at the heart of the System-wide Action Plan of the United Nations for Youth.
JL: As you talk with young people around the world, what issues are you hearing that they care about?
AA: For a long time until the My World survey, we thought, “Do young people have similar aspirations or different concerns around the world?” The My World survey is an online survey allowing young people and all citizens to share their priorities for the post-2015 development agenda.
Four areas [have emerged as youth priorities in the My World survey]: education, health, decent opportunities, and governance and good government. I think these four areas are clearly directing us to the fact that young people around the world do have the same aspirations. Now the challenge is they are different in terms of where they are in realizing these aspirations. But the youth priorities are more or less similar.
Young people around the world need decent job opportunities. They need better education. They need to be recognized as full partners in societies and to have more opportunities to participate in decision-making, and they need to have access to health services. If we look to other issues, we can add protection from crimes in some areas, and violence and conflict is affecting the lives of young people.
But these are the ultimate aspirations for young people. They are very similar across the board, but challenges are different from one country to another.
JL: In your view, what are the greatest challenges and opportunities facing this youth generation?
AA: Youth is the first and the biggest opportunity; being a young person is an opportunity itself. If you think today of social media, innovation, entrepreneurs, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? It’s youth. Youth is a driving force for innovation, for progress, for development. They have great potential to contribute.
If you look today, young people are fearful of the unemployment crisis across the world. They don’t deserve it; they deserve to contribute with their best potential to development and to have decent opportunities.
Access to quality education is still a big challenge. Affording education is a big challenge for many young people. In some countries, young people can access education, but here the bigger question is, “Are they getting a quality education that would really help them find jobs and to use the skills they learn in the labor market?”
But it’s also interesting to observe that young people, even if they are somehow economically empowered, they yet ask for more recognition. How’s that? By making sure governments are listening to them and working with them. I think the issue of recognition for young people is becoming a serious issue because young people don’t only need jobs and education, although that’s very important. Then they will start demanding more political participation.
JL: How can young people work with the UN, especially in the process to create the post-2015 development agenda?
AA: They can vote online, participate in the My World survey, join the discussion in their communities, and join the discussion online. They can tell their governments and representatives to the United Nations that youth is a top priority and Member States should support more youth-related focus in the post-2015 development agenda.
A very important thing we need to bear in mind – youth and the post-2015 development agenda is about youth and their future. It’s not only about the development agenda; it’s about the future that will live on, the future they will witness in the next 15 years.
So they better be very active in setting the agenda, but also preparing themselves and their organizations and projects to contribute to whatever we agree is the next development agenda. Because in the end, the implementation of the post-2015 development agenda will not be the job of the United Nations or Member States only; it will be the job of everyone.
I need to remind all young people also to contribute also to achieving more of the MDGs. It’s unfinished business and we need to continue to find ways to [achieve] more of the MDGs.
JL: What is your favorite part of your job?
AA: Working with youth. It’s fun. It’s a great responsibility and a great honor to get to know young people around the world. Meeting young people and seeing all the talents around the world is so inspiring and so humbling.
The best part of my job is making sure that I wake up every day with only one thing in my head – how we can do more for youth, how we can move the youth agenda in the United Nations forward.