Young people aren’t just the future. We’re the present.
Sarah Allen (@saraheallen_) is a Communications Associate at BRAC USA with expertise in international education, youth empowerment, and development economics. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Western Washington University, and now resides in New York City.
Throughout UNGA week, “youth” has been at the forefront of conversation. From the green marble podium of the General Assembly hall to the slew of side events scattered across every corner of Manhattan, practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and activists are taking youth issues seriously.
Perhaps most notably, the United Nations launched its new Youth Strategy, Youth 2030, on Monday, shining a crucial light on the issues young people face.
At the launch, which was packed with youth leaders from around the globe, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stressed that “empowering young people, supporting them, and making sure they can fulfil their potential are important ends in themselves.”
But he also correctly noted that it was a “rare treat” to see so many young faces at the UN.
The Youth 2030 strategy is a good faith effort to ensure youth issues are addressed in programs and policies — but will it really ensure youth perspectives are incorporated?
While the Youth Strategy promises to open new routes to involve young people in the work of the United Nations and amplify their voices, youth have been notably absent from subsequent high-level events this week, including convenings on global peace, tuberculosis, and non-communicable diseases.
We often hear the sentiment that young people are the future. But that narrative trivializes the value of youth in the present. When we think of young people as passive beneficiaries rather than active partners, we miss out on the experiences and ideas they bring to the table.
Perhaps the UNGA event that most highlighted the power of youth was the Social Good Summit, which demonstrated how young people are already changing the world.
Zuriel Oduwole, a 16-year-old documentary filmmaker and advocate for girls, lamented that girls around the world have been left behind by the digital revolution and lack access to mobile technology, and called on attendees to take action to end this inequality.
10-year-old Mari Copeny, who became a leading voice in the fight for clean water for all after speaking up on behalf of children in Flint, Michigan, urged young people to use their voices to fight for what they believe in.
“I want to build a generation of kids that know that they don’t have to wait for a change in the world; that the world is ours now and it is up to us to save it,” she expressed. “I learned that when there isn’t a seat at the table for you, you pull up a chair anyways, then stand on it and use a megaphone until they give you that spot at the table.”
And young people aren’t just using their voices. They are also developing the innovative solutions that we need to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Take the new generation of seventeen Young Leaders for the SDGs who were revealed at the Social Good Summit by Jayathma Wickramanayake, the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. Among them are Charles Akhimien, founder of a social enterprise that develops mobile technology solutions for healthcare in Nigeria; Ahmed Badr, a former refugee from Iraq who is humanizing fellow refugees and breaking down misperceptions by helping them tell their stories; and Madelle Kangha, founder of a social venture that seeks to transform African education systems through inclusive, equitable, and quality education.
Today’s youth are highly engaged. A new bipartisan poll commissioned by the UN Foundation and the Better World Campaign found that youth are more willing to take direct actions to force change like donating money and joining organizations than they are to take passive actions like signing petitions or boycotting products.
Yet, the same poll alluded to frustration that youth voices are not always heard. Only 35% of respondents believed that young people like them could significantly impact government actions, while 65% of respondents believed young people have a small to moderate impact or no impact at all.
Youth 2030 is a step in the right direction, but only time will tell if the new strategy will precipitate action. If they hope to be successful, groups working toward the SDGs cannot only work for youth — they must work with youth.
There are 1.8 billion young people in the world. Among them are passionate activists, innovators, and leaders with the potential to contribute world-changing ideas to international dialogue. Governments, multilaterals, and NGOs should listen.