Speech by the President of the Republic of Finland

Opening Remarks by President Martti Ahtisaari
at The Balkan Youth Summit in Helsinki on 9
February 2000

Welcome to Finland. And welcome to this very important gathering to discuss a subject we all care about very much - young people and the future of the Balkans. The many organisations and individuals represented in this room have years - even decades - of experience of working in the region. We have tried to assemble a small, but knowledgeable group to deliberate, debate and hopefully agree in principle on a way forward. Let us hope that you will do so in a way that adds value to the work that all of you - and many others who are not present - are already doing. This is my goal, which I share with the organisers of this gathering.

Everyone accepts that "prevention is better than cure", but the world community still has a long way to go before this principle is effectively put into practice. Again and again we see fire brigades rushing to tackle infernos. Not only do we have to pay for the fire service, but then also for the reconstruction of societies that have been wrecked because international intervention was too little too late.

During my career with the United Nations, in the Finnish diplomatic service and now as President of this country, I have seen all kinds of international disasters; how they evolve; how the mechanisms of escalation work; how slow we are to react; how urgent and welcome mediation is when it comes; and then ultimately how difficult it is to get the resources to create a new beginning and heal the wounds.

Although I am an optimist, I suspect that humankind will go through the same experience in this new millennium. We have gathered here to make our contribution to peace and stability in the Balkans, not only for today, but for the next generation. If we do not start this process now, those who come after us may regret and deplore it – in addition to paying a heavy price for our shortcomings and lack of leadership and vision.

It is my firm belief that we must invest a lot of training, education, care and love in young people. Their attitudes to society, to their neighbours and to their own futures are taking shape NOW. In ten years’ time it will be too late to exert a positive influence and offer them the chance to embrace values and norms that will safeguard them against the poisons that have traditionally blighted the region - ethnic and religious hatred, mistrust and intolerance that erupts into violence.

I also believe that we can achieve good results only by mobilising resources to support the young generation in their own activities. We must identify and promote opportunities that will help young people develop meaningful life skills, working closely with other young people from all groups.

I am well aware that there are already a number of effective youth projects up and running in many countries in the region. Indeed, several of you are taking part in them. However, we must all agree that these efforts - no matter how good and effective they are - reach only a tiny fraction of those in need.

Our task must be to find ways of expanding these efforts and developing new ones so that we can engage many more young people and enable them to learn from each other.

The best way that we can do that is by creating a regional framework for supporting youth activities. That will enable us to bring together the experience of all who are familiar with the best practices and have the ability to convert theory into practice. In the final analysis, of course, the work will have to be done at country level, and even community-by-community and school-by-school. National youth policies are needed. Community action is needed. But a regional framework can provide a much-needed impetus and vehicle for greater investment, engagement and learning.

I suggest we use this day for a joint effort to analyse what we can do to improve the situation of children and young adults in the Balkan region. The obvious problems resulting from the war and the destruction that it caused are not only ones that must be addressed. There is also the constant and difficult challenge of helping young people develop the skills and values they need to participate in society rather than being excluded from it. There is the challenge of education; of homeless, parentless, and abandoned children; of pervasive poverty, and of youth unemployment.

I doubt whether anyone could draw a comprehensive picture of the situation in such a complicated, conflict-ridden and diverse region. But we need to hear ideas about better ways to channel support to a sector which can easily be forgotten in a period dominated by material reconstruction and a free-wheeling market economy. In my view, far too little attention has been paid to either the plight or the

promise of young people in the Balkans. That is why I support this dialogue so strongly.

I hope this summit will produce a model for cooperation in the youth sector in the Balkans - or perhaps several models. This need not interfere with what is already being done, but it should help to make the world community - including the private sector - interested in investing in youth development. Decisions concerning the sums that multilateral and bilateral agencies will invest in the region are now pending. The decision makers must be offered a credible model guaranteeing that money invested in youth development goes to the best available projects, regardless of their origin or organisational background.

When the International Youth Foundation first approached me, as a member of its Global Action Council, with the idea of this summit, I immediately gave them a positive response. Hundreds of NGOs are already working on a variety of efforts in the region. I’ve seen it. And a few - a very few - donors have been supporting many initiatives there for many years. Open Society is an excellent example of a fully- engaged, thoughtful and effective donor in the region. But I must believe, that these donors, and even the NGOs themselves, recognise the need for significantly more investment and work on a greater scale.

This is one of the reasons for our discussion. The International Youth Foundation has an excellent reputation as a neutral facilitator in working with a great variety of projects, donors and organisations – building on what already exists; not competing but cooperating with others, and in bringing new investors and resources to the table. This combination could provide useful value-added in the special case of the Balkans. Let us all find ways to go beyond our accustomed thinking, and perhaps even outside our own institutional constraints and structures to find innovative ways to strengthen, expand and build upon the excellent work already being done.