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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

State Department Engagement on Youth Issues

Ronan Farrow
Special Adviser, Office of Global Youth Issues

New York, NY
April 23, 2012

Date: 04/23/2012 Location: New York, NY Description: Ronan Farrow, Special Adviser tot he Secretary of State for Global Youth Issues, briefs at the New York Foreign Press Center on ''State Department Engagement in Youth Issues.'' - State Dept Image

3:30 P.M., EST


MODERATOR: Okay. So thank you all for being here with us today. It's my pleasure to introduce Ronan Farrow, who is a Special Advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Global Youth Issues and the director of the State Department’s Global Youth Issues Office. He is responsible for implementing and amplifying youth policy and programming throughout the Department. The Office of Global Youth Issues oversees an historic effort to empower young people as economic and civic actors through U.S. programs, to encourage governments to respond to youth through U.S. diplomacy, and directly engage young people around the world.

Special Advisor Farrow is a lawyer and former human rights advocate and journalist. Prior to his current role, Special Advisor Farrow served as the State Department’s special advisor for humanitarian and NGO affairs in the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, where he oversaw the U.S. Government’s relationship with civil society and nongovernmental actors.

So he’s got a lot of experience in the State Department. So without further ado, I turn it over to you, Ronan.

MR. FARROW: Thanks. I was excited to hear that we had such a diverse group and people who are really interested, I think, in accessing this audience in interesting ways. Journalists, I think, are as important a part of this puzzle as the NGOs we deal with, the government leaders we deal with. Journalism is one of the conduits where young voices can be heard, and it’s one of the areas where in each of your countries you really have a platform through which the frustrations, the concerns, and the aspirations of young people can rise to the global stage. So I was definitely excited to connect with you and interested to hear your thoughts.

I’m happy to, at the outset, give you a little snapshot of what we’ve been doing, what Secretary Clinton has been doing in terms of her commitment to youth, and how that translates all around the world. But then, mostly, obviously, I want to take your questions.

So we surveyed a landscape in the United States Government that young people themselves were looking at: a landscape in which employment options were limited as young people left school, in which educational opportunities themselves were limited, in which young people are indeed three times more likely in many parts of the world to be unemployed than people over the age of 30, and all around the world in which young people’s voices are the most easily marginalized, the most easily pushed aside. And of course, we saw in the revolutions of the last year young people taking a stand, demanding dignity, demanding a right to be heard, and demanding economic policy where they could be equipped to enter a global job market. And we have seen the power of young people to be a positive force for change, to stand up for all of those things I just mentioned, and to unseat old repressive regimes to that end.

So we understood long before those revolutions that young people had a tremendous transformative, positive role to play. And we’ve seen that in those political spheres, where they are often the brightest and most vibrant activists and champions of human rights and democracy. We’ve seen it in the economic sphere, where in many parts of the world the majority of new jobs come from startups, many of which are the product of young people and their innovation and entrepreneurship.

On the other hand, I myself come from a background of working in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as you just heard, and before that in the Horn of Africa – both places where we see young people as ripe targets for recruitment by extremist elements, by criminal elements; where we see those frustrations I talked about – about not having a job, about not having a way to make one’s voice heard peacefully – can boil over into chaos; where we see young people as a destabilizing force rather than one for positive change. So we understood both sides of that coin: the potential that young people have to be the champions of all of the best hopes for an economic recovery and for progress on the issues that we care about most; but also the potential that young people have, if we turn away from them, to be at the heart of many of our 21st century challenges.

So that obviously led to a situation where young people, in unprecedented numbers in just about every region, took to the streets, took to their communities, took to the internet and to social media, to demand a voice. And that ranges from, obviously, those revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa that I mentioned, to young people in Western Europe, as you’ve all seen recently, protesting the levels of unemployment, some of the economic policies that they disagree with.

So all of this, obviously, was an affirmation of our need to bring young people to the table, to connect with them. But we started that process of prioritizing youth and putting them at the heart of everything we do before those revolutions. We really looked out across that global landscape. We saw that there were these frustrations, these challenges. We saw that there was this tremendous potential for good, and we saw that the numbers couldn’t be ignored. We have more than half of the world’s population under the age of 30 now.

