13 April 2016

#Youth4SDGs: A Stroll with Siamak Sam Loni, Global Coordinator, UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network-Youth

“I feel strongly about Goal 10, Reduced Inequalities, as that goal reflects on a lot of my experiences that I had in Pakistan with poverty and inequality. I think a lot of our issues stem from that problem of inequality…” 

~ Siamak Sam Loni 

By year 2030, I will be 38 years old. This statement doesn’t make any sense until you realize that 2030 is the deadline we set for ourselves to actualize the ambitious 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The results of these goals will be inherited by today’s young people who by then will be in their 30s and 40s. Will it be a richer, cleaner, and more equal world? Or will it be one filled with death and decay? Our actions today will determine that to a large extent. So, considering this don’t you think it is important that we involve today’s young people into the implementation of the SDGs considering that the results of this process will be borne by them in the next 15 years? 

These are some issues I discussed with Siamak Sam Loni, Global Coordinator of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network - Youth. Siamak, a young Australian who is originally of Iranian descent, shares with me different steps young people can take to contribute meaningfully to the SDGs implementation process in their countries and communities; his thoughts on the 2016 World Happiness Report; as well as a political secret about his family. 

I’ve been “strolling” around the world since 2013 but it’s the first time I’m strolling with a guest from the other side of the Equator, so in case you hear us say “Good Morning” and “Good Evening”, we mean that literally (Lol). It’s 9am in Port Harcourt, Nigeria and 7pm in Melbourne, Australia, and we had this wonderful conversation. 

Listen to this interview on the #StrollPodcast or read a summarized transcript below

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2016 World Happiness Report 

Siamak: The World Happiness Report is ultimately about subjective wellbeing. It’s about happiness and evaluation of one’s life. In 1972 the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, became the very first person in history to make happiness an indicator of economic wellbeing and coined the term, “Gross National Happiness”. The key emphasis is on a commitment to building an economy that will serve Bhutan cultural and spiritual values, which are centered on wellbeing. This is of course opposed to the Western idea of development, which is measured by “Gross Domestic Product” or GDP. 

It’s worth pointing out here that King Wangchuck was 17 at the time, and he demonstrates how if idealism, a quality that is strongly associated with youth, is married with influence and power can create real and lasting change in the world. And of course since Bhutan’s transformation there have been many attempts to measure happiness and wellbeing; it’s an area of research that has been rapidly developing for the past 30 years, and for some it’s all based on the understanding that income matters but it does not explain very much. What is far more important for a human being, for a good life, is the quality of society, the nature of governance, the extent of trust, health, and generosity. So naturally in 2011 during the UN General Assembly there was a resolution, which was put forward by Bhutan which set up a UN high level committee to measure subjective wellbeing through actual scientific methodology. 

So they looked at GDP per Capita, social support, freedom to make choices, health (both mental and physical), generosity, perception of corruption, and the last category is everything else. So this report is called the World Happiness Report, but also order than measuring happiness and subjective wellbeing, the report also ranks countries according to their happiness levels, and I’m very excited to see what this year’s results have to offer. 

The report can be found at http://worldhappiness.report 

Siamak (first from R) during panel discuss at the Alpbach Political Symposium
#Youth4SDGs: Youth and the SDGs 

Siamak: This is a very important question, thank you for asking it, and this is one question that led to the founding of SDSN-Youth. There is always one fact that amazes me when I look at the intersection between young people and the SDGs and here it is, half of the current world’s population is under the age of 30. That is the biggest constituent of young people in the history of mankind. Now, if you look at the SDGs, they’re consistently referred to as the transformative agenda, and I think that’s absolutely true. If the SDGs are achieved, it will fully transform our societies, but for the SDGs to become a reality, we will actually need people on the planet to take ownership of the goals. Many experts and policy makers keep talking about this ownership element—I’ve heard it in many policy circles in the United Nations and elsewhere. So with young people accounting for half of that population, it seems very clear to me that they are one of the primary stakeholders. But most importantly, there are 3 qualities that young people possess that are not so common with their older counterpart. 

First one is enthusiasm. We talk about how we need the public energy behind the goals in order to succeed, and I think youth enthusiasm could be a very important tool for that. 

The second quality is Idealism. Many experts will tell you that the SDGs are an incredibly ambitious agenda. So to achieve something ambitious we’re going to need, first of all, the optimism, and also secondly idealism. For me young people possess that quality and it is very important for them to be involved in this process to create energy and optimism around it. 

