WORLDVIEWS

Will the UN’s Grand Strategy for the World’s 1.8 Billion Youths Work?

A participant at the 14th annual International Human Rights Summit of Youth for Human Rights, held at the UN on Aug. 25, 2017 and organized by Cambodia and Panama. As the world’s youth population surges, the UN is paying more attention to young people’s needs, but the author writes that the strategies could be more “gender sensitive.” 

The status of young people around the world is gaining traction at the United Nations. In September, it introduced a strategy called Youth 2030, its end date coinciding with the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN’s main plan for global development. And on Nov. 1, Africa Youth Day, the African Union will appoint an envoy modeled on the UN secretary-general’s high-profile envoy on youth.

“By 2020, 3 out of 4 people on the continent will have an average age of 20 years old,” the African Union notes.

While introduced with much fanfare, Youth2030 is less a new approach and more a fresh emphasis. It starts by saying there are some 1.8 billion people in the world aged 10 to 24 — more than ever before. The strategy aims to increase their participation in UN decision-making, ease their access to education and health care, help them find jobs, realize their human rights and enable them to live in peace, goals contained in strategies of other UN agencies.

Indeed, the UN announced its System-Wide Action Plan on Youth in 2013. In a bout of collective amnesia, no mention was made of it at the Youth2030 launch in September.

Yet the new strategy has a strong wind at its back. Not least is the heightened attention that young people have been getting within the UN over the last few years, beginning with Ban Ki-moon’s creation of the UN secretary-general’s envoy on youth in 2013. The current envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, a Sri Lankan, is 27.

Other milestones include the UN Youth, Peace and Security Agenda, created by the Security Council in late 2015, and the Global Initiative for Decent Jobs for Youth, announced by the International Labor Organization, a UN agency, in early 2016.

Societies that invest in youths derive a “demographic dividend,” to cite a phrase that has become a staple of UN jargon.

Gizem Kilinc, of the United Network of Young Peacebuilders, an international association that advocated for the Youth, Peace and Security Agenda, said that it has successfully changed “the narrative from young people as perpetrators of violence or as helpless victims” to partners for peace.

“Coalitions between youth groups, civil society and government in countries are really contextualizing the resolution and looking at how to operationalize it,” she said, adding that it has spurred a rigorous new “evidence base” to better inform policy.

For its part, the International Labor Organization’s Global Initiative for Decent Jobs for Youth encourages governments, companies and other groups to invest in youth-employment programs that meet standards of best practice.

“We know that today there are over 60 million young people unemployed, but unemployment figures are only the tip of the iceberg,” Susana Puerto, the coordinator of the ILO initiative, told PassBlue. “There are other measures like underemployment and working poverty.” For example, she said, about 141 million young people are working but living in poverty.

The strategy has some good new ideas for the UN’s internal workings. It proposes a “recurring UN Youth Academy bringing together the UN System and diverse stakeholders” as well as “system-wide impartial impact assessment” of youth programming. Youth2030’s progress will be monitored by a “high-level Steering Committee” chaired by the secretary-general’s youth envoy. This could enhance the influence of the envoy’s office, endowing it with more responsibility for UN programming.

Still, while praising Youth2030, some youth experts and activists expressed concerns to PassBlue about the strategy’s approach to young women and girls. Ikram Ben Said, a youth and peace-building expert who serves on a UN advisory panel, said in email that “the strategy could go further in being more gender sensitive. . . . When we say youth, often people think ‘male.’ Young girls and boys have very different needs and face different challenges. A UN Youth Strategy must clearly reflect this reality.”

Also conspicuously missing is recognition of the peculiar circumstances of displaced youth — those living in refugee camps, for example.

The main question is whether the strategy will go beyond repackaging current efforts and ripple through the UN bureaucracy to influence the office culture and field operations. Sam Daws, a UN specialist at Oxford University and onetime aide to the late Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said that “for strategies like this to be successful there needs to be continuous engagement . . . people driving political buy-in after the strategy is out.”

“You need continuously to have political messages and institutional incentives for why a focus on youth is of value,” he said. The strategy itself is only the “halfway mark.” One of its strengths, Daws argued, is its potential to show how supporting youth is helpful to people of all ages.

Echoing that thought, and implicitly evoking the notion of demographic dividend, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya said eloquently at the strategy’s launch event: “Progress for youth is actually progress for all humanity. We do not champion the cause of youth, opportunity and hope as a favor — but rather as a necessary, undeniable embrace of our collective future.”

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