I visited Guinea Bissau, a very poor West African country as part of an IMF staff visit that assessed the country’s progress and mapped out future development goals. Despite long-lasting instability, harsh colonial legacy and proximity to Ebola-stricken countries, Guinea Bissau enjoys relative stability after the democratic elections in 2014 and is making progress in infrastructure and exports. The capital Bissau welcomed with old colonial chart, small-town feel and some of the most welcoming people I have met. Everywhere, from the minister’s offices to the passersby I experienced a genuine joy from interacting with the locals despite my limited Portuguese skills. As the economist tasked with monitoring trade and the country’s only export, cashew, I was pleasantly surprised by the authorities’ efforts to crack down illegal exports and improve production. Read more “Report on Trip to Guinea Bissau”
Report for the Max Weidenfeld Travel Grant: 20th Anniversary of the World Program on Youth at the UN General Assembly
Max Weidenfeld Travel Grant Report on the UN High Level Event commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the World Program on Youth at the UN General Assembly, 29th May 2015
Never before have there been so many young people in the world. Never again is there likely to be such potential for economic and social progress. How we meet the needs and aspirations of young people will define our common future. – The State of the World Population, UNFPA 2014
A little over 20 years ago young people were expected to be passive observers in local, national and global policy dialogues. Yet in 1992, leaders set out the principles of sustainable development at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. Youth interests were considered implicit in the classic definition of sustainable development by the Brundtland report which defined Sustainable Development as “development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” An intergenerational social contract was made to future generations when governments adopted sustainable development as a guiding principle.
Today, that commitment is at risk of being broken. Nation-states affected by the economic downturn have cut-back on benefits and key services for students and young people. To compound the challenge, the nature of employment is rapidly changing. 65 percent of primary school students today will be employed in jobs that do not currently exist. The average youth of today will change jobs 10 times or more in their lifetime, compared to three to four times for their parents’ generation. Young people of today also stand at the frontier of climate change. Youth aged between 10 and 24 years constitute over 1.5 billion people in the world, 70 percent of us live in developing countries where the impact of climate change is most acutely felt. The impact of climate change is causing large scale displacement and migration, this coupled with political instability and radicalisation threatens to disrupt the monotony that we have settled into in the 21st century.
20 years ago world leaders gathered in recognition of the importance of resolving the problems facing youth by adopting an international strategy – the World Programme of Action for Youth to the Year 2000 and Beyond. The World Programme of Action for Youth (WPAY) provides a policy framework and practical guidelines for national action and international support to improve the situation of young people. The 15 priority areas of the World Programme of Action for Youth are directly linked to the range of challenges facing young people, namely, education, employment, hunger and poverty, health, environment, drug abuse, juvenile delinquency, leisure-time activities, girls and young women, full and effective participation of youth in the life of society and in decision-making, globalization, information and communications technology, HIV/AIDS, armed conflict and intergenerational issues.
Much has changed since, and as of April 2014, of 198 countries, 122 countries (62%) have a national youth policy, up from 99 (50%) in 2013. But overall, the progress in implementing these policies has been slow, and available policies or actions do not adequately meet the challenges faced by young people. Clearly much more needs to be done. Youth policies potentially have several limitations including a lack of reliable and accurate data; a lack of comparable data across countries and regions; a lack of pro-jobs and pro-youth economic growth agendas; a lack of comprehensive youth policies that are integrated into national development plans; a lack of broad macroeconomic policies and the need to mainstream youth policies; the fact that the costs of programs and sources for funding are not fully known; and the fact that governments lack the capacity to undertake comprehensive monitoring and evaluative processes. It is not enough that investments and policies are directed at young people. Youth continue to be excluded from the dialogues and processes that shape their futures.
