Young people really do have the power to change the world.
Senior Meredith Waters learned that firsthand as one of the youth respondents for the United Nations’ first-ever Global Youth Forum, held last week in Bali, Indonesia. The four-day forum, which aimed to involve young people in defining future development goals, featured more than 900 youth leaders and representatives from agencies, organizations and governments around the world, including Vice President of Indonesia Boediono and the United Nations Population Fund Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehim.
Ms. Waters completed an in-depth review and presented her critique of a UN paper titled “Staying Healthy” on the health challenges adolescents and youths face around the world. Other issues addressed in the forum included education, employment and civic participation. Recommendations from the Global Youth Forum will be presented by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the UN General Assembly.
George Washington Today spoke with Ms. Waters about her experience at the forum and how her public health courses at George Washington University prepared her for the international stage.
Q: Why were you interested in participating in the Global Youth Forum?
A: After speaking about women’s health to the General Assembly at the 2011 UN Commission on Population and Development meetings, I knew that I wanted to amplify my voice in high-level meetings to represent youth in developing countries. This forum was a unique experience because it was the first-ever Global Youth Forum, and it was entirely centered on youth. The forum also had a strong emphasis on public health, so I thought it would be a great academic and professional opportunity to learn more about the emerging global health issues and expand my network to thousands of youth advocates living around the world.
Q: What was your reaction when you were selected?
A: Thousands of people were nominated to vie for a leadership position at the Global Youth Forum, and I went through an application process and was selected in October. I was very surprised and humbled when I was selected to be a respondent. I’m not an international affairs major, I never did Model UN and I don’t even focus my coursework on global health, but the UN Global Youth Conference steering committee saw something in me that made them believe that my academic experience in public health, coupled with my passion for serving others and leadership skills, would allow me to be successful in this capacity. The UN defines youth as under age 24, so many of the other respondents have additional years of experience and are leaders in their fields. I am honored to be included in their group.
Q: Can you describe your experience at the forum?
A: Being a part of the Global Youth Forum was one of the most incredible experiences in my life. I was able to put all of my knowledge of public health and leadership into practice to create recommendations that will serve as a reference point for subsequent negotiations and discussions on the International Commission on Population and Development Beyond 2014 process and the Beyond 2015 development agenda for the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The days were packed with plenary sessions and strategic discussions, but Indonesian cultural events in the evenings gave the participants the ability to relax and network in a more casual setting. Meeting three alumni with varying roles at the conference also showed the value of the GW network and how it extends from Washington, D.C., all the way to Indonesia.
Q: What was it like completing the review and speaking to the plenary panel?
A: Completing the review was a challenging process because the thematic paper “Staying Healthy” did not have any youth input and negatively framed the issue by blaming young people. I have a lot of respect for all of the professionals at the United Nations Population Fund and the World Health Organization who wrote the paper, so it was tricky to critique the paper in front of thousands of people in person and watching online.
The paper focused on sexual and reproductive health because many determinants of health manifest themselves first and foremost in sexual and reproductive health and rights, whether it’s gender inequality, sexual violence, early and forced marriage or other harmful traditional practices. However, some of the representatives from the more conservative countries did not like this emphasis and rejected the idea that these determinants impact the full range of young people’s health needs. I only had two days to review the paper and write my speech and I was only given a 10-minute notice that I would be the youth representative on a panel with the Indonesian Minister of Health and a representative from UNFPA. It ended up working out wonderfully; the speech and the panel discussion were very successful and set the stage for the rest of the conference.
Q: Did you learn anything that surprised you?
A: All of the youth delegates surprised me because they defied how older generations sometimes stereotype young people (being apathetic and lazy). Their desire to strengthen their countries and international policies was inspiring because many of them come from countries where young people are not respected and are constantly silenced. I know America is not perfect, but hearing their stories on grassroots advocacy for things like clean water and the right to decent work—things that we take for granted in America—was truly inspiring and humbling. Their willingness to work together and share their stories and experiences during the conference helped me better understand how to tackle these complex international development challenges.
Q: How did your university coursework prepare you for this experience?
A: I am a public health major at George Washington, and the entirety of my coursework at GW prepared me for this experience. The forum connected with my experience in the Women’s Leadership Program Globalization, Economics, and Business cohort from my freshman year. The seminar-style classes in that program gave me the skills to address complex problems and collaborate effectively across cultures. In 2011, I was selected to be on the International Youth Leadership Council at a local nonprofit, Advocates for Youth. I have stayed on the council since sophomore year and that opportunity has led me to high-level UN meetings and has given me the opportunity to network with experts in the field. Learning about global health from [GW Lecturer] Richard Skolnik piqued my interest in the field and inspired me to work at a clinic for malnourished children in Cusco, Peru, in the summer of 2011.
Q: Why are youth issues important? And why do young people need to get involved in policy making?
A: Youth today make up 43 percent of the world’s population, and the decisions we make today will affect the planet for generations to come. It is essential that young people are given the space to speak for themselves because they are experts based on their own experiences. Young people must be fully and meaningfully engaged and accepted and respected as equal partners in the development of our local, national and global communities in order for the policies put in place to be successful. This includes meaningful interactions at every level of decision-making—from design to implementation to evaluation—in all policies and programs, not just when it’s convenient or politically correct to do so.