Mr. Wu Hongbo Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Secretary-General for the International Conference on Small Island Developing States

Remarks at the Chinese University of Hong Kong

Mr President,
Dear Students,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be here with you.

Hong Kong has a special place in my heart. I lived and worked here for quite a number of years and I admire and love the innovative and can-do spirit of Hong Kong residents.

I am delighted to address a young and vibrant audience of college students, and share some aspects of the work of the United Nations in the important area of social development.

I am going to focus my talk today on the critical role of social development in the promotion of equality in opportunities, notably with regard to employment, education, participation, and, more generally, the realization of one’s potential and aspirations. 

The essential role of social development in advancing a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world is rooted in the founding of the United Nations.  The UN Charter, right on its opening page, pledges to employ international institutions for the social and economic advancement of all peoples.

Heads of State and Government deepened their commitment to social development at the World Summit for Social Development, held in 1995 in Copenhagen. Never before had so many world leaders joined together in solidarity to set a shared agenda. One that commits to improving the situation of the world’s people, particularly the poorest and marginalized.

Five years later, in 2000, building on commitments made at the Social Summit, Governments endorsed the Millennium Development Goals. These goals have galvanized global and national action towards eradicating poverty, improving education and health and addressing challenges to the global environment.

Over the past decade, the Millennium Development Goals have made a huge impact in the lives of millions of people. In fact, the world has already met its target of cutting in half the extent of extreme poverty, and of people without access to safe drinking water.

In addition, the attendance of girls in primary schools is now equal to that of boys, at the global level. And, ten years ahead of schedule, the lives of 100 million slum dwellers have benefited from improved efforts. And progress in improving child survival has accelerated.

Despite these successes, levels of inequality are holding back many of the advances made in the MDG targets.  For instance, inequalities are especially high in access to improved sanitation facilities. Low coverage occurs mostly in the poorest countries, and overwhelmingly in rural areas, where women face added hazards and burdens.  In some areas, girls cannot go to school because of lack of basic sanitation facilities at school.

We as a society also face enormous challenges in addressing the threat of climate change, which knows no bounds as it batters forests, fisheries, and biodiversity, and threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions, in particular in small island developing States.

As we approach the 2015 deadline to achieve these Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations is working very hard to develop a framework that will take us beyond 2015.

The many stakeholders involved in these discussions agree that the new development agenda must address emerging challenges in the three pillars that make up sustainable development. Social development is one of the three, together with economic growth, and environmental protection.

All three pillars – social, economic and environmental – must be equally strong in order to help each other survive.  If one pillar is too weak, the other two will eventually collapse. This was made evident in the outcome document of the most recent United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which was held in Rio de Janeiro.  The document is aptly called “The Future We Want”.

As young students with hopes and aspirations, you may be pleased to hear that the Secretary-General of the United Nations has made working with, and for young people, one of the top priorities of his second term.

Putting youth so prominently on the Secretary-General’s agenda has never been more timely. With over 1.2 billion young people in the world today, we are witness to the largest population of youth the world has ever known.

As young students, you are well aware of the unique challenges faced by today’s youth. We urgently need to address the job crisis and respond to demands for young people’s rights to be respected, and their voices to be heard.

It is with these concerns in mind that the Secretary-General appointed a new Envoy on Youth. Mr Ahmad Alhendawi, from Jordan, has been welcomed not only from United Nations Member States, but by youth organizations and young people themselves. We now have an additional channel through which youth voices can be heard.

As part of his Action Agenda, the Secretary-General has initiated preparation of a UN system wide action plan on youth. Specific areas will be addressed, including employment, entrepreneurship, political inclusion, citizenship and protection of rights, as well as education, including health education.

Work on this important initiative is well underway, and over 13,000 young people from 183 countries contributed to its development, via an online survey. Indeed, the United Nations is working harder than ever before to include the voices of young people in its work.

The Secretary-General also highlighted the value of youth volunteerism, in announcing the establishment of a UN youth volunteer corps.  Volunteerism benefits both society at large and individual development by strengthening trust, solidarity and reciprocity among citizens. It also provides access to non-formal education. When youth have the opportunity to invest in their own societies, to become responsible partners in improving their communities, we all benefit.

More information is available on the website –

Indeed the newly appointed Envoy on Youth has reiterated that not only is he an Envoy for the Secretary-General on Youth, but that he also considers himself an Envoy to the Secretary-General. He is a messenger, bringing young people’s concerns directly to the Secretary-General. This two way dialogue cuts to the heart of meaningful and effective involvement of youth.

In many countries across the Asia-Pacific region, youth councils have been developed and Model United Nations entities have been established to encourage participation of young people.

In March 2011, the World Model United Nations was held in Singapore to enhance networking between young people. This builds capacity to help articulate their views on issues of international concern. Similar activities are regularly held in many countries across Asia and the Pacific.

Without a doubt, it is crucial that young people’s voices are heard, that you are part of the dialogue, that you are part of the solution.

Dear Friends,

Let me now turn to the issue of employment. As young students, the prospect of entering into a bleak labour market is a heavy weight on your shoulders.

Globally young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. The impact of the past global financial crisis has significantly exacerbated youth vulnerabilities in the labour market. Young people account for almost half of the jobless population in Asia and the Pacific.

Looking at the numbers, according to the International Labour Organization, the number of jobseekers is expected to rise to more than 210 million over the next five years.

Yet, it is not even just a question of finding employment. It is also a question of finding decent work.

