DESA News Vol. 11, No. 8 August 2007


Be seen, be heard Be seen, be heard

Young people everywhere are called upon to participate in the life of society and in decision-making

The world’s 1.2 billion young people are being called upon to stand up and make their voices heard on International Youth Day, which is celebrated on 12 August. The observance is a reminder to youth that their contribution to the development dialogue is valuable, and that their participation matters. To participate means not only to have a seat at the political table, but to play an active role in development by contributing their skills and energy to the improvement of their communities.

The benefit of young people’s political participation has been widely recognized. But youth empowerment for self-development and engagement in economic activities, such as employment, education and entrepreneurship, “has not been stressed enough, although it is vital to advancement of youth and their communities,” says Patience Stephens, UN focal point on youth in the DESA Division for Social Policy and Development. Investing in policies that promote youth employment, for instance, pays off in the fight against extreme poverty and hunger. According to estimates of the International Labour Organization, halving the world’s youth unemployment rate, and thus bringing it in line with the rate for adults, could add as much as $3.5 trillion to global gross domestic product. The largest relative gains would be in sub-Saharan Africa where GDP could improve by as much as 12 to 19 percent.

Boosting decent jobs for youth, those aged 15 to 24, is moreover essential for the sustainability of universal pensions for older persons and unemployment insurance in many countries, the Review of National Action Plans on Youth Employment, a DESA publication, reminds us.

A burgeoning pool of young working poor

Despite the virtuous circle triggered by youth participation in development, too many youth are unemployed or underemployed, between jobs or working in the informal economy, and too many work but are poor. Today’s young people constitute the first generation whose choices in education, training and work are being made against the backdrop of a global economy in which high levels of education are not leading to improved job prospects. “Globalization has increased unemployment, as well as job flexibility and ‘casualization’, which have exacerbated the social exclusion of youth in many contexts,” highlights the Secretary-General in his report on follow-up to the World Programme of Action for Youth.

Globally, youth unemployment has grown from 74 million in 1995 to 89 million people today, according to ILO. However, these official figures only represent the tip of the iceberg as many more millions of youth have been forced to seek a living in the informal economy, often in dangerous circumstances, with no social protection, and working for long hours at very low wages. These individuals form a burgeoning pool of young working poor.

One out of every three youth in the world, says the report, is either seeking but unable to find work, has given up the job search after unsuccessfully compete with a large pool of peers for few jobs, or is working but still living on less than two dollars a day. Barriers to decent jobs for young people stem from a shortage of decent work opportunities, lack of employability, discrimination, forced labour, work in hazardous occupations, extreme poverty, armed conflict, forced migration or poor health and HIV/AIDS.

Incapacity to find a job in early life is far from a harmless footnote in a young person’s transition to adult life, as popular perception sometimes suggest. According to several studies, prolonged lack of work during youth can permanently undermine future prospects for work, future earnings, and access to quality jobs.

The World Programme of Action for Youth adopted by the General Assembly in 1996 called for youth participation “in the life of society and in decision-making,” while world leaders pledged in the Millennium Declaration to “develop and implement strategies that give young people everywhere a real chance to find decent and productive work.” This commitment was later included in the Millennium Development Goals, and embodied in 2000 in the Secretary-General’s Youth Employment Network, a global initiative to facilitate the attainment of this target, with the assistance of ILO, the World Bank and other specialized agencies, and with the participation of young peoples themselves.

The school-to-work transition

The Youth Employment Network promotes young people as an asset – a catalyst for development – rather than as passive beneficiaries for whom employment must be found. “Entrepreneurship, by which the young become their own employers, is an important avenue for youth empowerment,” stresses Ms. Stephens; especially at a time when many young people, even the best educated, find the transition from school to work difficult. Microfinance initiatives in many parts of the developing world have produced largely favourable results. Mexico, for instance, has gone down this path providing support to young men and women in formulating project proposals, obtaining access to finance, and running small enterprises.

Indeed, entrepreneurship, along with employability, equal opportunities and employment creation constitutes one of the four global priorities set by the High Level Panel on Youth Employment, which advises the Secretary-General on the Youth Employment Network. Employability, understood as investment in education and vocational training for young people, is being promoted in different countries. The United Arab Emirates, for example, provides young nationals with training and enhanced career opportunities through a skills development fund.

Providing youth with work experience is also viewed as a key element for preparing them for the world of work. To this end, Japan offers a youth trial employment scheme that provides financial incentives to companies offering short-term on-the-job training to unemployed youth, while Croatia subsidizes employers taking on salaried apprentices and interns. A combination of training and on-the-job experience underpins the German dual-track training system, which has helped keep the youth unemployment rate close to the rate for the general population. The German model has been replicated in different forms to suit national circumstances by many other countries.

Yet according to the High Level Panel, all these efforts to prepare young people for the world of work will be doomed to failure unless matched by measures to stimulate demand and create new job opportunities for the newcomers to the labour market. Macroeconomic policy must have job creation as “a central goal, and not as a by-product” of government policies for investment and economic growth, says the DESA Review of National Action Plans on Youth Employment.

While many countries speak of a “mismatch” between skills and the kinds of labour market opportunities available, “the overall problem of youth employment relates to the inability of most economic policies to create employment opportunities of the quality which responds to the expectations… of young people,” the Review adds. “Rather than asking them to lower their expectations, policymakers should be working to foster employment-intensive economic growth in both quantitative and qualitative terms.”

