"One in five people living in the Middle East and North Africa are under the age of 24. 60% of people across the globe are under the age of 30. 65% in the middle east and north africa are under the age of 35. This is not only the future, but it is a demographic that is right now transforming the landscapes of many of these countries. They are leading the efforts, empowered by new technologies fluent in social media and connective information, they have all these mechanisms for getting their voices heard," said Andrew Rabens.
Rabens is the Special Advisor for Youth Engagement, Bureau of Near East Affairs at the Department of State. He is trying to harness the massive numbers of youths to move their countries forward. Rabens led an initiative to engage young leaders from the Middle East and North Africa to share ideas and learn about American democracy. He has been nominated for a Service to America Medals- the Sammies - the Oscars for federal employees.
Rabens told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the job is to work with embassies and consulates to build relationships with young leaders on the ground and then to help devise programs and efforts that may be able to bring them together through common challenges.
Power of the youth movement
"Young people, as we have seen in the past few years, are really driving what’s happening on the ground in the Middle East and North Africa, the change and the desire for more political and economic opportunities, for more responsive governments. We’ve really viewed youth engagement through a lens of interest based youth engagements. So we’ve really tried to have a lot of conversations. Embassy officers and folks on the ground, with help from folks in Washington as well really reaching out to potential leaders and understanding what are the issues they are focusing on. What are they really trying to tackle in their countries. Then seeing where the US interest in those respective countries are as well. Looking at that venn diagram and looking at where some of those overlapping interests, where we might be able to really push US resources. We want to encourage in areas of overlap to devise programs, exchange opportunities, international efforts, bringing out US experts. bringing young people to parts of the US, like Silicon Valley for young technology entrepreneurs. These are places where we can build relationships around common challenges."
Economic uncertainties drive the need for engagement
"The youth in these countries have decided, and rightfully so, that this is a time they deserve more responsive governments and political opportunities. Youth unemployment across the Middle East and North Africa is 20-30%, 60% in certain countries like Iraq and Yemen, Libya. Folks many of whom who have gone through the correct paths, gotten an education and done all the right things, just can’t quiet crack that economic opportunity nut are frustrated. We have to find ways to vent that frustration in a positive way."
Technology creates voices
"We have a number of offices at the State Department, whether is the Bureau of International Information Program or the Special Advisor for Innovation and Technology - Alec Ross, who left recently. They were leading innovative efforts to both help expand technology capabilities for folks in the Middle East and North Africa and also to try to connect and understand the voices of young leaders through connective technologies. One of the fabulous changes has been the ability to get your voice heard without having to go through a state owned media station or have the economic capacity to have your own printing press or radio station. Just being able to go to the net and get your voice heard through Facebook, Twitter or some other blog, is huge. To be able to talk about what is happening in a particular country and the challenges one might face, is really empowering."
What's the Active Citizen Summit?
"I’ve been at the State Department now for five years. We did an active citizen summit last October, for about 55 young leaders from around the Middle East and North Africa. There were youth representative from everywhere from Iran to Iraq. From Saudi Arabia to Israel to Syria. They all came together in the US for about 10 days. There was a portion of communications trainings a mix of trying to develop communications capacities in the tech sector, public speaking, Op Ed writing, you name it. We had a portion of externships to see how local campaigns were done in practice. They were actually send them to campaigns at the local and national levels. It was right before our US elections in November. We had a section of the trip where they came to DC and got mixed up with policy makers and were able to have real discussions about the challenges they face in their own communities back home. As Hillary Clinton mentioned it her book it takes a village to make government initiatives happen. This was an effort that was led by our office, but it had a number of incredible partners."
Working in the oldest government agency. Does it feel weird?
"Being in an environment like the State Department that has a long history is a benefit of actually being able to learn from great managers and leaders. I happen to have a number of great bosses, that i’ve learned a heck of a lot from about how to move through a bureaucracy. And how to empower their staff to take a look at new initiatives. Across the government, you have a whole group of young officers and innovators who are trying to do interesting stuff and with the right empowerment can help lead the way for some of these new innovative efforts."
"The reputation in government right now is partly due to the hyper-partisanship that takes places and puts up barriers, I think is a fair argument. But government has always felt like a place by being in the mix or inside the beast, you could really try to get a lot done. You have a lot of resources at your disposal. A lot of opportunities to build coalitions that can really take action. You have the infrastructure of embassies across the globe that already have officers in place that have networks of people in the respective communities and countries that you can work with them to tap into. There is an opportunity in government to have a meaningful career and to try to play a positive public service role. You also have a chance to meet fabulous and interesting people. And for me, that has been one of the highlights of the job. Within the State Department or the federal government as a whole you meet young people and older folks who are at the departments, but you also have the chance to meet your counterparts abroad."
Driven by challenges?
"I think it is going to be tough to ever leave government. I was inspired this week with it being the 12th anniversary of September 11th attacks. My first week of college was when 9/11 happened, and that exposed a whole new slew of issues and new curiosities for me that have been a driving fire in my belly through government work and my interest in the Middle East and North Africa in particular."
No ledger of how you measure your performance?
"We’ve been trying to get better at really looking at numbers and what are the right statistics. I’ve always thought about Moneyball when you look at measurements. How can you be the Billy Bean of the State Department? You have to find statistics that really mean something in the public diplomacy lens. One of the indicators we have always used is that we are trying to identify young future leaders and influencers who will have a real impact on their professions and I think we have an incredible track record."
In order to engage, seek partnerships?
"Engagement is taking the approach of being open to weird partnerships. It is taking the time to understand the interests of a particular person or office might be and then seeing how those overlapping interests might align. Really being open to working with people who have disparte causes is the way we move government forward. We need to have bosses that empower their staffs to seek coalitions."
Don't disregard millennials
"This generation has a certain optimism and excitement about the future. We also have a belief that the old way of doing business does not have to be the way we do things moving forward. It’s not about partisans lens it’s about finding those common causes. Down the road there are going to be new ideas cropping up from all sorts of offices."
You can find all our Sammies interviews here.
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