So that’s why Secretary Clinton announced in Tunisia several months ago a comprehensive new United States policy on youth, which focuses on building job opportunities and economic opportunity on the one hand, and building avenues for young people to make their voices heard on the other hand.

And all around the world, we’ve been making a concerted effort to stand by young people and give them the tools to make that happen. That conversation is not always easy. We don’t walk into communities and expect young people everywhere to trust and agree with the United States. We understand the divisive role we play in many parts of the world. But I think that we have made strides towards bringing young people to the table and giving them a serious role in our policy process. I won’t go on at great length because there is a swath of programming – in fact more than $100 million of programming annually – that directly targets young people out of the United States Government, ranging from healthcare to education to job training. But in addition to those important programs that I’ve been responsible for overseeing in large part and that I really do believe are producing results, we’re also innovating to make sure that young people are in the driver’s seat as we undertake all of that programming.

So for instance, we have a new office focused on youth issues in Washington and we have my role. I’m 24, and I’m the Secretary of State’s advisor on youth issues. And I have a team under me that is focused just on these issues, which is a first in the history of the State Department.

QUESTION: So [$100 million] in the U.S. or all over the world?

MR. FARROW: Out of our foreign assistance budget all over the world, in programs that significantly affect and target young people and look at their needs and try to stand by them in various ways across many different sectors.

Now, we also know that it’s not enough to put these issues on the table in Washington. We have focused particularly on grassroots mobilization of young people and grassroots partnerships with young people all around the world, wherever the United States flag flies. So that means that Secretary Clinton sits down with not just the traditional old guard through the leadership around the world that we partner with in governments, but also everywhere she goes she sits down with youth leaders now, as does the President.

I think it’s a testament to that that when we looked at how to best strengthen our ties to the African continent, the President didn’t just sit down with other presidents, other heads of state. He brought together a forum of young African leaders, young people in civil society, young entrepreneurs, and brought them to Washington to consult with them. And I’ve been working on follow-up engagement with those young leaders in that particular part of the world. But this is a sign of how, all around the world, we prioritize sitting down with youth.

More than that, one thing that we are building as a permanent legacy that Secretary Clinton will be behind is all around the world – in fact, in about forty countries right now, and that count is rising – we’ve built councils of local young people that we welcome into our embassies and consulates and that we formally approach for policy guidance. I’ve been at the launch meetings of many of these youth councils, and we turn to them in earnest and say, “Here’s what we’re doing. What do you think we should be doing? What do you think we’re doing right, and what do you think we should be doing better?” And we get them to produce a formal policy document for us, where we’re hearing very clearly what local young people want from the United States.

And more than that, we are partnering with them then to try to realize those goals. So all around the world, we have youth councils that are incubating grassroots, youth-led projects in communities from healthcare to job-training programs. I just got back from Latvia, where two of the members of our youth council – two young men, 23 years old when they started this – acting on a small grant that we gave them about a year ago, built an e-petition system, an online system where people make their policy agendas heard. That is now written into the law of that country. It’s used by 20 percent of the population. And if you submit a petition as a young Latvian and it gets enough votes, the Latvian Government is obligated to either pass a regulation accordingly or explain publicly why they haven’t.

So these are the kinds of game-changing ideas that we believe young people are capable of, that have global potential. And we want to stand by young people. It’s very much not about imposing our own agenda. It’s about hearing people out and outsourcing decisions that usually would be made in Washington to local communities. And I think that there’s a lot of work to be done in that sphere, but I really do think Secretary Clinton and her career-long commitment to youth has changed the game on that. I think that’ll leave a lasting legacy. So that’s what we’re doing.

QUESTION: May I ask you to give us some practical examples – for example, about what you are doing in Afghanistan where you are expert because you worked in that region in your previous mission, and if you do some special initiatives towards young women?

MR. FARROW: Yes. Both very good questions. In Afghanistan, you have nearly 70 percent of the population under the age of 30. It’s in the high 60s. It fluctuates, obviously, from year to year, but a very high percentage of the population is young. And there is massive unemployment; there is massive lack of opportunity. I’ve spent a lot of time in communities in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan talking to young people and hearing about the very different challenges they face across that region.

