“Failing to invest in our youth is a false economy”, Ban Ki-Moon said at the opening of the High Level Meeting on Youth in July 2011. And yet, the format of the High Level meeting undermined the best intentions. Beyond the rhetorics and resolutions, a lot remains to be done. How can we move past tokenism and establish a meaningful structured dialogue on youth within the UN? Karina Chupina investigates and discusses.
“Failing to invest in our youth is a false economy,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said at the opening of the High Level Meeting on Youth in New York, 25-26 July 2011. With 1.8 billion youth in the world—many from developing countries—and youth unemployment nearly three times higher than adult unemployment,the statement could not be more true.
The UN High Level Meeting reflected the growing interest of the international community in youth and youth issues, and delivered the clear reaffirmation of young people’s right to participate in public life. “Dialogue and Mutual Understanding” was the topic for the meeting as well as the overarching theme of the International Year of Youth.
But beyond the rhetorics, a lot remains to be done. The fact that there were very few young Youth Delegates attending the High Level Meeting on behalf of UN Member States speaks for itself.
As Amadou Diallo, a civil society representative from Senegal pointed out: if the UN values youth contribution, it too needs greater youth representation:
“In spite of the numerous resolutions adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the invitations issued by the Secretary General, many member states do not include representatives of young people in their national delegations.”
Still, there were striking examples of youth representation the next day:
Malin Johansson, deaf and young official representative of Sweden to the UN General Assembly gave an inspiring speech in sign language, which was a remarkable visibility of disability AND youth. She echoed Diallo’s words in sign language:
“I regret that there are so few young people representing youth here.”
Youth delegates from Germany and Sweden pressed for the empowerment of youth organizations, prioritizing the issues of employment, education and migration. The youth delegate from Germany, asking if young people really had been involved in decisions regarding the Meeting, urged
“the involvement of youth in the entire decision-making process, beginning with defining the relevant issues and ending with the implementation and evaluation of the policies.”
As state representatives were repeatedly calling for more investment in youth and job opportunities, the meeting still did not manage to address the various challenges that young people face in the different regions of the world, even with—or despite—its main focus on developing countries. Is it really too much to expect a somewhat nuanced approach to regional youth issues at a global event?
A view on Arab spring among the speakers was varying. Many spoke of the need to harness the energy of youth that had been witnessed in recent upheavals in Arab countries. But apart from explicit words of praise and encouragement, several statements were rather cautious and in a less empowering light. This should be food for thought and debate: is the growing states’ interest in youth issues after all defined most strongly by the fear of youth and of their role in changing the world - rather than by the desire and a need to cooperate with them based on (economic) incentive?
One of the delegates said something to the effect of:
“If we don’t allow frustrated youth to participate in civil life,
it will be plenty of trouble for all of us.”
The underlying concern was well felt by everyone: if we do not let our youth participate in civil society, they will overturn the states and create chaos. The concerns about youth marginalization and the risks can be well-grounded, but should the discussion on youth’s role in democracy at such an event be coloured by fear and negativity?
The active participation of young people at the High Level Meeting mostly concentrated and flourished at the side events, such as “Millenium Development Goals today and tomorrow ‐ youth perspectives on the MDGs and post‐2015 agenda”, “Young men and adolescent boys in gender equality”, “Mainstreaming disability in youth issues”, “Giving it Back, Passing it on: Corporate Engagement and Youth Philanthropy as Pathways to Development”, “Strengthening Inter‐Agency Collaboration on Young People in Emergencies, Post‐Conflict and Post‐Disasters Settings”, “A culture of non‐violence and peace: empowering youth through skills‐based and values‐based education”. The side events were organised and hosted by civil society organisations and/or UN agencies, and some of them were attended by the state delegates to the High Level Meeting.
The Civil Society Organisations Panel brought several fresh perspectives to the table. Jacque Koroi of Fiji reflected on the true impact of and access to youth participation. She said:
“When we’re talking about youth participation, we’re talking about challenging longstanding practices that hinder young people participating at all levels. So when we hear our leaders talking about young people getting involved, we actually would like to see them follow that through with concrete suggestions, such as a quote on all decision making boards for young people.”
An Argentinian civil society representative stressed that
“participation doesn’t simply involve consulting young people, but rather, empowering them and seeking specific mechanisms to include them in every stage of political life: planning, budgeting, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation.”
A Senegalese representative asked participants how member states and the United Nations can work hand in hand with youth organizations with a view to implementing the representative program for young people and to have them represented within deliberative organs such as the General Assembly and ECOSOC.
Karim Kasim from Kairo shared his Tahrir square experience and raised the question of how to use technology to make sure that the voiceless have a voice in the decision making. James Aniyamuzaala of Uganda came up with a proposal to establish a global fund for social protection in order to ensure social protection of systems in countries, to support youth participation, empowerment, access to reproductive services - especially for youth with disabilities, young people living with HIV/AIDS, and other vulnerable youth populations.
The High Level Meeting on Youth was held in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations with two big screens projecting simultaneous captioning of the speeches. For a mainstream youth event that was not devoted specifically to disability issues, this was a big success in making participation fully accessible to hard of hearing and deaf participants. Without the additional advocacy on behalf of youth disability organizations—coordinated by IFHOHYP, the International Federation of Hard Of Hearing Young People—this would not have been achieved and is a good example of the dialogue between youth NGOs and the UN. Credit also goes to the UN DESA staff who listened to the needs of young people with disabilities and undertook tremendous efforts to make the accessibility improvements come true.
