The UN News Centre spoke to Mr. Alhendawi ahead of a series of events the Organization has planned to mark International Youth Day, commemorated each year on 12 August. First up will be an interactive dialogue, “Uniting for Youth,” on youth initiatives, led by the Secretary-General and moderated by Mr. Alhendawi. The International Day will this year will spotlight youth migration.
UN News Centre: You started your mandate just a few months ago. How have you found it so far?
Ahmad Alhendawi: Being an envoy for 1.8 billion young persons around the world is a great responsibility.
Wherever I go, I find this great enthusiasm and the talents of young people driving change, innovation and creativity around the world. Trying to bring this spirit – and their voices – to the United Nations is indeed a great challenge, a great responsibility and an honour at the same time.
My aim is to make every effort to bring the United Nations closer to young people and also bring the voices of young people close to the UN to influence policies. It’s also to try and make sure that we target their needs in UN initiatives and programmes.
I always try to explain my work as a messenger for the voices of young people to the UN, but it is a two-way communication, and it is very important to promote more mechanisms for participation with the UN so we can reflect the voices of youth organizations and youth movements around the world.
When all is said and done, I would say this is not only a job, it is a reflection of the spirit of activism I’ve had since I was 15 years old. Seeing youth organizing around the world, and capturing the momentum generated because of the Secretary-General’s five-year action agenda, which has prioritized working with and for young people, is important. This momentum has made an impact around the world and made many young people are very interested in aligning their work with the work of the UN.
UN News Centre: You are the first-ever Envoy on Youth. The UN Secretariat is full of experienced UN officials and diplomats. What has it been like to be in meetings and be the youngest guy in the room? Have they been receptive to your message?
Ahmad Alhendawi: My background has helped me a lot because I previously worked in an intergovernmental organization – the Arab League – and coming to these rooms with an understanding of exactly how things work in an intergovernmental setting has helped me.
Let me say that I am surprised by all the positive energy and also the ability of many diplomats and agencies to receive this message, starting with the chief of the Organization, the Secretary-General. His commitment and direct involvement has helped a lot in moving the youth agenda forward.
I have also met with so many ambassadors and youth representatives from different countries and you can see that at this moment, they are all interested in finding ways to invest in and do more for young people.
Maybe if you had asked me this three years ago, before the Arab Spring, before all the youth movements, it would have been a different answer, but now I think young people have made their case very clearly and have proven their commitment and ability to bring about change. It is time for institutions to listen and for policymakers to engage with them.
I think I am coming with a bit of an easier task because youth have convinced everyone around the world that they can bring something to the table, and my job here is to ensure their voices are heard.
UN News Centre: Million of young people are now struggling with the consequences of the global economic crisis. What advice would you give young men and women in this situation?
Ahmad Alhendawi: We have a “lost generation” today because of a serious global unemployment crisis. We need to review the problem first. The ILO estimates that some 73 million young persons are unemployed. And this does not include the people who stopped looking for jobs.
It is so easy to list the numbers, but let me share a story about a young man I met recently named Annis, who is 25 years old and has finished a Masters Degree in Public Administration. He told me he wakes up in the morning, gets dressed, and he wants to go somewhere and contribute. But he told me that every morning, he remembers that he has no place to go. He has no job even though he has been looking for two years.
So you see, the unemployment crisis is not only about numbers; it is not only about the fact that youth cannot contribute to the labour market. It is also about the severe psychological impact on young people, and we must remember that.
I think it is time for Governments and the private sector to join efforts on this issue. I travelled to Brussels and met with members of the European Parliament on the same day the European Council announced the 6 billion euro employment package. We welcome that, but we are asking for more. If you look at young Europeans, many have two or three degrees, they speak three or four languages and it is very hard for me to think about these talents being wasted. The private sector, Governments, academia and the media all need to join forces to address this.
