Maria Isabelle Wieser:
If young people's opinion are not taken into account, if they are treated as sweet little kids that have nice ideas but don't hold up to the argument, then you are not changing anything.
Hello everyone and welcome back to the next page, the United Nations Library and Archives Geneva podcast designed to advance the conversation on multilateralism. My name is Tiffany Verga and I work here at the UN Library and Archives.
In today's episode, you're going to be hearing from Maria Isabelle Wieser, who at the time of this interview was the Deputy director of Foraus and Head of Foraus Romandie.
Foraus is a Swiss think tank which advocates for constructive foreign policy and an informative dialogue. Maria sat down with our director Francesco Pisano where they explored the relationship of youth with multilateralism, diversity and representation and how to best engage youth in the decisions of today. But without giving too much away from this discussion, we hope you enjoy this week's episode.
Today I'm very happy to have a friend of our library and archives since a long time Maria Isabelle Wieser and we're going to have to have a conversation on youth and multilateralism, 2 topics that are really key to this moment of multilateral relations that we're living in the world.
Maria Isabelle Wieser has been the Head of Foraus for the past three years I believe, and she's been in international relations for as long as I’ve been knowing her doing an excellent job on the front of youth but also the gender role of women in international affairs, and so it's really a pleasure to have you here, Maria Isabelle, thank you for joining us and please tell us a little bit about yourself.
Maria Isabelle Wieser:
Well, thank you so much Francesco for giving me this opportunity to have me here. It's always such a pleasure to talk to you and so about myself as you have already said. I'm the Deputy Director of Foraus and Head of Romandy with our stakeholders here also the UN and especially in the library. Before that, well I was born in Japan, which is a bit exotic. I grew up in Zurich I then studied in the Lucerne Political Science program and then I came to Geneva and did international relations. I then worked in Washington DC for a while Trump was elected, that was actually very interesting experience. I then came back and worked first as an intern for Foraus and then a year later I took over as a Deputy Director.
So far it sounds like a brilliant career with interesting highlights including your birth in Japan. I didn't know that, so it's so great to have you here. So, let's start by giving a general overview of Foraus. This is an interesting story, actually, the first time I came across Foraus was long ago and I was really amazed at how Foraus was able to place the youth and the role of youth in international relations at the forefront.
But tell us a little bit, what is Foraus, what is the general idea behind this platform and advocacy mission?
So Foraus in its form is actually a think tank which advocates for constructive foreign policy and an informative dialogue, which is independent, scientific and relevant through our platform. We offer opportunities for young volunteers, so that's quite important, most of them are volunteers and access to the international discussion. Of course, so that they can actually contribute with their ideas, and they do that through either publications or they reorganize high level events. And we've done so on the occasion of the UN at the 75th birthday, for instance, with you Francesco which we engage young people, you gave them the opportunity to talk to the general director. So this is one thing that we do we sort of facilitate this access. Then also we have a platform, a digital platform that's called Policy Kitchen which gives access to actually everybody that is interested in contributing with ideas to foreign policy and there we organize, so we have different topics we do have, for instance, a good example, the 75th birthday we actually did call for contributions. Everybody could contribute with their ideas, what they wanted to change and then of course we try to push or we do push these ideas.
Through the media, we interact with policy decision makers and bring their ideas so the young people ideas onto the table.
There is a section on advocacy on your website, when you go on the website it tells the story of Foraus in a certain way and he talks about this advocacy mission.
Can you tell us a little bit about it for us?
It's important that for us we have no political stance, so maybe an interesting story is how for us came to be. It was actually young people that came together and it was Swiss people and for those that are listening that are not familiar with the Swiss political system, we have a participative democracy. You can almost say where we have to vote or we were allowed to vote on several issues, so this was in the light of a popular vote on the access or the continuing access for EU citizens for the free movement of people within the EU and the expansion to Bulgaria and Romania. At the time, and this was in 2008, if I remember that correctly and there were cross party, the young parties came together and they wanted, they wanted to push for this initiative and so they came together and they realized when it comes to foreign policy, they actually agreed on many levels, so they thought that there was actually a space for for engagement of youth that they could collaborate constructively, on, on ideas and solutions and this is how he was created and this is also the goal we really want it.
We have a review board that is actually looking on the quality of the recommendations. We also make sure that we have external reviews by university professors or people active in in in the field, and they've reviewed these propositions before they go out.
So the idea is really to have some scientifically based recommendations that can also hold up in like the that are actually possible to implement later.