It was a small step in the UN agenda, but a big step for disability issues at the UN and, more generally, also for the inclusion of all: when the interpretation or headphones had temporary technical hitches, hundreds of pairs of delegates’ eyes were fixed on the screens with captions. This is the point of inclusion - captions are helpful and useful not only for the deaf or hard of hearing, but for everyone in society!
At the end of the High Level Meeting, Member States adopted an Outcome Document which was called by Benin’s President, Boni Yayi, “the crowning point for the International Year of Youth.” He stressed that the energy exhibited in the revolutions in the Arab world made young people agents for change and an invaluable asset for development all over the world.
Among the areas of action, the Assembly called for support initiatives to anticipate and offset “the negative social and economic consequences of globalization and to maximize its benefits for young people”. A particular focus in that regard was inclusive job creation, skill development and vocational training to meet specific labour market needs, among other measures. The creation of a global strategy on youth employment, incorporating regional strategies, was urged. Related provisions in the text called for measures to strengthen educational opportunity and to promote human rights knowledge among youth, as well as dialogue for mutual understanding.
And yet, despite all the good words, the format of the High Level meeting did not allow for engaged communication between NGO representatives and participants, on the one side, and the official state delegates, on the other side. This may, in part, be understandable from the organisational and security point of view, but satirically, this approach completely undermined the idea and claim of the meeting that youth should be listened to.
The word “dialogue” sounded very often from the tribune, but the irony of the meeting was that there was little of it. If there were more dialogue between the state representatives and the youth civil society representatives, the High Level Meeting would have been an even better learning and more meaningful political process for everyone involved and concerned.
While observing the event, I couldn’t but retrospect to the World Youth Forum in Braga (1998) where I was a participant. 13 years later, the discrepancy between intentions and realities is still obvious. Let’s look at the Braga Action Plan item 15:
“Youth issues should be given higher priority in United Nations System. We recommend the strengthening of the United Nations Youth Unit and its counterparts in other funds, programmes and specialised agencies and the provision to them of greater resources and more staff - notably young people.” 
Have more young people been institutionalized in the UN and its specialised agencies since that time? No. Instead, the UN Youth Unit, a fully functioning department back in 1998, was cut to the UN Programme on Youth with only a few employees.Has the level of trust of young people in the effectiveness of the international institutions increased over the past 10 years? No. Has the International Year of Youth increased the institutions’ and governments’ commitment and investment in youth? Not yet. It may, but probably only if pushed by continuous actions of youth leaders and youth NGOs. The International Year of Youth did not fulfill its potential; even if youth did participate in some of the international meetings to provide input, their proposals are often not considered important - not even important enough for the outcome documents…
One way to move past tokenism and establish “structured dialogue” within the UN agencies, between the states and youth-led organisations, could be the creation of a co-management system. Co-management is a unique international model where governments and youth representatives sit together to decide on the political and strategic priorities of the youth sector, to establish budget allocations in accordance with these priorities and to monitor the sector’s annual or pluri-annual programmes.
This mechanism should also be implemented on a country level; it would fully respond to the call of the World Programme of Action for Youth to “take into account the contribution of youth in designing, implementing and evaluating national policies and plans affecting their concerns.” Meanwhile, the World Programme of Action for Youth itself needs more measurable indicators and more political will of the Member States to implement it.
On a positive note, the High Level Meeting, as well as the entire International Year of Youth, worked as a way to strengthen cooperation between youth movements around the globe. The final statement of the Meeting can be used as a lobbying tool and young people should learn to apply it and use it to their advantage.
There is much room for improvement, and a long way to go. The success and sustainability of youth involvement in the UN will probably—and as usual—depend as much on concerted youth- and NGO-agility as it does on the member states’ political commitments and actions. It needs inclusive, accessible mechanisms for youth participation. It certainly requires a change of attitude towards young people - and calls for genuine partnerships between stakeholders on all levels: civil society, youth-led organisations, the private and the public sector. As one speaker aptly put it:
“A nation that does not take care of its youth, does not have a future - and does not deserve one!”
The same is true for the United Nations.
A few impressions from the High Level Meeting on Youth (click on an image for a larger version):
 - The full remarks of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to the General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Youth are available at http://social.un.org/index/Youth/NewsandEvents/tabid/146/news/142/Default.aspx. [↩]
 - The High-Level Meeting was convened by the United Nations’ General Assembly and comprised two consecutive informal thematic panel discussions on 25 July 2011 and two plenary meetings on 26 July 2011. The thematic panel discussions were chaired by Member States at the invitation of the President of the General Assembly and explored how international cooperation regarding youth could be strengthened (Panel 1) and how challenges to youth development could be addressed (Panel 2). More context and background information is available at the UN Youth Website. [↩]
 - More information on the employment situation of young people is available at http://www.ilo.org/employment/areas/youth-employment/lang-en/index.htm; the most recent data is part of the ILO 2011 Global Employment Trends. [↩]
 - This observation and comment is equally true for the UN General Assembly, where youth representation remains marginal: only 11 of the 193 UN Member States have nominated a youth delegate to the 66th General Assembly - 5.7% of all members (source). [↩]
 - A list of all side events is available at http://social.un.org/youthyear/ (pdf). [↩]
 - The outcome document was submitted by the President of the General Assembly. It had been, as is (all too) common in supranational and intergovernmental cooperation, prepared before the High Level Meeting. The document with the UN reference number A/RES/65/312 is available here as a pdf. [↩]
 - Source: http://www.un.org/events/youth98/yforum98/bragayap.htm [↩]
 - The Council of Europe runs its youth sector through a co-management system: “Representatives from youth non-governmental organisations (NGOs) [are] sitting down in committees with government officials who together then work out the priorities for the youth sector and make recommendations for future budgets and programmes.” More information is available on the website of the Council of Europe. [↩]