Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 24 November 2020

Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week: youth and gender equality are key for a sustainable future

A group of young Emirati women attend a careers fair in Dubai. Reem Mohammed / The National
A group of young Emirati women attend a careers fair in Dubai. Reem Mohammed / The National

This column is part of a series of exclusive insights ahead of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, being held from January 11-18, 2020.

As the UAE’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York, I have been immensely proud to watch Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, or ADSW, evolve into the world’s largest annual sustainability event. A mere decade since its launch, ADSW is where the world comes to glimpse the future of sustainability and where leaders meet the partners who will help them realise that future.

What perhaps gives me the greatest hope for tomorrow is that ADSW understands that sustainable development is not just about the latest technological innovation. Rather, it ultimately rests on two core requirements of any stable and prosperous society: gender equality and investment in youth.

A widely-held view is that technology alone will allow us to break the link between economic growth and its environmental impact. And yet this supposed silver bullet continues to miss its mark. After five years of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, one lesson that is becoming clear is this: if we fail to address outdated social norms and continue to exclude key stakeholders from driving the implementation of the SDGs, there is little hope of achieving these goals. Unless all segments of society, including women and youth, are equipped and empowered to truly leverage technology, its benefits simply stall – or, worse, deepen the divide between the haves and have-nots.

By contrast, when gender and youth are at the heart of technology and policy implementation – as we are committed to making them in the UAE – there is considerable upside potential, and development actually becomes sustainable. McKinsey, the consulting firm, estimates that global GDP would grow by 26 per cent if women played a role equal to men in markets by 2025.

Lana Nusseibeh has been the UAE's permanent representative to the UN since September 2013. Getty Images
Lana Nusseibeh has been the UAE's permanent representative to the UN since September 2013. Getty Images

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, reports that gender gaps cost the world economy at least 15 per cent of GDP in 2016. For young people, an extra year of education can increase an individual’s income by some 10 per cent – and 20 per cent if they are female. Practically speaking, too, our youth are the next wave of sustainable technology users.

In addition to the moral imperative, this “business case” for women’s empowerment and youth engagement drives UAE policy. The Emirates has, among many actions, instituted equal pay for equal work laws, subsidised university education, and elevated younger voices by appointing a youth minister and establishing a system of youth councils. The results are clear: the UAE enjoys one of the best-educated, healthiest and most sustainability-informed workforces in the region, with more than half of our university graduates now being women.

ADSW reflects this strategic thinking. Every year, Masdar launches a new cohort of the Young Sustainability Leaders, a year-long incubator for the brightest minds in their 20s to build their careers in the sustainability field. Similarly, one of the lynchpins of ADSW is the event by Women in Sustainability, Environment and Renewable Energy – or WiSER – the longstanding networking and mentoring platform for young women. Furthermore, these programmes anchor a major focus on school groups and families. The goals are clear: ensure that these sustainability breakthroughs and aspirations are for everyone, not just a narrow demographic.

Indeed, ADSW’s approach does not go unnoticed. When UN officials share with me their impressions from visiting the UAE during ADSW, they of course mention the self-driving cars and the cutting-edge desalination technology. But what really strikes them are the young scientists, businesspeople and students they meet, and that so many of them are women.

“What’s the secret?” they ask. As a country and a global community committed to sustainable development, we of course have much work ahead on gender equality and youth empowerment. But with the deliberately inclusive mindset of global touchstones like ADSW, we are going to reach our destination a lot faster.

Lana Nusseibeh is UAE ambassador to the United Nations

Updated: January 7, 2020 09:51 AM

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