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Speech By Ms. Pratibha Mehta, UN Resident Coordinator at 7th University Scholars Leadership Symposium “Inspiring Individuals, Transforming Communities”

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Date: 2 August 2016

Event: 7th University Scholars Leadership Symposium "Inspiring Individuals, Transforming Communities"

Venue: JW Marriot hotel, 8 Do Duc Duc, Tu Liem District, Hanoi

  • Mr. Kim Solomon, Secretary-General of Humanitarian Affairs Asia;
  • Miss Janice Leong, Regional Director of Humanitarian Affairs Asia;
  • Distinguished young and some old delegates from all over the world;
  • Good morning!

Let me begin by warmly welcoming you to the beautiful and historical city of Hanoi.

I firstly want to take this opportunity to thank Humanitarian Affairs Asia for organizing this important symposium. I feel honored to be here to discuss the topic of humanitarian leadership and speak in front of an enthusiastic group of young people who want to make a difference in our world.

We live in a remarkable time, full of contradictions, challenges and opportunities. Never before humanity has been united as it is now because of speed of transportation, technology and knowledge but, at the same time, divided by intolerance for any difference and greed for money and power. Today I want to speak about major threats in the world and how Youth can forge solutions, particularly for four major, and inter-related, global problems: human development, climate change, armed conflict and humanitarian crises.

We have never seen as much wealth in the world but also as much inequality as we see now especially inequality in opportunities to live in a dignified life. Since the adoption of MDGs in 2000, income poverty globally has substantially reduced but all forms of inequalities have increased across all countries – rich and poor. There is 45 per cent decline in global maternal mortality rates, but even today, more than 800 women still die every day from causes related to pregnancy.

Enrolment of children in primary education is at present nearly universal. The gender gap has narrowed, but still 60 million girls are denied education all over the world, nearly 15 million girls who are under 18 years are married off. Gender based violence is pervasive. Around one third of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or a close relative at some point in their lives. More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to female genital mutilation and millions are subjected to trafficking and in-human treatment.

Unemployment, particularly for young men and women is at all-time high at 13%. Globally, almost one in 7 youth or nearly 74 million young people are looking for work. Even in wealthy countries nearly half of all young adults are jobless. In addition, inadequate opportunities for skills development, lack of support for entrepreneurship, access to credit and diminishing labour rights have profound impacts not only on youth economic engagement but equally important on the psyche, self-worth and self-esteem.

Climate change represents inter-generational injustice. The older generation has not taken care of the planet that young people will inherit. 2016 has been one of the hottest years on record. Climate change is clearly not a far future anymore and is already breaking records across the world. It is intensifying natural disasters, such as the 2010 Pakistan Floods, the 2013 Super Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the 2003 summer heat wave that caused more than 70,000 deaths across Europe. The UN estimates disasters such as these and others to cause on an average between US$250 and US$300 billion annually.

There are 65 Million refugees or displaced people in the world and an astonishing over 50 per cent of them are children and youth. This means one in every 113 people globally. And thousands of men, women and children die every year searching for what everyone deserves – safety, opportunity and peace.

There are now generations growing up in IDP camps and make-shift refugees' shelter, isolated from the mainstream, dependent on humanitarian assistance and robbed of their identity. Some 600 million young people live in countries that are fragile or war torn, devastated by destruction of economy, morale, injustice and no jobs and no opportunities.

Youth are being targeted by violent extremists – and sometimes blamed for their actions. This completely distorted picture fails to show that the vast majority of young people want peace and opportunity to live a dignified life.

But despite all these global challenges we are facing, I am very optimistic about the future. Partly and very importantly because majority of the young people around the world long for peace and security and are committed to human rights. Young men and women like you are bringing new energy, creativity and dynamism to solving problems and making progress. They are proving to be invaluable partners who can advance meaningful solutions. Youth movements, student groups are challenging traditional power structures, raising voice against injustice and inequalities and advocating for new social contract between States and societies and for global action for all people and the planet.

Inspiration for action is right around the corner, in this room, in your schools, in the towns and cities you are living in, and across the globe. I strongly believe that young people are the driving force behind positive change, by embracing volunteering their time, technological innovations, social entrepreneurship and by demonstrating active solidarity.

Young entrepreneurs are behind some of the most famous innovations of our time, such as: Dropbox, Instagram, Snapchat and many new apps. Through smart use of social media, crowdfunding and other platforms, youth are able to mobilize people and resources in no time, connecting people and making information accessible in the remotest locations and contributing in collecting information and data for need-based planning.

In my various interactions with young men and women in different parts of the world, I find them very different from when my generation was of your age. They are more aware of local and global problems, they desire to improve things not in the form of charity or short-lived sympathy, but as an integral part of their values - who they are, how they work and how they live, making use of technology to connect across the globe and share responsibility. I have met so many young social entrepreneurs who want to go beyond the goal of just making money - to also generate social value, reach out to the less fortunate, build a symbiotic relationship with nature in everything they do, and attain quality of life not just for themselves but also for the people around them. This is happening everywhere.

