Social innovators, leaders, and powerful forces for change

UN Development Programme
9 min readJul 12, 2019

Throughout the Arab region UNDP’s rapidly-growing Youth Leadership Programme (YLP) is helping young men and women to become positive change-makers and fullfil their dreams of a more just, equal and sustainable societies by focusing their creative talent on social innovations that, with the Sustainable Development Goals at heart, will elevate their communities to a better future

As every year, the finalists of YLP recently travelled to United Nations headquarters in New York to share their vision and passion for achieving the ambitious 2030 agenda at the ECOSOC Youth Forum.

Martine Zaarour, Lebanon

“On this platform you’ll be able to empower women by buying their products.”

Martine’s grandmother was the inspiration behind Jar Thuraya. It’s an online site that connects customers with rural women who prepare Mouneh, traditional Lebanese preserves.

“She lives in Byblos and her name is Maha. She used to buy some food from her cousin who lives in a village. And her cousin is not capable of having a job because she’s old, she’s sick, and she is known for her kishek. Kishek is a soup that is known in Lebanon, so I used to watch her go to her cousin’s house to buy the kishek and really thought that an initiative that would help the women who really need financial empowerment.”

Martine’s plan for Jar Thuraya is ambitious; to revive and spread traditional Lebanese food culture by having the older women teach younger generations. To make rural villages more attractive to tourists, and to create sustainable tourism through cooking classes, hiking and homestays. To top it off, Jar Thuraya will be plastic-free.

“You’ll be able to buy plastic free products such as crafts, soaps, tote bags in order to help people become more sustainable in their daily lives.”

Masooma Kadhem, Bahrain

“If I didn’t have two sisters I would probably have been the average Bahraini.”

Having two sisters on the autism spectrum inspired Masooma to create The Caregivers Club, an online community for those with autism and other learning disorders. Published in Arabic and English, it’s a resource directory and guide for those living with autism as well as for their caregivers. The platform allows the users live day-to-day life, access employment and social activities in their communities and hence reduce inequalities in the society.

“I got to see the everyday challenges and from there I found that something as simple as being able to connect with somebody who has knowledge and practice in the field can be tremendously useful. Crowd-sourced opinions can be of tremendous value and that’s where I see myself coming in, because I’ve experienced firsthand how my sisters interact and experience the world, and it can be quite challenging, especially as an adult.”

Masooma has found that there’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to autism.

“Every day feels like a war zone. Finishing the day feels like an achievement. You never really know what to expect. They say when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. It’s incredibly rewarding you learn how to love, and you learn how to find resilience in the inner parts of Yourself. At the same time, you learn how to be compassionate and empathetic to everyday struggles.”

Sara Mahmoud, Egypt

“What inspired me was to help the community.”

A deep love of her country has inspired Sara, a medical student, to create more opportunities to help people with disabilities. She’s working on Helpee, a mobile app that connects people with disabilities to paid and voluntary services for their daily activities. It could be as simple as a shopping trip, or a visit to the doctor. Helpee follows Sara’s first enterprise, El Nabash, which she started in her second year in medical school. In the spirit of ‘No one left behind’ Sara wants all members of the society to take part in its daily life to create more equal and inclusive community.

“I like to work in social enterprises. My first start up was a mobile app which help people to collect garbage from homes to recycle it, because we don’t have the concept of recycling.”

“I’ve been to a lot of countries but when I get back to Egypt I have inner peace. I like to help the community in Egypt, especially. Now we work in Cairo, and we made a lot of work to help us to expand and go for a first round of investment by next month. We hope to expand all over Egypt.”

Daniel Abi Fadel, Lebanon

“I was like, okay, I’m the only stupid [one] here?”

Feeling a little behind in maths class was the spur for Daniel’s idea to figure out how much students were learning in school. The engineer’s answer was E-Scola — an educational platform that allows students to rate their lessons and give immediate feedback to teachers as to how well they’ve understood what they were taught. Daniel understands the importance of access to quality education for the current as well as the future generations if they are to become informed and knowledgeable leaders.

“Back in school after each lesson I remember my math teacher asking us if we all understood. Everybody would silently nod but then when the results came out it turned out that everybody had failed. So from this incident I was always trying to solve this problem, and I found this idea and that’s how it happened.”

