by Faizer Shaheid
The trials and tribulations were immense for the Organizing Committee, as challenges began to mount at the World Conference on Youth (WCY). However, overseas delegates claimed that the conference had not been anything short of fabulous.
The WCY attended by youth delegates from 159 countries, top United Nations (UN) officials and several ministers from overseas came to a close yesterday following a sensational display by Sri Lankan artistes at the National Youth Services Council (NYSC) auditorium.
Much ado had been placed on the WCY with a recorded attendance of over 40 top UN officials, including President of the General Assembly, John William Ashe.
Deputy Minister of Education, Mohan Lal Grero stated that almost all UN organizations had been represented at the conference. “This purveys the importance of the outcome document emerging from the WCY,” he added. The conference was to lead to the finalization of the proposals for the millennium development goals and post 2015 development agenda. The Government of Sri Lanka too had relied on the conference to determine the finalization of the Colombo Declaration on Youth.
In addition to the UN officials attending the conference, there had also been 28 ministers accompanying 320 delegates from 159 countries. There had been some confusion in relation to the numbers, as the Chairman of the NYSC pointed out. “There are rumours going around that there are more delegates from the countries attending but our records do not show it,” he said on Wednesday (7).
The event had been highlighted as the very first time the WCY had been hosted by an Asian country since its inception in 1936. However, there had also been occurrences during the conference, that drew the attention of the organizers.
The African Protest
On Friday (9), a group of African delegates entered the Media Centre at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), where Minister of Youth Affairs and Skills Development, Dullas Alahapperuma was briefing the media. The African delegates had been holding placards that read “Bring back our girls” referring to the recent abduction of nearly 300 young girls in Nigeria. A delegate from Guyana who participated at the protest, Saadiya Edghill, explained that they had merely wished to promulgate their disapproval of the abductions to the world.
The group had been denied the opportunity to present their case to the media. The group of approximately 25 youths, all of whom were of African origin, was asked to leave the media premises and they carried their protest outside. Voices were heard shouting “This is our conference” and “the world must know their plight.” Minister Alahapperuma, addressing the media, stated: “These people have a different agenda in mind, and this has nothing to do with the conference; so I don’t think a press conference of this nature should be permitted.”
The Deputy Minister of Education, Mohan Lal Grero, and Chairman of the National Youth Services Council, Lalith Piyum Perera, too, agreed with the move to deny the Nigerians a press conference.
Apart from the problematic situation that prevailed on Friday in relation to the international delegates, a few other problems were also encountered by the organizers of the event. Lalith Piyum Perera stated on Wednesday (7), “This is a humungous event and in every event this big there will be problems that need to be anticipated. This conference too has had a few shortcomings.”
The other problems
There had been a multitude of other discrepancies also recorded since the Conference got underway. The very first complaint had been in regard to the receipt of identity tags. The Media Ministry, which was entrusted with the task of preparing the identification tags, was not able to issue the cards by the beginning of the Conference; hence creating a mild situation in the recognition of the roles of the persons.
Having had a tight security cordon right around the BMICH, where the event was taking place, entering and exiting the premises was a tough task. The security personnel had been given documents listing the roles and identification of the persons participating in the conference. Each person had to record his/her presence so as to be permitted to enter. Separate identification was requested to authenticate the persons entering, and even exiting was a slight hassle.
The National delegates had all received their identification passes by evening on Tuesday. Passes for a majority of the media personnel and volunteers too had been received by evening on Tuesday (6), but there had still been complaints from a few media personnel and social media personnel in relation to the non-receipt of identification tags. However, the problem was rectified by morning on Wednesday.
Apart from the identification tags, food also created quite a controversy. Grero, shedding light on the problem explained that all delegates had been issued tokens to obtain their food during meal time. The delegates however, had not been informed of the importance of the food tokens, hence resulting in a problem at dinner. The delegates had all lined up to receive their dinner, but were unable to collect their food.
The organizers acted promptly to avoid a probable catastrophe on their part and printed new tokens immediately. All of the delegates not in possession of the tokens were issued with new tokens and were permitted to obtain their food, Grero said.
The problem had however persisted for those in the ranks of volunteers and other personnel taking part in the event, with some complaining of the non-availability of food. Piyum Perera, explained that such problems were unforeseen and the organizers had tried and would continue to provide the best service possible to all of those taking part in the conference.
