Image Credit: Abdul Rahman/Gulf News

Here’s a question that keeps me awake some nights — what will we do with advances in business, economy and technology if we do not pay attention to harnessing the capabilities of young people who will at some point be responsible for the successful functioning of their communities and the world? Are we doing enough to safeguard their basic rights to education, food, shelter, and other basic amenities? Are we making our best efforts to give them a real voice?

These questions present us an opportunity to think about the issues facing young people around the globe, and especially in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region where the youth crisis is perhaps the most intense. In our minds, youth stands for dreams, innovation, and new opportunities — or simply put, the future. Yet too many of these dreams are today being thwarted. Globally, youth unemployment is three times higher than that of adults. Children and the youth face a bigger risk when displaced; they are far more vulnerable than adults when subject to violence and exploitation, physical and psychological abuse, trafficking, or when they are pulled away from schools and given arms by extremists.

These are some realities that Sharjah’s leadership, that has entrusted the emirate’s future with the youth, has committed itself to help changing. Our ambitions led us to create an international platform ‘Investing in the Future: Middle East and North Africa (IIFMena) Conference, held at Al Jawaher Reception and Convention Centre, to bring the world together once every two years to tackle a specific humanitarian and development challenge in the Mena region.

The first edition of the conference hosted regional governments and international agencies to discuss ways and means to safeguard the rights and lives of refugee children and adolescents who are victims of conflicts and wars. The second edition focused on the crucial need for gender equality by offering girls and women equal opportunities in society and the economy. The theme of the ongoing edition is ‘Youth — Crisis Challenges and Development Opportunities,’ and it will be hosted by The Big Heart Foundation (TBHF) in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), UNHCR, NAMA Women Advancement Establishment and UN Women.

This edition will put the spotlight on youth-related issues with a focus on the consequences of wars, conflicts and disasters on them. The potential of a whole generation risks being wasted as the region stokes social tensions.

Through the conference, we would like to highlight that youth should have the opportunity to participate in the social and economic development of their communities. We need to establish a clear mechanism to involve them in the decision-making process, harness their potentials, and ignite their leadership skills.

Youth are agents of change

Creating large numbers of decent jobs for young people is critical for achieving overall development objectives, from poverty reduction to better health and education. Globally, 600 million jobs will be needed over the next 10 to 15 years. Developing the youth’s employability skills will also be a core focus of the conference agenda.

The expert insights in this edition will seek to offer strategic direction to the agenda of youth empowerment with a special focus on how they can be prepared and equipped to be safely returned to their homelands once conditions are normalised. When given the space and opportunity to rebuild their own communities, young people can turn their energy and creativity towards solving today’s challenges and tomorrow’s problems. International communities will need to rally efforts to be able to execute this strategy. It is our collective responsibility to ensure our youth do not feel abandoned, lost or cheated — it is in these times they are most vulnerable and have no choice but to seek an alternative environment not conducive to their own development or that of their community’s.

Displacement, marginalisation and lack of opportunities are all problems that humans created for themselves. It’s time we turn these problems into long-term solutions for us, and more importantly, for our children.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognises the importance of tackling youth oppression and unemployment, and calls for promoting their rights in education, employment and civic engagement. Through the IIFMena Conference this year, we seek to highlight this agenda by demonstrating that a common global agenda can galvanise support from many different actors — something critical to the successful promotion of the youth towards a brighter, more just future.

Mariam Al Hammadi is the Director of The Big Heart Foundation.