The world in 2015 was a mixed bag for young people. While the rights of LGBT youth were strengthened in the USA, Ireland and Chile, 1 million people fled conflict in Syria and the Middle East, and entered Europe with a majority of refugees worldwide now being children. In France, just days after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, countries committed to limit global temperature increases and curb man-made carbon emissions. In December, the Amman Declaration of the Global Forum on Youth, Peace and Security led to the UN Security Council’s first ever resolution on young people. In this article, we look to the months ahead and consider what some of the major influences on the international youth sector might be.

In the world of international development, 2015 has been all-consuming. At the UN, the Sustainable Development Goals – now called the Global Goals – were agreed, bringing an end to the four-year long process that began with the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons in 2012. But now that we really are post-2015, in 2016 – year 1 of the new development agenda – we move into implementation and monitoring. It doesn’t necessarily have the political excitement, but it was what the whole process has been about.

At our team meeting in Berlin, we looked to the months ahead and considered some of the major events, processes and trends that may dominate 2016. From our vantage point, here are the five things that we think will shape the international youth sector in the coming year:

  1. The nationalisation of the Global Goals – With the 17 goals and targets agreed, the international focus now moves to indicators. The MDGs got off to a slow start in 2000 and it wasn’t until 2003 that any real action and mobilisation took place. Though this is unlikely to happen again, the political momentum may run flat and it is crucial that the right indicators and measures are agreed now. At a national level, UN teams will be working with governments to nationalise the goals – a process that will be as every bit complex as it sounds. Through our own work with UN agencies – both at a national and regional level – we have witnessed how even when there is a desire for better collaboration, the UN system often struggles to facilitate it. The division of roles and responsibility over youth issues remains contested and fragmented – something that Youth-SWAP (see our initial analysis here) has currently failed to resolve. Without a renewed effort by the UN to coordinate effectively, the delivery of youth programmes will remain fragmented.
  2. Data and accountability will be big issues – The launch of the new Youth Development Index (YDI) will be a big moment in 2016, with interest likely to be high for their updated methodology, new country positions and a rich analysis of what it all means. The role of indices and data – including our own Youth Policy Fact Sheets – will need to develop to become rigorous tools in the measurement and evaluation of the Global Goals. How we use data – collect it, present it, and use it for advocacy – will be a defining aspect of the development agenda for the next 15 years. The 2015 report by Restless Development on youth-led accountability proposed a number of different levels of ambition, but this is likely to be a hard fight. Consulting young people in the development of the SDGs is one thing, but giving them the tools and strengthening their agency to hold governments to account through real-time, youth-led data, is a significant jump up the ladder of participation. There is also the question of how reliable the data can and will be: the underlying assumption of the SDGs has been that everyone is universally committed to accurate, real, and rigorous data. They might be in principle, but the practice – in our experience – is far from it.
  3. A new UN Secretary General – At the end of the 2015, the term of Ban Ki Moon will come to a close. As the UNSG that made youth one of his priority areas, he has been a champion for young people. From the appointment of the first ever Envoy on Youth, to declaring youth as “the torchbearers” of the next phase of development, he has continually been an advocate for young people. The next Secretary General, which according to the regional rotation should come from Eastern Europe, is not guaranteed to have the same commitment to and energy for young people. The international youth sector will need to work hard throughout the nomination and appointment process to push for a UNSG that will continue the agenda for young people that began in earnest under Ban Ki Moon. Even the continuation of an Envoy on Youth is not secure. Envoys are appointed by the UNSG, with a new UN chief able to reshuffle their team, create new roles or end existing ones. If they youth sector feel that an Envoy on Youth has been a positive force, it will need to say so.
  4. A closing space for youth and civil society – The 2015 State of Civil Society by CIVICUS notes that 6 out of 7 of the world’s population live in countries where their basic freedoms are constrained or denied. The Open Society Foundation has warned in their new film that civil liberties in established democracies are threatened in the name of terrorism, just as freedoms are restricted in autocratic regimes around the world. More widely, the recently launched “From Rhetoric to Action” highlights the difficulties faced by young people, youth organisations and youth movements around the world as they are shut out of decision-making processes, unable to access their rights, and prevented from forging productive livelihoods. Though the report shows how young people innovatively survive oppression, this cannot be a celebration of their actions. It can only be a realisation of the extreme environment that many youth find themselves in – one that is increasingly dangerous and repressed.
  5. Humanitarian crises will dominate the child and youth agenda – In Europe, the refugee crisis has been the major news story, the European Union agenda, and the focus of humanitarian organisations. Through our work with the UNICEF CEE/CIS Regional Office, we witnessed how the response to the refugee crisis became the main priority for country offices, stretching their ability to cope and diverting resources to the unfolding emergency. In 2016, as the crisis risks continuing and rising in urgency, the role of public policy for young people will become a needed response. As children and young people find themselves in new countries – torn from their homes and tasked with building a new life, access to decent services – that respond to their unique needs, champion their rights and promote their inclusion – will be vital, both for their own development but also their integration within a new society. For those still in countries in civil conflict, the importance of a functioning youth policy should not be underestimated: a recent research article noted that, “an Islamic State fighter’s biggest resentment was the lack of an adolescence”. Youth policies should be considered integral to solving conflict and creating peaceful societies, not just fluffy words for privileged kids.

In 2016, our work will focus on ensuring our Fact Sheets remain an up-to-date and relevant resources for the youth sector. We’re committed to writing more and providing a space online for debate and discussion. We’ll continue our technical assistance with UN agencies throughout the CEE/CIS region and around the world, and increase our support to all those involved in designing, implementing and evaluating youth policies – particularly civil servants and youth activists.

The world looks like a difficult place in 2016. The implementation of the SDGs and the technical and political accountability that will be needed presents a host of challenges, with close national coordination being required, as well as the focusing of development finance – especially to youth-led organisations. The changing approach to young people through the – most notably through the denial of rights and closing space – will present a dilemma for many, including our organisation, on how we engage and provide the best outcomes for young people. Finally, the humanitarian crises from Syria – and the world’s response for refugees in Europe and the struggle against ISIS – seem likely to continue. Without hyperbole: how we respond will define a generation of young people.


Written by Alex Farrow and edited by Cristina Bacalso.

Credit: Feature photo by Pablo Tosco / Oxfam International, February 2015.

Written by Alex Farrow

Alex Farrow

Alex is a frequent traveller, iMessage fiend, twitter aficionado, and coffee addict. For excitement and employment, he explores the intersection of youth policy, journalism and research, attempting to improve the lives of young people through knowledge, training and expression. At Youth Policy Labs, Alex leads on consultancy projects, supporting national governments and UN agencies to design, implement and evaluate national youth policies, through research, training and events. He is a contributing writer and editor for the site, as well as researcher into youth and public policies. Alex uses his well-honed, but now less-used, acting skills and techniques in front of the camera, and in training and facilitation on youth campaigns, youth policy and participation globally. Alex received his MSc in Organizational Behaviour from Birkbeck College, Uni. Of London, with a research project that explores the career expectations and narratives of the millennial generation in today’s workforce.