EEA & NORWAY GRANTS and UNESCO – A solid shared path towards youth

The Centrality of Intercultural/Interreligious Dialogue and Collaboration for Nurturing Young Leaders

An event, the one held at the House of Lords, London, during last summer, that gave the opportunity to EEA & Norway Grants and UNESCO to highlight their shared interest to empower youth and support dialogue and collaboration beyond national borders.

Co-hosted by UNESCO, KAICIID, Guerand Hermes Foundation for Peace and University of Wales, under the auspices and hospitality of H.E. Lord John Alderdice, the event has been a momentum for knowledge sharing, an enriching discussion on how to empower young leaders. An opportunity to reflect on shared challenges, an important space and invaluable opportunity to share notions and ideas on how to empower young leader thanks to a solid dialogue established by the participants.

In other words: «Nurturing Young Leaders for the Futures of Humanity: The Centrality of Dialogue».

Among the participants, Ms Nora Mehsen, Sector Officer and Programme Manager for the Financial Mechanism Office and Scherto Gill, coordinator of UNESCO’s Collective Healing initiative, replied to some questions prepared by ‘our’ Tom, which, alongside being our editorialist, is in addition a member of the Advisory Board of ‘ The Global Exchange on Religion in Society’.

Tom Mc Grath: 1. What was the purpose of the event?
Can you share one tangible takeaway?

Nora Mehsen: «The purpose of the gathering was “dialogue in practice” on the topic of youth leadership and dialogue. And the event very much lived up to this description, gathering experts from different backgrounds, countries and professions to exchange experiences on the question: How can we best empower youth to engage in meaningful dialogue for sustainable development? Among the participants were representatives from Council of Europe, UNESCO, the Ministry of Education in Portugal and the former Director for the Commonwealth Youth Division.

It is difficult to name just one highlight, as the event was filled with inspiring people from different governments, institutions and organisations. One interesting take-away I can mention, is that one of the co-hosts of the event, UNESCO, is in the process of developing a youth academy for transformative leadership. The intention of the initiative is to encourage and enhance young leaders’ capacities and enrich their qualities in leading social actions. This approach fully aligns with the EEA and Norway Grants’ view on youth empowerment: We need to invest in youth. Because they are not only our future, they are our present!!».

Scherto Gill: «The purpose of the event was to gather global leaders, including politicians, religious leaders, international organisations leaders, philanthropic organisation directors and distinguished scholars, and invite them to provide feedback on the UNESCO’s interest/proposal in developing a young leaders academy.

The most significant takeaway was the positive responses from all the participants towards the UNESCO’s proposal, including their affirmation of the UNESCO’s intentions, including:

  • to pay special attention to identifying gifted young leaders from worldwide vulnerable communities;
  • to focus on nurturing transformative leadership qualities and capabilities for young women and young men to affect positive change from where they are;
  • to co-create an innovative leadership programme with young people and for youths;
  • to establish global young leaders networks for transnational partnerships and collaboration;
  • to involve senior leaders in intergenerational learning and mentorship, and established young leaders in peer-mentoring».

Tom Mc Grath: 2. Why is youth’s engagement in dialogue important?

Nora Mehsen: «Mastering the art of dialogue is essential for younger generations, as both current and future decision-making involves navigating through complexity, fragility and uncertainty. Polarisation, inequality, shrinking civic space and lack of public trust are among the threats we are facing in Europe. And we see efforts where people are actively excluded, pushed to the margins and used as scapegoats. Youth are rendered especially vulnerable in this context, including young women, youth with a Roma background, youth with a migrant background and LGBTI youth. We need to build bridges to overcome these fences. Dialogue is an important tool in this endeavour, in which young leaders can play a vital role, both as knowledge-holders and change-makers».

Scherto Gill: «Dialogue is more than just a set of conversations, it contains deep human encounter and interconnection, through practices such as listening, (honest) sharing, openness to the other, engaging with difference, questioning, inquiring, mutual understanding and collaboration. All the practices are part of what I call the arts of dialogue. Given this conception of dialogue, it is extremely important for young leaders to master the arts of dialogue. Furthermore, to facilitate processes of community regeneration and social transformation, future leaders must be able to create inclusive spaces for dialogue amongst people from diverse backgrounds. Through dialogue, peoples and groups can better relate to each other, build trust, transform conflicts, and co-construct a sense of common future for one and all.  Dialogue thus perceived becomes a way of being, a part of our shared social practices».