A further problem witnessed during the conference came in the form of volunteer management by the organizers. Two National delegates, who wished to remain annonymous, complained of an altercation between volunteers in the presence of international delegates. “The delegates were all surrounding the area wondering what the ordeal was all about, and we were shocked when we found out they were fighting over t-shirts. There was so much noise around, and it certainly was embarrassing” they said.
Delegates also complained of food shortcomings and other problems suffered at the hands of volunteers. An officer in charge of volunteers and representative of the National Youth Corps, Chanaka Muthuhettiyagedara explained that such behaviour was beyond the control of those in charge. He stated that their responsibility was to deliver the t-shirts according to the list provided by the NYSC. “We discharged our responsibility and checked for their names in a proper manner, but sometimes such behaviour is beyond our control” he said.
He went on to highlight other problems suffered by volunteers. “They had problems in relation to toilets at their places of accommodation, and so we shifted them to a different place. Then they complained again so we shifted them again. I do not know what is going on, but we organizers are certainly doing our best” he said.
The delegates went on to say “Volunteers have not been trained for this event. It is evident through their erratic behaviour that they have not received any instructions from the organizers as to where and what roles they have been designated,” he said.
However, as against the complaints made the two delegates, another local delegate Krishali Mineliya stated that the work of the volunteers needed to be applauded. “We go to sleep at around 1.00 or 2.00 in the morning and they are awake then, and then they come to wake us up at around 5.00 in the morning again and they are still awake doing all the work, and even then they have the heart to ask us whether we had our breakfast,” she explained. A volunteer from the Northern Province too acknowledged that he had not suffered or witnessed any shortcomings on the part of the organizers.
Treatment of International
Piyum Perera, explained they too had received close to 20 complaints and were yet to review them. “We received similar complaints during CHOGM, and we did call for a training session for all of the volunteers on how to communicate and behave in the presence of international delegates. I was under the impression that this time they were conducting their duties well but I shall have to look into the problem. If there is a problem as such, we will study it and take measures so that such things don’t happen in the future,” he said.
A volunteer, speaking to the media acknowledged they had been overworked. “Some of us are working right now on a 43-48 hour shift” he said.
Together with Krishali Mineliya, other foreign delegates such as Louis Carlos from Brazil, Mario from Jamaica, Kemokech Christopher from Uganda and Sagar Prashanth from Nepal, all affirmed that they had received fantastic treatment.
Christopher stated, “Before I came to this country, I wasn’t expecting much. The basic impression I had was that this was another war ravaged country and would be quite ordinary, but this country has astounded me.” He claimed that he had never experienced such warmth and hospitable treatment anywhere else in the world.
Sagar Prashanth stated that he hadn’t experienced too many problems at the Conference. He too claimed that he had very little expectation prior to his arrival in the country, but had been amazed at the hospitality he had received.
“I have an Army serviceman assigned to provide me with security and assistance, I have been given a private vehicle, I have my very own medical officer to take care of my health issues, I sometimes wonder if I am a VIP in this country” he said. He went on to say that he hadn’t suffered from any particular irregularities in terms of travelling in his wheelchair as there had been ramps all around in Hambantota and the BMICH.
Sagar, however, claimed that there had been an issue in terms of travelling as he had been stranded in the Chennai Airport for nine hours due to a miscommunication from the travel agent. Apart from that, he claimed not to have encountered any other problems.
Louis Carlos stated that he was not aware of any problems as such and had witnessed no incident to negate his perception of the volunteers. “For me, I am in absolute admiration. Every time I needed help, they had been around to assist me and to think that they are doing all of this free of charge is unthinkable,” he said.
Piyum Perera, responding to a query as to the discrepancies stated, “Organizing this event has been fabulous, in my opinion, if not for a few mild setbacks. It is almost like purchasing 500 bricks and two of them are flawed. There’s two ways of looking at it, we could either look at the 498 flawless bricks or harp on the two flawed bricks.”
Regardless of the flaws witnessed during the Conference, the international delegates had been ensured an experience of a lifetime. Entrusted with the responsible task of designing the millennium development goals, the organizers had ensured that the delegates were entertained throughout their stay.
