How ASPIRE Can Promote Dialogue among Civilizations

Three billion young people stood on a single stage at the opening plenary session of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20 Summit) in Rio de Janeiro this past June. They demanded change and called on world leaders to take action to ensure that a sustainable future for our children and our grandchildren was secured. The voice of those three billion people under the age of 25 was somewhat meek, yet confident, and had a New Zealand accent. Indeed, seventeen year-old Brittany Trilford let leaders know that we cannot accept any more broken or empty promises. Brittany might have challenged leaders from an environmental standpoint, but as she was addressing the conference, young people in Europe struggled to find jobs as the beleaguered region continued to grapple with its ongoing debt crisis. Young people in the Middle East were trying to see through the settling dust following the Arab uprisings. Tensions over an alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme continued to simmer, as biting sanctions from Western powers continued to affect the large population of youth there.

In June 2012, when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged world leaders not to forget that time was the scarcest resource of all, he was referring to the urgency of the need for an international framework for sustainable development and for the establishment of a green economy. But it seemed no coincidence that his timely statements came on the heels of other storms brewing on the international economic and humanitarian fronts. He has led several choruses of voices calling for peace in unstable territories and between countries, such as when he advised that Turkey and Syria exercise restraint following the downing that month of a Turkish airplane by Syrian forces which saw Turkey reviewing its military options, among notable recent events. The year has had its share of unsettled relations as pressure mounted on various international bodies, including the United Nations, to intervene in certain situations. Still, in the midst of it all, Mr. Ban took a little time out to urge young people to "make some noise". Of course, he made the statement in the context of the Rio+20 Summit, where he emphasized the importance of young people in shaming their leaders into doing more to secure a sustainable future. His words, however, can be applied to every other situation affecting humanity.

The Secretary-General fully understands the importance of youth in carrying out his agenda. The creation of Action by Students to Promote Innovation and Reform through Education (ASPIRE) as a university student-driven initiative to actively support the principles of the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI)—which is the brainchild of the Secretary-General himself—is a tool to lobby young people to inject a level of enthusiasm, vigour and urgency that may not otherwise be present when dealing with topical matters. The purpose of ASPIRE is to take action. No one expects ASPIRE to make any dramatic change by itself, but it can perhaps do something even more significant: promote dialogue among civilizations.

"This is not about the future we want." That was how Karuna Rana, Representative of the Major Group for Children and Youth put it as she spoke about the outcome document from the Rio+20 Summit this year. She added: "Children and youth feel frustrated by this grossly insufficient outcome document." This is an example of our power. We have a voice and that voice is becoming increasingly louder. We pay attention and see how bleakly some decisions can affect our future, because the future is ours to live in. More important, the statement got people talking. Children and youth felt that the outcome document was not strong enough, so people started looking at it even more critically in the interest of making it stronger and bolder. This is as simple as it gets -- garnering attention so that people really take the issues much more seriously.

Consider some major issues: young people are inheriting an over exploited, economically mismanaged world filled with conflict and various social ills. The powers that be -- whoever they might be -- have been trying to address these issues. Indeed, nations around the world have committed to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, but can governments achieve this alone? Can governments achieve these goals even in conjunction with non-governmental organizations and various elements in civil society? What about the role of young people, who are arguably the most frustrated group by this global period of uncertainty?

ASPIRE groups have been popping up all around the world, even in some of the most volatile regions. This is largely because young people feel the need to take matters into their own hands and not to seek comfort in political rhetoric, filled with broken and mostly empty promises. ASPIRE students recognize the importance of education and innovation in solving the world's problems. In order for us to change the world, we need to understand the way it is, and education is key. As long as we have that level of understanding, we can tackle how we handle the problems. To go one step further, in understanding the world as it is, we need to understand each other. We cannot ignore the significant role social media has played in this regard. Cultural diffusion has been accelerated by social media. Now more than ever, people are aware of all the ills that take place because of the accessibility of images and information on these social media platforms. In fact, various ASPIRE groups have taken full advantage of social media to promote their projects and ideas. There are three major things ASPIRE seeks to do: connect, collaborate and change.

This is the age of interconnectedness. Young people are fully equipped with the tools to connect and stand in solidarity with each other. In 2010, I attended a United Nations conference in Australia that dealt with achieving the MDGs, and met some of the most inspiring and driven young people from around the world. I had a great time being among passionate, like-minded individuals, but I honestly thought I would never see any of them again. It is beyond me how I did not consider the power of the internet when I made that baseless assumption. I have since met several of those people face to face and have reconnected with all of them through the internet. In fact, several of us are working on various projects together for the betterment of humanity. I also recently attended a foreign affairs conference and met brilliant, young change makers from different backgrounds and cultures with radically different views. What proved similar among us was a desire to make the world an easier place for all of us to live in. Our different races, creeds and religions did not matter. The fact that we all came together to discuss the world's problems, formal setting or not, suggests that the movement is taking place. Cross-cultural dialogue does not necessarily have to take the shape of formal meetings and documents. It's about friendship and understanding. We all want to make the world a better place to live in, we understand each other's problems, we seek to put the spotlight on such problems, and we seek to take action to address them. The dialogue takes place through our actions because, ultimately, they speak much louder than our words.

Collaboration is key to making the change that we want. We have to have a collective voice. This is why ASPIRE encourages young people to think globally but act locally. It only seems logical that in order to change the world we have to start with our immediate surroundings. With each of us acting responsibly and setting the right examples, we can secure our futures. If we add ways in which we work together across borders to that recipe, we can ensure a brighter future. ASPIRE Chapters all around the world are finding ways to work with people in their respective communities and with each other. Gone are the days when we remained silent while the "guardians of our affairs" made decisions based on ideology, power politics or financial gain. A global movement is taking place. I have a little saying that I use all the time that can be applied to the discussion at hand: we can save the world because we have the power that counts the most—our courage.