Aidex Voices

This is a guest post written by Cornelia Walther who spoke on a panel at NOHA’s 25th anniversary event at AidEx 2018 in Brussels on 15 November, on women in the humanitarian sector.

Working as a humanitarian has allowed me to meet amazing people over the past 18 years. Being deployed in Haiti, DRC, Afghanistan and Chad I have had the opportunity to breathe, touch, see and hear every day the relevance and sometimes the impact of our mandate. Whatever we do today is an investment, or a mortgage, towards one clear goal – a world where every child has a fair chance to happiness, no matter who they are or where they live.

I am grateful for the diversity of encounters along my way, with colleagues, partners, parents, but first and foremost, with those whom we are here to serve: children and young people, the future citizens of this planet. They remain my biggest source of inspiration, the motor that keeps me going no matter what.  And sometimes I wonder whether I served them, or if it was the other way around?

In September 2018 the United Nations Secretary General launched Generation Unlimited, a new initiative to bring young people front and centre. At the heart of this new drive, which goes beyond the UN to embrace the private sector, Governments and civil society, is adolescent and youth participation, one of the four pillars of the Convention of the Right of the Child (CRC).

The timing of a young people’s agenda is appropriate as adolescents and youth are facing key challenges in today’s world. From getting a decent education to jobs, and being empowered in their communities and countries, it is perfect timing, provided we practice what we preach. As the world is getting ready to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the CRC next year, it is time to remember that youth participation is not just the cherry on the cake, but the sugar that transforms flour and water into a cake.

To make a difference, this agenda must be one that is designed, planned, implemented, monitored and fine-tuned with young people, and not just for them. Otherwise it runs the risk of not being seen by them as authentic and will be another missed opportunity for youth empowerment. To be authentic it must start, and not end, with the views and opinions of those whom we seek to support: young people themselves. This new agenda must nurture their ideas, resources and perspectives, not ours.

This requires a change of the blueprint that underlies the way we operate. The Grand Bargain Agreement that resulted from the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, emphasises the importance of engaging communities in the design and implementation of programs that cater to their needs. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) close to 134 million people needs humanitarian assistance today – a statistic comparable to the total population of Mexico being at the brink of disaster).. About 20 percent of the World’s population (2 billion people), is under 18 years of age; one in four of whom live in a country affected by conflict or disaster. By consequence, engaging with young people when it comes to designing aid programs is not optional, but obligatory.

If you are a humanitarian, ask yourself: when was the last time you brought in young people to discuss strategic goals and plans to arrive at a solution for a shared concern?

Over the past years the public communication and advocacy approaches of humanitarian and development actors have increasingly shifted from talking about people to communicating with and through them. Social media and technologies facilitate an ever more inclusive dialogue. This is in their interest and ours, because no story could be as powerful to sway a donor as a first-person account. Still, we will miss what matters most, if we limit ourselves to gathering and amplifying their voices, while not including their thoughts in designing and implementing the programs that are supposed to change their future.

Designing an agenda with young people is a win-win. It offers the opportunity to combine the energy and ideas of young people with the experience of seasoned aid workers and professionals hereby creating something truly unique, that may change the world for the better.

We tried - and failed - to do this in 2002 at the World Fit for Children Summit, and we must not fail again.

The way towards an inclusive agenda will be challenging and cumbersome, because it pushes us adults, aid workers and humanitarians, out of our cosy comfort-zone of doing things for youth, into the more uncomfortable position of doing things with them. We will be exposed to the hard, painful, thrilling, colourful magic of their reality, and it is this exposure that will remind us who we were, and why we are doing what we do.