We need to innovate more and young people need to invent their jobs as well. Young people have a responsibility to take risks. I always say there is no youth without risks. Failure is not an option here. There is no failure when it comes to starting a small or medium enterprise. Young people have the responsibility to test new creative ways to generate job opportunities, and there are possibilities to do that.
I am talking about establishing and supporting more opportunities for young entrepreneurs. But when we talk about young entrepreneurs, we need to look also at ways to facilitate young people’s ability to establish their own businesses, including the legal framework. Do we have a supportive legal framework in all countries supporting young entrepreneurs? This is a big question mark. In some countries you start being taxed from the first year your business becomes operational and this will leave no room for young people to grow their businesses. They need access to credit as well. It is always difficult for young people to get loans, or youth-friendly financial services, and they also need more coaching, more support, more training.
Everybody has a share in this; we need to create more than 425 million jobs over the next 15 years. Nobody can do this alone. Not Governments, not the private sector – everybody has a share in this.
UN News Centre: You talked about youth in the Middle East. What would you say are the main challenges for youth in general? Do you find that their priorities differ from region to region, or is there a unified theme?
Ahmad Alhendawi: There are some similarities and some differences among regions. I would like to point to the My World UN Survey for a Better World, which is the global survey launched to help young people and citizens around the world. It asked them to vote on their priorities in the post-2015 development agenda, which is the framework that will come after the current Millennium Development Agenda expires in 2015.
This is what young people have prioritized: first, education; second, better health care systems; third, more responsive Governments; and fourth, decent job opportunities.
The survey provides us with the proof that young people’s aspirations are very similar. The difference is where they stand in terms of realizing these aspirations and goals. The challenges are different from one region to another.
UN News Centre: You talked about risk-taking and the importance of education. But some people would say that the jobs are indeed there – especially with all the opportunities provided by new information technologies – but there is a gap because young people are not trained to do them.
Ahmad Alhendawi: Well, I don’t want to surprise our audience, but I have to say, that while we always talk about the mismatch between education systems and labour markets, the news is that this disparity has been – and will be – around forever. The market will constantly change and education systems will never be able to keep up or always be up to date; they are at different speeds somehow.
Developing interpersonal skills is very important. You’ve heard the old saying “employers hire because of skills and fire because of attitude?” Well, I think that many young graduates don’t have the interpersonal skills they need to help them survive after they join the labour market. Those skills can be learned, and we need to facilitate this in the transition from education to the job market. But somehow, the mismatch will always continue. We need to bridge this gap by creating education systems that go beyond theories and actually make young people more employable.
We should really keep in mind that different needs and skills will be required as the labour market changes. That’s why I like to say that illiteracy in the 21st century will not be about those who can’t read or write but about those who can’t learn, un-learn and re-learn and re-learn skills. Today, you cannot take a degree and assume that you can work with the same skills for 40 or 50 years.
For example, we are in a new TV studio at the United Nations and it is working with equipment and technologies that are different from what we had in the old studio in the same building. So all the staff here has had to acquire new skills and training in order to run the studio. This is life-long learning and everybody should be open to that.
UN News Centre: We have talked about education and employment and it sounds like Governments have a really big role to play here: what you are describing sounds a bit like a “youth stimulus” package. If you had to put that together, what would you tell Governments exactly?
Ahmad Alhendawi: Governments need to increase investment in youth; staring with national budgets. The United Nations is doing its best here to provide more technical assistance and other support for Governments. But if education is not a priority in national budgets, then this whole drive to improve education won’t get very far. We need to look a new trend towards “social budgeting” to see how much is being used to invest in and support young people and build their talents and capacities.
While economic growth and “the numbers” will always be very important, we also need to keep people at the centre. In the end, we need to invest in people. National-level funding opportunities for young people are vitally important. We all know that youth-led groups might be the lowest-funded of all our civil society organizations and this must change! You can’t just work for young people; we need to work with them. There’s nothing that can or should be done for youth without their participation.
Many people think, ‘well, these young people are passionate, but they are not professional enough,’ and this too, needs to change. Today, if you talk about ICT, innovation, social media, the first thing that comes to mind is young people. So you can’t associate young people with all these great advances and then at the same time not invest in youth.
