The creation of a United Nations Youth Office represents a chance to pilot a new model of leadership in the UN — one that at its core is power-sharing and not power-concentrating. The precedent it sets will have lasting effects on the continuing work to foster youth leadership across the UN system, so it’s important to get this right, especially as the selection committee soon finalizes the candidate for assistant secretary-general of youth affairs.
The youth office, or UNYO, approved through General Assembly Resolution 76/306 in 2022, builds on the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, whose foundational work, despite political and financial obstacles, has raised the expectations of young people. With an initial budget of $2.31 million a year, the new youth office will be structured as a stand-alone entity with 16 posts, including the assistant secretary-general, recommended to be under age 35.
Many discussions have been held about the office’s focus and mandate. Its baseline funding from the UN general budget and its stand-alone nature provides the UNYO with greater recognition in the institution and among member states than the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, whose work is being folded into the new Youth Office. This formal recognition from member states has many advantages and risks.
These are the risks:
Lone soldier syndrome: Unlike many other independent UN agencies, the primary objective of the UNYO is to work with constituents outside the UN. If young people do not buy into the leadership and approach of the office, its ability to engage large numbers of people will be limited.
Unintended consequences: There is a risk that the office could inadvertently decrease the opportunities for young people to engage with the UN. This could happen in one of three ways. First, member states mark the creation of the office as a successful conclusion to priority No. 11 of the UN75 Declaration — “we will listen to and work with youth” — thereafter losing momentum to meaningfully engage young people. Second, the office becomes the source for all so-called “youth capital” at the UN, and other UN agencies and stakeholders could find it easier to work with the office rather than engaging wider youth networks directly. Third, the office encroaches on current youth initiatives in other UN entities as youth flock to the new organization. This may cause internal pushback, resulting in a loss of faith in the office.
Politicization of leadership: While the youth office’s institutionalization is positive, its limelight does not come cheap. Despite funding from the UN general budget, extrabudgetary contributions will likely be needed to finance additional programming, as mentioned in the budget lines laid out by the General Assembly. There is a real risk of the assistant secretary-general candidate being politicized through funding by countries that want to wield influence. That dynamic could hinder the best candidates from being appointed (see Blue Smoke, a PassBlue/UNA-UK newsletter) or being constrained in their work.
The risks can be mitigated, however, and the effects of the office can be enhanced if the leadership meets the ambitions enshrined in upcoming key summits, such as the SDG Summit and Summit of the Future. Such a model of leadership for the new UN Youth Office would, at minimum, be built with three key ideas. These are:
First, while the office will play an important coordination role, the emphasis must be on what the office does to build capacity of and ensure knowledge flows between youth networks and initiatives inside and outside the UN.
Second, it must be clearly understood that the office’s success depends on its ability to facilitate the leadership — including drawing on the resources and knowledge of the youth constituency and staff at the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth.
Third, the youth constituency must retain its own leadership role by making a concerted effort to coordinate with other structures working on intergenerational leadership across the UN. Youth must also continue to push for permanent missions to the UN to help bring about youth participation and representation year-round, including through a proposed youth town hall.
Above all, the new assistant secretary-general needs to use a leadership model that emanates from the youth constituency itself and be someone who:
- Understands the urgency and responsibility to act and the enormous expectation from many people — a burden to be actively shared across youth and intergenerational constituencies — to establish the role of UNYO in upcoming UN processes.
- Takes steps to build up and across the many well-established youth spaces and networks inside and outside the UN system.
- Prioritizes accountability through its mandate to report regularly to member states and the youth constituency itself. This method will also enable shadow reporting from civil society and other agencies.
- Embraces new forms of leadership suited to a highly interconnected and interdependent planet, including principles such as empathy, collaboration, power sharing and respect for a diversity of views and actors.
Young people are considered a vulnerable and marginalized group in current political spaces. Failure of a young assistant secretary-general could yield a negative perception about young people’s leadership abilities, which could lead to the UN system and global leaders playing it safe, or relying on politics as usual. With the troubled world young people are inheriting, we need a leader who is not afraid to take risks and collaborate with the UN and beyond to improve the conditions young people are facing.
The UN Youth Office will not solve all the problems the world is facing. But if the office approaches the challenges with audacity, tenacity, care and a commitment to the values that guide the youth movement more broadly, it can set an example of what this moment of coordinated UN reform can achieve.
Research for this essay was provided by the Baha’i International Community.
This is an opinion essay.
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts on the new UN youth office?