One thing that we see there is that frustrated young people who need to find a way to make a living are at the heart of that country’s insurgency, at the heart of a lot of the instability we see in that part of the world. There is a term in the academic literature about Afghanistan, the $10 Talib, which basically refers to the trend of people who are not ideologically committed to violence and terrorism but who become involved with those things because they need to make a living. And I’ve certainly met young people who fall into that category.

So these are some of the important parts of the world where we need to focus on reaching out to young people. And in Afghanistan in particular, we have a very strong presence with our United States Agency for International Development. We’ve actually set up youth shuras, which is the local term for consultations, around that country, where we’re directly consulting with youth.

Our military presence, which is now winding down, during its time in Afghanistan, I think there was a lot of good, regardless of your position on our broader engagement in the region that they were able to do in integrating young people into local governance processes and in consulting with young people at a community level.

So it’s been a big area of focus. It’s also a good illustration of where women’s engagement is so important, because in some of these settings, women are often denied a seat at the table. That’s a problem, obviously, because it is wrong and because it’s a violation of some of the principles that we hold most dear in the United States and around the world, where people champion human rights.

But also, it is an economically depressing factor. Young people and women both need to be harnessed for their tremendous economic potential. And when we see half of the population – women – denied a role in local economies that is a serious obstacle to development.

So for both human rights and economic reasons, we have put engaging women at the top of our agenda. And we have – as we do with the youth issues now, we have a longstanding Women’s Issue’s Office in Washington. We have a global ambassador on women’s issues, Melanne Verveer, who’s very close to the Secretary of State. And we have programs in every region, just as I described with youth, we also have women’s focus programs. And maybe most significantly, we have committed ourselves to – for all of our programs all around the world – making sure there is an assessment of what the impact on women will be, how we’re bringing women to the table. In every job training program, in every health care program, the United States Agency for International Development has made that commitment.

So I think that there have been great strides in the last several years in really making sure that women are front and center in everything that we do.

MODERATOR: Before we take the next question, please state your name and your media organization.

QUESTION: Paulo Mastrolilli, Italian newspaper La Stampa. (Inaudible) program going on there?

MR. FARROW: I have not been to Italy in this particular job. I have been to Italy in life. And obviously, there is no more beautiful country in the world. I hope I get to return at some point.

We have been working very closely with our missions to both Italy and to the Holy See on youth engagement. One of the things that we’re involved in with the Vatican is we have a global dialogue with civil society and NGOs on faith issues, on religious freedom in particular. And we’ve really worked to get young people a seat at the table in that context.

It’s interesting, because there’s a lot of talk about the role that young people play and how that’s transformative in the developing world and particularly in some of these heavy youth-majority areas like the Middle East and North Africa. But equally, in many European countries where there are smaller numbers of young people, we see equally important problems. You see tremendous brain drain, young people leaving Europe to try to find job opportunities elsewhere. And that’s something that is very troubling to us.

So one of the things that we’re trying to do all around Europe is to build programs that get young people at the table, that really convey clearly that there are opportunities if they stay around. And ultimately, that’s something that – that’s a message we can send, but it’s something that needs to be followed up on with concrete economic policies that invite more investment with action from the business community that really creates those jobs. So that’s the set of issues that we’re keeping on the table in Europe, and we are seeing those young councils I mentioned crop up all around Europe, starting mostly in Eastern Europe but headed west now.

QUESTION: Angelo Aquaro, La Repubblica. You spent a lot of time working in Africa, so how do you judge the – all that excitement caused by the viral video about Kony 2012 campaign. And what U.S. are doing in order to counter?

MR. FARROW: Well, we welcome viral initiatives and videos and things that capture the public imagination, as long as they raise awareness. I think that that is a positive step in the right direction. It is, of course, not the be-all and end-all. People have taken issue with that particular Kony 2012 video, I think not incorrectly. It is not a full summation of the set of issues, and I don’t know that it directly links people into concrete actions they can take to make a difference in that very important area in Uganda.

I do think – I look at my own little sister who’s 16, who probably wouldn’t have ever heard of Joseph Kony, and she saw the video and now she is actually gone and done her own research and she is – instead of just following the video, she’s now linked up with NGOs that are actually doing significant work on the ground in that region.

