Youth Leaders Must Be Accountable

Today, there are 1.5 billion people worldwide between the ages of twelve and twenty-four, with 1.3 billion living in developing countries1 -- the largest generation of young people the world has ever known. As a key population, youth should be meaningfully involved in the formation of policy that affects them. It is likewise essential that young people have decision-making roles on youth-related issues. People of the same age group better understand their common needs, capacities, and limitations. As awareness about the importance of youth representation in decision making increases, so, too, does the involvement of youth advocates in programmes and events, such as the 2010 World Youth Conference in Mexico, the Youth Programme of the International AIDS Conference, and the Youth Symposium at the 2010 Women Deliver conference. The question is, how are the youth advocates selected, and are they the best people to speak on behalf of the world's youth?


At the 2010 XVIII International AIDS Conference in Vienna, I witnessed a speech made by a young, HIV-positive Romanian man, who gave a basic report on what his life was like and the specific challenges he had to face. What made his speech so powerful to the one thousand health professionals and advocates in attendance was his honesty. "I'm sorry I cry, but I know how much I feared that I could infect my girlfriend, and that she would have to go through what I had to go through," he said. Many cried along with him.

To be effective advocates, we need to know what's really important. Sensitizing decision makers is hard, and credibility is a key ingredient for success. The point of view of young people on the problems of youth is significantly different from that of an adult's. Nida Mushtaq, a member of the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, a non-governmental organization comprised of youth between fifteen and twenty-nine years of age who promote the sexual and reproductive rights of adolescents and youth, best summarized this: "Self advocacy," she said, "is the best advocacy."


It is only relatively recently that developed countries have had youth adequately represented in both the media and politics. Youth representatives often apply for positions, which have become more and more competitive, simply to ensure that scarce media space is not allocated to self-promotion but, rather, to youth who sign up as genuine volunteers.

But what about youth leadership in the developing countries where the rest of the world's 1.3 billion youth reside? And are youth representatives really representing marginalized populations?

The youth delegates to the United Nations who are part of their national delegations are not always selected through a strict application process. In some countries, the selection processes are rigorous; in others, they are tokenistic or exclusive. Some countries and international organizations select youth representatives in accordance with governmental and organizational policies, resulting in tokenism and a lack of insight into youth perspectives.2

The 2007 World Development Report warned that despite a significant increase in the number of youth representatives in decision making, youth representatives could still be too few in number, possess heterogeneous priorities, or cease to identify with other youth once they obtain positions of influence, resulting in no change in the outcomes.

In specialized areas of youth advocacy concerning young women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youth, or youth living with HIV/AIDS, representation, consultation, and decision-making power is essential for meaningful action. These key populations often encounter specific and troubling circumstances in their youth, and their status can best be advocated by members belonging to those groups or people working closely with them.


At the same time, it is important to look at what has already been accomplished. The highest decision-making body of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, has already had three youth delegates, with movement towards room for more; the United Nations Population Fund's (UNFPA) Special Youth Programme fellowship has expanded to include fellows at UNAIDS, while the UNFPA Global Youth Advisory Panel, which includes twenty-one people between fifteen and twenty-four years of age from all geographical regions and various international youth networks and organizations, has been working since 2004; the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization now consults youth through an advisory group; the Youth Solidarity Fund of the Alliance of Civilizations recently increased the number of grant recipients for intercultural dialogue projects;3 and the online resources of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Voices of Youth are now open to interaction between young people, and UNICEF consults with youth on certain matters of peer education.

It is essential that these new youth leaders are held accountable for their work and that they have a clear responsibility to the constituencies they represent -- the youth of a town, a social group, a country, or the world. They must remember to involve new young people as they were once involved. They must listen to be able to advocate and speak, and they must be heard!


1 World Bank, 2007 World Development Report.

2 Babic, Domagoj, European Policies on Youth and Education: Decision Making Processes?, (OBESSU, Brussels).

3 UNAOC YSF provided grants to 6 youth-led organizations in 2009 and 18 projects in 2010. Also, UNICEF country offices and national committees include special boards of young people who are consulted on certain matters or peer education networks.