Remarks to Senate Youth Program

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
Benjamin Franklin Room
Washington, DC
March 9, 2011

Thank you Megan for that kind introduction.

Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be among such a distinguished group of representatives from around the United States. When I was invited to come speak to you today, I immediately agreed. After all, you are the leaders that people like me will be working for in a couple of years. And I mean that with all seriousness.

Let me start by commending you for your interest in public service. When I was your age, I hadn’t quite arrived at the realization that the greatest satisfaction in life comes from helping others—but it wasn’t long after that I started my career in international development.

At ACCION International — where I worked for 25 years, the last ten as CEO — we built banks for the poor. It was during this time that a phenomenon called microfinance was turning traditional notions of banking and development on their heads. We recognized that the poor of the world were not just charity cases, but agents of their own change. It was a revolutionary concept, and continues to define my work today.

As you’ve now heard, for the last year and half I have served as the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs. As Under Secretary, I oversee a broad range of global issues related to human security: democracy promotion, the protection of human rights; refugee and internally displaced people, natural resources and more.

So, it’s a big portfolio—and we stay very busy. But at the foundation of all of these issues is the idea that human security—the stability and prosperity of individuals—is at the very core of national security. In other words, that peace and prosperity are contingent on protecting and empowering individuals—including the world’s most vulnerable populations.

We can take significant lessons about the importance of human security from recent events in the Middle East. There you have entire countries in which 60, 70, 80% of the population is under the age of 30. Many of them would be your peers. But they lack job opportunities, access to education and health services. They feel left out of the political process—and so they organized. Their collective demonstrations—calling for better conditions for human security—have led to historic shifts on the international stage. And so individuals, young people like you, have changed the course of nations.

The high percentage of young people in the Middle East is not an anomaly. Around the world, young people make up 60 percent of the world’s population. So, we should understand youth not just as leaders of tomorrow, but as leaders of today.

With this in mind, Secretary Clinton has prioritized youth in our foreign policy and her trips abroad. She has asked the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale, and me to chair a Youth Task Force, which is developing a comprehensive framework for how we engage and learn from young citizens around the world. We are exploring the many ways that the US government engages youth on our foreign policy priorities, and crafting a strategy to ensure that we are maximizing the potential of youth as leaders in their communities around the world.

Everywhere I travel, I meet with young people like you. Just last week, I was in Nigeria and met with 150 young leaders who are working to ensure that their country has free, fair and credible elections. I was inspired by their energy and creativity, particularly how they are using mobile technologies to get out the vote and increase accountability in upcoming elections.

With increased connectedness through travel and technology, young Americans like you are critical partners in reaching youth around the world. These opportunities for informal diplomacy can be through exchange programs, travel, or digital linkages between your schools.

So as you continue on your excellent agenda here in Washington, I encourage you to shift your perspective a bit—and to really see yourselves as part of the solution. Today, more than ever before, the global landscape is shifting. We see a landscape defined by challenges shared by all nations, developing and developed alike. And we see that young citizens like you are our greatest hope for change and progress. So thank you for being here, and keep up the good work!