At the tender age of 31, I still consider myself a "young person" or "youth", if you will, even though the United Nations uses a pretty strict 15-24 definition. So when I get to work with other young people on things like youth forums and conferences, it feels less like work and more like doing something amazing with a group of friends.
Being a part of the Youth Skills Forum in the Philippines and the Asian Youth Forum in Kazakhstan have definitely been the highlights of my time with Plan International, especially as I got to learn a great deal from colleagues like John Trew, Plan's Youth Employment Specialist in Asia.
Now I have a new challenge: I'm leading a project putting together a delegation of young people who will be part of the upcoming Ministerial Meeting on Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS). It's both exciting and daunting at the same time.
I have seven young people from around Asia and two from Germany signed up and raring to go. Everyone has started getting to know each other through Skype, conference calls and a Facebook group. That means they can get comfortable working with each other and start developing their knowledge of the issues.
This group of young people – Team CRVS – will define their own roles at the conference and take ownership of everything they do. Their primary objective is to ensure that youth voices are heard and taken into account when governments think about civil registration and vital statistics. In Asia, this is a big deal as civil registration will be high on the post-2015 agenda.
Team CRVS are going to be involved in a number of activities, first and foremost the Youth Call To Action. This is where they will state their case to highlight the issues affecting unregistered children and young people, and call governments and relevant stakeholders to action. All this will take place at a special youth event during the conference, which will also feature a youth panel discussion led by the UN Secretary General's Envoy on Youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, who the group will get to work closely with.
As if that weren't enough, two members of Plan Germany's Youth Advisory Panel will also be there to present their experiences advocating for greater investment in birth registration. This campaign saw them travel across Germany collecting fingerprints as a kind of petition to present to their governments to call for greater investment in civil registration systems.
Then there will also be all kinds of youth reporter activities (blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, filming, interviewing) that will give the young people the chance to really make their voices heard across Plan's online platforms, as well as the channels of our United Nations partners.
So there's a lot to organise to put everything together. Obviously I'm not doing it entirely on my own and I have the unwavering support of my boss, Nicoleta Panta, the Plan Asia Regional Office (my trusted allies), and a bunch of other people who are helping me out on this journey. But it's hard to escape the feeling that I really don't want to let these young people down.
I'd love to hear from those of you who have worked on similar projects. What are your top tips for ensuring everything goes smoothly?
You can meet the young people we are working with on the Team CRVS portal on the Plan website.
Readers beware: there is an elite group of mischievous hackers forcing their way into the social media accounts of unsuspecting victims and posting dumb shit on their behalf in order to whip the media into a frenzy and do lasting reputational damage. These hackers must be stopped.
One of them recently got into the Twitter account of The Dignity Project, a Scottish charity working in Africa with orphans and vulnerable children. The dastardly devil managed to cross-post an extremely rude tweet from a Facebook status update about beloved author of wizard books, JK Rowling.
Oh the horror! This prompted an outcry from the public and a very serious investigation was launched by very serious charity regulators. The good folks at The Dignity Project quickly put out a curiously worded statement to clear the air and explain to the world what had gone on.
The Dignity Project has had it's Twitter account hacked
We are not responsible for any tweets that have been sent.
As a charity we do not take any political stance and our opinion is people are free to donate to whoever they choose.
To the people who hacked our account if helping African children to thrive and survive including single mums is bad thing that is their problem.
Think of the single mums! Astonishingly, the bastard hacker has managed to keep the tweet up for TWO FULL DAYS at the time of writing. Yup, it's still there. Why oh why has this happened to good people saving orphans?!
OK let's get real for a minute. Nobody hacked The Dignity Project's severely neglected Twitter account. It was, until just a day or so ago, linked directly to the Facebook account of William McDonald-Wood, one of the founders of The Dignity Project. If you clicked on the links on the Twitter feed, they'd take you straight to the corresponding posts on his Facebook page. Once the world had gone mad jumping to the defence of lovely JK, that Facebook account was deleted. Notice the FB link in the bitch tweet. Despite going AWOL from Facebook, the said chap does, however, still have his own personal neglected Twitter feed up, although it's not much to look at.
Here's what happened: William set up the Dignity Project Twitter account back in 2009 and he didn't really know what to do with it, so he just followed a few people, linked it to his Facebook account and then forgot about it/lost access to it. Everything went up there, including the books he and his wife were trying to flog on eBay.
Months and then years passed without anything earth-shattering happening. He did call David Cameron an asshole, but there was surprisingly no fallout from that tweet.
Oh, and he also had a problem with Maria Miller…
…the Lib Dems…
…David Cameron again…
…and the list goes on. They've also been "hacked" before!