OK, I see, so basically, if I understand correctly, Foraus advocates for the involvement of youth in foreign policy beyond party political party lines? That's that's what you guys do, and it's very interesting to see how that will will come to that later actually affect it in a certain way in the EU, UN in Geneva and the International Geneva ecosystem. I wanted to ask you you are just relinquishing the leadership of the French Switzerland part of the network of the OR the platform called Foraus.
So I wanted to ask you what has been your experience during your tenure as a young female leader of a platform that advocates for the role of youth in foreign policy?
Well, it has been such a rich experience really, I was welcomed. It was so unique, the way of how this ecosystem here in Geneva actually welcomed a young person that is advocating for other young people. The interest was really overwhelming in the beginning, I really I joke about it because it's really true I didn't have to reach out to one person, I had one year full of meetings because people were so interested in the work we were doing, so it has been a really rich experience, I've met with so many heads of organization with director of International organizations. This has been absolutely unique and also the exposure to the media was it was quite unique. I wasn't expecting that when I started, but then also what we have, we had COVID of course.
It was also an experience of how to manage a young, very young team through a crisis which was not always easy time where you come to the boundaries of what you of your leadership skills, I would say. I also think it has been so much learning. Also, I'm extremely grateful for the all the people also within my team that supported me, that allowed me to do so many mistakes. You know you do a lot of mistakes when you were young and starting something and she kept with me and I had so much support or so people that would push me and so yeah. I believe there is so much potential that we can do much more and then of course the energy of the young people which is just extremely gratifying when you see this this potential and and this energy this is just that's just very gratifying at the end of the day.
I believe you and you either need to be young to see the potential that there is in global governance today I've seen examples across the street at the Graduate Institute. For example, I've seen examples at the University of Geneva of course, in the Foraus network as well, I was exposed to a few of your events we worked together, we realized two events together with Foraus, and I was amazed at this energy, so it is apparent it comes through whether or not you're young and actually I wanted to take you to a different second part of our of our conversation together.
If you wish about youth and the redesign of multilateralism, why this term in particular is? It has become quite accepted that the multilateralism, let's say formula that we have used so far have helped us a lot in a lot of areas of political, economic, geostrategy etc but it has created a lot of external cost that we are now having to face in terms of global challenges, you name migration climate inequality's all these are byproducts of what the decisions will be taken. Also multilaterally, so we've come to a point where a lot of analysts and thinkers are saying maybe we should start talking about which multilateral formula we need to face these problems and enjoy prosperity and development and sustainable development in the future.
So I would like to ask you what are the views being discussed by young people inside Foraus and in other partner networks working together with for hours concerning the need to reshape multilateralism?
I think there are two things that are usually pointed out, the first is probably and and can talk more about this diversity of people that are actually active and and what does multilateralism actually mean and the second is also the speed in which multi lateral lists organization work. So for the first point I think if you look at if you look at the people that I'm that make this multilateralism work. If we look at the UN, you see that it's it's not our generation represented on top, the system is quite hierarchical. You have to go through some multiple levels of of work to to actually access to the two decisions. Also I mean just if you look at how to get into the UN you have this unpaid. I have to say it, it's not without wanting to being political, but you have these unpaid internships and this gives the space only to a certain way of people right? I mean we have to be honest, the people that it's really the elite that has access even to their internships and I think this is one big problem that we see that's that it remains something very delicious even if you manage to have all the states at one table, which is amazing. I mean, we don't have to question that the UN is an absolute great achievement, but if you look at who is represented there, you have to say it's still there leads, even if in Switzerland where you have great education where you have actually the possibility to access these kind of position, it still remains something for the children that actually know that you can study that that are pushed through to study. This is one thing and then also the other thing, the speed I think if you look at what pace young people work. If you look at all the social media that that really comes with new initiatives with new things with new topics every day. Multilateralism is based on a very slow pace because everybody can contribute which I absolutely see this constraint but still and now we are fighting or we are facing challenges that need immediate responses you have to climate change, of course, but we were also talking about security risks you have. If you look at Afghanistan, the young people they don't want to wait, they want something they want to see something right now and I think that is also a bit one issue that that's happened. If you look inside I mean and this is not the problem that the UN has unique uniquely, I mean it's these hierarchy problems, younger people, and even myself. You question, you start questioning the legitimacy of people that are in power and and you ask yourself why are they in power. Why is it so so difficult to pass your ideas? Why do you? Why can't you talk? And I think here it's it's very important and we can talk more about this later, but to have an intergenerational dialogue, but not only the dialogue but also really bring these people into this organization and give them a place at the table actually.
