'Invest in Youth' — Dutch Minister and Alumna Sigrid Kaag Speaks at Nadia Younes Memorial Lecture

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Focusing on the impact of COVID-19 in the Middle East, the 14th Nadia Younes Memorial Lecture hosted Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Sigrid Kaag '85, who appeared in Ewart Memorial Hall over Zoom.

Held in memory of the late Nadia Younes, a lifelong UN employee who was tragically killed in the Canal Hotel bombings of 2003, the lecture brings together prominent figures in global policy, politics, economics and culture to discuss critical local and global issues. Kaag spoke both on the detrimental economic, political and social impact of the pandemic on the region but also emphasized the areas of opportunity for growth, specifically among  youth.

In his opening remarks, President Francis Ricciardone paid tribute to the late Nadia Younes, mentioning that bringing figures like Minister Kaag to speak helps uphold her legacy.

"This event comes in the context of what [the Younes family] has made possible through the Nadia Younes Memorial fund that helps educate and inspire rising generations of young people at our University to follow in the footsteps of this pioneering Egyptian stateswoman who dedicated her life to the service of humanity through a career in international diplomacy, very much like our guest of honor tonight," he said.

Also in attendance was the niece of Nadia Younes and distinguished friend of AUC.

"Our aim in setting up this lecture series was to keep Nadia's memory alive. ... The best way to do that is by inspiring Egypt's next generation of public servants to try to make the world a better place. Never has that aim seemed more needed and urgent than today, in the midst of a cataclysmic pandemic," she said.

 

Kaag started off her speech by reminiscing on being back Cairo, albeit virtually. A graduate of AUC's Middle East Studies program, Kaag spent years subsequent to her graduation in the country and then in the region, working in different positions in the United Nations.

"I still remember the excitement I felt when I first walked onto campus,” she said. “I've had the privilege of being equipped with an AUC education to try and pioneer my own way and claim a part of responsibility in the global stage. It is wonderful to be back in Cairo, albeit on screen. I am reminded of the Egyptian song, Feha Haga Helwa (There is something nice in it). There is something special and beautiful about Egypt that makes you want to return to it.”

Moving on to the topic of the lecture, Kaag dove straight into the impact of COVID-19 on different countries in the Middle East.

“COVID-19’s impact on the societies and economies of the Middle East has been deep and distressing," she said. "Although some are better positioned to deal with the pandemic than others, the one thing that unites us all is the pain and suffering it has caused."

People have not only lost loved ones but also lost their jobs, livelihoods and the very things in life that kept them going. However, she said that these challenges were not created by the pandemic but compounded by it.

“Structural issues, as you know more than anyone, already existed with regard to fragility, democracy, governance and, of course, the way they relate to the well-being and rights of vulnerable groups of people,” she said.

These issues that already existed have just been strained by COVID-19, like political divides, socioeconomic inequality, public health and women’s rights, Kaag said. In terms of economics, she highlighted the widespread unemployment and underemployment that has afflicted Arab countries for so long, and how the region is vulnerable to global price fluctuations of energy.

“The International Monetary Fund projects that the MENA region’s GDP will decline by 4.1% this year alone –– its lowest forecast for the region in 50 years,” she said. “The biggest burden will likely fall on those without stable work, housing or schooling. The weakest shoulders will have to carry the heaviest load,” she said.

Highlighting the refugee crisis that has been unfolding in the region for the past 10 years, Kaag said that not only have these populations suffered, but their host nations are pressured to provide health care and basic services during these tough circumstances.

Finally, Kaag spoke about one of the greatest issues for the future: children losing access to education. With 37 million children in the MENA region not having access to remote learning, UNICEF has reported that millions of them will likely not return to school, even after lockdowns end.

“This risks creating a lost generation,” she said.

And while youth may be facing some of the harshest impacts of COVID, what with unemployment and access to education, they are also the greatest hope for the future of the region, she said. The Middle East’s population is growing rapidly,and  two-thirds of the people in the region are under the age of 35, Kaag noted.

“Young people have the strongest drive to renew, to innovate and move forward. If given the opportunity, they can revitalize atrophied economies,” she said.

Kaag said that over the past few years, youth have been the driving forces of change throughout the world. For her, Middle Eastern countries can secure their futures by handing the microphone over to the younger generations, by investing in them and curating an environment that encourages them to stay in the region rather than immigrate elsewhere.

“It is young people who show societies the best way forward, and so it is to young people that we should listen. This means giving them a greater say in policy and politics and investing in education and youth employment. Especially in this region, which is home to such a large new generation, this is the ticket to the future. Their involvement in the future developments of the Middle East is essential because the systemic challenges afflicting this region require structural solutions,” she said.

But despite the deep and structural challenges that lie ahead, Kaag emphasized that it is important the region does not lose hope. Quoting the great Arab philosopher Ibn Rashdun, Kaag told the audience that better days come after tragedy. 

"In his vision, tragedy had a function: to inspire the exercise of virtue. To have a real and forward-looking impact on the world around us. To help us do better," she said. 

And that, she said, reminds her of Nadia Younes, whose tragedy left a mark that now inspires others to follow in her footsteps.

"Hope outlives tragedy," she said.