Pioneering change in an age of uncertainty: Are young people up for the challenge? — Future Leaders Series

Last month, I had the privilege of being sponsored by the Future Leaders Network to attend the two-day New York Digital Summit of the World Humanitarian Forum (WHF), which according to its website is the world’s ‘largest and most inclusive nonpartisan forum in humanitarian aid and international development.’

The annual Forum convenes decision-makers that cut across the public, private and non-profit sectors, along with emerging leaders. This was a special year for WHF as it celebrates its 75th anniversary and thanks to COVID-19 it’s also the first time the conference was done virtually.

There were plenty of talks and roundtable discussions but all were united by a common concern: is the international community able to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030? What will be the impact of COVID-19?

The aim of this blog series will be to shed light on the main themes that were explored and suggest different actions we can all take to achieve the SDGs. These themes include:

  1. Youth
  2. Tech-for-good and innovation
  3. Equality
  4. Eradicating poverty and hunger
  5. Philanthropy and partnerships

We’ll begin with the first theme: Youth.

The main question we’re concerned with here is whether young people have what it takes to pioneer change in an age of deep uncertainty.

The speakers at WHF believe so. And so do I.

In this article, I’ll be referring mainly to the roundtable titled Youth: Our Future.

The panelists included

  1. Vivian Onano (moderator), Founder/Director at Leading Light Initiative and Youth Advisor at Global Education Monitoring Report, UNESCO
  2. Safoora Biglari, Director, Community, One Young World
  3. Siddarth Satish, Young Ambassador, Ariel Foundation International
  4. Sophie Daud, Chief Executive Officer, Future Leaders Network
  5. Mete Coban MBE, Executive Director, My Life My Say
  6. Joseph Watson, Youth Advisory Board, EY Foundation
  7. Franco Perez Diaz, Global Vice President of Business Development and External Relations, AIESEC

There was lots said but I’m going to limit my discussion here to what in my view were the main issues the panelists sought to address:

  1. Getting young people in decision-making positions
  2. Addressing the employment gap
  3. Supporting young entrepreneurs
  4. Creating an inclusive space for young people to engage with politics

Let’s start with issue #1.

Young people in decision-making positions

Sophie Daud

Sophie dealt with this question in spectacular fashion. Her answer could be divided up into three parts (1) increase youth representation (2) equip young people with the skills they need (3) recognise young leaders.

First, Sophie pointed out that while there exists opportunities to sit on boards and attending important events like the G7 and G20 Youth Summits, these opportunities are ‘far too few and far between’. In her view, we need to create more mechanisms and open up more platforms that make it possible to put the youth voice at the heart of international development and multilateral decision-making.

Second, Sophie made the fantastic point that it’s not merely enough for young people to have a seat at the table. We must go a step further to equip them with the skills to have a tangible impact otherwise we effectively ‘set them up to fail’. Sophie made the subtle but important point that the training involved to be an effective leader is often limited to those who demonstrate leadership qualities early. This leads to a vicious circle wherein those who are perceived as possessing ‘innate’ leadership skills are disproportionately represented in leadership positions. The way to break this circle is by recognising that while it is possible for one to be naturally gifted in the skills associated with being an effective leader, leadership is a skill that can be learned and refined through training. This is something FLN is doing through their Academy.

Finally, Sophie submitted that young leaders need to be elevated and promoted for their work as a way to debunk the notion that to be a leader requires one to be ‘older and wiser’. That is not to say one should not accord more seasoned leaders with the respect they deserve. However, to Sophie’s second point, leadership is not like wisdom teeth that sprout when you hit a certain age — it’s a skill that is distributed across various demographics and requires cultivation. I share and wholeheartedly endorse Sophie’s points.

I also appreciated Sophie’s other contributions during the talk, including her transparency about the opportunities and challenges she’s faced throughout her leadership journey having worked in the public sector previously. Growing up, Sophie was discouraged from entering the public sector by virtue of it being perceived as ‘boring’ and ‘terribly paid’. She discovered for herself that these perceptions were fallacious and has since done outreach work to give children and students a more accurate depiction of what it’s like.

In dealing with the challenges of being a young professional, Sophie expressed the importance of backing yourself, becoming a master of your craft and working collaboratively. As a civil servant, you’re almost guaranteed to work with individuals with whom you’ll disagree. It’s important, therefore, to become ‘attuned to your values’ and to recognise the ‘shades of grey’ in which you and your colleagues can find common ground.

In the next blog, I’ll summarise what the speakers had to say on the remaining issues.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article, unless otherwise stated, are those of the participant(s) and their organisations and do not necessarily represent those of the World Humanitarian Forum or its advisory board members or my own. This article does not imply official endorsement or acceptance of the views expressed or the support of specific agendas.

Founder @ OmniSpace | UCLxCambridge | Fellow @ Royal Society of Arts | Freshfields and Gray’s Inn Legal Scholar | Sci-fi & Beard Enthusiast