On 29th May I had the opportunity to participate in the High Level Event at the General Assembly to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the World Program of Action on Youth. At the Event the Secretary General, H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-Moon emphasised the need for young people to be involved in the creation of youth policies. Drawing attention to the significant progress that Member States and the UN have made towards meeting the MDG’s, he pointed out that today’s generation of youth is the first generation that can end poverty and the last generation that can act to end climate change. He also noted the critical timing of the WPAY anniversary commemorations, in September 2015 a new set of sustainable development goals will replace the MDG’s. Pointing out that although we live alongside the largest generation of youth the world have ever known, Young women continue to face discrimination and 14 million young people have been displaced. Each day 3000 young people are newly infected by HIV. Much more needs to be done to give young people the opportunity to flourish. The WPAY provides a platform for action. Youth policies must be inclusive, participator, gender inclusive, knowledge based, fully resourced and accountable.
In his address, Mr. Ahmad Alhendawi, the secretary General’s Envoy on Youth highlighted the need for a stronger Political will to make youth issues a priority and the need for the economic resources to back commitments. He also emphasised the need to invest in tools and research to help us better understand youth and keep track on areas of youth development.
(Nikhil and Mr. Ahmad Alhendawi, the secretary General’s Envoy on Youth)
In her Key note address Ms. Vivian Onano, Education Spokesperson for Meremi Africa, reminded the audience of the importance of girl’s education in achieving gender equality noting that “without access to education, it is impossible to make gender equality a reality.” The 24-year-old youth leader stressed that: “Achieving gender equality is more than 50-50 representation; it is also about recognizing and respecting women’s rights as human rights, treating women with dignity, offering them equal opportunities to participate fully in the socioeconomic and political development of their individual countries.” She also highlighted the need to engage men and boys in the fight for gender equality, emphasizing that “in defending women’s rights, men are actually preserving their own dignity.” She spoke of the need to engage with businesses in skill creation among youth. She drew attention to the attacks on schools in Nigeria, and in Peshawar and called on Governments to make schools safe havens for children to get the education they deserve.
The Opening session was followed by a plenary of Statements by Member States outlining their progress in implementing the WPAY: Highlighting that Africa is the world’s youngest continent with the highest proportion of youth in relation its population, the Deputy Permanent representative from Nigeria, Usman Sarki, speaking on behalf of the African Union drew the attention of the General Assembly to work of the African Union in making life wholesome for youth in Africa. He spoke of the destabilising impact on youth of conflicts in many parts of Africa. Empowering youth would be key to ensuring Africa’s growth and stability. Vanja Udovičić the Serbian Minister of Youth and Sports and a former Olympic Silver Medallist in water polo, pointed out that coordinated action among different stakeholders would be necessary. China highlighted the importance of volunteerism in increasing civic engagement among youth. Member States drew attention to the series of recent political developments fuelled by youth that have caused dramatic shifts not only in the lives of young people, but also their societies. In a number of countries, recent youth movements and student protests have altered traditional power structures. It became clear from the plenary that young people around the world, empowered with technology, have asserted themselves as powerful agents of change that world leaders need to engage with.
The plenary was followed by a panel discussion on “Stocktaking of the past 20 years since the adoption of WPAY” this panel explored some examples of successful implementation of the WPAY to date and the role of youth and youth-led organizations in WPAY implementation and youth policy development, monitoring and evaluation. This was followed by a panel discussion on the “Role of WPAY looking ahead” which explored the effectiveness of channels of communication between policy-makers and youth led organisations at the local and international level, the panel also looked into how crucial partnerships have been in the implementation of the WPAY moving in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.
A very interesting panel discussion was chaired by Jessica Abo, an award-winning television journalist who is a descendant from Holocaust Survivors and H.E. Aida Hadzialic, Minister for Upper Secondary School and Adult Education and Training, Sweden who spoke about overcoming challenges as a refugee from Bosnia and Herzogovina in Sweden and growing up to fight for youth priorities as a Minister for Education in Sweden.