Yeah, I would love to have the discussion on on the power of intergenerational dialogue. We will come to that a little bit later you mentioned this hierarchical leadership model that is still very much in use in multilateral institutions. First of all, you cannot change multilateralism as a practice using you know means and tools and organizations that still believe in top down leadership, which is a pretty primitive still yet working principle of leadership. We know that from academic studies this is all changing and this is perhaps why you'd tend not to identify with top down hierarchical leadership models that leave much less space to ideas to come through. The ranks and conquer the logical space that they deserve or fail if they don't deserve it, it's all in the openness of the system. So I would agree with you you're not the only one picking up this feature of model of contemporary multilaterals that seem to hinder its capacity from reform, and that's why many yields are actually rejecting the formula altogether, which may be correct if we need to replace it or may be incorrect. Place it if we need to fix it for what is worth it today now, you mentioned something else that I'm very interested in is the perception of time or urgency? You'd seem to perceive that the house is burning and we need to act now and they don't see. I was told by students for example, in masters on governance of global governance that they perceived the response by international institution as being sort of complacent.
There is time what's the rush about? So I'm interested to know from you what is the assessment that you can make? Given your experience in Foraus of EU, here in the UN, the United Nations, Geneva, but also in other international institutions that you have that you have come across during your tenure.
So what is your assessment? Poor, medium good.
So I mean, I've seen great initiatives that are done by the UN and and we've worked with you on many of them, so I think this is a really good start. I think there is a willingness to engage young people, this is a start. I mean, I'm not sure how this was done 20 years ago, if there was actually a willingness to engage young people. But again, I mean if here you it starts at the beginning, right? It starts in the small things, and if young people's work is is not renumerated. For instance, if young peoples opinion are not taken into account, if they are treated as sweet little kids that have nice ideas but don't really stand up to you know they don't really hold up to their arguments, then you are not changing anything. I think there is a need for for the young people to actually get a space to being recognized for what they're contributing for, having their work recognized for also sitting with them and say, OK, I don't quite agree with you on this. How do you explain this and also engage in a dialogue because some they might not know everything that the older generations know. I find it fascinating, I'm not that young anymore, I I listen to to young people and I learned so much and then sometimes I have to say yeah.
But so I think there is the need for all the generations to actually be represented, but you need to create this space and I think there is a lot of potential to create this space and either in actively giving them for instance that their time is valuable. They don't have the sresources you need to sort of, give them incentives to engage and also you need to open the doors to actually giving them the possibility also to engage.
What is the one thing that you would recommend the UN should do to involve young people more?
I wish I would love to see actual interaction off the records because what I've seen a bit is that you have all these constraints right? You have these, there is a certain way how in the UN you have to have this person talking 1st and then this person talks and you have to, what I would love to see is a space where you can meet around a coffee and just talk and I think that would be so heads of organisations or people at crucial spaces within the organization just really, listening to the young people, and as I said, not just listening but in gauging exchange finding having the actual will to find a solution, I think that would be my absolute wish.
OK, it is all on record, I hope I hope that the top tier of the UN listen to this podcast and and call you back now if we stay on this dimension that you just open with your latest remarks and we expand our outlook and see you know a little bit like talking about youth and the state, the present state of the world, if you wish. Now you just mention how it is, how difficult it is for you to simply be heard. We listened to in this forum and of course by investing in youth more than countries that are represented. The UN could develop a sort of interest, intergenerational synergy that would allow them to see problems in different perspectives. It is striking how the decisions we take today create a debt in the future so decisions are taken today and then you know the cost is paid by generations. They are barely born or not even born yet, and that is certainly something that we're seeing in the area, climate inequalities, but also migration, I believe so. You've been discussing for years in this youth or young environment, I'd be curious for you to share with our audience how do young people today envision their future and the future of global governance when you look you know 30 years from now, 25 years from now? What is that you see?
Yeah, I'm I'm not that young again so I don't feel legitimate to actually talk for this kind of young generation. What I can say and it depends who you ask, obviously, but what I think is quite striking in the generations' end that you're seeing now is then you see I think a mix of not pessimism, but actually seeing the problems, recognizing that there is an urgency recognizing the problems. I honestly, I can't remember my generation being so interested at this young age for for global challenges in such a wide range it would always have people interested, but this was quite a small group.
