By Rachel Steinberg*
OneVoice Israel Executive Director Tal Harris interview at UNAOC Doha Pre Forum 2011.
I was among three members from OneVoice selected to participate in the United Nations Alliance of Civilization (UNAOC) Civil Society Pre-Forum in Doha, Qatar, on May 3 and 4. We joined more than 190 civil society leaders from 80 countries.
The pre-forum focused on building new partnership with civil society organizations and addressing the “the convergence of intercultural, governance and development issues, with a special focus on the Arab World.” Established in 2005, UNAOC fosters intercultural understanding and cooperation to achieve sustainable peace, with a focus on education, media, migration, and youth.
I knew that I was in for a unique two days when I hopped on the shuttle bus from the Doha airport to the hotel along with a 22-year-old Yemeni man, an elderly Russian man, and a young Mexican woman, all of whom had come to participate in this event. At the hotel, I met up with Tal Harris, executive director of OneVoice Israel, and John Lyndon, executive director of OneVoice Europe.
The three of us attended panel discussions, keynote addresses, and break-out sessions that dealt with best practices for demanding accountability and change from our leaders in order to achieve peace and development. The best sessions were those that showed the UNAOC, seasoned professionals, and young people alike recognizing the power of youth to create change, witnessed in the revolts currently sweeping the Middle East.
Isabelle Legare, UNAOC’s youth program manager, shared with the group several initiatives, including creating a youth network, a youth video festival, and a UNAOC summer school focused on intercultural dialogue. All of these initiatives seek to raise the awareness of decision makers, strengthen the capacity of youth organizations, and share information among youth.
Ajarat Bada from One Young World spoke about their global summits that bring together thousands of young people to discuss pressing global issues and then present resolutions to leaders. Across the sessions, there seemed to be the proliferation of the sentiment that youth in many Arab countries have broken taboos that have existed for centuries.
I did, however, leave some sessions with an overwhelming feel that the challenge we have going forward lies in empowering young people elsewhere, for instance in Israel and Palestine, to create social or political change. I especially felt the strength of this call to action given our conference location in the heart of the Arab world.
It was impossible to not constantly discuss what we could learn from the ongoing protests in many countries across the Middle East. For the past several months, we’ve seen young people raise their voices and mobilize their own societies to create change. We’ve seen governments finally not given a choice but to listen to their citizens.
This pre-forum allowed citizens from all over the world to connect with each other, share their experiences, and discuss how to build on the momentum of the so-called “Arab Spring” to fully realize the power of civil society.
I’m used to going to conferences and meeting representatives of other nongovernmental organizations that all work on issues related to Israel and Palestine, but this experience was unique for me because I had the opportunity to meet people from Africa, South America, Asia, and Europe. I was able to draw connections between OneVoice’s work and the work they are doing to create more peaceful, developed, and engaged societies.
Although I wish there had been more time built into the conference for brainstorming proposals for civil society involvement in the main forum scheduled to take place in Doha this December, I found the experience to be enriching and rewarding.
The most productive aspects came from the conversations I had with people from the Gaza Strip, Finland, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia, the United States, and more, which allowed me to deliver OneVoice’s message and forge partnerships that will strengthen the grassroots throughout the world to create positive change.
*Rachel Steinberg is International Education Program manager at OneVoice US.