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Next Generation, Youth? Why We Need More Youth Participation in Sustainable Development Policy

With more than half of the world’s population today under the age of 30, young people will be instrumental in finding solutions to guarantee sustainability in global policies. Today's youth form the generation that has the best chances of ending poverty, stopping climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the past decade, an overall positive trend has positioned young generations at the heart of social change; this wider engagement of young people in global policy is the result of two main factors that have emerged recently: the impact of youth-led movements, which have taken a bigger role in representing their generation; and, simultaneously, a general acknowledgement of youth as a driving force by political institutions and governments. This article analyses the increasing importance of youth participation in sustainable development and global policy, taking into account what positive results have been already achieved, and questioning the challenges that lie ahead for the new generations who will lead future change.

Greta Thunberg addresses climate strikers at Civic Center Park in Denver. Photo: Andy Bosselman, Streetsblog, Denver | Source: Flickr | CC by 2.0

Importance of youth participation in sustainable development

Now more than ever, youth participation in development policies and decision-making processes has become not only relevant but necessary, because of its potential in terms of both demographic growth and global impact. Estimates indicate that young people between 15 and 24 years of age number around 1.21 billion and account for 15.5 percent of the global population (United Nations World Youth Report, 2020). Projections suggest that the youth cohort will reach 1.29 billion by 2030 and possibly 13.8 percent of the overall population by 2050. As the rate of population growth remains significantly higher in developing countries, we are looking at a new generation that will be diverse and capable of creating a shift in sustainable development.

Indeed, the present generation of young people has the potential to concretely contribute to the advancement of society in a more collective and transversal way, compared to previous generations. While youth-led movements historically have had a strong role in shaping social change, as was the case for the 1968 student demonstrations, the current positive trend is heavily influenced by a spike in digital development. Young people are generally among the earliest adopters of trending technologies, and therefore they are able to take advantage of innovations to initiate or drive change. According to the International Telecommunications Union in the Development Sector (ITU-D), at the end of 2019 almost 70 percent of the world’s youth was using the Internet, and 38 percent of young people in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) had access to Internet and social media. This increased virtual interconnectivity facilitates the creation of a global community with enormous potential for impact, which might potentially grow with a decrease in the digital divide. In this sense, the participation of young people in development can be highly transformational, given that their efforts and ideas can more easily, and rapidly, reverberate across all social groups and generations.

A rise in youth-led movements

Youth participation in sustainable development is obviously not limited to the use of technology; rather, it heavily depends on how technology is used and for what purposes. Throughout the last ten years, youth-led movements have become more pivotal, with younger generations voicing their concerns about the future. A 2019 study conducted by Barnardo showed that more than 54 percent of 16–24-year-olds in the UK said climate change was one of the most important issue facing the country over the next three to five years; this adds to other perceived grievances, aggravated by the pandemic, such as unemployment, inequality, and social pressure. But younger generations aspire to be not only part of the change, but in charge of it. A notable example of this is the Fridays for Future youth-led and youth-organised movement which began in 2018 after then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg initiated a series of strikes to protest against a lack of action in tackling the climate crisis. The FFF movement had a huge echo across all continents, gathering up to 14,000,000 people, with participants and activists organising and documenting their activities through social media.

While this may be the fastest growing youth movement in our times, it certainly is not the only one. Prior to FFF, the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions paved the way for a more central role of youth activism; as pro-democracy uprisings sparked across North Africa and the Middle East, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube became powerful tools for young people to inform, to be informed and to act. It was not only about deposing dictators and igniting a political change: young people demanded accountability and continuity in the change they contributed to create. In 2019, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was ousted following months of youth-led street protests, eight years after the first Arab Spring wave. Similar events occurred in Sudan in 2019, when mass youth demonstrations led to the deposition of Omar al-Bashir. Further, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014 and its follow-up in 2019 saw students at the heart, and in the lead, of pro-democracy protests. The same goes for the Indignados in Spain and the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the United States last year.

Black Lives Matter - We Won't Be Silenced - London's Oxford Circus - 8 July 2016. Photo: Alisdare Hickson Source: Flickr License: CC BY 2.0

Why, then, has youth become more vocal recently? Anthropologist Alcinda Honwana explains that two major factors contribute to this rise in youth activism: first, as mentioned before, a key point is demographic growth, with young people accounting for more than 50 percent of the global population; statistically, they are destined to matter. Second, shared struggles among youth who, both in developed and least developed countries, face unemployment, high societal expectations and are often politically marginalised (Honwana, 2019). Another huge contributing factor to the rise in youth engagement in global policy is a growing distrust in current leadership, and a lack of confidence in political institutions and leaders. The Deloitte Millenial Survey in 2018 showed that among Millennials and Gen Z youth, 75% believed that leaders focus on their own agendas rather than considering the wider society, and this perception has been further exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic (Aksoy et al, 2020).

