Participation & Governance

The pre-Rio+20 youth conference, the ‘Youth Blast’ fails to ignite. What went wrong?

Published on

More than 3,000 young people were expected to gather in Rio de Janeiro at the Youth Blast ahead of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). But despite a lavish budget, less than 500 people turned up, and what was meant to be an inspiring kick-off event for a youthful and energetic blast ended up as an over-priced breeze. Youth Policy is left wondering: “what went wrong”?

Youth Blast Logo

The organisers of the Youth Blast certainly created high expectations:

Over 3,000 youth were announced to attend the Youth Blast, the Conference of Youth for Rio+20, to strategise and mobilize for, during and after Rio+20. Two Brazilian and three International Days aimed at supporting, strengthening, empowering and uniting the youth movement ahead of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

But while the Brazilian Days were successful, also in terms of (social) media coverage and public perception, the enthusiasm and excitement from these first two days did not carry over to the International Days.

Youth Blast, empty plenary

Even during the main plenary sessions with high-profile speakers such as Marina Silva, the popular Brazilian environmentalist and politician, or Sha Zukang, the Secretary General of Rio+20, there were just a few hundred people present.

At the best of times, the plenary hall—outfitted to seat 1.200 people—stayed 70% empty; the overspill area with hundreds of additional seats stayed empty completely.

Could it be that the youth movement is so disillusioned and frustrated by what is widely believed to be the least prepared and least promising United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development ever?

How can you mobilise anyone, young or not, in the face of

“systematic attempts to weaken—or “bracket”—nearly all references to human rights obligations and equity principles in the text for the outcome of Rio+20?” (Source)

To what extent disillusionment has played a role is hard to tell, but the hollow atmosphere of the Youth Blast, produced by the sheer size and relative emptiness of the convention centre, was certainly amplified by the growing realisation of the attending young people, who were mostly new to the arena of international policy negotations, that no matter what they try, the outcome of Rio+20 will likely be a disappointment.

Severn Suzuki calls upon youth

Against that backdrop, the challenge of Severn Suzuki, who spoke to some 30 participants of the Youth Blast during one of the sessions and called on the new generation of young people to become the most powerful voice at Rio+20, went largely unheard and unheeded, prompting us to ask in return whether young people have given up the fight.

The engagement and enthusiasm of many youth NGOs and activists—from SustainUS and WAGGGS to Adopt a Negotiator and the Youth Climate Coalition—all firmly believing that climate change is the defining issue of our generation and thus doing something about it, suggests though that disillusionment cannot have been the only problem.

Why did the Youth Blast, despite being organised by the Major Group for Children & Youth with support from the United Nations and the Brazilian Government, fail to generate more interest and impact? Why did the Youth Blast, equipped with an initial budget of 500.000 USD, which grew to 750.000 USD, fail to deliver value for money?

We asked the organisers—check our video of the interview below—and got an elusive response about the costs of participation for international participants. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think that the sizable budget could have helped to ease these costs for national and international participants alike, or could have allowed to pay the lunch of those who could and did afford to come, or to deal with most any obstacle faced by organisers and participants successfully.

Logo for the American Power Shift 2011 Event

Budgets of 750.000 dollars have helped youth organisations around the world to organise fantastic events with similar ambitions, such as the Power Shifts of the Youth Climate Movement, one of the most successful formats of youth conferences on climate change and sustainable development.

The last-minute announcement of the Youth Blast has certainly not helped matters much:

  • The first mention of the Youth Blast on the MGCY Facebook page was on May 1.
  • The website was registered on May 22 and went online on May 24.
  • The venue, the SulAmerica Convention Centre, was announced on May 31.
  • The call for e-participation hubs and e-participants was issued on June 4.
  • The draft programme for the international days was published on June 4.

It has been clear since the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 that the next big UN Conference on Sustainable Development would happen in 2012; the UN General Assembly decided in 2009 that this conference will be held in Rio de Janeiro - and the Youth Blast is announced less than six weeks before it is supposed to happen?!

The Youth Blast was so hastily organised and so belatedly advertised that it was not on the agenda of many youth organisations, certainly not timely enough, and as a consequence youth issues now have a hard time to find their way into the already overloaded and gridlocked negotiations.

It would however be all too easy to sweep the criticism of the Youth Blast aside by pointing at the general fatigue of civil society with the United Nations’—and the world’s—lack of progress on sustainable development. Of course, the disturbing pattern of an ever-increasing short-term preparation of global youth events could be conveniently ignored that way, but…

Shouldn’t we much rather ask, honestly and critically, how youth events at a global level should be organised, within and beyond the United Nations system, by UN agencies as well as youth organisations?

Spending more than half a million dollars to create a stale breeze can hardly be the best we can do.

When will there be an event that blows us away again?