Let me give you a few examples of inspiring young individuals, of innovators, of eloquent and passionate women and men who are transforming communities, who may not have featured on CNN News. I choose to focus on the unsung heroes, ordinary people with extraordinary initiatives:

  • Hoang Duc Minh, a 30 year-old Vietnamese, is cofounder and director of 'Action For the Future', a youth organization working on environmental awareness, climate change and sustainable development in Viet Nam. Last year, he was listed by Forbes Magazine on the first-ever Vietnamese '30 under 30' list to watch in the coming years. His passion and enthusiasm was a driving force behind the 'Green Generation Network', a network of thousands of young Vietnamese who take environmental action across the country.
  • Grace Li, 21 years old, born in the United States, is a daughter of a Chinese couple who went to the US to study and built up their lives there. When the Sichuan earthquake killed over more than 10,000 people in 2008, a nerve struck and she said: "This was the first time I had felt such a personal connection to a disaster. My indignant young self-decided that everyone had to know about this, and that, more importantly, we all had to do something." She and her friends created a non-profit organization called 'We Care Act' that since then has helped over 14,000 children recover from natural disasters around the world—from Hurricane Ike to the Haitian earthquake. Grace now wants to focus not just on disaster relief but also education, since that's a subject very close to her heart.
  • Jeremiah Kimbugwe, 25 years old living in Uganda, used his degree in social work to bring about health changes in the slums of Kampala. Working with the organization 'Sovhen Uganda', Jeremiah oversees a sanitary napkin-making project as a solution to other dangerous and unsanitary methods that some young women currently use. He also designed a module to help encourage youth to stay in school. He's not afraid of a challenge: "Just as I have always told my friends, opportunities will come and knock on our doors, and if we are not prepared, they will pass us by. The opportunities will knock on the doors of other people until they find someone who is ready for the challenge."
  • Luis Fernando Cruz, 19 years old from Honduras, is a natural born innovator. At the age of 16, he developed the first video game system ever built in Honduras. After meeting a fellow student impaired by a spinal cord injury, his perspective on innovative technologies changed dramatically. After extensive research and investing about $1,000, he came up with 'Eyeboard', a type of eye-controlled software to help people with disabilities. To benefit as many people as possible, he released it as an open source, free for everyone to further develop.

Millions of young women and men, from all over the world, are volunteering their time across the globe, working in remotest areas, conflict and war torn countries, communities devastated by natural disasters and in places of epidemic and pandemic outbreaks providing life- saving assistance, psycho- social counselling, teaching displaced and refugee children in make-shift schools, providing health services camps and field hospitals.

They are only a few examples of how youth across the world is on the vanguard of social change and making humanitarian contribution, how they are tapping into their creativity to make a difference, how they are elevating the lives of the less fortunate, how they started a journey that will shape the rest of their and others' lives. These are stories that inspire me, that should inspire all of us in this room today. I strongly believe that you, and, millions of young people out there are not just the leaders of tomorrow, you are the leaders of today. We as responsible senior adults cannot just worry about young people – or work for them. We need to invest in them, in you. Empower you to influence decisions and work with you for the future.

That is why, UN Secretary General has appointed a first ever Youth Envoy at the United Nations to help connect the UN to young people and young people to the UN. In an unprecedented effort, for the first time people were engaged and nearly 4.5 million young people engaged in the "My world survey" and voiced their aspiration for the world they want to see and influenced the Agenda 2030 of SDGs which the world leaders adopted in September 2015 to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change, addressing the critical challenges of our time, which are the root cause for many conflicts and crisis in the world.

The 17 SDGs are for all countries in the world- rich and poor. They are a promise by global leaders to leave no one behind. They are a promise to all people, especially youth and they can hold their governments accountable for these promises, and help achieve them.

To address the enormous challenge of humanitarian crisis and funding, the United Nations convened the first World Humanitarian Summit in May of this year.

In preparation of this important summit, young people between 18 and 30 representing 82 countries gathered in Doha last year to discuss input and youth perspectives on humanitarian challenges and solutions.

One of the official sessions at the World Humanitarian Summit focused on the theme of "Transforming Humanitarian Action with and for Youth" and resulted in the launching of the new Compact for Young People in Humanitarian Action as a concrete and transformative result to working with and for young people in the context of humanitarian settings.

The compact is an unprecedented and collective commitment of key actors to ensure that the priorities, needs and rights of young women and young men, girls and boys affected by disaster, conflict, forced displacement and other humanitarian crises, are addressed, and that they are informed, consulted, and meaningfully engaged throughout all stages of humanitarian action.

More than ever, the UN believes in young people. The UN Secretary General has brought young people right at the heart of diplomacy calling for empowering young peacebuilders and help end the pull of violent extremism. Last year in December, the UN Security Council adopted a historic resolution 2250 on youth, peace and security. This is a major breakthrough in how UN promotes peace. Until now, young people were generally seen as good enough to fight wars – but not to negotiate peace. Resolution 2250 has made a commitment to give voice to the young people.

In June this year, a new initiative UN Young Leaders Initiative was launched to showcase the outstanding leadership of young people in putting the world on a more sustainable path. From food to arts, sports and finance, the Young Leaders will come from many different backgrounds, represent every region in the world and help activate millions of young people in support of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The complicated and inter-connected world we live in cannot achieve sustainable development and lasting peace without investing in young and collaborating with them in finding solutions. While the world is 4 billion years old, it is still very young, with half of its global population, almost 1.8 billion people under 25 years old. This is the largest generation of youth in history and our biggest hope and opportunity to ensure human rights and save this planet.

I hope that during the course of this conference you will be inspired with new ideas, you will inspire each other and inspire us to act, create and innovate to make a positive difference in the world.

Thank you!