Across the globe, millions of young people are forced to take up work in unsafe conditions, with limited rights. They often hold short term contracts or no contracts at all, with few benefits and little job security.

These precarious working conditions jeopardize young people’s future. The chances of establishing financial security, of settling down to have families, and ultimately of prospering and living long and happy lives, are at risk.

We need to develop better opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. We need to facilitate young entrepreneurs’ access to the credit that they urgently need to see their ideas come to life. 

We need more apprenticeship programmes. Educational institutions, employers and governments need to work together to provide youth on-the-job training and experience that is so crucial when looking for work.

To find out from young people themselves about their challenges and concerns, we asked young people for their views. The results of this survey, published in our 2011 World Youth Report, underscored one critical challenge – the mismatch between education and the labor market.

You can learn more about the findings of this report at our website at:

This brings me to the most fundamental subject, which is education.

Unfortunately, in many countries, educational systems are failing to teach young people the necessary skills to participate in the work place. Moreover, too many young people are leaving education with skills that are inadequate to the task.

How to address this? Learning and curriculum development are critical elements, as you know. And this means teacher training and teacher recruitment should be a national priority.

While formal education is important, in Asia, traditional apprenticeships and on-the-job training appear to be the more prevalent routes toward skill development among the majority of youth. In this request, vocational education is very important for populous countries in Asia and Africa.

Certainly, we have made important progress in providing education. For example, enrolment in tertiary education has grown more than five-fold over the past four decades. There are now some 165 million students enrolled in tertiary education, and another 530 million in secondary education.

However, gaps remain. Still, in a number of countries, girls and young women have more limited educational opportunities than boys and young men, particularly at the secondary level.

Migrants, persons with disabilities, refugees and indigenous youth all face greater challenges in acquiring an education that will provide them decent job opportunities.

Around 39 million girls are missing out on secondary education. Girls from poor families, rural areas, urban slums and ethnic and language minorities are much less likely to complete full education cycles.

Barriers to female education in Asia and the Pacific include negative attitudes toward female education in general, the burden of household work, and long journeys to school.

Some 127 million youth lack basic literacy skills. Two thirds of the world’s illiterate persons are women. Investing in girls and women’s education is the most important tool for eradicating poverty, and for achieving social justice. Now is the time to make a concerted effort to address the very real issue of inequality in education.

Education is not only a basic right for individuals. It is the best investment for development, poverty eradication and creative, productive and peaceful societies.

Of course there are a variety of ways young people can actively participate, including through new ICTs and social media.

From Twitter to Facebook, young men and young women have proven their role as being transformative agents of change.

The increase of social media and networking platforms has primarily been driven by young entrepreneurs and users. Social media is playing a critical role in our societies, ranging from attention to political participation and institutional accountability, to the use of cell phones as health advisor, bank teller, weather forecaster, and many more.

ICTs have also a fundamental role to play when it comes to education, providing us with new opportunities to learn and find information. It also provides employment, and prospects for entrepreneurships.

We have been making important progress, but more work is needed. The unequal distribution of broadband infrastructure persists, which greatly limits access to ICTs, with far-reaching impacts.

Let me now briefly provide you with a brief insight into other areas of social development in which the United Nations is engaged, such as population ageing, indigenous issues and persons with disabilities. 

Let me start with addressing another issue that is undergoing dramatic change, and that is the increasing number of older persons in the global population.

Back in 1980, well before many of you were born, the First World Assembly on Ageing was convened. At that time, there were 378 million older persons globally. Today, 30 years later, older persons have more than doubled in number, to 827 million. By the way, for demographic reasons, the United Nations defines older persons as 60 and older.

By 2030 – in less than 20 years – it is projected that there will be more people over 60 than children under 10. You may be interested to know that more than half of the total number of older persons in the world live in Asia.

We are working hard to encourage governments to partner with, and involve you, as young people, to exchange knowledge and ideas to contribute to building societies for All.

What does this mean? A society for all is where older persons can age with dignity and security, where ageing is not viewed as a ‘burden’ on society, where discrimination based on age is not tolerated, and where the human rights of persons regardless of age are equally respected. 

Let me now talk briefly on matters related to indigenous peoples. There are some 370 million indigenous peoples in the world. This is about five percent of the global population. However, they account for 15 per cent of the world’s poor, and one third of the world’s rural poor people.

Indigenous peoples suffer from poor access to healthcare and education. They are frequently discriminated against and their human rights violated. Their cultures and languages are under threat.

An overwhelming majority of the world’s 6,000 languages is indigenous. Think about that. Every two weeks a language becomes extinct when the last speaker of the language dies. We must work closely with indigenous peoples to learn from them and protect the world’s rich diversity.

The United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. It contains minimum standards for their survival, dignity and well-being, and it affirms the urgent need to respect and promote the inherent rights of indigenous peoples.

Before closing, I wish to turn my remarks to the critical work the United Nations is doing to enhance the lives of persons with disabilities.

Since its beginning, the United Nations has been working toward the common goal of a society and development that is inclusive of persons with disabilities. Why? Because development cannot be sustainable when one billion persons with disabilities – including millions of youth with disabilities – live in poverty and face exclusion and multiple barriers, including stigma and discrimination.

To address these challenges, in September later this year, the United Nations General Assembly will convene a High-Level Meeting on Disability and Development. This meeting will address ways to make the commitment of inclusive society and development a reality for all persons with disabilities.

I count on your support to become an advocate for change, and to make the world a better one also for persons with disabilities.

Thank you for your time, and I wish you all a bright future.