The story reminded me of another inspiring personality, a young George Weidenfeld, today Lord Weidenfeld, who came to England in 1938 as a dashing, fearless refugee, and at 19 became the BBC’s youngest journalist. Before he was 30, he started his own publishing house and almost simultaneously became political adviser and chief of cabinet to Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann. With the right opportunities to make a difference a young Lord Weidenfeld, built a leading global publishing company and published classics including Nabokov’s Lolita, The Siege of Krishnapur and James Watson’s The Double Helix.
The case for youth inclusion is built on the demographic argument. It goes without saying that by their sheer numbers – over a billion and constituting around 18 per cent of the world population – young people do deserve ‘a seat’ at the negotiating table. However, in several parts of the world, young people continue to remain at the margins of the political, social and economic mainstream and often lack access to education, training and job opportunities, as well as human rights.
In recognition of this, extensive consultations have been held by the UN, in an attempt to bring the voices of youth in shaping the post-2015 Development Agenda. The UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth initiated a global Partnership on Youth, through which youth organisations around the world helped create local awareness on these issues in their communities and draw the voices of youth into the creation of the Post 2015 Development Agenda. But for change to be truly meaningful, this dialogue must not stop here but must translate into effective engagement of Youth at the national level by Member States.
“Society”, wrote Edmund Burke, is “a contract… between those who are dead, those who are living, and those who are to be born”. It is time again for decision makers and leaders of today to renew that contract with the leaders of tomorrow. On 25th September 2015, Heads of State and Government will gather in New York to agree the post-2015 development agenda. With this agenda, world leaders will have an opportunity to define a post-2015 sustainable development framework, built on lessons learned, that empowers youth and includes specific indicators and targets on education, skills development and employment, health, especially sexual and reproductive health, youth participation and leadership. The aim is to adopt “a single framework and set of goals, universal in nature and applicable to all countries, while taking account of differing national circumstances and respecting national policies and priorities. An online consultation process is now underway through which young people from around the world can contribute towards this important document that will shape the course of the future.
Today, I study at the University of Oxford through the Weidenfeld Scholarship & Leadership Program, a program made possible by Lord Weidenfeld and the Louis Dreyfus Foundation to cultivate the leaders of tomorrow by providing outstanding university graduates and professionals from developing and transitional economies with the opportunity to pursue fully-funded graduate studies at the University of Oxford. The program has given me opportunities to engage in dialogues about global challenges with leading journalists, academics, business leaders and an inspiring peer group. These experiences have helped me develop the skills and networks I need to make a meaningful contribution towards economic law and policy development when I return to India after my studies. Lord Weidenfeld’s initiative is a remarkable example of the amazing work that is being done by individuals and businesses internationally to engage with youth. If Governments are to succeed in enabling the 123 million children who cannot read and write access a high quality education. Partnerships with the private sector, with NGO’s and youth organisations are crucial. The key is investment in education, employment and engagement. By raising skill levels and access to formal employment governments can reap the benefit of an increasing number of new entrants in the labour force – the so-called “demographic dividend”. At a time when policy-makers and business leaders look for new sources of economic growth, we need to acknowledge that young people cannot contribute to economic development if they do not have access to education and opportunities for gainful employment.
As David Hallam, UK Envoy on Post-2015 Goals, said “the 25th of September will come and go in a flash. In this flash of a lightbulb moment, we must realise what is at stake and the fantastic potential that we have within our grasp.”
I hope that we are able to use the momentum gained to move beyond this lightbulb moment to leverage the tremendous potential of youth to create a future where present and future generations are able to work together to tackle shared challenges.
As a result of a generous donation by the Eranda Foundation in honour of Lord Weidenfeld’s father Max Weidenfeld, a small travel fund is available annually to provide Scholars with financial support for travel required for research, academic and professional development purposes where this is deemed to be useful and necessary.
These funds are allocated to Scholars with limited resources and infrequent opportunities to go abroad.
Robert Frost advised, take the road less travelled. My recent experience conducting dissertation fieldwork in California, however, revealed that by taking the road more familiar, one can learn just as much, perhaps even more, by reassessing the known. The ability to be surprised, and accept and adapt when one is surprised, serves to moderate the human tendency towards hubris when confronted with a familiar topic or region. This is important in a complex world such as ours; a world that does not always offer a simple or static truth.
