Threats and Opportunities: The Power of Young People to Shape a New Future
“At the nexus of the world’s greatest hopes and its worst problems, we find young people.”
With this blend of positivity and pessimism, the United Nations Secretary-General, His Excellency Ban Ki-moon, engaged the McGill community in a speech concerning the power youth hold in shaping our collective future. After light-hearted opening commentary, and a rousing “Go Habs Go” that launched the auditorium to its feet, the Secretary General turned to a serious discussion of how youth can forge solutions to the “threats” facing our world through active participation as “global citizens” and engagement in the United Nations.
The Secretary-General noted that we are currently experiencing the largest generation of youth in history. Undoubtably, this comes with tremendous potential, but it also demands great resolve to overcome the “shameful” challenges and “intergenerational injustices” that will be inherited from prior waves of leadership. Therefore, the Secretary-General stressed the importance of “investing in youth”, and continuing his mission of involving the men and women of the younger generation in “decision-making” capacities in global initiatives. Secretary Ban presented a powerful message when he stated that a united “commitment” to the future of the younger generation is necessary: it is not sufficient to solely “worry about our youth” and the complex international environment which they will someday acquire for themselves. “Early involvement” of young women and men in global affairs is the best solution for ensuring a future of justice and peace. What was most striking was that Secretary Ban did not deliver this message solely because he was speaking to an audience of university students: he truly believes in the strength youth have to bring-about fundamental change. For nearly a decade, Mr. Ban has committed the UN to offering young people the voice they deserve in the global arena. In 2013, Mr. Ban solidified his dedication to our future with the symbolic appointment of Mr. Ahmad Alhendawi of Jordan (in attendance), the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Youth. Within the past three years, Ban and Alhendawi have collaborated on ways to further integrate youth in UN-facilitated dialogue on a diverse range of issues. In particular, Ban stressed the importance of “Resolution 2250”, and how the UN is affirming its position of youth involvement in international affairs by working to integrate them into peace processes and dispute negotiations. It was certainly empowering for students sit in the presence of a leader who not only advocates forcefully for the expansion of the youth and women’s voice, but also acts upon his belief.
Although UN leadership under the direction of Mr. Ban has made strides to alleviate the world’s most pressing dilemmas, four key areas still remain troublesome: unemployment, climate change, armed conflict, and humanitarian crises. Secretary Ban sought to address these areas of concern not to dim young people’s outlook on the world, but rather to encourage aspiring young leaders to tackle these global challenges, embrace “the spirit of the frontier” and boldly “go where no man has gone before.”
The current challenges facing our world provide the opening for younger generations to remedy the broader humanitarian, economic and political wounds that have been left to fester. According to Secretary Ban, “high ideals must be promoted against tough realities.” A child of war-torn Korea, Secretary Ban experienced the life-changing impact of humanitarian missions in the divided peninsula and realized the importance of united action in the face of adversity. From a young age, Mr. Ban resolved to “give back” and devote himself to a life of service to the international community. He delivered to the audience the same advice a teacher imparted on him that has shaped his world-view since his formative years: “keep your head in the clouds, and your two feet firmly on the ground. Then, move step by step.”
In a world marred by conflict, extremism, and instability, Secretary Ban emphasized the need to seek true wisdom by balancing “idealism and realism”, and not falling victim to either influence. Young visionaries should be hopeful, yet grounded, in their efforts to construct sustainable global practices, “safety, opportunity, and peace” for all. The Secretary-General acknowledged that, presently, the world is experiencing the greatest number of displaced peoples. Youth are increasingly surrendering themselves to the allure of violent extremism. Women and minority groups are left vulnerable to persecution in even the most developed states. And, perhaps the most striking, the United Nations is currently fielding its greatest-ever appeals, yet receiving the lowest amount of aid from member states. This is the—albeit discouraging—reality that young leaders must face, yet Secretary Ban urged students to apply the knowledge and experience they are acquiring at McGill towards contributing to the global community. He stated: “You are not here at McGill just for yourselves, you are given the highest learning to become a global citizen.”
The Secretary-General’s speech certainly resonated with McGill students. Natalie LaMarche, a student of Political Science, was impressed by the connection Secretary Ban forged with his audience and his talent for balancing emotional and the rational influences in all that he sets out to do: “from what I’d heard about Ban Ki-moon, I was expecting a well-rehearsed and uncharismatic talk coming from a very distinguished individual. What we got was far more than that. One of the virtues of his speech was that despite being idealistic with his visions, he was able to substantiate his claims through action-based responses.”
Henry Off, a student in the Joint Honors program for Political Science and World Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, was similarly impressed by Secretary Ban’s candor: “he’s a man that goes anywhere in the world, and is able to make a connection and an impact…whether it be a refugee camp in Jordan or a lecture hall at McGill University…I liked that he was really trying to push the idea of finding a middle ground between idealism and realism. And, despite criticism, failures, and conflicts, he is able to stay so positive and optimistic about the world and the growing influence of the United Nations.”
The McGill community would like to thank the Secretary-General for imparting his wisdom on us, and for nearly a decade of service to the international community. It can only be hoped that his inspiration will truly launch McGill students towards “making this world a better place” and contributing to a global vision in which “nobody will be left behind”.
Photos courtesy of The McGill Daily.