Investing in Young People: Q&A with Youth Envoy Alhendawi

United Nations Youth Envoy Ahmad Alhendawi meets with young people in the Philippines ahead of International Youth Day. August 11, 2015. (UN Photo)

Half the world’s population is now under 25, and the preponderance of young people is set to continue to grow for decades in regions such as Africa. Despite this, youth are often disengaged from the world’s political processes, or treated as mere beneficiaries of charity from the older establishment, according to United Nations Envoy on Youth Ahmad Alhendawi.

Speaking with International Peace Institute Policy Analyst Margaret Williams, Alhendawi said just 2% of the world’s parliamentarians were aged under 30, and political processes were often inaccessible to young people.

“However, my message to young people is that we can’t afford to ignore politics. We can’t afford to not be engaged, and we need to change even some of the rules or the way that some political processes are being conducted,” he said.

Alhendawi cited the role youth played in the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Prior to the events, a national survey had shown just 4% of the country’s young people participated in extra-curricular or volunteer activity, which older generations interpreted as a sign of laziness or apathy.

“We have seen only a month after that survey that hundreds of thousands of young people in Egypt took to the streets demanding their rights, and for me that was one of the biggest lessons I learned: that this generation thinks that they will participate but only when they are convinced that this is a meaningful participation,” he said.

Alhendawi said the UN—which is today celebrating International Youth Day—is aware of the need to invest in young people, particularly with the contribution they can make to achieving the recently announced Sustainable Development Goals.

He said the UN is also increasingly looking to engage youth in countering violent extremism and maintaining global peace and security, which will be highlighted at the first ever Global Forum on Youth, Peace and Security, to be held in Amman, Jordan, from August 21-22.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

What do you see as the greatest barriers and greatest opportunities for engaging youth in national and international political processes?

I think that the biggest challenge is the fact that you have less than 2% of MPs, parliamentarians around the world, under 30 years old, so you have half of the world’s population under 25, but yet you still have less than 2% MPs under 30 years old. Political processes are not that accessible to young people.

For the political parties and the political processes, I think they have to modernize the tools they use to engage people politically. The former president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, he said once, “in our society everything has entered the digital era, but the only thing that remains analog is politics,” and in that sense, I think young people find political processes not that appealing to them, and not accessible.

Just an example: if you go on social media, you’re finding people debating political issues all the time, but they are the ones who might not go to out on election day because they think this is too analog, this is too distant from them, so my message is that political actors, political parties, and political processes have to be more organized and we need to think of “democracy 2.0” that is more engaging, more appealing for young people.

However, my message to young people is that we can’t afford to ignore politics. We can’t afford to not be engaged, and we need to change even some of the rules or the way that some political processes are being conducted, we need to be engaged, so my message goes to both sides. I think I understand the frustration of young people sometimes where they are not that engaged in the mainstream politics, but I think many of these tools could be modernized from the way they vote to the way they engage with their politicians, and they need to see impact, and they need to see a meaningful participation.

For example: I think a month before the Egyptian Revolution in 2011—a youth-led revolution—the national youth survey in Egypt showed that only 4% of all young people in Egypt participate in any extra-curricular or voluntary work. That number was at that time interpreted as if young people in Egypt are lazy or careless. We have seen only a month after that survey that hundreds of thousands of young people in Egypt took to the streets demanding their rights, and for me that was one of the biggest lessons I learned: that this generation thinks that they will participate but only when they are convinced that this is a meaningful participation.

How has the international community’s perception of young people as political actors and decision-makers evolved in recent years, and what impact has this had on consultative processes within the UN?

I could start with the impact of the economic crisis, which led to very high levels of youth unemployment and followed by the Arab Spring and the youth-led protests around the world, and with the fact that we have the youngest generation, or the largest generation, of young people the world has ever seen. So you have almost half of the world’s population under 25 years of age. These factors led to more awareness about the importance of working with young people, and as a result, when the Secretary General of the United Nations was reappointed for a second term in 2012, he basically made working with and for young people a priority. The UN then came up with what we call the System-wide Action Plan on Youth, the first ever UN system-wide strategy on youth issues, and appointment of envoys.

