Commentary: Standing Up and With Young People - Today and Tomorrow

By 2100, over 10 billion people are expected to be born, but current polycrises pose challenges to the world future generations will inherit. How can we ensure young people are not only receivers of today's world, but true designers of tomorrow's one? Read the SDG Lab's reflection on the UN's third OCA policy brief on meaningful youth engagement.
Commentary: Standing Up and With Young People - Today and Tomorrow

By 2100, more than 10 billion people are expected to be born. Nowadays unprecedented polycrises do not offer an encouraging scenario when thinking about the planet this 10 billion will inherit. As underscored by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in Our Common Agenda (OCA), it is our duty as humanity to act and think today “for the long term, to deliver more for young people and succeeding generations and to be better prepared for the challenges ahead.”

Now is the time to turn what seems to be a breakdown into a breakthrough, leaving zero debts, if not a surplus, to the 1.2 billion young people alive today and to the generations to come by committing to the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Within this commitment, young people should not only be considered tomorrow’s receivers and custodians of today’s world but must be given concrete resources and opportunities to be the designers of such a world themselves. Recognizing the paramount role of young people in rethinking and reshaping future paradigms, the latest and third OCA Policy Brief titled, ‘Meaningful Youth Engagement in Policymaking and Decision-making Processes,’ aims at reiterating the UN’s strategies and commitments for meaningful youth engagement in all aspects of the Organization’s work.

What is ‘meaningful’ anyways?

As underscored by the OCA Policy Brief 3, youth are the key drivers of new solutions to the world’s most pressing needs. Proof of this can be found in the recent series of social mobilization movements spearheaded by young people across the globe – pushing for climate action, ushering forward technological and scientific breakthroughs, and standing up for racial justice, equity, and dignity for all. Yet, despite all this, the involvement of youth in decision making and public policy is, as stated in the brief, “almost invisible” if not reduced to “ineffective and tokenistic participation.”

To move away from the reductive and shallow engagement of youth, Policy Brief 3 outlines three guiding principles towards meaningful and genuine positioning of “youth as equal partners” in decision making:

  1. Resources: young people must be offered the necessary funding, education, and the “timely, clear, diversity-sensitive and age-appropriate” information on the world’s current and future trends, as well as on their roles within them and their rights towards them.
  2. Institutionalization: to move beyond ad hoc approaches, and to ensure constant, effective youth engagement, youth voices must be formalized and institutionalized, ensuring this becomes “someone’s daily job.” Seats for youth at the policymaking table must be designated to prevent imbalance of power throughout the entire decision-making chain.
  3. Accessibility: decision-making processes must be made accessible to all young people, without coercion and any discrimination.

Supercharging meaningful youth engagement: The Secretary-General’s recommendations

The UN’s work on meaningful youth engagement goes back to the 1965 UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution 2037 (XX) that initiated the UN’s discussions on youth, promoting ideals of peace, mutual respect, and understanding between peoples. From then on, meaningful youth engagement within the UN’s policymaking processes has been theorized and encapsulated through commitments such as the World Program of Action for Youth to the Year 2000 and beyond (UNGA resolution 50/81), the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, the UN’s strategy for meaningful youth engagement in 2018, and Our Common Agenda in 2021, among others.

Building on the legacy of the above steppingstones, OCA Policy Brief 3 outlines three main recommendations for Member States to further strengthen meaningful youth engagement. The first and overarching recommendation refers to expanding and strengthening youth participation in decision making at all levels. Many governments have already established national youth councils and representative bodies with consultative roles in the definition of national youth policies. Examples include the Youth Climate Council in Ghana, Youth for Peace in Solomon Island, the 2030 National Youth Vision in Iraq, and the Finnish Agenda 2030 Youth Group.

To further concretize effective participation of young people at the local, national, regional, and global level, the UN Secretary-General has invited Member States to endorse global standards of meaningful youth engagement, to ensure the establishment of national consultative bodies in every country, and, in parallel, to create clear monitoring frameworks to increase reporting and accountability towards such promises. These calls align with the Secretary-General’s recommendations to Member States outlined in the OCA, pushing for a “Declaration for Future Generations,” as well as the establishment of a dedicated intergovernmental mechanism and body to track, debate, and deliver on such commitments, such as a “Commissioner or Ombudsperson for Future Generations, a Commission of Global Guardians for the Future, or a repurposed Trusteeship Council.”

These points go hand in hand with already existing initiatives responding to the second recommendation of the brief that underscores meaningful youth engagement as the norm, and not the exception, within all UN decision-making processes. Such initiatives include the self-organized Major Group for Children and Youth and Young UN, as well as the UN Youth Delegate Programme and the Economic and Social Council Youth Forum. As highlighted in the Policy Brief, work is in progress to ensure formal mechanisms for systemic youth engagements within the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council, which are presently absent.

Furthermore, in the OCA, the Secretary-General reiterates the UN’s full commitment to the establishment of a Youth Office in the Secretariat, integrating the activities of the proposed Special Envoy on Future Generations, to serve “as a voice for future generations in the United Nations System.” Specifically, the envoy would cover different roles, from advocating for the interests future generations within multilateral and intergovernmental processes (e.g., the UNGA, UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and UN Security Council), to supporting Member States in foreseeing the long-term implications of their policies for future generations through better and smarter use of data, science, and foresight. These efforts are in line with the third and final recommendation of the Policy Brief, namely the establishment of a standing UN Youth Townhall and Integrated Programme from the UN to foster diversity, representation, and readiness for youth participation in UN processes.

Torchbearers of the future: Keeping the flame alive

The paramount role of youth as “torchbearers” of the 2030 Agenda has been receiving increasing recognition by Member States and the UN system as a whole. However, the engagement of young people is still often limited to tokenistic roles and “nice-to-have” initiatives. Moving away from “youth-washing” practices does not only require commitments on paper. It must be accompanied by transparent resource allocation, equal access to policymaking, and constant stewardship from dedicated entities at the local, national, and international level. These elements are fundamental to finally close the gap between input and impact and to surpass the limits of our current arrangements on youth engagement, which often generate frustration, a sense of helplessness, and paralyzing isolation of youth around the globe.

The UN’s efforts to re-establish hope by calling for global solidarity, sparking enthusiasm by way of real action, and restoring empathy through genuine listening are key for these torchbearers to keep their flame alive. As OCA Policy Brief 3 demonstrates, the UN, under the leadership of the Secretary-General, is taking the necessary steps to rightfully course correct its own misgivings on youth engagement and to urge all actors, from governments to civil society, to be torchbearers for young people living today and those not yet born.  

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