Ahmad Alhendawi is the 10th Secretary General of the World Organization of the Scout Movement, becoming the youngest to helm one of the world’s leading educational youth movements. Prior to this appointment and following years of advocating for youth empowerment, Ahmad served as the first-ever United Nations Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth and the youngest senior official in the history of the UN. Once a Scout himself, he believes that Scouting holds a major solution for youth development in the 21st century. For two consecutive years, Ahmad was named one of the 100 most influential Arabs under 40 and in the Diplomatic Courier’s list of the 99 most influential policy professionals under 33.
What was the path that lead you to today?
I'm the youngest of 10 children in my family. Growing up, I was surrounded by adults a lot and grew a fascination with my father's daily reading of the newspaper at around 6 years old. It seemed very surprising to me that we weren't being featured in this newspaper, day after day. Until I asked and the response was, "Ahmad, to make the news, you have to do something extraordinary."
This really resonated in my 6-year-old mind, and I think it was then that I started thinking that I don't just want to read news, I actually want to be part of shaping events.
As a family we lived a modest life. I was an avid reader and was soon finishing biographies I barely comprehended then. But I was determined on my journey to do something meaningful.
I remained curious and active while growing up. I started getting involved in volunteer work and community service in middle school and it did indeed change my life. I lived a simple life but volunteering opened up unimaginable doors for me. Volunteering shaped my perception about the world and about myself. The ‘magic of volunteering' I call it. It took me from one unconventional experience to another, from scouting to the head of student council to where I am today.
Who inspired you to do what you do?
Actually there's been various people who inspired me throughout my life. They were ordinary people but I admired an extraordinary characteristic in their nature. For example, my basketball coach inspired me. I found his dedication in coaching us solely for the love of the game, very admirable. It wasn't his job, yet he took the time to teach us to love the game like he does.
I had different people I looked up to, from a scout leader, teacher to an athlete or someone who inspired me in my volunteer work. If I had to choose a public inspirational figure, this would be Nelson Mandela and his story of discipline and undeniable determination to support and fight for justice.
What have been the biggest obstacles you have encountered?
I'll share with you one obstacle I vividly remember. I was extremely passionate about basketball while growing up. I was committed to it and to pursuing the sport as a career. While in Jordan, I applied to a sports scholarship at a university I wanted, and without a doubt knew that passing the basketball assessment was going to be a piece of cake! However, what happened in the middle of the assessment changed my path, I broke my leg and caused damage to my ligament.
I remember the devastation I felt being so close to a dream and losing it before my eyes. It took me some time to understand that this incident was a blessing in disguise.
Being heavily focused on basketball led me to sideline my other passion of activism and volunteering. I decided to become more active in my student council and city and there I began to apply my knowledge and leadership skills and aim higher in that direction.
Looking back now I could've taken a completely different track in life if my other passion worked out, and I would've probably ended up as only a mediocre basketball player missing out on my passion for public service.
I was given the opportunity to literally create a new Office at at the United Nations at the age of 27 by the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Back then, there was no Office established for the role of the UN Youth Envoy, no financial resources, no team or anything. I was asked by the Secretary-General to come up with a work plan for this new role where I was to represent and defend the rights of 1.8 billion young persons and ensure that the UN plays a stronger role in supporting youth development globally.
For the next month, I barely got any sleep, I was meeting and connecting with different people and reading to meet the expectations of young people who were looking for a stronger UN leadership on youth issues.
I developed Four Key Principles of how we want the United Nations to champion youth causes. I worked with others and stretched myself to the maximum to build this mandate, fundraise for it and help it grow and it was coming together. I am very proud that the UN has championed many important initiatives after that, and what started as a one-man cubicle has grown into a whole office and strong mandate led ably today by my successor Ms. Jayathma Wickramanayake.
This was a proud journey of what we were able to accomplish under difficult circumstances having very limited resources. We proved that even in a rigid system like the United Nations, young people are never too young to lead, disrupt and innovate.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Never be afraid of asking for help. Reach out to people when you can, because your goal wouldn't materialize without the support of others. Speaking from my own experience, the more curious you are and the more you ask questions, the further you can get in life and in serving others.
Why is getting outdoors so important in modern life?
It's the way to connect with the world we live in. Not only does it teach you to enjoy nature but reminds you of your responsibility to preserve it and not take it for granted. Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of only enjoying nature anymore. With our generation it's a two-way street, and it's about preservation as much as it is about enjoyment.
Amongst all the experiences you have been involved with, which is the most unforgettable and why?
The World Scout Jamboree, is an experience I will never forget. The energy you feel from the 40,000 young people, gathered from different walks of life to form a brotherhood and sisterhood is so powerful. It's an example of what works in this world, where so many nations are placed together to basically build a fully functional city for two weeks, is like nothing I've witnessed before. The power of the Jamboree is truly amazing and life-changing.
Why else the World Scout Jamboree is so important to you?
It is special to me because I took part in the Jamboree in Japan in 2015 before re-joining the Scout Movement as Secretary General. I was there as the UN Youth Envoy and I didn't have it in mind that two years later I will join to serve as the Movement's Secretary General. I am humbled that I've been entrusted with this great responsibility. I learn every day in the job from outstanding volunteers and staff that are going above and beyond in delivering the transformative experience of scouting to over 50 million young people around the world.
Who has been an unsung hero in your life?
My mother, without a doubt. Her raising a family of 10 is incredible. She's seen hardships and many life events, yet the clarity and compassion she holds outshines every situation. I know sometimes she didn't fully understand things I was working on and aiming for, but her moral support never left my side. I believe I'm also her favorite!
Do you have a motto you live by?
I always say ‘do things with what you have not with what you need'. It's been a common theme throughout my life, where the ambition is bigger than the resources available. But when you focus on what you have, you realize how many assets are already there to push you forward like good health, being surrounded by good people and believing in yourself. The needs are never-ending, so take action with what you have and expand it step by step.
If I stopped in my tracks when I didn't have the resources I thought I needed, I wouldn't have achieved anything. Always challenge your human boundaries and don't despair.
Another thing I like to live by is: take what you do seriously but don't take yourself too seriously. Have a little fun in everything you pursue, create that balance because we're all human.