Lastly, and for me the most important one, is the element of creativity. As Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that started them”. So to achieve the SDGs we’re going to need new and innovative solutions, and multiple sources of research indicate that youth are the most creative constituent of people on the planet. So we need to start looking at youth as the source of innovation to make the 2030 agenda a reality.

What Ways Can Young People contribute to the actualization of the SDGs at the Grassroots, National, and International Levels? 

Siamak: There are a number of ways young people can contribute. First, I’ll strongly suggest that young people campaign around the SDGs for them to inform their communities. It is very important for communities to be aware of these goals. Using Social Media and New technologies they can mobilize a huge number of people around the important issues. 

The other thing they could do is to keep governments accountable, and demand that they (youth) are integrated into national pathways for achieving the SDGs. If we agree that young people will inherit the 2030 Agenda (SDGs), we must also integrate them (youth) into national implementation plans as one of the key stakeholders—it’s a logical process. I encourage young people to begin such a process by reaching out to local governments and mayors of their cities; reaching out and saying, “What are you doing about the SDGs?” “What are your plans?” and “Can I be involved in this process of drawing out plans for this community?” that’s one important way young people can be involved. 

The third and most important way for me which I mentioned before as well, is to create. Create. Create. Create. Solutions, enterprises, new ways of looking at research. I also suggest that youth seek mentors in this space to get support for their ideas.

WorldMUN 2013: Opening Ceremony - President Siamak Loni's Speech
Growing Up and Your Passion for Development 

Siamak: I was actually born in Tehran, Iran - the Middle East. I was born into a middle class family with a strong political history, but a secret one. My parents were both human rights activists when they were in their 20s, and were both imprisoned by the Government of Iran (Islamic Republic of Iran) in the 1980s for raising awareness about human rights abuses. My father went to prison for approximately 5 years, and my mother for approximately 2 years. I wasn’t aware of that until the year 2000 when we fled the country in fear of persecution, I was 9 at the time; as a child they didn’t tell me about it in the fear that I would let the secret out. After we fled and got across the border to Pakistan we applied to the UN for refugee status and that’s when I was told everything that happened with my parents. 

My parent’s bravery in their work in human rights and social justice is a huge inspiration for me, and I always thank them for that. I think in terms of life experiences, soon after arriving in Pakistan, the 9/11 tragedy happened. So the US and its allies began the war on terror. Much of the violence from Afghanistan ended up spilling into Pakistan. Soon after 9/11 my family and I started seeing bombings, disappearances, killings, and on top of all this we could see huge levels of poverty. I remember seeing daily how children from slums would dive into rubbish bins to find scraps of food or a pieces of paper to sell. At night you would sometimes hear the screams of mothers who sadly lost their children to preventable diseases. These are some of the horrific things that I saw, and all of this had a profound impact on me—especially when I compare it to the way that people live in developed countries. 

I don’t see my work as a career or a hobby—even though I love doing what I do—I see it as my responsibility. I am amongst some of the luckiest people on the planet firstly for coming out of those horrific situations and secondly by the virtue of living in a country like Australia, one of the wealthiest countries in the world and I believe 10th on the Happiness Report scale. So, I have to contribute in creating a better world. If young people in some of the least developed countries can put time and effort to do work around the SDGs, then I can certainly do that as well—it’s the least I could do.

#MySDGs: What is/are your Favourite SDG(s) and how will you contribute to its Achievement by 2030? 

Siamak: That’s a fantastic question but a very difficult one. (laughs). For me, they are all very important and I’m sure you’ve heard that a number of times. The reason I say they are very important is because I see them as a network of goals. Impact on one of them will affect the other. But I’m going to try and set the waters here, and tell you my favourite one—just slightly above others I suppose—hopefully that will satisfy you. 

It is Goal 10, Reduced Inequalities; I think I particularly feel strongly about Goal 10. That reflects on a lot of my experiences that I had in Pakistan with poverty and inequality. I think a lot of our issues stem from the problem of inequality, and for me achieving that goal is particularly important. Again, that’s not to say that the rest aren’t [important], to achieve Goal 10 we will need all the other goals to be also achieved too. 

In whatever level of my career I am in, in whatever stage of my career I’m in, I will do whatever I can do to contribute to the implementation of SDGs as a whole and Goal 10 in particular.


Food for the Soul: "Don't let the excitement of youth cause you to forget your Creator. Honor him in your youth before you grow old and say, 'Life is not pleasant anymore.'" (Ecclesiastes 12:1, NLT)

(Images Credit: Siamak Sam Loni)

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