For my dissertation, I decided to return to the part of the world where I had spent four of my undergraduate years. The decision was deliberate – a combination of suitable market conditions, existing academic networks and low safety risk. It was unexpected then, when I had to reframe what I thought I knew. The first concerned profit, which was a central variable to my Masters thesis, and the second concerned politics.
Economists assert there is one kind of person in the world. Every man, or so they claim, is selfish and seeks to maximize his or her utility. Behavioural economists and sociologists, such as Amartya Sen and Sarah Quinn, refute this notion by demonstrating that there are situations in which a certain belief system compels individuals to act in a non-selfish or non-rational manner. Going into this study, I theorized that farmers were better characterized by the latter contingent, because of their ancestral ties to the land and lifestyle. What I found, however, was that profit and such intrinsic, expressive and social values, were inextricably linked. Farmers sought profit not to retreat into a life of luxury, but to expand their operations and sustain their business for future generations. The pursuit of profit was thus a virtuous mission. Rarely is “profit” stripped from its capitalist roots (and the connotations of greed) in business today.
Reframing Californian politics
I fell for the common misconception that California is a blue (Democrat) state. In many respects, this is true. However, upon meeting the farmers I began to realize that the democratic fervour in the state is largely confined to the populated city centres. Calls for less regulation, lower taxes and criticisms of the state government were rampant. Indeed, if one looks at a political map of California, the state looks more red (Republican) than blue. Since California is the agricultural heart of the United States, much of the land mass is toiled, tilled and owned by Republican supporters. While this realisation contributes minutely to my dissertation analysis, it reminded me how important it is to look beyond one’s immediate surroundings. The opinions that are of closest reach are unlikely to portray the full picture. I was reminded that in the process of trying to make sense of the world around me, it is important not to simplify away the voices of the minority or those that are less convenient to reach. A leader should always be aware of the nuances and multiple truths.
I am currently in the process of writing up my findings for my dissertation in Water Science, Policy and Management. I hope that my work can make some small contribution to the ongoing water management dialogue in California and the wider water market debate.
“It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
– Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, Fifth Assessment Report 2013
This key finding of the IPCC’s report provides a damning indictment of the influence of anthropogenic activities on the climate system and a reflection of the challenges ahead for human systems globally. In this backdrop, the Ditchley Conference (16th to 18th April, 2015) held at Ditchley Park on ‘Climate and Energy Risk’ provided a forum for some leading thinkers and practitioners to come together and discuss aspects related to climate mitigation through the transformation of global energy and governance systems.
The beautiful palace and grounds provided a perfect setting to the intense debates taking place on the different characteristics of the climate problem and the need to find a common ground. Climate change being a defining problem of our times, the need for urgent and collective action is immense. The presence of disparate national as well as international priorities make agreements challenging. This has been witnessed in the fragmentation of stakeholders as well as the gradual dilution of global commitments towards climate mitigation, from Kyoto 1996 to Paris 2015. At the same time, the realization of first-mover advantages and the likelihood of opportunities for business has been instrumental in guiding responses in the private sector.
The first day of the conference focussed on establishing the context of the conference and the climate debate in general. Speakers spoke about how the problem is perceived at large, the likely challenges and opportunities that will dominate discourse globally and the differing realities existing in developing as well as developed countries regarding the extent of actions undertaken for climate mitigation and adaptation.
The participants were then divided into 3 groups focussing on 3 different but inter-connected areas – the politics of climate and energy, the economics of climate change and the role of technology in guiding effective responses (the group I was in). We all came together on the third day to discuss the issues that came up in the discussion and to share perspectives.
The politics group discussed, among other issues, the public perception of the climate problem, the roadmaps of future climate change policy vis-à-vis the Paris climate summit to be held in December 2015 (but for which consultations have been going on for more than a year) and the role of geopolitics in defining energy security in the next decades.