There are a few things we can all learn from this debacle:
- Linked FB/Twitter accounts are the work of the devil
- If you're not going to do social media well, don't do it all
- Don't set up social media accounts if you aren't going to use them effectively
- Have a purpose to your social media; don't just do it for the sake of it
- Have a crisis comms plan in place in case things do go wrong
- Don't blame "hackers" when you stuff up
- Be honest about your mistakes and don't make things worse by lying
"I'll have the T-bone horse steak," I said.
The waiter looked at me, a little confused.
"Foreigners don't normally oder that. Are you sure?"
"Quite sure," I replied.
Twenty minutes later I did indeed have a T-bone horse steak before me.
By all accounts, this was not a typical Kazakh dish. Sure, they eat a lot of horse there, but normally in a form a little more traditional than a T-bone steak. Still, it tasted pretty good, like a cross between liver and beef. The meat also had a peculiar smell that seemed to fill the room. I received a satisfied nod of approval from the waiter after I'd finished my meal.
Welcome to Kazakhstan, I thought.
I was in Astana, capital of Kazakstan, for a work trip. The Asian Development Bank was holding its Annual Meeting there and I was helping out with the youth engagement part of all that, working with a group of young people who had come from around the region to be part of a youth forum and a Civil Society Program.
This was probably the first time I'd been to a country and not really known a single thing about it. What struck me immediately upon arrival was the people. Many of them really epitomised this kind of meeting of Russia and Asia in everything from how they looked to how they spoke. I just didn't expect to hear these thick, Russian/Kazakh accents coming out of the mouths of people whom my ignorant mind was trying to place in East Asia.
Fickle observations were about as far as I got with the people. I spent a lot of time walking around and exploring Astana and was generally viewed with indifference everywhere I went. Saying hello to people was usually met with looks of confusion and mild panic, even in the hotel where I was staying. So I didn't exactly make a great deal of friends among the locals. Nobody speaks a lick of English, which makes even the most basic communication difficult.
The closest I got to making friends was when a colleague and I hitched a ride across town with a young chainsmoking couple who insisted on showing us pictures of a car they were trying to either restore or sell to us, I'm unsure which. When I say "hitched a ride" I actually mean "caught a taxi". There are real taxis in Astana, but you rarely see them. Instead, you just hitch a ride with anyone who happens to be going in the same direction and give them a couple of bucks for their troubles. I don't know how this figures into safety briefings and whatnot, but that's the only way to get around unless you plan walking everywhere, which I did from time to time.
Walking around was great for two reasons: the climate and the scenery. The climate is out of this world. It's cold — like, really cold — but the air is so crisp and fresh that you don't really mind. There's none of this miserable wind and rain that makes the British cold so uncomfortable. It was actually a pleasure to go out and to feel weather.
Then there was the scenery. Astana is the most peculiar place I think I've ever been. It's a largely empty city with very few people. But there are these enormous, remarkable structures everywhere. You cannot go from one street to another without seeing a building that takes your breath away. The architecture is incredible. I can't imagine the amount of oil money that has been put into making Astana look like this. By the end of the week, it kind of dawned on me that I'd only really been taking pictures of buildings. Nothing else.
That's the thing about Astana. All these buildings are recent developments, a result of the capital city being moved there in 1997. At that time, the place was virtually empty. Now, it looks like something from a sci-fi movie. As soon as you get to the outskirts of the city, however, you see that there's just nothing else around. Visitors to the capital are in awe of the magnificence of everything they see, but it's not really a reflection of the country as a whole, so in this way it's a little misleading. I'm not sure if I really got to visit Kazakhstan, as such, or more, a weird futuristic gateway.
This was reflected in the kind of activities that were organised for us. We saw a ballet in this remarkable, extravagant opera house, the likes of which I'd never seen. We were treated to fine food and wine. We saw stunning performances of opera, ballet and music. It all felt strangely inauthentic though.
There are only about 800,000 people in Astana, while the whole country is home to about 18 million. The country is massive though, so on average you only have about 6 people per square kilometre, making it one of the least densely populated places on earth. You can't escape this emptiness, even in Astana.
Kazakhstan gets most of its money from oil and gas reserves. The energy sector is huge. In 2012, exports were close to $87 billion, 59% of that were oil and oil products. So there are a lot of people getting rich in the country. Despite that, the services sector is the biggest employer, followed by agriculture. Corruption is an issue that remains a problem.
Then there's the politics, or lack of it. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been the leader of the country since 1991, when the country became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He's a dictator. There's no other way to put it. And with that come limits to freedom of speech, political freedom, corruption and more. Yet the country is stable and per capita GDP has increased twelvefold since 1994. Life is generally pretty good for a lot of people and it doesn't look like there's much in the way of an anti-Nazarbayev movement in the country.
Kazakhstan, or the bits of it I've seen, is an interesting, diverse country, but I would not say it's an obvious choice for a holiday, despite curiosities like military parades and missiles being driven through the streets. I would love to go back and spend a little more time travelling around the country, but it's not the kind of place where you can just rock up with a backpack and expect to get around.