Tom Mc Grath: 3. “How can we best empower youth to engage in meaningful dialogue for sustainable development?” This was one of the questions posed at the event.
Does its inversion not make more sense …sustainable dialogue for meaningful development?

Nora Mehsen: «That is a good a good question. I think these concepts can also be seen as intertwined and dependent on each other. It is difficult to imagine development that is truly meaningful if it is not built on sustainable dialogue – sustainable by leaving no one behind, for example».

Scherto Gill: «Dialogue must be sustained and sustainable. Equally dialogue must be meaningful for all those involved, both from personal interests in our own well-being, and in terms of the fruit of dialogue for our world. Sustainable development represents the UN’s goals, and an urgent objective for the entire humanity. Hence it would be a key theme for dialogue, which hopefully can lead to positive actions. I do appreciate your note on meaningful development. In this case, dialogue within communities can help articulate what meaningful development constitutes, and what kinds of development are meaningful. Therefore, it would be necessary to ensure sustained dialogue for continued exploration of effective pathways towards personal and communal development».

Tom Mc Grath: 4. What structures and mechanisms exist for moving from dialogue to action? How can youth move beyond the dialogue stage to actual input and participation in drafting legislation that affects their lives and livelihoods?

Nora Mehsen: «I believe that dialogue often can represent action in and of itself. Human encounters can hold an incredibly transformative force, especially in these polarising times. So, dialogue is not necessarily a means to another end. But when we talk about action with regard to legislative change, this definitely requires a systematic approach to dialogue. Youth’s voices need to be channelled in a way where they can effectively reach governments. This also speaks to rule of law issues and checks and balances, that legislative drafting processes are actually transparent. Making sure that we create an environment for youth civil society organisations where they can operate independent of governments is a cornerstone in this endeavour».

Scherto Gill: «Now you have just highlighted a major challenge of engaging young leaders in advancing positive changes. This is where we must apply a great deal of sensitivity.

First of all, dialogue is in part action, rather than mere blablabla. Wars are failure of dialogue because as long as we are engaged in dialogue, no one is fighting. Therefore, we should not regard dialogue as a mere gesture, but rather we must see dialogue as an action as much as a process, an art, and our way of being and living in harmony with oneself, with others, with the world at large, and with the transcendent. There are further actions following dialogue, which are better informed, better articulated, and have more opportunities for transformation.   

In terms of youth participation in policy-making and advocacy, according to Oxfam, there are six ways that young people can contribute to drafting legislations that have positive impact on their livelihood, and well-being:

  1. Direct Governance: This is a scenario where young people are being elected to be part of the local decision-making or legislation body, or where they are given the opportunity to direct a project, or lead a collaborative initiative.
  2. Protests and Industrial Action: This refers to young people’s engaging in public protests for legislation change, or civil actions towards improving the experiences of life, such as seeking to change employment law or working conditions.
  3. Model Parliaments / Advisory Boards: Leadership opportunities like these are increasingly offered to young people who learn to conduct a mock parliamentary dialogue, run model UN assembly, or serve on organisations advisory boards.
  4. Audits and Research: This points to situations where young people can take part in conducting a social audit to identify local polices that are no longer meeting the community’s needs, and work as part of the advocacy group to propose meaningful change.
  5. Prefigurative Politics: This is where young people can join local group to monitor and ensure governments’ fulfilling their commitments and promises.
  6. Media, Art, and ICT: These are spaces and platforms where young people can have a truly positive impact on policy-making and decision-making. For instance, young influencers can use their social media spaces, or use community arts and other channels to shift public opinion on matters that are important to the community, such as gender equality, mental health, and youth employment».

Tom Mc Grath: 5. There are many similar projects being managed by the UN, EU, EEA and others. In the interests of international cooperation, what are your views on working together in certain sectors and/or projects in a form of capacity sharing to avail of economies of scale, and to avoid working in silos?
What is your answer to criticisms concerning elitism, capital centric or class driven projects in your respective programmes?

Nora Mehsen: «I don’t think that there are too many initiatives on youth empowerment, as this is a dire need across the globe. It is perhaps more a question about how we work – how can we better create synergies between different actors and ensure that our efforts complement each other? I am a firm believer that we need to work together to find common solutions to shared challenges. And it is great for us in the EEA and Norway Grants to exchange know-how with other actors that work to strengthen social and economic equality in the youth field. It informs our own work on youth, not only when it comes to inclusion of youth into the labour market, but also in our other programmes that has a youth component. Finding a niche for the Fund for Youth Employment has also been very important to us, so our work can bring added value to what is already done in our beneficiary countries and at EU level. Our focus is therefore on hard-to-reach target groups, as they only to a minor extent are made a priority in or covered by the Youth Guarantee and other common European youth employment initiatives. This is for me also an effort challenging elitism – by empowering those that often are pushed to the margins of our societies».