The economic arguments regarding climate change centred on de-Carbonizing global economies while maintaining a sustainable growth path. The influence of carbon pricing in influencing economic policy was discussed, and its successes and failures were evaluated on the basis of initiatives like the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. It was appreciated that regulatory initiatives as well as market instruments would be pivotal in guiding the responses of the private sector and to incentivize a reduction in emissions.
In addition to emissions reductions, climate policy would also be guided by the ability of technology to revolutionize how energy is used globally. In this context, national realities would have to be taken into account when designing responses. A country like India, with more than 500 million without access to clean cooking facilities, would need to focus on providing low-cost solutions to positively impact both public health as well as climate mitigation. On the other hand, global technological solutions like carbon capture and storage and geoengineering have been actively considered but have been held back by issues related to financing, ethics and the absence of overarching agreements.
The Conference was thus able to merge common interests but differing perspectives into a collective call for action. Personally, the Conference went a long way in providing me valuable insights into how such interrelated problems are perceived in the real world. The interactions with the other delegates was key in providing a well-rounded discourse and the means to move forward. Thank you, Ditchley!
The international community has failed Libya. While this may come across as a harsh verdict to the many organizations, governments and individuals, sometimes well-meaning, who since 2011 have been flocking in and out of the country in an attempt to secure its transition to state-hood, it is the case that many of those transactions remained confined to the surface of Libya’s socio-political transition. One still remembers the high hopes of 2011. Libya, with the largest oil reserves in Africa, was well-positioned to launch a new era unlike its neighbors, Egypt and Tunisia, who had mounting economic and structural challenges to address. In Egypt, between 2004 and 2010, there were more than 3,000 labor actions, between protests and strikes, mobilized against a baggage of old anti-democratic and intricately corrupt state structures in what came to be called the “deep state”.[i] Libya was deemed to have none of that “depth”. But did it? Is it true that Libya, with no known institutional history, possessed none of the complexities of its neighbors? This article will reflect on some of the aspects of that invisible complexity.
I argue that the failure of the international community is a result of a systemic and institutional oversimplification of that complexity which informed modes of engagement with conflict actors. This is based on interviews with over 100 Libyans between politicians, activists, civil society leaders, and individuals over the past three years in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Italy and the UK. The last round of meetings and interviews was in Tunisia in April 2015.
Demystifying the International Community
However, it is important first to unpack what we mean by the often amorphous “international community” with its astounding decision-making capacity. An IR (International Relations) term, it refers to a non-descript collective of governments, institutions as well as peoples around the world. The connotations of the term, however, are more dangerous than what it actually means because it implies a consensus without accountability and a solidarity either in support of or against something. What the “international community” wants is significant because there is a sanctity attached to it and so does what the “international community” rejects. What it isremains elusive and, at times, distracting and misleading. On Libya, the “international community” has never been less international and less of a community. What the term, in practice and in the particular case of Libya, has come to signify, in fact, is a collective of very particular state-related interests and alliances that are more aligned around shared fears and interests and less so, around principles. Italy’s recent flirting with a military intervention in Libya only happened after the ISIL killing of 21 Egyptian Copts and threatening to march on Rome. Prior to this, modes of engagement were confined to key sectors particularly the oil industry.
The USA espoused a similar approach of disengagement. In his address to the American people on March 28, 2011 and following the NATO intervention in Libya, President Barack Obama stated that while he acknowledged that “transition to a legitimate government that is responsive to the Libyan people will be a difficult task” and while “the United States will do our part to help”, “it will be a task for the international community and – more importantly – a task for the Libyan people themselves”.[ii] Libya was, in this manner, entrusted to its people under the gaze of a watchful but disengaged international community that slowly became synonymous with the following: a) Policy confusion and inaction on Libya, b) A flooding of funds to civil society organizations towards democratization and state building. A number of civil society leaders I interviewed related how they would receive funding offers amounting to thousands of dollars if they would launch particular initiatives in locations designated by the funder’s interests. They explained how they felt constantly forced to deliver projects that were tailored to the funder’s interests and little to what they perceived as needed by the people. Moreover, those interests shifted. At times, funds were allocated primarily to gender-related issues and at others, it was democratization. An unidentified percentage of the funds did not help establish foundations for a civil society. On the contrary, their influence was mostly divisive.
