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Moving Beyond Platitudes about Young people to Fostering Meaningful Youth Engagement for Sustainable Peace: Lessons from the 2021 ECOSOC Youth Forum

The 2021 United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum held virtually between 7-8 April 2021. This 10th Anniversary of the ECOSOC Youth Forum marked the largest gathering of young people in the United Nations, with over 15, 000 attendees from different parts of the world. The forum brought together representatives from different UN member states, youth entities, civil society organizations, governmental and non-governmental organizations, and other relevant stakeholders in the public and private sectors. It also served as a global platform for open intergenerational dialogue between youths and policymakers to discuss the lasting solutions to the challenges faced in the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, also known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The forum also provided an avenue to showcase the positive role of youths as agents of change and amplify the voices of youths worldwide.

This year’s theme was entitled, ‘A Decade of Action: Building a Resilient Recovery’, which is also connected to the theme of the 2021 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on ‘sustainable and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. It addressed nine of the SDGs to be reviewed at the 2021 HLPF forum: SDGs 1 (No poverty), 2 (Zero Hunger), 3 (Good Health and Well-being), 8 (Decent work and economic growth), 10 (Reduced inequalities), 12 (Sustainable consumption and production), 13 (Climate action), 16 (Peace, justice, and strong institutions), and 17 (Partnership for the goals). The Youth 2030 Strategy document, which acts as a framework to guide the UN, was also launched during the event.

As a first time participant, I was highly enthralled by the quality of the speakers and panelists chosen for the 2021 ECOSOC youth forum. The discussions held during the conference helped to highlight priority issues facing young people in achieving the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development. During his opening statement, the President of ECOSOC, H.E. Mr. Munir Akram stated that the boldness, energies, imagination, innovation, and ideals of young people are needed to build the structure of a prosperous, equal, and peaceful world order. The UN Secretary-General, Mr. Antonio Gueterres who also attended, asserted that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the pre-existing challenges faced by young people, which is further worsened by the shrinking civic space denying them the opportunity to shape their societies. He called for meaningful opportunities for youth engagement in peace negotiation, peacebuilding, and democratic processes. The UN Secretary General hinted that the role of young people and the rights of future generations will be at the core of his forthcoming report to the UN member states on charting their common agenda. He stated that the world needs to move beyond platitude about young people and look for ways to meaningfully engage youths in matters that affect their future.

In a similar vein, the president of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, H.E. Mr. Volkan Bozkir affirmed that there is a need to prioritize the needs of young people as this is critical to securing a safe and healthy future that is more resilient to global threats. In her remark, the UN Secretary-General Youth Envoy, Ms. Jayathma Wickramanayake stressed that young people need allies that will support them in translating their words into action. She went further to state that young people need intergenerational dialogue, political support, and resources to amplify their work and ensure that no youth is left behind. The keynote speech was delivered by Ms. Anika Jenne Dorothy, the Executive Director of the Green Congress of Kenya. Her speech centered on the need for education and empowerment for women and the girl child. According to her, “we cannot underestimate the value of education…We need to create comprehensive systems that holistically support girls and create the conditions for them to succeed”. She also spoke on the additional challenges faced by women and girls, including child marriage, female genital mutilation, and violence which has been on the rise. She affirms that building back cannot be possible without youths and girls at the table.

The two-day plenary and interactive sessions centered around youths and the sustainable development goals. Some of the challenges identified in these sessions as impediments to the achievement of the SDGs include systemic and structural inequalities, failure to prioritize youths in policies, the exclusionary system of government, non-committed leadership, failure to localize the SDGs, lack of adequate planning, lack of accountability, weak bureaucratic system, endemic corruption, limited youth involvement in decision-making processes, lack of inclusive policies, ineffective institutional response, climate crisis, deepening power imbalances, among others. One thing that came out clear from all the discussions, deliberations, and recommendations is that the youth are a valuable asset a country has to achieve the SDGs and that active and meaningful engagement of young people is essential to implementing the SDGs and achieving a peaceful, sustainable, and just future especially as we build back better. 

As a young person who keenly followed all proceedings at this year’s ECOSOC, here are some of my key takeaways to recap on the discussions from the forum, including measures to ensure the attainment of the SDGs before the 2030 mark:

1. Youths are not a homogeneous group: A major point raised during the forum was that there is no one-sized solution to addressing the challenges faced by young people in attaining the SDGs because they have different experiences based on their background and contexts. Hence, it is important to hear from them and listen to them. Young people must speak up to share their experiences and amplify the voices of other marginalized youths.

2. The need to work with and not just for youth: The speakers at the conference assert that this generation of young people constitutes the largest in human history, with more than half of the world’s population below the ages of 30 years, making their inclusion in development processes indispensable. One of the speakers echoed that sustainable development can only be achieved if generations work together and not against each other. The participants call for coordinated partnership and collaboration between youth groups and relevant stakeholders. Representatives of the United Nations called for an improvement in the way the UN works with young people, and promised to listen more to youths, and engage with the many faces of young people.

