The UN Engages (and Learns From) a New Generation of Youth Leaders

7 Mar

Editor’s Note:  This piece from our Human Rights Fellow, Karin Perro, continues a GAPW commitment to the engagement of youth from diverse social and cultural contexts on matters of global policy. Participation is a core concern towards the full promotion of human rights and good governance, and Karin does well to lay out of the case for more serious engagement with an ambitious, energetic, technologically savvy, and growing segment of our global population. 

Both the first and last weeks of February found the UN inundated with exuberant youth representatives, here to engage (and be engaged) with the UN system and lend voice to the upcoming SDGs and their implementation. Braving the arctic blast of February, Youth Forum and NGO Youth Event attendees convened to share their vision of the future and demand a participatory seat at the post-2015 table. And rightly so – if any group has proprietary rights to shaping the future it is global youth who will be directly impacted by and even be tasked with meeting projected SDG targets by 2030.

Engaging youth in development policy becomes all the more imperative if we consider that more then half the current global population is under the age of 25.  In a post-2015 world, a burgeoning youth population might well be confronted by unprecedented climatic and environmental crises, human security risks, rights violations and rampant unemployment. They will also have to contend with a rise in ‘greying’ populations that will create additional burdens on national ‘safety net’ programs, with estimates indicating a tripling of the over 65 demographic in the next 50 years. Africa will be especially hard hit by rapidly shifting demographics at another edge of the age spectrum, due mostly to anticipate spikes in adolescent pregnancies and generally growing fertility rates, causing worries of unwelcome declines in educational participation by women and girls.

Two inextricably linked, youth-centric development cornerstones were recurrently addressed at the UN Youth Forum: a lack of educational resources and a paucity of employment opportunities. Young attendees expressed frustration at what seem to be their ‘empty’ school diplomas given the lack of available job opportunities, noting that their presumably marketable skill sets did not appear to be in sync with the rapidly changing and expanding needs of current labor market. Perhaps even more than generations past, youth face the conundrum of how to obtain practical experience as a precondition for employment when on-the-job training opportunities are often predicated on prior work experience. But unlike past generations, almost all youth attendees cited a dearth of available internship, apprenticeship and mentorship opportunities at all educational levels.  This cycle of inopportunity requires a systemic revamping of attitudes and best practices, not only within the private sector, but as addressed through national and regional government initiatives.

For its part, GAPW (with Women in International Security) has long advocated policy mentoring of young people to help prepare the UN system to handle a new generation of global issues in a thoughtful and responsible manner. The young scholars and advocates who have taken temporary residence in our office often return to national capitols and regional NGOs where their acquired skill sets enhance development of local capacity for meaningful change.  As we have perceived often and as several youth delegates at the UN also noted, girls in particular are likely to benefit from mentoring as their active engagement with trustworthy older persons builds confidence and strengthens decision-making and leadership skills.

Beyond mentoring, UN youth delegates clamored for greater, “full-partner” policy participation, not only in setting the post-2015 development agenda, but in tracking and accelerating progress, and holding governments accountable. Youth expressed interest in politics but also shared disillusionment with political processes that ignore younger stakeholders. As a corrective, Kenya’s Ambassador Kamau implored the Youth Forum to ‘embrace your transformative power as youth’ in determining whether ‘you will be part of the problem or part of the solution’ over the next fifteen years. Youth delegates were captivated, appearing galvanized by Ambassador Kamau’s inspirational ‘call to arms’.

When youth representatives at the Feb 26 UNDPINGO event were asked what they could do to help promote the post-2015 development agenda, they responded without hesitation: Youth can provide counter narratives to extremist recruitment strategies through social media campaigns and digital diplomacy, becoming ‘boots’ deployed in the battle for cyberspace. They can employ their entrepreneurial spirit and innovation skills to emerging development initiatives benefiting triangular and south-south cooperation. They can offer a new generational ‘plurality of thought’ and a ready adaptability to shifting scenarios in the rapidly changing world in which they’ve been raised. Youth indeed appear ready to accept responsibility for what appears to be a stubborn legacy of global insecurity. But ‘ownership’ will not come without a significant relinquishment of the policy reins wielded by the current, older incumbents of the current global governance structure.  Young people need more ‘space’ to operate as well as guidance while operating.

The February gatherings of youth delegates were undeniably impressive: as a group they demonstrated a confident resolve to tackle a deluge of post-2015 global development obstacles.  And no doubt they represent ‘the best and brightest’ talent of their host countries, already being groomed for leadership roles as the next generation of diplomats and policy makers. But if we are to truly ‘leave no one behind’ we will need to insure that a wide range of young people irrespective of class, gender, culture, religion or ethnicity are included at the table of engagement.  We will need to do more to cull and cultivate the untapped potential of youth residing on the margins of urban developments, on rural farms and remote villages, in refugee camps and tented settlements. Elitism and other barriers to inclusion can only be eradicated through universally accessible and needs-specific education as a pathway to full employment, economic empowerment and social leadership.

As March brings new Commissions and crises into focus, we should avoid allowing the welcome upsurge in youth participation to be obscured.  Maintaining youth momentum is indispensable to successful post-2015 sustainable development. As UN Youth Envoy Ahmad Alhendawi exhorted, it’s time to reach cross the generational divide to ‘unleash the power of 1.8 billion young people ready to lift the heavy agenda of the SDGs’.

One Response to “The UN Engages (and Learns From) a New Generation of Youth Leaders”

  1. Jennifer Scura March 7, 2015 at 12:17 pm #

    “Young attendees expressed frustration at what seem to be their ‘empty’ school diplomas given the lack of available job opportunities.. addressed through national and regional government initiatives.” So true and well said!!! I’m no expert, however, I do see this as a current problem that needs to be addressed immediately. How are average people expected to support themselves this way??

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