Following a tremendous performance by Bathiya and Santhush together with other local stars Ashanthi, Umariya and Randhir, at the opening ceremony, the crowds began to connect with the local music and cheerful atmosphere. A few delegates had gotten off their seats to dance to the local music.
The delegates from various countries communicated their excitement at being a part of the conference. Chelsea Wadley, a delegate from Canada had stated that there was no better reason to be excited than the fact that the outcome document was to determine proposals to be included in the second set of Millennium Development Goals.
Sri Lanka’s first youth delegate to the UN, Jayathma Wickremanayake, in her speech at the opening ceremony, stated, “Youth are not the leaders of tomorrow, but the leaders of today. We are the policy makers at this Conference and we have been entrusted with the role of designing the future.” The statement synced with the thoughts of President John W. Ashe. “It never occurred to me until she said it, but the youth definitely have a crucial role to play today. Youth are the masters of technology, and they hold the future in their hands. Different persons may set different goals, but the goals do not necessarily have to hold the same end point. Diverse thinking patterns need to be merged and policies made towards the upift of society,” he said.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, attending the opening ceremony at Hambantota, addressed the gathering stating that Sri Lanka had proposed to host the WCY at the United Nations (UN) High Level Meeting on Youth as it had become evident that youth related challenges were on the rise. “Sri Lanka’s youth population stands at 26%, and at the end of a long period of terrorism, we now look towards the future where the youth play a prominent role,” he said. He added that it was impossible to look ahead at the post 2015 development agenda or the Rio +20 goals whilst overlooking the youth.
The foundations of the Conference had focused on seven areas. The youth were to discuss topics related to ‘Achieving good governance and accountability’, ‘Inclusive youth participation at all levels’, ‘Youth rights’, ‘Globalization/Inclusive youth led development’, ‘Ending systematic inequalities’, ‘Gender equality’ and ‘Empowering marginalized youth including most at risk young people’.
Persons addressing the gathering at the conference made some interesting remarks. Senior Minister for International Monetary Co-operation and Deputy Minister of Finance, Sarath Amunugama proposed that there be purposive intervention by international governments to overcome hunger. He also recommended that inequality was rampant in society, and that youth had to discuss reducing the human disparities. He also suggested that topics of climate change, job opportunities, low quality education, economic insecurity and heightened vulnerability, population issues and unplanned urbanization be taken into consideration during youth discussions.
The delegates too made some interesting remarks during the Conference. Phillipa Gardner of World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts UK making the initial remarks at the roundtable discussion and stressed on the importance of women’s participation in world issues. On the topic of gender equality, Smitha Mitra said gender was a social construct and should not be limited. Various other diverse opinions too were expressed and the opinions tabled out in a draft document. There had also been a suggestion that a representative of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community should also have been included in the discussions.
The Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga on Thursday (8) said the government needed to start thinking of out of the box solutions to address education to employment issues. Relating to a survey conducted on an international platform, he claimed that 70% of employers had blamed inadequate training for the lack of skilled workers. The biggest mistake that people of the older generation make is to disregard the perceptions of the youth, he also said.
Soon after the plenary sessions on Thursday (8) the organizers of the event hoped to enthrall the audiences with an array of programmes to raise the spirits of the delegates. The crowd began to get to their feet and suddenly the international delegates thronged the stage, dancing the night away in style.
Ugandan delegate, Kemokech Christopher emphatically stated that he had never experienced, at any other conference, the warmth he felt in Sri Lanka. “Nobody will simply dance; we dance because the environment suits us. When the music played, I just felt like it was home and everybody was dancing and we all had such a great time,” he said.
Dhulanjali Uthpala, Member of Sri Lankan Youth Parliament and delegate at the WCY explained that such a moment had never been experienced in any other forum before. “As a Sri Lankan I am proud. People from all walks of life, from different ethnicities and different nationalities came together on the same stage and it was definitely amazing” she said.
The Conference however came to an end yesterday much to the dejection of the international delegates as they exchanged hugs with several new found friends. They would be taking away an ocean of memories back to their homeland where they would re-live it all over again in their minds. They would carry forward the experiences in their quest to be the global leaders of tomorrow. They had forged strong bonds with future leaders on an international platform as they prepare to make the world a better place tomorrow.
by Faizer Shaheid