Scout's honour: lucky break bounced Ahmad Alhendawi into the line of duty

Jordanian who substituted basketball for public service now proudly puts the global scout movement's 54 million young people first as leader of the packs

The switch to public service hasn’t worked out too badly for Ahmad Alhendawi, who, at the age of 32, was named as the youngest ever head of the world’s scouting movement.
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Ahmad Alhendawi found his mission in life on the basketball court. Just not in the way he expected.

As a teenager on the brink of university, the Jordanian had set his heart on a sports scholarship. It all depended on one 90-minute trial but, fortunately, young Alhendawi was good.

Even though he was up against more than 30 contenders for one of just two coveted places, he had little doubt in his ability to prevail.

The decisive moment came as he ran back into a defensive position during a one-on-one exercise with a rival when his knee twisted beneath him.

The tears that followed were for the agony and his thwarted ambition. “I can’t remember much because the pain was just unbearable,” Mr Alhendawi tells The National.

The diagnosis was a cruciate ligament injury – and that was that as far as the basketball scholarship was concerned.

“It was literally the only time I needed basketball in my life, just to get to the school that I really wanted," he says.

“Most of my friends were there and I already had a kind of picture of how things would play out if I went. So it was game over.”

He had little choice but to revert to plan B, one which he now believes should “always have been my plan A”, to focus on his other passion – volunteering.

The switch to public service has not worked out too badly for the man who, at the age of 32, was named as the youngest head of the world’s scouting movement.

Volunteering is quite a remarkable thing,” he says. “It’s a magical thing. You actually think you’re giving your time and energy but all the time you are getting much more than you are giving.

“Only with time do you realise how much you have accumulated experiences and insights on things that you would never have explored if it wasn’t for volunteering.”

It is tempting to call it a meteoric rise but Mr Alhendawi’s selection as secretary general of the World Organisation of the Scout Movement followed a pattern of volunteering and championing youth causes that was set early in childhood.

The young Ahmad grew up in Zarqa, Jordan’s second largest city and a magnet for migrants from across the Middle East seeking a better life.

Attending a public school with class sizes of 45 to 50, he mixed with Iraqis, Syrians and Christian Arabs whose families had all made their way to the country’s industrial centre beside the Zarqa River.

As the youngest of 10 children from a military family, he was well versed in making himself heard in a crowd.

My father explained that you have to do something to be in the paper. In a childish way, I felt I would like to be part of those sorts of things

His intellectual curiosity was fed by learning from the conversations of his older siblings and visits to the local public library. He remembers, too, aged six, being captivated by his father’s habit of reading the newspaper every day.

“It was always a surprise to me why there were so many stories in there but we were not in the paper,” Mr Alhendawi says.

“My father explained the whole thing that you have to do something to be in the paper. In a very childish way – but in a profound way when I reflect on it – I felt like I would like to be part of those sorts of things.”

Thinking that the opportunities afforded him through the formal education system would not only be conventional but limited by social class and financial background, he fixed upon the idea of expanding the realm of possibilities via extra-curricular activities.

These days, Mr Alhendawi describes it as “hustling through volunteering”. “It was my ticket to try to make it, and it worked rather well and allowed me to do a lot of things,” he says.

As a teenage scout, he was asked to help as an usher for an event where the charismatic King Hussein of Jordan gave a speech. “It was the only time I saw my father cry, when the king passed away,” Mr Alhendawi says.

He learnt the value of public service from a teacher, who in his spare time ran the school’s scout troop, and his inspirational basketball coach. His own volunteering efforts ran in parallel with his sporting passions until that devastating torn ligament.

The result of the injury was that, instead of staying in his home city and attending the Hashemite University, he went to his second-choice, Al Balqa, in Salt, 50 kilometres away.

Being separated from his family taught him independence, but the course on computer information systems failed to satisfy his growing intellectual curiosity.

Before starting classes, he travelled every week to another university to attend lectures on political economy and psychology. “My friends were laughing at me because they knew that I didn't have passion for what I was studying,” he says.

Scouting tends to be inward looking sometimes … a movement that has 50 million members and 500 million alumni cannot act as a small club in a village

His dedication fed into his volunteering work. Mr Alhendawi spent extra hours reading lecture notes and preparing documents while working on school councils and youth commissions.

He was delivering a presentation at a conference when he was spotted and offered a job with the Arab League to work on youth projects and develop civil society.