So it can be a gateway to, I think, important action. For the United States’s part, we have an office focused exclusively on global criminal justice. I work very closely with them. We actually recently went public with an initiative called Rewards for Justice, which is legislation that is being introduced in the United States to allow us to offer rewards for war criminals that are wanted by international tribunals, such as Joseph Kony. So that is something that we hope will give us even more of a lever to try to bring some of these individuals to justice.

QUESTION: My question extends from youths to youths in future generations. Now in effect, the concept of future generations has no standing in law. Now how do you create, in a democracy, to convey rights in the context of sustainability? Because if you don’t look at future generations, there’s no stability, so stability is now a very important subject.

MR. FARROW: Yeah. I think that’s absolutely true. I don’t know that it’s necessarily a legal argument. I don’t think there are legal constraints --

QUESTION: I asked somebody from Yale.

MR. FARROW: Yes, yes. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I was told it has no standing in law.

MR. FARROW: Standing is a technical judicial term in the United States. Right. Hypothetical future generations would not have standing to bring any action in an American court. I think that that’s actually a side issue. I think that your main concern that you raise is a very real one.

When we talk about engaging youth and how they are both a challenge and an opportunity right now, how my generation can be transformative in this very moment, it’s important not to lose sight of the sustainability piece of things – really trying to focus on what are the long-term repercussions. And I think that this new focus on youth in everything that the United States does and, hopefully, in the actions of civil society around the world and the actions of other governments around the world really does bring to light how important it is to balance those two things, that young people are not just the future; they’re right now.

But they’re also the future. This is an investment. When we talk about setting up councils of local young people, when we talk about our programs that bring young people from around the world to study in the United States – which, by the way, have over the past decades produced hundreds of heads of state that spent time as students in this country and understand what we do right, what we could do better, our foibles but also our aspirations and the ways in which the United States is a great country and does have things to offer in the world. That is a powerful thing. That means that people who are our interlocutors all around the world, who are leading countries all around the world, have a greater understanding of us and, hopefully, are positioned on both of our sides to build greater harmony and greater collaboration. So I think I would agree with you that that investment in the long term is absolutely essential.

MODERATOR: We have time for a couple more questions.

QUESTION: Hi. I’m Vasco De Jesus from Brazil, VascoPress Communications. And I accompanied President Obama’s visit to Brazil, and my president visited the United States, the MIT and to Harvard to sign the agreements for the (inaudible). We have hundreds of Brazilian students in these programs here, and 100,000 students --


QUESTION: -- are going to leave Brazil to go overseas.

MR. FARROW: That’s right.

QUESTION: And the presidential visit last year created a very, very positive message for the young people in my country, and subsequent actions by --


QUESTION: -- your department also. I would like to know, how do you envisage this very positive message that was in the seeds that were planted in Brazil in the next five years, 10 years for that?

MR. FARROW: Well, we’re really seeing – I mean, Latin America is a big priority area for me, and I know it is for the Secretary and the President as well. And we’re really seeing countries like Brazil rise to prominence as some of the leaders in the global community that we care most about interfacing with. And that’s not just government to government. It’s about building ties between our peoples that can withstand the change of leadership on both sides. That’s why we so welcome the 100,000 Strong Initiative. That’s why we’re actually working on our own 100,000 Strong Initiative for Latin America, which is something that we’ve successfully launched for China recently, and we’re now looking at it in Latin America, as I said.

There are a variety of specific issues with Brazil coming up. For instance, we have the Rio+20 Conference, which we’re all very much looking forward to. And I’ve had some very good conversations with people on the Brazilian side and also with the youth delegates that we’re sending to that summit. But it’s a great example of how a country in any region can lead on these issues and really say okay, we’re looking at, say, climate change in this case. How do we get young people to the table, and how do we ensure that they have an instrumental role to play in building solutions? So I think that we’ve all been very inspired by Brazil’s leadership on these issues.

MODERATOR: First Maxime, then Oray. Then we’ll go to Kishor.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks. Could you be more specific about the initiative in Western Europe you talked about, and especially France, if you can? And my second question would be have you been following the French first round of the elections? And do you have any feelings to say about --

MR. FARROW: We’re – Americans are actually following with great interest. I think now is probably not the place to expound on French politics, but we’re certainly watching with great, great hope, and I think a lot of investment in the future of France and the way in which that’s instrumental to the future of the region. We are focused on --

QUESTION: You have consequences, I mean, if a socialist is elected, right?