Political institutions are now willing to invest in youth, but that’s not enough

“We need you, with your energy, drive and vision”. With these words Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, opened the floor at the European Development Days last June. President von der Leyen addressed the European Union’s global commitments in climate change and green growth, underlining the utmost importance of the role played by youth. One of the highlights of the event was indeed the selection of a group of young leaders from across the world as panelists. The EDDs sent a strong message about positioning youth at the centre of development, bringing new ideas and helping inspire new partnerships and innovative solutions. This fits into a broader narrative of giving more space to younger generations - one that has been consolidated in political institutions over the past few decades.

Political institutions and governments now recognise youth, especially in developing countries, as a driving force for change. In 2018 the United Nations launched Youth2030, the first-ever UN Youth Strategy, as a common framework to work with and for youth. At least on paper, governments worldwide have set to strengthen their capacity to engage youth and benefit from their views, with the goal of investing in young people to help tackle skills shortages and provide a future-proofed way to recover from the economic impacts of Covid-19 (World Economic Forum, 2020). In reality, however, young people are still regularly excluded from policy and political decisions affecting their lives (UN World Youth Report, 2020). Their involvement in different economic, political, social and environmental aspects is often limited due to lack of opportunity, which will need to be tackled soon in order to create an effective space for new leaders and for a sustainable future.

How can youth play a bigger role in sustainable development policy?

The next question to be asked, then, is what can be done to ensure that young people are actively involved in society and contribute to decision-making processes and to the sustainable development of their countries.

There are several key strategies to consider. First, investing in education and knowledge sharing is a crucial step in achieving transformative change. Traditional forms of education (early childhood development, formal and alternative schooling, technical and vocational education, higher and non-formal education) can be combined with new, inclusive approaches (intergenerational knowledge, indigenous and local knowledge). This is particularly relevant when discussing sustainable practises: in climate change action and agriculture, the UN has outlined that indigenous worldviews and livelihood strategies provide valuable input into understanding the diversity of low-carbon strategies and local-level adaptation priorities. Based on empirical observation and ancient practices, indigenous knowledge offers a valid path to sustainability, and indigenous youth will play a game-changing role in it; an example of this is Grainotèque, a “grain library” founded by Daniel Oulaï, a young social entrepreneur from Ivory Coast, who reimagined food production by increasing access to agricultural equipment, technology, data, and quality seeds for local farmers.

Second, the creation of job opportunities and professional training programmes will be a viable strategy to provide young people with the necessary skills to address systemic, long-term challenges, including climate change and inequity. A step in this direction has been taken at UN-level with the Decent Jobs for Youth initiative, launched in 2016 to promote youth employment at country and regional level; the platform creates partnerships and prioritises thematic areas relevant to sustainable development, such as green jobs, digital skills, rural economy and transition to formal economy, among others. Stimulating decent employment and livelihood for young people creates the opportunity for them to become active citizens, and ultimately exercising their leadership (Oxfam, 2014).

Third, building trust towards youth, by bringing young communities into project planning to foster a gradual yet steady transfer of responsibility to younger generations that helps them address upcoming challenges. This is true both at a global and local scale. Platforms like the UN Youth Delegate Programme provide a good opportunity for young people to actively participate in relevant meetings at a global level, but a greater youth engagement at local level is also crucial. It allows to tailor initiatives to the circumstances of particularly disadvantaged, and typically under-represented, youth populations and communities (Campbell, 2011). Youth involvement in local communities and decision-making can make their actions more impactful; young members of a community are equally long-term contributors and long-term beneficiaries of change; and ultimately, an involved youth helps organisations and local authorities in becoming more aware of issues regarding young population (Bestul, 2012). In this sense, the World Economic Forum has identified a valid three-step strategy for a bigger youth engagement in institutions: harnessing youth ambitions to change the world; focusing on local engagement and working with youth as equal partners; rekindling their interest in institutions and civil society. While top-level policies certainly send a positive signal about political willingness to engage young people in decision-making processes, there is still much to be done.

Finally, addressing inequalities among youth and vulnerable groups, such as youth with disabilities, young people from minority groups, young women and indigenous youth is needed to ensure diversity among those groups who are stepping up to make changes. Vulnerable groups lack access to basic rights, education, job opportunities, they are limited in their social mobility, and are more exposed to violence, facing prejudice and discrimination (Oxfam, 2014).

Youth is an often untapped but powerful source for social change. In the past decade, there has been an increased engagement in youth activism and younger generations across the world have become more vocal in advocating for a sustainable future, and more central in the policies that lead up to it. While their potential, both in numbers and ambitions, is constantly growing, youth alone cannot bring widespread change without the support of governments, political institutions and organisations; common and coordinated efforts in “rejuvenating” political agendas in sustainable development are needed in order to build a secure future for the young people of today.



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