On the 30th of January Forward Thinking’s Director Oliver McTernan participated in a conference in Gaza concerning the opportunities, challenges and expectations facing Palestinian youth. The conference allowed young people to come together with faction leaders in order to explore the difficulties of the current situation whilst looking toward practical solutions and ways in which challenges can be addressed.  Oliver’s remarks are outlined below:

Let’s begin with the challenges young people face at the local, regional and global level, as it is these that can set a limit to your opportunities and expectations.

The local challenges, especially here in Gaza, are a mix of political, economic and cultural. The stark reality is that Gaza has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world. It is estimated that at present 54% of the labour force including 70% of young people, over a 100,000 of whom are graduates, are currently unemployed. They are therefore deprived of the opportunity to use their labour, skills, talents and learning that can help them fulfil their expectations. This challenge is further complicated by the fact that the few jobs that are on offer are too often only available to those who have the right connections, family or factional.

The regional challenges from the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the high youth unemployment rates across North Africa and the Middle East, and the increasing tensions and rivalry among the Gulf States, means the situation in Gaza is not high on the list of priorities that need to be urgently addressed. Furthermore, the uncertainty and lack of sustainable stability across the region deters potential investors and this impacts on your opportunities.

The wider global situation is equally challenging as Europe is preoccupied with the rise of populism and questions over its future identity caused by Brexit. Meanwhile, the US and China are locked in a trade war that’s creating further economic uncertainty.

Given these difficult realities, the question is what can you do in these circumstances to create the sort of opportunities that could help you fulfil your expectations.

First step is to recognise who you are:

In September 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in Istanbul described young women and men as “critical agents of change” whose role is crucial, if sustainable development goals are to be achieved. The summit declared that by enhancing your capabilities, unleashing your energy and expanding the opportunities to shape your future, young people will help transform your own societies and countries for the better.

Oliver with participants at the conference

It recognised that you are a key resource, not a problem or a burden in resolving the problems that prevent development. In other words within this room there is the potential to effect real change in your own lives and the lives of others.

It is you who can shape your future, and transform your own society.

But to achieve this you need to work together to enhance one another’s capabilities, you need to be a voice that promotes unity, inclusiveness and meritocracy.

To paraphrase the words of John F Kennedy you need to come together to ask not what Gaza can do for us, but what can we do for Gaza.

It is in accepting your differences as a strength and working together to achieve a level of consensus on shaping the future, that you can address some of the challenges that you are facing and effect genuine change.

For most outsiders Gaza represents a place of conflict and misery, a place in need of aid to enable the most deprived to survive. But this, as you know, is only part of the story.

The outside world is ignorant of your intelligence, creativity, abilities and resilience. To effect real change, that is the narrative that needs to be heard.  The outside world needs to know the potential gathered in this room, it is you who have the ability to change the narrative, to develop initiatives that will entice potential investors and to address the internal divisions that are so damaging to world view of the Palestinian people.

Use your IT skills, your skills of communication to change the prevailing narrative, to show the world the depth of your resilience and skills.

By coming together, accepting your differences, you have the ability to create a space, a factory that produces new ideas and serves as an incubator for new initiatives and start ups.

Faced with the current circumstances and the prevailing lack of hope, I can fully understand how immigration in search of a meaningful future may seem to be the only viable option.

I was nine years old when my own family migrated for economic reasons. It provided opportunities but it also presented deep personal challenges about one’s own identity.

In previous ages migrants and refugees were generally, if not reluctantly, welcomed. They were often exploited but the more fortunate found the opportunities to realise their aspirations.

Today the atmosphere is very different. In general in a growing number of countries there is a hostile atmosphere as migrants are often seen as an economic threat to locals.

Unless the young migrant is fortunate to have educational or job opportunities, they risk becoming a commodity that is exploited by ruthless traffickers.

My final word is to encourage you to become ‘a critical agent of change’ here in Gaza before considering embarking on a lonely and what can be a hazardous road to an unknown future.

In addition to the conference in Gaza, meetings were also organised with Palestinian political leaders, youth groups, civil society and private sector leaders in Gaza. These discussions help Forward Thinking to plan activities throughout 2019 in response to the considerable challenges present. 

Meetings were also organised in Israel, including discussions with Knesset Members and senior figures from Likud and Labour, which allowed an updated analysis to be gained on internal Israeli dynamics as the country prepares of Knesset elections to take place on 9th April 2019. It also provided space to plan upcoming activities with key Israeli constituencies.