The following article was originally delivered as remarks during the Closing Ceremony of the 2023 AFS Youth Assembly by Brian Atwood. An AFS student in Luxembourg, Atwood has chaired the AFS International Board of Trustees. He served as the Head of the world’s largest bilateral foreign aid agency, the US Agency for International Development and has chaired the OECD Development Assistance Committee. He has been a professor at Harvard, Brown and dean of the Hubert Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota. He believes that the key to world peace is intercultural understanding foreign relations.

I want to thank AFS President Daniel Obst for bringing the world’s future leaders to New York. I was an AFS student in Luxembourg several decades ago. It seems like only yesterday when I was in this city getting ready to take my very first flight to Europe.

My life was shaped by that intercultural experience and many more that followed. My experiences have convinced me that people are essentially the same everywhere. They want the best for their family. They want to feel part of a community. They want a good education for their kids, a clean environment, good health care, food security and an opportunity to prosper and be secure. And they want to feel free to express themselves and to hold governments accountable.

It is no contradiction that these common aspirations come packaged in different cultures, languages and political orientations. Yet, in all cultures we have the capacity to love other human beings. Sadly, we are also too often suspicious of people who don’t share our backgrounds.

Respect for others derives from empathy and understanding, while most often hate is the product of ignorance and fear. The ability of the human mind to conjure both—and act on them—has been the epic challenge of life on this earth.

Now I’d like to share a bit of related history.

I was privileged back in the 1990s to have been given responsibility for running the largest bilateral foreign aid program in the world, the United States Agency for international Development (USAID). I was immediately exposed to all the criticisms: that foreign aid was an effort to remake the world to serve Western interests; that it created dependencies that would inhibit local development; that it would promote inappropriate modernization; that it was too often culturally insensitive; and that it placed an undue reporting burden on understaffed developing countries.

It was also apparent by the 1990s that aid agencies and partner countries were beginning to share strategic goals and principles related to effectiveness. Some of these goals had already been endorsed at various United Nations meetings.

Just as human beings share common aspirations, so too did healthy and prosperous societies. Having engineered an excercise within USAID to develop a more strategic outlook, I became convinced that donors and their partners in the developing world could reach agreement on a set of universal goals.

I promoted the idea in meetings of the Development Assistance Committee, the forum where donors meet within the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It took a few years to produce a set of goals that became became the Millennium Development Goals. A few years later, in 2001, the United Nations embraced those goals.

The Millennium goals and the newer version, the Sustainable Development Goals, represented a universal consensus.
When development goals are endorsed by the UN, donors and partner countries incur an obligation to measure results against those goals. That in itself transformed the way business is done.

Today, instead of the paternalistic phrase “foreign aid,” we now call it “development cooperation.”

And that is more important than ever, as today we are faced with a unique convergence of dire transnational threats to this earth and a compelling urgency to cooperate to meet them. Our differences—whether in culture, language, religion or history—pale in significance in the face of this overcrowded, overheated, and violence-prone world.

These transnational challenges cannot be met by any one nation. These horrible conditions should unite us, but sadly they have added stress, competition and conflict.

Over the past few days you have heard numerous accounts of these threats: infectious diseases that kill millions of people and disrupt supply chains; the war in Ukraine that threatens a democratic Europe and creates food shortages in Africa; climate change that causes droughts, floods, forest fires, and violent storms; and the proliferation of nuclear weapons that could end life as we know it.

The world is fast reaching its carrying capacity. Quite naturally those suffering the most are on the move, seeking safety and a better life. Migration is stirring up a populist reaction as some political leaders appeal to fear of the other.

The global community is trying to manage the lives of well over 8 billion people. That is 5 billion more than when the United Nations was created. Think about the implications of that! What we need are solutions, not hysteria!

Achieving a more peaceful, prosperous and liveable world will require enlightened and democratic leadership accountable to responsible citizens. Yet today democracy itself is being challenged by both internal and external pressures.

A generation ago, Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock warned that “the accelerated rate of technological and social change”… would “leave people disconnected and disoriented.” The Canadian social philosopher Marshall McLuhan, was prescient when he said “We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

As we stand on the precipice of yet another new technology, artificial intelligence, it is vital that we comprehend how to shape these tools before they shape us.

We seem to have gone beyond the disorientation of Future Shock into a dystopian world where conspiracy theories turn science and logic on their head. And, if we aren’t careful, artificial intelligence could come to substitute for the human conscience.

We are laying a lot at the feet of your generation. No one person can solve all these problems, but individually you have a role to play. You can make a difference. Many of you have already begun a career. Others are still wondering what the world holds for you.

Whatever field you choose, one day—when you get to my age—you will have occasion to look back and ask yourself: Did I contribute to a better world? How does one measure the worth of a life? Is it what you get from society, or what you give back?

You are here today because you have been blessed with a good education. You are the future leaders of government, civil society and industry. How then should you contemplate your potential in light of the challenges before us?

A great American writer and thinker from the 19th Century, Ralph Waldo Emerson, put it this way: he said, “There are men and women, who… carry nations with them, and lead the activity of the human race.” These leaders he said have a belief in “causality… a strict connection between every pulse beat and the principle of being…” This, Emerson said, is what “characterizes all valuable minds.”

Some of you are probably wondering ‘can that be me’? Well, if not you, then who?

In my day a young U.S. President inspired me and millions of others with his challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

I would transpose that challenge by substituting the word “world” for “country.” I’m not suggesting that you abandon your love of country, only that you understand that no country can sustain itself standing alone.

Now, I don’t presume to have the standing of a John F. Kennedy, yet I have seen and met literally hundreds of courageous men and women who have risked all to make their country and the world a more peaceful, more democratic, more equitable place.

They are people like Alexei Navalny and Vladimir Kara-Murza who both returned to Russia knowing they would be imprisoned. Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, a journalist from the Phillippines who persisted in criticizing her government knowing that she could be imprisoned. Taraneh Alidoosti, the Iranian actress arrested for denouncing the treatment of women. Greta Thunberg of Sweden who has led the charge on climate change. Nelson Mandela who spent 27 years in prison before he emerged as the leader of a democratic South Africa.

The list of courageous activists is a long one. Not all are as well known as those I mention here. They have one thing in common: they all exercised the freedom to hold governments accountable; they had a belief in what Emerson called “causality.” They wanted to cause positive change.

Winston Churchill once famously said that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried…” Churchill loved humor and irony, and he was right about democracy. Democracy can be messy, but in its protections of free expression it inspires creativity while producing accountability.

Democracy requires an active citizenship. It needs informed, responsible citizens who participate in the politics of their country, and the politics of the world.

So go forth from this experience and dedicate yourself to giving back to society. Embrace the beautiful diversity of the human race. Take the best from every society and apply it to your own.

Measure your own worth by what you give, not by what you take. The future of the world is in your hands now. I have every confidence that you will leave it in a better place.