So, I think the perception of youth has changed; I think the international community came to a realization they have to prioritize youth issues, which was not the case before these events. After that, in relation to peace and security, I think that there’s a traditional thinking about young people where they are only job-seekers or if you give a job to a young person they will be okay. What we are championing and what we are arguing is for youth as full of possibility, that the youth have potential as citizens and as peacebuilders, and I think that’s the transition that we are working hard to achieve. Young people not as a liability but rather as opportunity, and not only as job-seekers, but rather as citizens, equal citizens, that they deserve opportunities and they have a role to play.

What is the UN doing to engage youth in peace and security issues and in their own national processes of political transition?

The UN is very active in countering violent extremism, but I would say also by making sure that we counter the negative narrative about young people. The United Nations doesn’t believe that young people are a problem. They are opportunities, and they are not a threat to peace and security, but rather they are the biggest assets. So part of what we do, we’re trying to show that the power of the demographic dissidence, and that, again, we should not end up abusing, and I would say negative labeling, young people. And that’s unfortunately what happens sometimes, and I think that labelling all young people as potential threats or perpetrators, or only victims of conflict is just counter-productive.

Part of what we do is try to counter that narrative, but also to reinforce the positive narrative about young people by showcasing their contributions to peace and development, and the innovations they are leading right now. In my mandate as the Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth I have prioritized working with young people. I have traveled to many places where young people are affected by conflict, from Somalia to just recently the borders with DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], and before that engaging young Columbians in the peace negotiations and the peace processes…we worked hard to advance youth participation, and peace and security issues, and I think the conference in Jordan [on youth, peace, and security] will be probably one of the main highlights for engaging youth in this debate.

What role does your office have in amplifying youth voices during times of political change and transition?

Well, we need to engage youth as partners in development, and what we always repeat here at the UN is that we need to, not to support young people as if it were a charitable thing, but we need to invest in young people because it’s a smart investment, that we can’t achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) if youth are considered as beneficiaries. First of all, there are too many to cater for—they are half of the world’s population, and in some regions like in Africa, the number of young people will continue to grow over the next 40 years.

The smart mindset required for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is thinking about youth as partners; creating more opportunities for them to be engaged politically, socially, economically, and by ensuring that they are coming on board as innovators, as mobilizers, and as volunteers, and also as employees. I think the challenge now is that for many people, they are still thinking of young people as talking at young people, not talking to young people; we need to engage them more smartly, and I think that’s the transition that the United Nations marked itself by having this logo of the United Nations working with, not only working for, young people.

At the UN we think about working with young people by prioritizing civic engagement and youth policy, and by having the theme of this International Youth Day this year, Youth and Civic Engagement, we would like to draw more attention to these amazing stories of young people around the world who are active in supporting their communities and their societies. But these stories should not be the exception—that’s why we, through the UN system and through all the UN agencies, are working in a collaborative way to ensure supporting this strong message of the need to bring young people on board, particularly now as we transition to the implementation of the SDGs.

The first ever Global Forum on Youth, Peace and Security will be held in Amman, Jordan, from August 21-22. What are the goals of this forum, and how do you see its connection to the UN Security Council Open Debate held in April on the role of youth in countering violent extremism and promoting peace?

Well, when it comes to talking about youth, peace, and security you know that there have been many forums and many discussions around sub-issues related to youth and peacebuilding. This is the first attempt at the global level to bring all these issues under one new brand, one unique agenda that is youth, peace, and security. And this name, by the way, is not a coincidence. This name is inspired by the similar agenda hosted by the Security Council on women, peace, and security. The forum is organized and hosted by Jordan in collaboration with the United Nations and other organizations, and we expect around 500 participants to be there, including government officials, ministers of foreign affairs, and other actors.

I would say this is probably the largest youth-led process around youth, peace, and security that we hope will result with what we call the Amman Declaration for Youth, Peace and Security, and this outcome document will mark a new agenda that will bring all these sub-topics and sub-issues and be produced basically, in a coherent and cohesive way that we could take it forward and be brought to the Security Council and to other UN bodies to be inspired by this global youth call. And this declaration is being written in consultation with young people online, and this is an amazing way of showing how young people could lead this agenda.

My hope is really to counter that negative narrative, and ensure that young people are peacebuilders, they are the ones who are partnering for peace and development. This forum is a great example that shows when you offer the path for young people to be engaged in these debates, they will be able to lead the way. We received over 11,000 applications from young people all over the world who wanted to be part of this conference. Young people are eager to be part of a global movement to not only counter violent extremism, but equally in promoting peace, prosperity, and development.

Margaret Williams is a Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute.