The relationship between AFS and the United Nations (UN) goes back a few decades and is rooted in their shared commitment to promoting peace and understanding among diverse populations. The two organizations collaborate on programs that focus on education and youth engagement, advocate for peace and intercultural understanding and strengthen civil society engagement to address global challenges more effectively.

This relationship is also recognized in formal ways, such as through the Consultative Status that AFS has had with the UN Economic Social Council since 1974 and with UNESCO since 2015. Notable AFS alumni have served in senior positions at the UN, like Jan Eliasson, who is the former Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Leading up to the anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter this June, we look back on how the relationship between the UN and AFS has developed over the years over our shared goals and values.

Looking back through the AFS Archives: How It All Began

A group of staff members in front of the AFS Headquarters at 313 E 43rd Street, New York City, circa 1970s

AFS International has called 5 Hanover Square in New York City its home in the last few years, but back in 1964, the headquarters of AFS International Scholarships was located at 313 East 43rd Street, just a five-minute walk from the UN. AFSers used the UN headquarters as a meeting site at least once during that time. Several original black and white photographs in the AFS Archives show young participants wearing their countries’ traditional clothing at a fall 1964 UN celebration.

Decades later, in 1997, when AFS celebrated its 50th Anniversary, the UN once again acted as an important venue for AFSers to gather, this time for an important dinner that brought together staff, returnees, trustees, and many of the organization’s former World War II volunteer ambulance drivers, including Norman Shethar, John B. Baylor, Ward Chamberlain, Dick Morrill, and Arthur Howe, Jr. who gave a speech during the celebration. Also in attendance was Marianne Meyer who currently heads the AFS Foundation in Zurich, Switzerland.

A few years later, on December 6, 2002, diplomats from more than 30 countries were the guests of AFS at a lunch at the UN. The lunch provided an opportunity to give key international leaders information about AFS, to thank governments for their support of AFS’ programs, and to discuss world issues. The speakers at the lunch represented AFS over a span of more than fifty years. Professor Dr. Jurgen Drews, who was an AFS student from Germany to Princeton, New Jersey in 1951-52 before having a distinguished career in medicine and biological research in Germany, Switzerland, and the United States, spoke at the event. He said of AFS,

“There are few organizations in the world, if any, that have influenced so many lives, have inspired so many dreams and, in spite of everything, given the world more reason for optimism than the American Field Service.”

Excerpt from the Winter 1989 Issue of the AFS Newsletter Connections

Similarly, Helvi Sipila had praised AFS’ mission from within the UN’s walls. She had contributed an article to the March 1973 issue of AFS’ Our World Magazine shortly after being appointed to Assistant Secretary-General for Social and Humanitarian Matters, a post responsible for all inquiries regarding youth and the integration of youth issues into UN operations. Her article examined the then present and prospective impact of young people on the UN, and the points she made had been presented to the Third Committee of the General Assembly in December 1972. Before joining the UN, Sipila had been heavily involved with AFS and recognized the organization as a promoter of international understanding. She was an AFS host mother in Finland in 1956 for an American Abroad student, and her oldest son received an AFS scholarship to spend a year in Wilmington, Delaware between 1957 and 1958. Afterwards she remained in contact with many American and Finish AFS students.

By the 1980s, the UN has recognized AFS’ outstanding commitment and dedicated service in support of the United Nations Program on Youth. AFS’ preparations for International Youth Year in 1985 were particularly significant since that year AFS had provided six interns and volunteers to the UN’s Vienna Secretariat. As a way of honoring AFS’ mission to improve the situation of young people around the world, AFS was selected to receive a special testimony from UN Secretary General, Javier Perez de Cuellar; it was the first time any such testimonial by the Secretary General had been awarded. The testimony took place on November 8, 1988 in Bangkok, Thailand at the Inter-Regional Meeting on the Establishment and Development of National Coordination Mechanisms for Youth.

Partnering to Advance Global Citizenship Education

AFS celebrated its 100th anniversary by holding two international Symposiums at the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France in November 2014 to address the critical challenges, concerns, opportunities and debates surrounding global citizenship education.

The following year, Irina Bokova, former Director-General of UNESCO (2009-2017), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, stated she as convinced there was fertile ground for cooperation between AFS and UNESCO as both organizations gave a voice to young people and actively advanced the concept of global citizenship education. This endorsement was issued in support of the Consultative Status granted to AFS by UNESCO.

Since then, AFS has been actively working to address the UN Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG 4.7 which focuses on delivering quality education. Different programs and initiatives have been recognized for pursuing such goals, like in 2021 when UNESCO APCEIU selected AFS Effect+ for the Classroom program as Education for International Understanding/Global Citizenship Education Best Practice. The program was selected among 70 submissions from 27 countries for its genuine commitment to global citizenship education and ability to inspire others to create similar education programs.

Collaborating on Youth Engagement and Leadership

Since 2022, AFS has hosted the annual Youth Assembly Opening Ceremony and International Youth Day (IYD) Celebration at the United Nations in New York City. Each of these gatherings of global young leaders and changemakers to tackle global issues has involved a close partnership with different UN agencies, programmes and Permanent Missions who have contributed their knowledge and insights through the program of the AFS Youth Assembly.

This August, AFS is partnering with the United Nations International Organization for Migration (UN IOM), United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Permanent Mission of Malta to the United Nations to deliver another great youth leadership program at the AFS Youth Assembly (August 16-18, 2024 in New York City).

AFS partnered with IOM and UNAOC (United Nations Alliance of Civilizations) for the PLURAL+ Youth Video Festival on migration, diversity, and social inclusion between 2013 and 2023, offering the AFS Intercultural Learning Award to an outstanding youth video for tackling topics related to intercultural awareness and diversity in a compelling way and inspiring others to build bridges across cultures.

AFS representatives often participate in UN events and forums, contributing their expertise in intercultural education and youth exchange programs. This participation helps in shaping global policies related to education, youth, and intercultural dialogue. In 2024, AFS partnered with the UN for youth-driven side-events during the ECOSOC Youth Forum and the UN STI Forum, two events that provide a global platform for dialogue on how to accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs. In the past, AFS has organized side events during the UN High-Level Political Forum and High-Level Weeks, partnered for a main plenary at the ECOSOC Youth Forum, and collaborated with the Civil Society Unit of UN Department of Global Communications.

These examples show that the UN has not only acted as a physical meeting place for AFSers prior to the Youth Assembly, but how the two organizations collaborate to advance education and youth engagement, advocate for peace and intercultural understanding, and strengthen civil society engagement.