Sustainable Development and Youth Engagement: The Future is Now!

By Nguénar Yacine Cissé

SDSN delegates on the first day of the conference. Photo by Rudina Vushaj, @rudis_lens

During the week of October 8th, 2023, I attended Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Climate Week 2023 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as a youth delegate of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. For me, the conference started in the hotel lobby. The familiar, traditional Malaysian Baju Melayu attire and sounds of Bahasa Malaysia surrounding me reminded me of my experience living in Malaysia a couple of years ago. Attracted to familiarity, I was drawn to converse with the Malaysian students, reminiscing about my experiences in their country and reviving my little Malaysian language skills that, until that moment, had been unused. In talking with them, I noticed the different educational backgrounds of the group. This led me to ask, given their diverse backgrounds, about their relationship with sustainable development. 

We went over ideas we have for ways in which youth can be engaged with sustainable development challenges and contribute to solutions. Upon talking to other student groups as well, I found that there was a recurring idea: that educational institutions could present youth capacity-building mediums. These institutions can present resources to develop small-scale projects that address development challenges and access, through their networks, to platforms where students can contribute to large-scale projects targeting sustainable development solutions.  

I found the interactions with my colleagues particularly important as they unveiled, at that moment, the contributive nature of youth in relation to development issues. The excitement that beamed in their eyes and the passion in their body language when discussing sustainable development, to me, was indicative that the future is now. As youth, we have many ambitious ideas and perspectives to contribute but oftentimes lack the resources and access to meaningfully participate in enacting them. This informed my position on a panel I participated in entitled “Ambitions for the Future of  Sustainable Tourism: The Big Picture,” where I had the opportunity to represent a youth perspective on how we can be engaged. 

The biggest lesson that I left Riyadh with is that the future is now. Youth need to gain experience in practical action today to be fortified into the strong leadership needed tomorrow. To be part of rooms with youth from other cultural and educational backgrounds, private and public sector representatives, and to be able to make contributions to discussion topics was enlightening for me. There were numerous times when other young people, including myself, would question their presence and value at the summit. Yet, our experience in such rooms responded to this question, as there was so much value in our contributions in the way they set the tone and guided conversations. For example, I participated in an interactive session held by YOUNGO where two company representatives sat at my table along with students from other countries. It was refreshing to see that as youths at that table, we provided valuable insights for those individuals’ projects in the private sector. 

The panel on the future of sustainable tourism. Photo by Rudina Vushaj, @rudis_lens
An interactive session hosted by YOUNGO.
The At-Turaif District UNESCO World Heritage Site

Beyond the educational experience, attending the summit provided me an insight into Saudi Arabian culture. I gained a new favorite dessert during this trip and developed a liking for camel milk. During the evenings after attending the conference, we were spoilt with tours and dinners. The last night in Riyadh was particularly striking. Not only did I get to eat delicious food in a restaurant called Villa Mamas at Bujairi Terrace, but I was left with an obsession with Umm Ali—a dessert I got to eat there. Following the dinner, we got to explore the At-Turaif District, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To experience closely a part of Riyadh’s history evoked feelings that for me are indescribable. 

Umm Ali dessert from Villa Mamas restaurant.

My interactions at the Climate Week 2023 conference and cultural experiences in the city contributed to my learning as a Master of Development Practice student attending the University of Waterloo. I gained knowledge on current developments regarding sustainable development and climate action that go beyond in-class conversations. I also got to experience a different culture, allowing me to value different perspectives. Being exposed to the MENA Climate Week space in Riyadh and being able to network with individuals in the development practice sphere provided me with a better understanding of what contributions I want to make through my education and future career in development practice. 

To be a global leader and practice development around the world requires global experiences, and it is through such out-of-classroom experiences that we get to apply our education and gain practical experience. I am truly grateful to have been able to take part in MENA Climate Week 2023 as an SDSN delegate. Many thanks to our hosts in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia at the Ministry of Tourism for such a unique experience.

Nguénar Yacine Cissé is a Master of Development Practice student at the University of Waterloo, Canada, and was an SDSN delegate to Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Climate Week 2023 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.