UN Meeting on Youth Empowerment Fails to Address Issues

Few young people got to hold the mic at the United Nation’s High Level Meeting on Youth Monday and Tuesday, held at the General Assembly. Despite the hundreds of young people in attendance, speaking privileges remained mostly with older men, who spoke of the importance of involving young people at all levels of government, ensuring gender equity and better access to employment and health care. “Failing to invest in our youth is a false economy,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said.

However, true investment extends beyond words and high profile meetings. Events like this one do not solve today’s problems of 13% unemployment among the young and the problem that nearly 30% of young workers live on less than $1.25 a day.

The issue, though, is that while many of the delegates suggested nations commit to real change and give the 1.8 billion youth — many from developing countries — a better world, few had concrete suggestions or commitments to do so.

In ensuring that youth are prepared and able to steer an ever-complicated world, leaders and bureaucrats must recognize the risk for rebellion and be willing to sacrifice that control, before any meaningful change can occur. Bureaucratic meetings and current frameworks favor the already empowered, and leave those outside the framework with limited voice and opportunity.

There was a telling moment that proves even the UN is not ready for true youth involvement, despite its rhetoric throughout the International Year of Youth: On Monday morning, a young Native American woman, Crystal Lee, began addressing the needs of indigenous youth, only to be interrupted for speaking out of turn. The floor was actually turned over to an older male delegate. Though Lee was permitted to comment later, the imagery remained: A bureaucratic procedure — in this case, the UN’s speakers list — had silenced a young person’s voice.

It is easy for nations and international bodies to clamor for more participation from the young; it is another thing entirely to lend the same group a credible voice. However, bureaucracies must realize what they risk by opening channels for youth at all levels of government. As the mayor of Geneva Pierre Maudet said, “giving young people a voice means risking dissent.” Yesterday’s delegates repeated the importance of engaging youth in local, national, and international governance, but is the world really ready for the young person to disagree? It doesn’t seem so.

The major roadblock to true youth empowerment is that current inroads to policy and politics never favor the young; they favor those already in power. In fact, young generations have changed society drastically in the past through protest and revolt, the Arab Spring the most recent example.

Commentary on how to “help” actually separated in two channels yesterday, split between how the government can aid youth and what youth can do for the government. It is a tricky situation. The roads are intertwined because participation in government leads to more resources — such as jobs, education, and health care — but these building blocks are also needed to gain access to government.

Which is the more effective strategy? I cannot imagine a world that will suddenly redirect significant resources to education, climate change, hunger and disease of the young, when even the U.S. political system is biased towards older needs and concerns. Truly empowering youth starts with ensuring them a voice in governance, from local levels to national and international frameworks. As Moctar Diallo a Civil Society Representative from Senegal pointed out, if the UN values young contributions, it too needs greater young representation.

It begins by changing perceptions of the young and bias that they are lazy, undeserving, or worse, helpless. One speaker said “don’t perceive young people as victims” but “view them as resources for governance.” Others echoed the feeling during the day, with Secretary of the world alliance of YMCAs Romulo Dentas of Brazil saying, “I am not a subject. I am a citizen. I can participate. I can make change.” As yesterday’s meeting showed, there is a big difference between talking with young, participating adults and talking at them.

Photo Credit: UK Parliament