MR. FARROW: Well, without discussing the specifics of French politics, we are watching precisely because we really do view France as an important leader in the region and an important leader particularly when it comes to the economic future of the region. I mean, that is central to all of us. It stands to affect the United States and its economic progress very acutely. So yes, we’re watching with great interest.

I think that in France, as I said, the initial focus with respect to youth issues was not as much in Western Europe, but we’ve seen Western European youth really call out loud and clear for --

QUESTION: Riots in London --

MR. FARROW: Exactly. Right. London, France. Actually, in Latin America we saw students obviously taking to the streets in Chile. So all around the world, and in more and more developed countries too, we’ve seen young people really making their voices heard loud and clear.

So in France, I’m engaged in very close discussions with our Embassy there. We brought a number of youth delegates to the UNESCO summit that recently happened focused on youth in Paris, and we have a mission to UNESCO that’s based in Paris that is very focused on youth outreach. While they were there, the American youth delegates that we sent engaged in community service projects where they partnered with local French youth.

So the programs look a little bit different in a lot of the Western world. We are partnering with young people. We’re trying to see how we can support them as they start projects in their communities. And we’re working with the private sector, as I said, to, again, try to build that economic progress. And that’s not specific to young people. Obviously it’s our global economic statecraft.

QUESTION: You talk about (inaudible) about the exchange --


QUESTION: -- the Department of State makes with some young people in the suburbs of France, like (inaudible) people to make (inaudible) America, to maybe discover the American way or --


QUESTION: -- of integration, of (inaudible) election, and so on. So are you involved in these kind of things?

MR. FARROW: That continues to be a part of our engagement all around the world and certainly in Western Europe. We have an entire department focused on education and cultural exchanges. And I mentioned earlier that we have hundreds of world leaders over the last few decades that participated in those exchanges. So it is a very important mechanism for building partnerships between our peoples. So I certainly hope to see more of that.

MODERATOR: Let’s go to Oray.

QUESTION: I’m Oray from Aksam daily in Turkey. I know you were recently in Turkey in December.


QUESTION: And I’d like to ask you this: For a couple of years, the American Embassy and the consulates are working towards this anti-American sentiment among the youth in Turkey. And I’d like to ask you what you’ve observed about that, and have you made any progress so far to reduce the anti-American sentiment in the country among the young people?

MR. FARROW: I think it’s a slow and difficult conversation that we’re having all around the world. I mean, very often skepticism in world powers in general – and I think in the United States particularly – sometimes comes from a merited place; there’s a specific grievance where we understand what young people’s concerns are. And I think the most powerful antidote to that is really bringing young people to the table and engaging them as honest partners and saying look, we want to hear what your concerns are, and we can’t claim to be perfect all the time, but we can assure you that we view you as serious strategic partners, not just your governments.

So that is – that’s a process that certainly we’re engaged in in Turkey. We have a very vibrant team there. We’ve got a great embassy in Ankara, great consulate in Istanbul. And I talk to young people in both Istanbul and Ankara and really hope to get back and talk to more rural youth too. While I was there, actually, we launched an exchange program of the type we’ve just been talking about for a number of college students to apply to, which was focused specifically on coming to the United States to observe our election process, look at how to build political advocacy, how to set up NGOs and civil society groups. So that element of our engagement around the world, as I said, focusing on young people being able to make their voices heard, that’s something that we’ve really focused on in Turkey.

And of course, as you know, we held our last annual entrepreneurship summit there. So Joe Biden, our Vice President, and myself both spoke at that. I got to see a whole lot of projects from young people around the region, but also from Turkey specifically young entrepreneurs who had just incredible business ideas, I mean really innovative kind of high-tech projects. So I have a lot of optimism for this next generation of leadership in Turkey.

MODERATOR: Final question, (inaudible.)

MR. FARROW: We’re good? All right. Thank you, everybody.

MODERATOR: Well, Special Advisor Farrow has a flight to catch, so we’re going to let him go now.

MR. FARROW: Thanks.

MODERATOR: Thanks very much for your time.

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