“In my country a lot of money was invested in education to introduce technology in the education system but it was wasted because it wasn’t working. So I hope that my idea will be solving the implementation problem, because we’ve already failed on the implementation phase, so I hope that my idea will be the success story and not like the other ideas that failed in my country so I hope it’s going to work with me.”

Yazan Ghneim, Palestine

“I’m a strong advocate of human rights, international humanitarian law. I love these things.”

A recently-graduated lawyer, Yazan is designing Smart Lawyer, a mobile app which will help Palestinians gain access to information about legal procedures affecting them, and in so doing promote peace by ensuring access to information. The app will be operated and updated by law students, in keeping with Yazan’s additional objective of creating opportunities for volunteers to share their knowledge in ways that enable progress towards the SDGs. The project is currently in the design stage as Yazan and his team work on raising funding to be able to develop the final features of the product.

“The project idea came after we observed there is a big number of Palestinians who lack awareness and knowledge of their individual rights. So we are aiming to increase their awareness about their rights and legal tools.”

Ameni Kharroubi, Tunisia

“Not only do I believe in women’s empowerment, I see it as an obligation.”

A molecular biology student from Monastir, Ameni works on SDGs 5, 7, 11, 12 and 13 which cover affordable and clean energy, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption and climate action.

She is prototype testing Bios Carbos with the aim of cleaning up the environment by recycling used cooking oil. At the moment it’s mostly dumped into the sewers, which creates problems.

“I’ve always noticed the problem with the winter season in my country. The sewer system is always blocked with the accumulation of used cooking oil. That had inspired my project.”

Bios Carbos will collect cooking oil from hotels, restaurants and private homes and recycle it into cheaper, eco-friendly biodiesel. Ameni is convinced that climate action is crucial for the future of the urban areas, especially those with dense populations.

“I’m so much excited on working on SDG 13, climate action. We believe the power of youth. We can be leaders in our community, so we hope that we end up with a startup, a real startup, and we want to be the number one seller of biodiesel in the MENA region.”

Taher Sellami, Tunisia

“The utmost goal of this app or platform is to abolish and eradicate any form of discrimination in the hiring process.”

Seeing a friend miss out on a job opportunity because of his race was Taher’s first step to developing INO, an online application which connects job seekers and employees with a ‘uniform’ CV — free of any personal information not relevant to the job.

“My friend is a very, very charismatic guy, he’s very skilled but he didn’t get the job of his dreams and someone else took it, even though I personally judged that he was far more skilled and had far more experience.”

And his friend wasn’t the only case. As a business student, Taher saw lots of cases where skilled applicants didn’t get a job because of their backgrounds. Working with UNDP has given Taher renewed hope in social entrepreneurship and its ability to change the world.

“Entrepreneurship has always been a great tool to liberate oneself and one’s society. It’s is about independence and not only financial independence, also freedom it’s about a lot of things.”

Kawtar Zerouali manages the Youth Leadership Programme at UNDP’s Regional Hub in Amman.

Her persistence, the power of supportive colleagues and very dedicated UNDP Country Offices has seen the programme grow at a rapid rate over the past four years, reaching 12 countries and 7,000 young men and women.

The programme has just wrapped up its fourth year, in partnership with UN Women, The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. In its first year it brought together 40 young women and men from Arab nations and by its fourth year that had increased to more than 7,000. All align with three main pillars: the 2030 Agenda, social innovation and gender equality.

“It’s great to see how the youth are flourishing, how the youth are taking this opportunity of being on this huge platform, sharing their ideas, sharing their potential, showing the way they want to work with their governments and with their ecosystems. To achieve the 2030 Agenda.”

“We do have the youngest region. It’s a region that boasts over 100 million young people between the ages of 15 and 29 and we do have the region that’s hosting the most conflict as well. So, there are a lot of challenges. but these challenges are seen by us all as opportunities.”

“We imagine that our youth are going to become our partners. We’re already seeing it. For example in UNDP Tunisia the focal point who’s working to implement the programme is an alumnus, so we would like to see more of those, not only in our UNDP offices but as our governmental, non-governmental, academic and private sector partners.”

Youth Leadership Programme is an initiative by UNDP that is contributing to unleashing the potential of the next generation of leaders, change-makers and social innovators that will transform the Arab region in the years to come.

Photos by UNDP/Sumaya Agha