By Ashley Kula
It has been one month since I had the pleasure of attending USAID’s three-day conference Frontiers in Development at Georgetown University. In this month, I haven’t quite been able to find the adequate amount of time to sit down and write about the experience because not only have I been unable to put into words what a great experience the conference was but with a 60-hour work week it’s hard enough to find time to eat and sleep much less write a blog post.
The conference, which was held in mid-June, was one which I had been looking forward to for weeks. When I saw Americans for Informed Democracy were looking for people to represent them at the conference, I jumped at the chance. When I received my email confirming my acceptance as a representative, I almost cried. And when I walked into the registration tent on that hot and humid Monday, I had butterflies in my stomach and sky-high anxiety as I realized that I was one of the youngest participants in the conference. Not one to be easily deterred, I went into Gaston Hall where the entire conference would be held and nervously sat where I could most easily see the panel.
Now, I’m mostly going to elaborate on two aspects of the conference which not only involved most to my interests, but also were the most enlightening: the focus on women’s participation in democracy-building and youth development. As a student and a woman, I was personally impacted and encouraged by the speakers who were able to discuss development in ways that not only pertained to me, but made me feel like I could do something as well.
The first panel Development, Democracy, and Global Security in the 21st Century was one that had strictly female speakers. Not only was this unusual because the general demographic at the conference was noticeably male, but these women were leading political figures in their native countries. The speakers included President Joyce Banda of Malawi, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of the Republic of Liberia, President Atifete Jahjaga of the Republic of Kosovo, Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, and Former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark. With a roster that impressive, I was unbelievably excited. The women were intelligent, empowering, and most of all, firmly believed that we’re transitioning from a male-dominated political system to a female-dominated one. Each of them, in her own way, had helped to develop their country’s education system, health system, and increased the amount of youth development programs. Their passion resonated throughout the room as they discussed the difficulties each country has faced, still faces, and how they planned to take action to confront these problems. Even though each country has a very different past they all shared in their triumphs and overcoming of obstacles. The dialogue was more reminiscent of a support group than a panel of world-renowned political leaders which, in a way, I think was its strength. The women’s willingness to share, discuss, and sympathize with one another offered a profound difference to the general ‘self-interest’ that seems so resonant in politics these days.
Throughout the three days, we were informed on a variety of topics from development to transitions from conflict-affected environments, from how to instigate dialogue to how to implement change. What almost every panel elaborated on at one point or another, was the power of youth. In the Beyond the Usual Suspects panel were Barbara Bush and Mandy Moore. Barbara has served as an inspiration for me since I first met her when I lived in Panama and she was there on a diplomatic visit with her mother. As co-founder and president of the Global Health Corps, Barbara discussed using her prestige, youthfulness, and determination to establish an organization that promotes the mobilization of young professionals to poor communities in East Africa and the United States to build a movement for health equity. Her dedication to the cause and her casual dialogue about the work that they do and how other young professionals can get involved both served as great motivation for youth who’s dreams are so big they may be afraid to chase them. Mandy Moore, while self-admittedly not an expert on health policy, has made a name for herself as a philanthropist and spokesperson for such organizations as Five & Alive and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. While I’d previously admired Mandy Moore for her acting and singing career, I developed a whole new respect for her for the work she’s doing bringing awareness to health issues and crises.
The conference wound down with a speech by the United Nations’ Youth Champion, Monique Coleman, speaking on the power of youth and the potential they have to change the world. In a previous speech, Monique elaborated on the hope and reason behind which youth pursue their dreams, “I think ultimately youth all over the world have the same goal and intention, which is to find purpose in their lives.” Albeit an ambitious goal it’s one that resonates not only with youth but with all members of the international community. Fortunately, it’s with the occurrence of conferences such as Frontiers in Development that encourage persons to have that ambition, hone their skills, and find purpose in their lives.