South Africa

One Young World: in pursuit of an anthem for a doomed youth

By Khadija Patel 7 October 2013

The One Young World Summit has left Johannesburg for its next iteration in Dublin in 2014. In the meantime, the actual value of the ideology of these summits remains to be tested. By KHADIJA PATEL.

The point of the One Young World summit that was hosted in Johannesburg last week was to connect young leaders from around the world with “Counsellors” in the mould of Kofi Annan, Richard Branson and Mohammed Yunus. These counsellors lend their experience, wisdom and support to the young delegates as they work together to develop plans of action. Or so, say the organisers.

Put more simply, the One Young World summit is an annual gathering of outstanding young people with the noble intention of solving the world’s problems.

The speakers at this year’s summit included Kofi Annan, Sir Richard Branson, Bob Geldof, Boris Becker, Arianna Huffington, Ahmed Kathrada, Muhammad Yunus and Fatima Bhutto.

The conference is underscored by the belief that the world’s senior citizens have been unable to solve the world’s problems and it now falls on the young to influence positive change. Of course all this also requires the belief that the world’s problems are not insurmountable.

And while the summit was staggeringly well organised, thrusting together 1250 delegates from 190 countries, to actually be attentive to the stellar cast of speakers proved quite a challenge. Organisers chided their young charges for walking out of the plenary, and at one stage reminded delegates that these were highly eminent personalities on stage who were not accustomed to seeing throngs of people leaving a room while they were speaking.

But then it’s this belief that young people can be made pliant, that they can actually be made to listen to the wisdom of the elders, that inspires belief that young people will also disregard the example of their elders to change the world for the better.

Speaking at the closing ceremony of the summit on Saturday night, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela praised the power of young people to bring about positive change, stressing the need for the next generation of leaders to start making a difference.

She said: “As a grandmother, mother and great grandmother, I ask myself where we have failed you – what we could have done better and what the future holds for you.

“Comrade [Nelson] Mandela says there can be no greater reflection of a society than how it treats its children and here you are creating a world that we should have created for you.”

Mandela was not alone in his assessment of the role young people must play in the world.

Days earlier, addressing delegates at the opening ceremony of the summit at Soccer City on Wednesday, Kofi Annan said this current generation of young leaders had the potential to enforce positive change in the world.

“Together with your One Young World colleagues from across the globe, you embody the talent and energy that is driving change, innovation and creativity around the world,” Annan said.

For all of the optimism expressed in the potential of young people it was Bob Geldof who sounded a more worrying note to the delegates.

“The world can decide in a fit of madness to kill itself,” he said. “Sometimes progress may not be possible.”

Geldof noted that the present was a “very fraught time.”

“There will be a mass extinction event. That could happen on your watch. The signs are that it will happen and soon,” he warned.

Through discussions on issues like HIV/AIDS, malaria, youth unemployment and food insecurity, delegates tackled some of the world’s most pressing concerns. But a distinguishing feature of One Young World seems to be its emphasis on action. The organisers certainly don’t want this to be just another talk shop.

And there certainly seemed to be a sense of change in the air during the summit. There was a movement towards change, towards upending the status quo. There was not just the belief that a better world was possible, there seemed to be actual progress made towards that world during the summit.

It was certainly difficult to resist believing too that a better world is not only possible; it is already in the making through the efforts of outstanding young people.

For the bright, young people involved in organisations and conferences like One Young World, the opportunity to travel across the world and engage with people like Arianna Huffington and Muhammad Yunus must certainly be impetus enough to work towards a better world.

And yet for the millions of young people outside of the conference venues – who too must feel the possibility of this change – the actual value of these summits is often inconsequential.

One Young World seeks to remedy this by awarding each delegate to a summit the status of “One Young World Ambassadors”. They then work on their own initiatives with the One Young World network that is already in existence. According to the organisers, almost four million people have been directly affected by the work of One Young World Ambassadors to date.

There are a number of organisations, conferences and summits that seek to harness the potential of young people in the hope of a brighter, better future. One Young World is just one of them.

A few days before One Young World rolled into town, another youth group, the Enke Youth Forum, hosted the first of its “State of the Nation” dialogues. In a quiet, sparsely furnished office overlooking the last vestiges of the Saturday traffic from the nearby Neighbourgoods market in Braamfontein, a small group of young people sat down to thrash out their thoughts on the country.

And while the potential for positive change in that room in Braamfontein was no less than that at the One Young World summit, it was in Braamfontein where the problems impeding the progress of young people was more acutely felt.

It’s not that young people are unaware of the potential of a better world, or indeed, of their own potential. Most are just searching for the space to make or be that change.

As one schoolgirl described the hostile environment in which girls attend school back at her village in Limpopo, the social pressure on girls to abandon their schooling to begin families – or support families – the reality of the world’s problems became more real, more tangible. But so too was the need for positive change to the world. DM

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Photo: Youth unemployment plenary session One Young World, South Africa.


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