Mr Alhendawi has consistently maintained that young people are unexploited assets in solving the world’s problems. It is a lesson that global leaders need to learn quickly, he says, with half of the population under the age of 25 but suffering some of its most acute problems.

The dissertation for his master’s degree, achieved at the European Institute in Nice, France, looked into the workings of the Arab uprisings in Egypt. He argues that the perception of apathetic Egyptian youth was not borne out by the mass mobilisation in 2011.

He has spoken of changing the rules of political engagement so that those in the younger generation are treated as more than mere beneficiaries of charity from an older establishment. Despite too often being sidelined in this process, Mr Alhendawi says that young people cannot afford to ignore politics.

His own advancement came when he was tapped by the UN’s secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, in January 2013 to become the organisation’s first youth envoy.

Four years later, he himself was named as a secretary general, representing the diverse views of more than 170 nations in the scouting movement.

No one was more delighted than Mr Ban, who dug out a photograph of his younger self as a scout when Mr Alhendawi came to his office to break the news.

Mr Ban told his departing envoy that his appointment was a good one for the UN. While he might be losing an energetic advocate for youth, he felt that the vast scout network under Mr Alhendawi would advocate for similar goals as those of the UN.

In a sign of how the co-operation would work, the UN, with the scouting movement and the five other large global youth organisations, launched an initiative called Global Youth Mobilisation to provide an initial $2 million for young people and communities affected by Covid-19. Young people will decide where the money goes and how it is spent.

Mr Alhendawi’s mission statement in leading the scouting movement is to embrace the “mega trends that are really threatening the future of this generation, like climate change and inequality”.

In his own scouting days, he visited parts of Jordan as a child and was immersed in different cultures that he probably would not have experienced otherwise.

“Scouting tends to be inward looking sometimes … a movement that has more than 50 million members and more than 500 million alumni cannot act as a small club in a village,” he says.

His programme of modernisation extends to updating the image of the organisation, which in some countries has lost its appeal to youngsters to the competing attractions of computer games and sports.

Mr Alhendawi has praised the process of revitalisation in the UK, where perceptions were overhauled when the adventurer and explorer Bear Grylls was named as chief scout.

His social media feeds feature many campaigning messages, whether environmental, educational, achieving gender equality, ensuring a fair global distribution of vaccines or promoting peace in South Sudan.

It is a politics founded on consensus building from his history of working for membership organisations – such as the UN and the Arab League – in which progress can be made only by bringing people together in search of a common goal.

He recalls one lunch with a diplomat at which they discussed the differences between working for a country or an organisation like the United Nations. “The way we ended the conversation was that if you were a representative of a member state you could probably promote development for the sake of politics,” he says.

“But if you worked on the UN side, you have for the most time to do the politics for the sake of maintaining development gains.”

Despite his global ambitions for change, some of Mr Alhendawi’s challenges are closer to home. Sexual abuse scandals resulted in the Boy Scouts of America, for example, filing for bankruptcy to allow it to pay compensation in hundreds of reported cases.

One of his first acts as secretary general was to build ethical standards across all the national scouting organisations. In the coming years, any that do not conform to child protection measures “will have no place in the movement”.

In his darker moments, he turns to the words of Nelson Mandela, whose letters and poems are on the wall of Mr Alhendawi’s home in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia where the world scouting movement has its headquarters.

“Just two weeks ago, I was confronted with a situation where I thought, maybe I should be angry ... and gave myself two hours, read a few of the letters and it just calmed me down and helped me find the right tone,” he says.

At 37, Mr Alhendawi has reached the stage in his life when he is running out of time for “the youngest ...” to be attached as a prefix to each new appointment. He was due to marry his partner, who is from Finland, last year but the coronavirus has delayed the nuptials until this summer.

The pandemic has hit young people hardest, Mr Alhendawi says. He wrote on Twitter last year that the effect of Covid-19 on youth was not just severe, it was catastrophic.

“It has resulted in a generation in waiting,” he said. He points to his own native Jordan, where youth unemployment stands at 50 per cent.

Despite the gloom, lockdown living has had some advantages. In this online interview, Mr Alhendawi occasionally tugs at his black polo shirt, sticky from the effort of throwing a few hoops on the basketball court outside.

After two decades of exercises to relieve the discomfort caused by the old sporting injury, he has at last had surgery. As he puts it, “I’ve finally fixed something that’s been broken for 20 years”.

Updated: August 11, 2022, 8:09 AM