The state-building fetish unconsciously emptied Libya of a complex historical trajectory that has led to today’s fragmentation, as well as of the will of its people. This was particularly clear in the period leading to and after the Supreme Court declared the House of Representatives unconstitutional in November 2014. The US, Canada and six EU states issued statements but declined to take a clear position. Later, in January 2015, a UN-sponsored Libyan political dialogue concluded in Geneva without clear outcomes. The UN Special Representative of the Secretary General for Libya, Bernardino Leon, emphasized the positive spirit of the dialogue but advised against expecting quick results.
Engaging Tribal Leaders
Interventions to tackle the some 1,700 Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs) currently active in Libya have thus far failed to actively engage tribal leaders. A meeting in Cairo is scheduled to happen this month but Egypt is far from an impartial party in the conflict; and securing trust is already a challenge within Libya, and between Libya and its neighbours. While they are deemed to have more power in the east than the west of Libya, they have decision-making capacity and may help broker legitimacy for the peace negotiations. A respondent from Tripoli said:
Tribes can help mend some conflicts but I don’t think they are powerful enough for peace.
Respondents from Benghazi and Fezzan believed that tribes could help bring an end to the conflict but that they are holding on old grudges and have not reached a point where they are willing to negotiate with one another. Gaddafi’s legacy is still there and has not been dislodged, at least within the tribal constituencies, and corruption is rife. One respondent described the situation as follows:
They all saw Libya and its treasures as a cake that they should have a piece of. They all wanted to compensate for what they were deprived of under Gaddafi, and saw it now the time for them to eat as much of the cake as they can. With Gaddafi, corrupt people were known but now it’s everywhere.
Bernardino Leon is not Adrian Pelt
The Libyan people had a strong sense of déjà vu regarding Bernardino Leon’s role as Special Representative and Head of the United Nations Mission in Libya (UNSMIL). They saw him as the new Adrian Pelt who would oversaw Libya’s 1951 constitution and launched Libya as a constitutional monarchy under King Idris. Pelt who was the UN Commissioner and a Dutch national, received guidance from the United Nations Council for Libya, which included a variety of nationalities. It had representatives from Egypt, France, Italy, Britain, Pakistan, the United States of America and only four Libyan members representing Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, Fezzan and the non-Arab minorities. It is important to also note how that period is perceived in Libyan consciousness: it is the closest they got to a Libyan nation and state until the Gaddafi coup in 1969. There seemed to be a consensus that it was then that Libya was a nation and a state in spite of persistent regional differences.
The times are different, however, and Bernardino Leon is not able to perform Adrian Pelt’s role. The set of interests around Libya today are very different from the Libya of 1951, which had not discovered oil yet and had not been through 42 years of dictatorship. In 1951, it was in everyone’s interest to gain independence, and for that to happen, differences were cast aside. The figurehead of King Idris also helped iron out grudges, and the international community, back then, represented by Adrian Pelt and country representatives helped broker that leadership while getting the consent of the Libyan public. At present, however, that leadership is nowhere to be seen and no one seems capable of gaining the trust of the people, no fear of colonization (British, French or Italian) and thus, no real incentives to unite and salvage Libya from disintegration. Libyans hoped (and still hope), that the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) may bring a solution, but internal differences and grudges within the organisation have left little hope for change.
ISIL and Islamist militancy may provide incentives for unity. However, unless a third party is capable of evolving leadership in Libya, one that can gain the trust of the public, Libya will continue to implode with grave repercussions in both the short and long-term. The international community has a role to play but unless that role is clearly defined and adequately informed of the deep power dynamics, it will continue to fail Libya as well as itself.