Now you have, whole classrooms actually moving to the street so so I I see descendants of what is expecting them and at the same time such an energy to change this which I love because I I'm very hopeful for this at the same time I think they need help. They can't do this on their own and I find it sometimes a bit frustrating to see how people love how these young people like getting out there and they love their energy, but nobody is actually willing to go to them and say, OK, now we need to do that. So what do you need or what do you want us to do? And I'm missing this a bit that the people actually try to engage with them and actually listen to their propositions. It's happening, but again, it's very nice and it gives you a very beautiful exposure, but it's not sitting down with with young people and and listening to what they actually have as thorough. So I think so, yeah, a bit. A mix of sort of recognizing the urgency and then also a lot of potential and then for global global governance.
This again I I can't speak in their name, I guess they they are a bit pessimistic about how global governance looks right now. When I was young, I loved the idea of the UN, I was certain that they would change the world of course, when you get into it, you start seeing the constraints. That's always like this, but I think that they are also a bit frustrated in what's what's happening what, what the states. It's still on the state level, right? I mean it's it's still slow. You still have heads of states that are not very diverse, and I think that there is a quite a bit frustration. I'm not sure how optimistic.They use this about multilateralism. But again, I don't want to talk in their name. Maybe they have a complete different view on the topic and and also it depends on who you are asking.
Of course, but this point brings us back to the point of intergenerational dialogue and intergenerational synergy. And that is well known in some quarters of corporate business. For example, I know large companies who have harvested the potential of international rationality in areas as diverse as marketing and product design for example, with very interesting results. I cannot say that that the same is happening in in in the area known as multilateralism but maybe you can help us and the audience realize what is the state of the debate in Foraus or for what you know in your experience, in four hours in the past years and other think tanks to have met along the way for the potential of intergenerational dialogue now and in the future.
It seems to me that the potential is very high just because the actual international intergenerational dialogue is so low. Now that the potential for development is huge, but that is not the potential. I'm referring to the potential to actually get together and solve global issues a little bit like what you were mentioning before you know you'd have ideas, they have energy they don't have older people in power coming to them and say, hey, let's do this together. I've got the budget, you've got the energy, I've got, you know the the connections, how much of that potential is existing today that we could develop?
There is a lot of potential. So I mean, this intergenerational dialogue it is a bit the core concept of Foraus. I mean the idea to bring young people at a table, we do lots of interactive events and the goal of this is exactly this. You bring experts to the table and you bring young people to the table. You bring young experts to the table and you bring all the citizens to the table and this is exactly what we want. It's not always easy to actually get the people on one page and discuss about a certain topic. Honestly, I couldn't say for elected the biggest thing was no, that's actually not true. For instance Chatham House, I know where they are doing something that goes into that direction as wellto try to involve the young generation. I think this is absolutely crucial and and there is huge really huge potential, the thing is that you have you have this head of states. You have these people in powerful positions, and they have a certain amount of time, and I see that problem. I see myself and it's important and for now this is not a priority. It's not a priority to listen to the younger generation, and I think it should. It should become a priority and then, so when we talk about youth, I don't see myself as youth, but if we talk about young generation then it's also. I think it's people also up to the age of 40 that are actually you can't access power positions because you have people staying in these positions that are very comfortable. I see myself I for me it was really time to to leave the seeds to someone that has that is younger that has new and fresh ideas, I find this crucial that you also say to yourself OK, I've had my ideas, I've given what I could to this to this organization and then also take a step back and say it's time for fresh ideas.
And I think this is also something there's the intergenerational dialogue there is the the need for mixed teams so that you mix the teams. We really have all the people with the experience at the same time very young people are bringing new ideas, so I think it's a bit on on all the fronts that you can actually fight this despite.
I think it's very powerful leadership example you're giving. We know from leadership theory that one of the correctly civil leaders is to be able to see the world without themselves and therefore prepare for their successors, and it's one of the characteristics in several leadership studies out there or for great leaders to do. Not all leaders do that of course, as you remark, but I'm impressed to see a young leader because you don't count yourself in you, I don't know why, but certainly you're a young leader and you're applying that principle and I would like to.
Stay with the focus on you, not only as a young leader, but as a young woman in a leadership position, because I think that this is something that happened in four hours before, but it's taken a different flavor because the imprint that you leave around you gets deeper with time and I've seen it because I've met your predecessors both young men and young women. I saw that your impact was incrementally bigger, and this is because environment is accepting young and woman as a leader, which was not sadly true only 10 years ago, and so this is very encouraging. But let's go to to the core of the gender issue here, because leadership, power, gender cannot be really separated, right when we talk about power it leads to issues of gender. Also diversity in equity, but let's stay on gender for a second being a young woman active in the area of international relations in the leadership position. What are your impressions on gender?
