Youth and the United Nations

Earlier this week I was listening to the statements of this year’s Co-Chairs of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting. Six millennials are acting as Co-Chairs, each with their own unique story, stories that they had the chance to share at the Forum. This made me think about the opportunities that young people have to participate and speak at major international events such as this one, as well as meetings related to the UN and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Many years ago I was a Youth Focal Point for my country’s United Nations delegation as well as a coordinator of the UN Major Group for Children and Youth at the UN. At the time there were limited opportunities for young people to get involved in the UN and have a say. Today this has changed significantly, in particular in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Over the next year I will share some of these opportunities here and encourage you but in particular your students to engage in UN Youth activities nationally and internationally.

The UN defines youth as being between the ages of 15 and 24 although this depends on the country. Children are considered to be those persons under the age of 14 (although the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines children as persons up to the age of 18 mainly because there is no similar UN Convention on the Rights of Youth). According to UN Youth there are approximately one billion youth living in the world today.

At the end of 2018, the Secretary-General announced that he was making it a priority to reset the UN system’s focus on youth and reorient and mainstream the organization’s activities towards youth. The result is Youth 2030, an umbrella framework that will guide the UN across its three pillars (peace and security, human rights and sustainable development) in all contexts. It seeks to “significantly strengthen” the UN’s capacity to engage young people and benefit from their views, insights and ideas, and to ensure that UN’s work on youth issues is pursued in a “coordinated, coherent and holistic manner”.

The UN has set several priorities in the Youth 2030 strategy. First, it aims to amplify youth voices for the promotion of a peaceful, just and sustainable work. Second, it aims to support young people’s greater access to quality education and health services. Third, it looks to support young people’s greater access to decent work and productive employment. Fourth, it will protect and promote the rights of young people and support their civic and political engagement. Finally, it aims to support young people as catalysts for peace and security and humanitarian action.

The Youth 2030 Framework outlines quite a few areas where youth can/should/will have a greater voice in the UN system. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Ensuring all UN country teams have a Youth Focal Point to support the system-wide country level coordination on youth
  • Have youth engagement platforms such as a youth advisory board within each relevant UN entity to provide a channel for input and feedback.
  • Establish regular online and offline engagement between young people and UN Senior managers
  • Build capacity by briefing UN representatives on youth issues as well as their ability to understand and address youth needs.
  • Create a diverse roster of experts on youth issues.

Youth 2030 isn’t the only framework guiding youth engagement in the SDGs. Another recently launched initiative is Generation Unlimited. Generation Unlimited is a global partnership that aims to ensure that every young person is in education, learning, training or employment by 2030. The partnership, coordinated by UNICEF, brings together the private sector, governments, international and local organizations – and young people – to identify and scale up the best solutions for three major challenges: access to secondary age education, acquisition of employability skills and empowerment, especially of girls.

One of its initiatives is the Generation Unlimited Youth Challenge which rolled out in 16 countries. Young people are encouraged to apply and if selected join a workshop with other young innovators to design new solutions to local sustainability issues. The best ideas in each country receive a small grant, expert advice and mentoring. The top solutions around the world will receive additional funding and support.

Within the UN system, United Nations Youth is part of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Every few years they releases a World Youth Report, the flagship publication of UN Youth. The reports each have themes. In 2015 the focus was on young people’s participation in economic, political and community life, in response to growing interest in, and an increased policy focus on, youth civic engagement among governments, young people and researchers. In 2018 the report focused on Youth and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It examines the mutually supportive roles of the new agenda and current youth development efforts and provides insight into the role of young people in sustainable development in the context of the implementation of the SDGS. The report considers the role the 2030 Agenda can play in enhancing youth development efforts and examines how evidence-based youth policies can help accelerate youth-related objectives.

The International Youth Day is celebrated every year on the August 12. The theme of the year and resources available change . For example, last year’s day was focused on creating safe spaces for youth where they can come together, engage in activities related to their diverse needs and interests, participate in decision making processes and freely express themselves.


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