[i] See Maher, Stephen. (2011). “The Political Economy of the Egyptian Uprising.” Monthly Review. Vol. 63(06). Available through: http://monthlyreview.org/2011/11/01/the-political-economy-of-the-egyptian-uprising/ [Accessed March 12, 2015].
[ii] See The White House. (March 2011) “Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Libya.” Available through: https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/03/28/remarks-president-address-nation-libya [Accessed March 12, 2015].
This article was first published on 21st of May 2015 in Politics in Spires (http://politicsinspires.org/how-the-international-community-failed-libya/)
Weidenfeld-Roland Berger Scholar Fatemeh Hashemi (Magister Juris, 2014-15) writes of her personal mission to improve female education in Iran, through her family’s inspiring university foundation.
My home country of Iran is a country of over 75 million people located in the Middle East. It has a long and illustrious history as a great civilization with deeply rooted traditions. Like most old nations, Iran has also gone through periods of glory and subjugation. Between 1980 and 1988 Iran faced a brutal and costly war with its neighbour Iraq and for the past decade it has endured the most severe international economic and financial sanctions which have ever been imposed on a country.
In spite of this, today Iran has one of the highest levels of literacy in the region, as well as a highly educated and skilled work force. Women constitute 55% of all students in all the country’s major universities. Education has always been part of Iranian genetic make up.
However whilst this is true for Iran’s big cities and major urban communities, the situation in rural and agricultural areas is far less encouraging. In these areas, the norm is for boys to relocate to big industrial or commercial centers straight after high school. Entrenched traditions and customs dictate that girls are expected to stay at home, get married and bear children.
Khonsar, a city of thirty thousand people, is typical of Iran’s agricultural landscape. It is located about two hours’ drive from Iran’s second largest city Esfahan and is surrounded by high mountains and deep valleys. It has a beautiful scenic landscape and, due to its historical isolation, it has maintained very deep cultural traditions and religious belief.
My father was born and spent his youth in Khonsar before relocating to Tehran. Over sixty years, he became successful in the construction business and accumulated a sizable fortune. During my upbringing, we were often reminded of our good fortune and privileges; we were taught that it is a moral duty and responsibly to give something back to the community. As such, as a family, we have always tried to help people in need in this region and ten years ago my father decided to establish and build a university in Khonsar only for girls. The purpose of the university was to give girls from low-income families access to higher education, alongside specific skills that would allow them to make a better life for themselves and help their family financially.
Hashemi University has now been operating successfully for a number of years. It has a cohort of 350 young girls from all over Iran, mostly from low-income families, who are housed in the university dormitory for a period of three years. To date, results have been very encouraging. Most of the graduates have found employment and some have started their own businesses. Demand for places at the university has continued to outpace university’s ability to expand and accept more applicants.
My father is now 80 years old and less energetic than in the past, so I have decided to take over his role with the aim of introducing a more sustainable western style institution in Iran, drawing upon my own experience of the western system of philanthropy.
My idea was to establish a legal foundation to oversee the continuing operation, expansion and modernisation of the university. The first major objective of this foundation is to change the region’s outmoded cultural prejudices and biases against the young female population, establishing more equality between the sexes and transforming local attitudes to better reflect the twenty-first century ethos of female education for future self-reliance and independence.
Secondly the Foundation plans to establish a sustainable administrative body to undertake ongoing promotion and marketing schemes to seek private donations and public funding to secure the University’s future. Thirdly a supervisory board is to be created to assure the university’s educational excellence by providing the best programs, the latest educational tools and well-qualified staff.
Legal documents are currently being prepared and procedures finalised. We have been considering our administrative requirements and looking for a suitable space to house the new Foundation. I am also in the process of contacting successful business people all over Iran who were either born in Khonsar or descend from Khonsari parents or grandparents. After my initial efforts, this will be widened to include many other well-to-do people in Iran.
Upon my return to Iran after graduating in August, I plan to dedicate a large portion of my personal time to ensure that this project takes off and becomes not only a success on its own merits but also a model for others to emulate.