Operation Millennial: A Conversation With The UN’s ‘Voice’ For 3.5 Billion Young People Around The World

Often described as the voice of youth issues on behalf of the 3.5 billion young people around the world, Ahmad Alhendawi, 32, from Zarqa, Jordan, is the first-ever U.N. Secretary-General Envoy on Youth and the youngest senior official in the history of the organization. He was appointed in 2013 by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to “address the needs of the largest generation of youth the world has ever known.” There is perhaps no better representation of the U.N.’s concern about millennials than his appointment — a time of post-economic crash, exploding youth unemployment rates and protest around the world, including the wake of Arab Spring.

“We need to challenge the negative narrative about young people and involve them in the solution,” says Alhendawi.

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This happens inside the UN’s headquarters at the dignified office set aside for him to solve pressing youth-centric issues such as unemployment, violent extremism, education, migration, political inclusion, youth entrepreneurship. They are all among the planks of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as defined in the 2030 Agenda. The majority of young people under age 30 –over 50% of the world’s population — continue to experience exclusion or have limited opportunities for participating meaningfully in addressing these issues.

Unfortunately, getting involved in the decision-making process has not come easy to this demographic, which is often seen as a problem or passive recipients of policies rather than part of the solution. That’s Alhendawi’s job. I asked him, “How would you describe your role as the UN Envoy on Youth?” The dialogue took off, with the help of questions from young people around the world.

“One can think of the word envoy to mean a messenger, or a person who carries a message from and to,” he says. “In this case, it is from young people around the world and youth organizations to the UN, a two-way communication as well from the U.N. back to young people.”

Youth unemployment and entrepreneurship

In Africa, youth unemployment focuses more on the structural form of unemployment. What is your plan to ensure relevant skills are given to youth? — Akinkunmi Akingbade, Nigerian and self-described Afrillennial

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Youth unemployment in Africa is a real issue, agrees Alhendawi. “Our plan is that we are highlighting a recent system-wide initiative for the UN,” he says, noting that system-wide means that all UN agencies are on board to back “Decent Jobs for Youth.” “For that to be a success we have to focus more on the African region.”

Alhendawi continues: “What needs to be done, to a larger extent, is with the human resources and human potential we have and also to invest in better education, better training and massive opportunities in sectors that have been neglected.” The agricultural sector, for example, has not been very appealing to young people.

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“We are seeing young people in Africa going into entrepreneurship and starting their own businesses,” he says. The problem lies in the structural impediments faced by young people who are starting up businesses. For many young Africans, it is almost impossible to register companies or to get basic legal documents right. Small companies are taxed from day one, leaving no breathing space. The interest rate for capital loans range from 30% up. All are issues Alhendawi has seen first-hand on a recent trip to Africa.

It is not fair to young Africans — or any nation for that matter — who are no longer asking their government to create jobs but just asking their countries not make it hard on them to start their own businesses, says Alhendawi.

Community engagement and voluteering

How do we keep the motivation level and interest of their volunteers high? People join us with vitality and rigor but that soon fizzles out when they see the deplorable conditions on the ground. Saurabh Matta, India, a volunteer coordinator of the World Peace Foundation

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Explaining to them how they are making a difference and the impact they are making is one way, answers Alhendawi. Many young people are cause-driven and that keeps them more passionate. They have to think of the cause they are involved in as something bigger than them.

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No doubt, though, there are challenges to community engagement, especially for youth in marginalized communities. “The challenge of peace and security is strongly present with over 600 million living in countries afflicted by conflicts, so it’s difficult when their countries are inflicted by war, to do things about SDGs (sustainable development goals); or the issue of job employment with 73 million unemployed, and 58 million children out of schools. These are challenges that affect people’s ability to think about what possibly they could do to achieve the goals or engage in community — although the goals are there to help them find their way.

Open communication

How can the communication system within the UN will be open and strengthened enough for more youth to have access and engage better? — Nakul Kurane, student, James Madison University

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If it is the UN’s prerogative to increase communication channels, how can youth engage with our limited communication systems? Alhendawi says, “This is part of the reason I’m also engaging on social media like Facebook and most recently snapchat (@ahmadalhendawi UN).  I can make myself accessible to those who want to engage with the affairs of the office. Our official Social media accounts are all active and we use it to update people on youthstats, events, opportunities and so on. We also communicate through text messages and other offline comm system includes the 60 UN Country Teams (UNCT) that serves as youth advisory boards at the national levels, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC Forum) which now serves as basically the main venue for youth participation with member states. Both online and offline means has to be expanded and technology has to be leveraged without coming at the expense of youth who may already be disadvantaged for various reasons.

Political engagement

With all these issues, which have you discovered to be the most pressing issue affecting youth in the 21st century? And how can youth all around the world work together to tackle that issue and have their voices influence policies? — Bimpe Femi-Oyewo, cofounder of Kindred Africa Community Development Foundation (KINNECT)

On a conclusive note, Mr. Alhendawi hesitated to pick one particular issue, eventually stating- there are very many youth issues but an honest answer is that youth issues have to be tackled in a coordinated and holistic way.

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When it comes to development, education is equally important as employment or peace and security. That is why we have the SDGs, he notes.

With politics, there is evidence of low rate of youth representation in parliaments, political parties and electoral activity amongst youth worldwide and that must change. Although youth have been instrumental in bringing about political change through protests and demonstrations, moving forward there is need for more young people to be formally involved in the building of new political processes and institutions. This is the strategy of the UN today.