Scherto Gill: «There are indeed a number of young leaders programmes under the umbrella of UN, EU, EEA and so forth, not to mention programmes run by distinguished universities, such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Oxford, and others, as well as those offered by philanthropic foundations. Therefore, we must consider if our own proposal is innovative rather than reinventing the wheel. Indeed, this reflection takes us to the findings from our Global Listening Initiative carried out last year, involving tens of thousands of youths in 26 countries in four continents. If there are too many successful and meaningful young leaders programmes, why did young people who took part in the listening initiative suggest almost unanimously that more must be done to respect their voices, empower their agency, and create opportunities for them to contribute to the solutions to global challenges. The demand is particularly louder from those young people of vulnerable backgrounds, often living in the most alienated communities.

Clearly, more young leaders programmes are needed because young people in the most vulnerable communities feel that such opportunities are often not available for them. In fact, a further inquiry is necessary to explore what kind of young leaders programme is most suited to youths’ needs. To this end, the UNESCO Young Leaders Academy will start with a research conducted by young researchers (aged 21-30) to review existing youth leadership programmes and youth empowerment programmes, including costs, sizes, candidates backgrounds, selection, capacity-building contents, pedagogical features, fellows experiences, and employment post-training, personal impact and community impact, and more. This would allow young researchers to identify commonalities and differences amongst these programmes. They will then invite global young people to take part in a further research using survey questionnaire, focus-group dialogue and one-to-one interviews, including intergenerational dialogue, in order to discern what the world needs now, and what might constitute a meaningful young leaders academy programme. This would ensure that our young leaders programme will be created with and by young people for young people and for the betterment of our world. 

Now to your question, collaborative and partnership approach underpins our proposal for the young leaders academy. That is why we hosted this event in London to bring leaders from the different sectors into dialogue. After the event, we have been actively reaching out to those organisations and institutions that share the intention to support young leaders, and strengthen their transformative leadership qualities and competencies.

As to the criticism on the elitism, capital centric or class driven projects, this was the first challenge posed by Professor David Gergen during our event in London. Gergen, as the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, invited us to explore ways to create a programme beyond elitism, and that is not costly, and can enable the youths to lead positive change in the local communities. We welcome such comments and we embrace the ambitions Gergen outlined. Anna Maria Majlöf, Chief of UNESCO’s Rights, Inclusion and Dialogue Section, has repeatedly highlighted UNESCO’s intention to include young leaders from diverse backgrounds, especially young women and men from the most vulnerable communities. This inclusivity would allow us to avoid elitism. To move away from capital-intense programme, we believe that young people are open to be guided by innovative pedagogies, within hybrid environments, and supported by peer-mentoring and intergenerational mentoring. What is important is to ensure that the capacity-building programme contents are relevant to young leaders lived realities. What is even more important is to ensure that there are resources for encouraging young leaders’ start-up projects. Such helping hand is crucial for empowering talented young leaders to contribute to their community’s regeneration».

Tom Mc Grath: 6. This is the European Year of Youth.
What major achievements would you like logged in your report cards at the end of this year?

Nora Mehsen: «I can start by highlighting a major achievement that I know will happen this year: I am really excited about the youth workshop that the the Fund Operator for the Fund for Youth Employment are facilitating in December in Brussels, gathering youth from across Europe and empowering them to set the agenda on employment and inclusion issues. As they say, “nothing about us without us”. I would like to see more initiatives like this, where youth themselves have a seat at the table and are encouraged to use their voices. It is our job – as government representatives and funders – to listen».

Scherto Gill: «Recalling our Global Listening Initiative, worldwide young people contributed to a policy brief which we presented on their behalf to the G20 summit. They seek opportunities in education, workplace and community to give their voice, to be heard, and to participate in decision-making processes that affect their livelihood; they would like to see that there are clear pathways to support their well-being (and healing for those who have suffered trauma either owing to war, displacement, or COVID-19 pandemic); they want the policymakers to ensure equal access to good quality education, training and employment; and they express the need to join others in addressing our ecological and global concerns. Thus I’d be so delighted if these young people’s recommendations have drawn policymakers attention at the end of the European Year of Youth».


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