UN News Centre: Ok. Now we are going to switch gears. You were just in Brazil with Pope Francis for a World Youth Day event. Can you tell us what that was like?
Ahmad Alhendawi: It was a great experience having more than 1 million young people from around the world come to Rio de Janeiro. Also, Pope Francis and the Catholic Church were extremely happy to have the United Nations there through a series of activities. I personally had very interesting talks with young people from different countries about the culture of peace and the common values that all faiths share regarding the promotion of peace and the role of young people in driving sustainable development.
And of course, Rio de Janeiro is the home of “Rio+20” (United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and so we talked together about how we can together promote the Goals to make our planet more sustainable.
I told them that if we continue to consume as we are doing today, we will need three planets to accommodate us. But in fact, we only have one planet. As the Deputy Secretary- General (Jan Eliasson) has said, there may be a “plan B” but, at the end of the day, there is no “planet B.”
UN News Centre: You are getting ready to kick off the events for International Youth Day here at Headquarters today with an interactive dialogue featuring the Secretary-General. Can you tell as a little about this event?
Ahmad Alhendawi: I’m so excited to kick off the celebration of International Youth Day this year with the Secretary-General and the heads of some key UN agencies joining us here in New York! The special thing about this event is that we will be connecting [via the Internet] with young people from 5 continents! There will be around 1,000 participants sharing their concerns. They will be from Lebanon, Nigeria, India, Brazil and Belgium. They were chosen because they were some of the top voting countries in the My World Survey.
So, the discussion will be on the “UN Uniting for Youth.” We will explain to them what the UN is doing but also listen to young people to find out what the United Nations can do better. The Secretary-General asked young people at the opening of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum: ‘Are we doing enough for you?’ and they answered, ‘no.’ And when he asked ‘Can we do more?’ they said ‘yes.’
That is why we now have the first-ever United Nations System-Wide Action Plan on Youth bringing together the work of all UN agencies in one place. At this event, we will also share this commitment with them as well as present a model for youth participation with the United Nations, starting from the local level, including how youth can advise UN country teams, as well as at regional levels and more broadly under the umbrella of ECOSOC.
So again, it’s not only about delivering services to young people but also about engaging them as full partners. And, as they have requested more responsive Governments, intergovernmental organizations, including the United Nations, have to heed that call as well. The UN has to be more responsive and engaging for young people.
UN News Centre: Say I am a young person sitting at home and I want to reach out to you or engage with the United Nations. If I have access to a mobile phone or maybe a computer, how would I do that?
Ahmad Alhendawi: Well, first of all, it has never been easier to reach out to the UN at all levels. Because so may young people around the world have asked ‘what is the UN doing for youth?’ on International Youth Day, we will be launching a website which will be the online youth platform providing all the work of UN agencies in one place. It’s going to be a ‘one-stop shop” for young people to see what the United Nations is doing for them and also how they can work with the Organization.
Young people can also follow us on Twitter, @ahmadalhendawi, that’s my personal Twitter handle, and they can also follow @UN . Also, they can join the UN Facebook page for instant updates about the Organization’s youth-related activities, the official Facebook page for the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, as well as through UN Youth, which is handled by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) in the Secretariat.
In terms of mechanisms, the big news here is that we will be establishing youth advisory boards at the national level for our UN Country Teams. Also, the global and regional ECOSOC Youth Forums, which will represent the first structured mechanism for young people to participate in with the United Nations. So, offline and online there will be plenty of opportunities for young people to participate.
One last thing – many young people want to work in the United Nations, and that’s great. Of course, the Organization needs the talent and energy of young people. But the United Nations stands for ideals and principles, and everybody, if the believe in the Charter and the mandate of the Organization, can always work for and with the UN by promoting those values and principles. So this is an invitation to young people to look to the United Nations and try to align their work at the national or even the village level for the big picture: the world we want.