Let’s be honest: we’re failing to deliver change.

Y20, a three-day youth summit ahead of the June G20 in Mexico, was yet another opportunity for the voice of young people to be ignored. The unrepresentative final communiqué is likely to have no impact on policy or the lives of young people. We need to stop our amateurish approach to young people’s voice and influence in global decision-making and get real. We’re letting young people down by our compla­cency and ineffectiveness, and we must do better.


Official photograph of the Y20 Mexico DelegatesThe G20, held in June in the sunny Mexican island of Los Cabos, was yet another opportunity for the voice of young people to be ignored by the world’s leaders.

Before the meeting of the 20 biggest economies, the Government of Mexico hosted Y20 to give young people the “opportunity to actively participate and become involved in different discussions” and “provide a venue for their voices to be heard on the issues of the G20 agenda.”

Using an online platform and a youth summit in Puebla in May, seven university students from 25 countries were invited to participate in three days of workshops, plenaries and interactive sessions concluding in the production of a youth communiqué mirroring the G20 outcome document.

Unelected representatives

From the UK, democratically elected members from the British Youth Council (BYC), attended representing young people. They were, however, some of the only representatives of youth at the summit. One young person from BYC said,

“Out of all the 120 odd delegates, we were the only delegation who were representing young people…at a youth forum.”

Another trustee commented that there was a misguided belief of representation.

“The other countries present had no connection whatsoever to young people in their respective countries. This made the event rather tokenistic, as the young people in attendance believed that they were representing their countries.”

A fundamental part of international governance has to be democracy. While young people lead revolutions across the Arab world in the struggle for free and fair elections, it is alarming that the twenty most developed countries on the planet cannot find a way to identify seven democratically elected young people.

The youth communiqué

What will frustrate democratic idealists is that the implementation of the youth communiqué (pdf) would undoubtedly make the world a better place. The final text is well thought through, detailed and ambitious and offers a clear vision of what young people need to see actioned to lead economically, environmentally and socially safe lives.

The communiqué calls for many progressive policies such as:

  • financial reform through a Robin Hood Tax and abolition of tax havens;
  • funding to fulfill the MDGs and fair trading;
  • practical, enterprising ways to tackle the youth unemployment crisis;
  • social protections such as the living wage;
  • action on climate change through the promotion of renewable technology and ending of fossil fuel subsidies, and;
  • global governance structures such as the upgrading of UNEP and formation of future generation negotiators.

The final document was delivered to the Mexican President, Felipe Calderón, at the end of the Y20 summit at his official residence in Los Pinos. Despite this, and many of the policies being championed by civil society, progressive governments and international institutions, it is limited in its life span and as a stand-alone policy wish list, joins a mass of documents and youth texts, which have all made little or no impact on policy, nor on the lives of youth around the world.

So why do we continue to bother showing up?

Impressions from Y20, yet another conferenceWe’ve set out our pitch, we know what we need but it isn’t working.

We need to stop our amateurish approach to young people’s voice and influence in global decision-making and get real about why we’re there, what we want to achieve and how we’re going to get it.

Our cute, “we’re young and the future” simply won’t cut it anymore, and probably never has.

Three things need to change.

1. Honesty
Young people’s participation is the means not the end. We need to stop pretending that its great for young people to simply be at these summits when nothing changes as a result. If young people aren’t being listening to and taken seriously, we need to honestly consider whether the time, energy and resources are worth the effort.

Yes, youth involvement at international summits has got young people round the table, but at the Y20 their table was 1000 miles from that of world leaders.

Young people can and should play an important role at international summits but the shipment of fresh policy faces to each world event isn’t achieving the results we need. Organisations, governments and individuals need to be honest about who goes, why they are going and whether they’re the best people with the skills, knowledge and experience to demand, pressure and bring about change.

2. Joined up youth movements
Young people have different specific expertise, but many of the international summits deal with cross cutting issues. The international youth movement is disjointed and unconnected with different organisations and youth involved in the Major Group of Children & Youth at Rio+20, YOUNGO at the UNFCCC, the High Level Forum of Youth, the World Assembly of Youth, European Youth Forum, Youth Diplomatic Service, Y8/Y20, and the model UN – to name a few. We fail to talk about the cross cutting issues and establish unified positions but also share learning on organisational structures and processes to achieve something resembling a global strategy on youth.

We need a global governance system for youth that is free from outdated structures, summit rivalries, political animosity and criticism of different methods used to achieve change. While a perfect system cannot exist, in our connected world we should be able to do better in joining up international youth delegates and connecting the dots between the work done at one summit, the previous one and the next.

Delegates at the Y20 Youth Summit

3. Campaigns and action
The youth communiqué is an excellent document and covers many different areas that need to change and be achieved for youth. But it has no life beyond Puebla. What’s more, it is a waste of time and energy and doesn’t do the hard work justice if we allow that to happen over and over again. If we truly believe in our demands and policy positions, we mustn’t be content with being ignored and must campaign for their implementation.

Say for example, we took the Youth Communiqué as the definitive list of demands from young people. Youth at the UNFCCC would use the articles in the climate change section to campaign on, those attending the UN-CSD would focus on MDGs, SDGs and agriculture, European youth could lobby the EU on youth unemployment and similarly lobby the IMF and World Bank to do more to promote youth enterprise and microfinance. The list goes on, but the point is made. With a proper strategy in place, it would guide youth involvement and offer continuity across the years and continents of international summits.

Beginning the conversation

Too many conferences, too many youth side showsWith so many international summits and accompanying youth sideshows, the G20, G8, Nato, EU Heads of State, Arab League and Rio+20 – all of which happened in 2012 – have already been forgotten.

What we cannot continue to let happen is the poorly organised way in which youth are involved in them. Government and global institutions need to take the voice of young people seriously, but young people have achieved change when we have also been serious, well organised, resourced and focused.

When it comes to the crunch, young people aren’t at these summits for personal development alone, they are there to achieve policy change and this isn’t happening.

This criticism shouldn’t undermine the work done by youth organisation and those supporting young people. On the contrary, it should make us strive to be better and start by examining the reasons why we hop on flights to the latest summit when we know it’s dead in the water while we’re still in the departure longue.

We need to start a new conversation on the participation of young people at international summits. We don’t have the answers, but we are willing participants to this dialogue and want to spark a debate about how the voice of youth really can influence decision makers and create change.

We’re letting young people down by our complacency and ineffectiveness of participation and we must do better. We all want to see change, but our methods aren’t working.