3. Meaningful youth engagement and participation: A keyword that was echoed by speakers and participants all through the forum was “meaningful”: meaningful engagement, meaningful participation, meaningful youth leadership, etc. Some of the participants stated that there is a need for young people to be full-fledged partners in the implementation and review of the SDGs. They also call for meaningful dialogue and partnership between youths and other relevant stakeholders.

4. Education is key: Investment in quality and inclusive education is regarded by most of the speakers and participants to be a prerequisite to the realization of the SDGs. They stress the need to invest in education that can meet the needs and solve the challenges of the 21st century. Emphasis was also placed on vocational education, skills acquisition training, and entrepreneurial education. They also recommend that schools should create a culture of innovation and creativity in their curriculum to ensure the practical application of the theories taught in the classroom. 

5. The creation of an enabling environment: The shrinking civic space is seen as a stumbling block to youth’s effort at achieving the SDGs. Participants, therefore, called for the creation of an enabling space for young people to engage in peace and decision-making processes. Young people should be provided with access to socio-economic opportunities, technology, capacity building, and leadership training. They should also be provided mentorship and role models in the areas of career development and personal development. They also called for the involvement of young people both at the project level and at the policy level. They also emphasized the need to invest in, finance, and strengthen youth networks.

6. The Need for Accountability: Most of the participants see a lack of accountability on the part of their leaders as a challenge that hinders the attainment of the SDGs. They agree that young people must demand greater accountability from their government in all aspects of governance.

7. Youth employment and sustainable livelihood: The challenge of decent work especially among young people is also regarded as a stumbling block to the realization of the SDGs. This challenge is further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, with 1 in over 6 young people currently out of job. Decent work is seen as something everyone deserves, including young people. The speakers stressed the need for governments to create opportunities for youths to acquire decent work while ensuring access to social protection, fair wages, and proper healthcare. The need to invest in technology and agriculture is also seen as a way to promote sustainable livelihood among youths.

8. Awareness Campaign: Another takeaway is that there is a low level of awareness about the SDGs especially at the grassroots level also served as an obstacle to the achievement of the SDGs. Hence, there is a need for a sensitization campaign on the SDGs in schools and communities. They stated that the SDGs should be moved to public discourse and invested in early childhood education. Participants at the forum also stressed the importance of social media and technology in awareness creation and sensitization campaigns on different issues, including youth mobilization, promoting climate and environmental awareness, etc. They also call for collaboration with media houses, educational institutions, and social media influencers. They affirmed that social media can be used to inform, educate, and empower young people on the SDGs.

9. Mental Health and Wellbeing: The issue of youth mental health and wellbeing was also emphasized during the forum. Digital technologies and the various social media platforms have also contributed to showcasing the inequalities that exist among young people. They call on the need to stop the stigma attached to mental health and advise youths to maintain good health and wellbeing.

10. Youth Advocacy: The collective force of young people is regarded as being important for promoting social justice and positive change. A major point raised during the forum is that young people are playing a key role in all processes of development and that they want meaningful change for a sustainable future. They call for youth collaborative action especially in amplifying their voices through advocacy.

11. Policy Reform: The COVID-19 pandemic has also pushed vulnerable youth away from opportunities thus there is a need to create reactive and solution-based policies that are youth-centered and people-centered. Some of the speakers assert there is a need to include marginalized groups such as people with disabilities, refugees, indigenous groups, LGBTQ community in development programming to ensure that there is no one left behind. They also stated that women and girls need to be included in development policies for the SDGs to be achieved. Another point raised is the need to leverage all strategies and knowledge, including those provided by indigenous communities.

12. Youth Protection: Another issue that came up during the forum was the need for youth protection. The speakers called for a safe environment for youths to exercise their rights and express their voices, without fear of being exposed to brutality or repression.

13. Evidenced-based research/programming: The need for action-based research and aggregated data on youth programming and engagement is also highlighted during the forum.

As we depart from the 2021 ECOSOC Forum, we must move beyond platitudes and begin fostering meaningful youth engagement for sustainable peace. The COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity to acknowledge that the status quo was not working for young people. Thus, as we work towards building a resilient recovery, we must work towards ensuring that young people are at the driver’s seat of peace and development processes and initiatives. Building back better means: recognizing that youths are authors and co-authors of the future we want; ensuring that youths are protected and provided with a safe space to contribute to the SDGs; and consolidating meaningful youth participation and leadership in peacebuilding, decision-making, and development processes is inevitable. There is a need for improvement in environmental protection, gender equality, education, employment, etc.

Written by

Stephanie E. Effevottu
Director of Administration,
Building Blocks for Peace Foundation

Posted in AS IN MEDIA