Maybe to to what you were saying, I also had the big chance of having two great persons before me, paving the way that must be said because it was not just my work, it was actually taking over a legacy really and that's much easier than setting the 1st. But of course, I mean it's true that the environment is very welcoming too, for instance, media love you, they they need to have a woman, so you will be called on many issues. I was called on so many issues which is I'm an expert in one maybe 2 fields and that's it and I had to say no many times and I was just I had no idea about the topic so yes, the environment is very welcoming at the same time you have all these struggles that you hear about you really face them from really. You can't lie, I've I've been the youngest and many tables and I was lucky to be heard, but that's not always the case in todays era, so much that needs to be done and we're so far away from gender equality. But I mean my personal experience, I had just this amazing support not just from women but also from men that believed in what I could do and they pushed me also, and I think this is something that is extremely important to you know if you have women in your team, If you have young women in your team, they need an extra push. I had I saw this when I compared this a bit with my male colleagues. I needed to be reassured all the time that I could actually do this. I had people that would actually say Maria you can actually do this just go and it's OK if you if you fail everybody fails. And this I've seen among young people that I had in my team, they thought they were going to fail. They wouldn't even step up, you know, and you have to really tell them what you are up to the challenge, and I think this is something that's extremely important to you, have to reassure young women to say you can do this and then being there along the way, and I think that sounds a bit different. I don't want to be very gender specific here, because it's also true for for young men, but it's it's not just pushing them in the position, but being there and reassuring them when there are failures that they are on the right path and it is normal to fail and being there up to the end until they can actually fly themselves, and I think this is, this is something I've I've seen, and I've learned through the through the thing you just really need to to be present if you want to empower young women.
And it's true in a way that when we observe, lead at young age. There is a difference that is brought to the table by gender. For example, my experience is that young leaders who are men need not to be discouraged, and young women who are in leadership position need to be encouraged. So it's, you know, encourage some, avoid discouraging others, there's, I think that the gender neutrality there is very difficult to achieve because women and men bring different leadership, colors, flavors and and facets and that is the miracle of how leadership positions are incarnated by different people, different genders differently and this is what you were saying before. If leaders do not leave the place to other leaders, then we're missing out the potential of diversity, but now there is one thing that I'm visualizing I'm talking to you. I'm visualizing our audience of many, many 1000 people, and there must be so many young women trying to figure out what can I learn from Maria Isabelle, so tell them what is your maybe not a trick, but your advice to young women who want to be apart of a leadership position.
I think it's important to recognize that you have different packages. I think that's that's probably you come with a different baggage, you come with different experiences. That's true for everybody. I mean, everybody brings their own baggage, and then I think what is very important is is to know that you are not alone for me that helped a lot seeing other women in my in similar positions fighting exactly the same problems. I think that's true for all young leaders, knowing that there are other people stats that know what you're going through. Don't be afraid to reach out for help, mentors are a great thing, women that have been through that but also men can be a mentor and and don't give up.
Excellent, very powerful. Before we wrap up, we're coming nicely to the end of this episode. Where can our audience find out more about Foraus and about yourself?
Yeah, I realized when you Google for us and you Google my name, you find lots of articles, but if you want more you can Google Foraus – foraus Also, we have lots of events, I hope they're coming back so you can also find if you Google it you can find events in your region. If you're in Switzerland, then yeah, I think that's that's probably the easiest way to connect great.
And so, in concluding this episode, do you have a particular message?
For those who are listening to us.
I believe a lot in the young generation and I'm very eager to see what what they are going to do and for the older generation support them, get involved with them, get interested in their thinking's in their ideas. I think that's important.
Maria Isabelle Wieser thank you so much for being with us on the podcast.
Thank you very much, Francesco.
We hope you enjoyed the conversation between Maria Isabelle Wieser and our director Francesco Pisano, if you'd like any more information, please don't hesitate to check out our show notes where we have put links you may find useful. If you loved this episode of the Next page podcast don't forget to subscribe rate, leave us a review or find us @UNOGlibrary on Twitter and UN Library and Archives Geneva on Facebook. Don't forget to join us every fortnight on Friday mornings for the next episode. Thank you so much for listening, we hope you have a wonderful week.