Young at 70: The Promise of the United Nations Work with and for Youth

©UN Photo/Mark Garten

Seventy years ago, a revolutionary idea to change the landscape of a fragile multilateral scene was introduced. Establishing the United Nations was the necessary response for a world recovering from the devastation of two world wars. The idea was simple, yet very bold; a global body to promote the principles of “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person…and to promote social progress and better standards of life”. Looking at the world today, we see that the United Nations has done justice to most of its responsibilities in upholding these principles. However, much work remains, particularly in regard to the inclusion of the world’s youth in development and decision-making processes.

The 70-year old world body is embarking on a new promise for the people and the planet with the adoption of a new generation of development goals and a climate change agreement by the end of the year. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) and the climate agreement offer the unique opportunity to change the course of history by putting the planet on a sustainable path and unleashing the potential of its people. But ahead of the adoption of these landmark agreements, and while celebrating the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Charter of the United Nations, the international community has to reflect on the unprecedented challenges it faces today from the rise of extremism and the mushrooming of conflicts, the evident threat of climate change, human rights violations and the situation with gender equality, as well as the lack of inclusive governance structures. However, core to all these issues and one of the most notable challenges that test our commitment to the United Nations principles is that of the surging youth population, with currently nearly half the global population under 25 years of age.

The challenges that face this large generation of youth are unparalleled, but with them comes a wealth of opportunities. Young people have the ability to organize and take individual and collective action on issues that matter to them. We have seen this over and over as young people garner greater attention and lead large-scale projects and initiatives at the grass-roots and global levels.

Since its inception in 1945, the United Nations has increasingly recognized the unique role that youth can play in development. This has been specifically reflected over the past two decades, as the United Nations has shifted to depend more on youth to advance its mission and values. With these advancements, we have witnessed a global shift in the perception of youth in policymaking and programming, with youth issues gradually becoming the focus area for many global development agencies and within United Nations Member States.

When the United Nations first formally recognized the importance of youth as a unique demographic segment with the Declaration on the Promotion among Youth of the Ideals of Peace, Mutual Respect and Understanding between Peoples in 1965, youth priorities were virtually unheard of, let alone addressed in a meaningful manner. Three decades later, the international debate and discussions involving youth reached an apex with the adoption of the World Programme of Action for Youth (WPAY) in 1995, which to date remains the leading global policy framework on the promotion of youth development. Its adoption was an indication of the global community’s commitment to address the challenges of youth development in a comprehensive and collaborative manner. While this was a significant step in the promotion of youth development, it has become apparent that additional improvements are needed in order to fully implement the objectives of this framework.

As of October 2014, 127 countries have an adopted national youth policy, up from 99 the previous year. This rise in youth policies indicates that Governments are increasingly aware of the power that young people have to impact change, as well as of the unique role that they will play in the future development agenda. While these developments have proved to be monumental in promoting the involvement of young people, many countries have not yet operationalized their youth policies with the necessary supporting laws and appropriate funding mechanisms. After visiting over 60 countries and having reviewed the youth policies of many others, I can confidently say that at the global level, as well as at the national levels, the rhetorical commitment to the youth agenda has not been coupled with adequate investment in youth.

Our first task as we transition to the SDGs must be to harness the massive potential of the ever-growing youth population. We must recognize their capabilities in addressing the major world challenges, including poverty, climate change and countering violence, among others. Young people are up to the task and can provide innovative solutions to these unique challenges, if given the space and investment needed to do so. We need to shift the mindset of how we position this generation of young people and promote a partnership approach, highlighting youth as opportunities, not liabilities of their societies.

Over the past decade, for example, the world’s attention has increasingly shifted to terrorism and violent extremism. This growing challenge, which remains one of the top priorities of the United Nations, has often falsely fuelled the negative stereotypes about youth around the globe. These stereotypes have resulted in a misguided and false perception of youth as a “threat” to national security and the global community as a whole. Labelling young people as a problem or potential threat is not only wrong, but also counterproductive in our efforts to counter violence. It also is grossly detrimental to development efforts.

Secondly, we must shift the debate on development and peace and security into one space—as there is an obvious correlation between the two fields. We must push for a greater understanding of linkages between policy areas and expand that focus to include young people’s role in development alongside countering violent extremism and the promotion of peace. Whether approaching this task from a development perspective or that of peace and security, we need to prioritize youth in order to create innovative solutions needed to adequately address these enormous challenges.

Finally, we must bolster efforts to provide education for all and address youth unemployment. Some 69 million young people of lower secondary school age remain out of school, 74 million youth are unemployed, and more than 600 million jobs need to be generated globally by the year 2030. This is a daunting task, which requires improving access to post-primary and higher education, and vocational training. It also implies making youth work competitive in the job market and providing young entrepreneurs with access to finances, training and support when they set up and manage their own businesses.

The year 2015 is critical. We must continue to build upon the momentum to promote youth priorities and increase investment in young people worldwide. We are already seeing remarkable improvements in these efforts as reflected in numerous events and initiatives, such as the Third International Conference on Financing for Development (FfD). For the first time ever, a Financing for Development conference outcome document includes a reference to youth—recognizing that investment in youth is critical to achieving inclusive, equitable and sustainable development for present and future generations.

This increased recognition will offer us all an opportunity to elevate the central issue of youth development in order to further enable young people to be agents of change in their communities. So let us get the math right here: we never had this many young people and this is a demographic reality that will not last for long; we never had the opportunity to eradicate extreme poverty and reverse climate change in just 15 years, and this opportunity may not arise again; and we never have been better equipped with the tools and technologies to get this mission accomplished. Today the convergence between the people and the planet agenda could be fuelled by the energy and innovation of young people, so let us get the job done that will realize the United Nations promise to youth.