Coping with HIV/AIDS

Any comprehensive youth development strategy must address the disadvantaged position of vulnerable groups, with an emphasis on participation of women and the poor, recommends Ms. Stephens. All too often, it is women who suffer from poverty and disempowerment, and young women are no exception.

According to Ms. Stephens, the growing burden of HIV-affected households in some parts of the world creates pressure on young people, women in particular, to drop out of school in order to provide financial support or care for their family members. In addition, an estimated 13 million AIDS orphans worldwide – many of whom have become heads of households and breadwinners – are growing up without adequate education and social support to enable them too handle adult roles and responsibilities. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, HIV/AIDS is rising among women, to the extent that 76 percent of youth living with the virus are young women. Due to economic necessity, young people are compelled to join the workforce before they are ready.

Encouragingly, “young people are not complacent and are organizing to confront the issues. Increasingly, they want to be seen and be heard,” says Ms. Stephens. The International Youth Day in New York will spotlight Young Professionals for International Cooperation, an NGO that carried out a campaign in which youth helped youth by building schools for AIDS orphans in Africa. Thousands of Caribbean youth – nearly 60,000 in Honduras and Guatemala alone – have learned how to protect themselves from HIV, thanks to an initiative supported by UNFPA and other partners.

The initiative encouraged governments and NGOs in the region to give greater priority to this important social issue. HIV prevalence rates in the Caribbean are the second highest in the world, after sub-Saharan Africa. Most importantly, the project engaged youth in a variety of imaginative ways: In Guyana, awareness was promoted through training of 160 disc jockeys and production of music CDs containing prevention messages. In Costa Rica, on its part, the project helped put in place alliances among 42 organizations and trained more than 1,000 youth volunteers. Similar youth-led initiatives have flourished all over the world in recent years.

ICT: power tool of the young

Many of the initiatives led by youth take advantage of information and communication technologies, which young people tend to use with ease. These are becoming “truly hubs for the communication and social networking of youth,” explains Ms. Stephens. A presentation on using the internet for youth-led development will be delivered at the International Youth Day in New York. The event will provide examples from an international youth-led network empowered by technology to show how youth can use the internet to take action in their local and global communities.

As a positive note, the fact youth are for the most part technologically savvy increases their chances of harnessing the benefits of globalization. In addition to access to knowledge, ICT is opening up new options education such as e-learning and distance education. The World Youth Report 2007, scheduled for release in October, will show how ICT has improved access to schooling in several Asian countries. In China, for example, there are more than 2,700 radio and television universities offering 18,000 classes. Provisional statistics from UNDP suggest that there may be up to 10 million graduates of these universities.

While globalization may have facilitated the spread of technology, too many youths are on the wrong side of the digital divide, according to the Secretary-General report, and therefore fail to unable to reap the benefits of technology access.

Alternative forms of political activism

While information and communication technologies are said to have increased opportunities for political participation, many youth still feel that their views are disregarded by the adult world. This had led to disaffection in many countries, with apathy towards formal political processes translating into low electoral turnout. In a 2004 survey of Latin America, only 56 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 said they would choose democracy to authoritarianism or other forms of government – far cry from far from the political fervor that once characterized the region. As the World Youth Report 2007 indicates, “too many young people feel that their views do not matter, that they cannot influence outcomes, and that democracy does not work for them.”

Cynicism and lack of active engagement in existing political structures, however, does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest in political issues. Sometimes, according to the World Youth Report 2007, when youth do participate they are “more inclined to engage in non-conventional forms of political activism,” mirroring the degree to which they feel unrepresented.

Youth participation for development can take many forms. In one of the presentations to be made at the International Youth Day observance in New York, for example, a member of a student-led organization that mobilize universities and coordinates a national student network on the Millennium Development Goals, will show how young people can make a contribution to development that is constructive, visible, and engaging.

For more information on the UN programme on youth, including the World Programme of Action for Youth:

The geographical name game The geographical name game

With tens of thousands of unrecorded place names, and variations aplenty, the question “Where are you from?” may not be so easy to answer after all

The oldest city of South Africa is Cape Town. It is also Kaapstad, eKapa, Le Cap, Kapstadt and Kapkaupunki. Which of these names is correct? Which are in current use? Place names may vary due to language, Romanization methods, even politics, but successful communication depends on an appropriate use of names on maps, in the media, and in legal documents. At the ninth United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, which opens on 21 August in New York, experts from around the world will gather for ten days to discuss the myriad challenges of promoting accuracy and consistency in nomenclature.

While it is tempting to think of the globe as Terra Cognita, in fact many places have names known only to the local people, or are so new that gazetteers and cartographers have a hard time keeping up. In China alone, rapid development is generating more than 20,000 new urban names every year. Meanwhile, in nearby Indonesia about half of the 17,000 islands making up the archipelago have not yet been labeled on maps. The government has had to embark on an intensive field survey, visiting each of the islands to ask locals how they refer to their own home.

More than a curiosity, lives and livelihoods depend on knowledge of local geography and availability of a reliable toponymy to match. In Pakistan, provision of humanitarian aid to the victims of the 2005 earthquake was delayed by lack of information on inhabited areas, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Not surprisingly, OCHA has expressed the need for a global toponymic database to address urgent humanitarian needs. Tensions can also arise from changes in usage linked to political developments, boundary changes, or recognition of local customs that call common toponyms into question.

The need for reliable, authoritative and accessible toponymic data, which is common to each of these examples, provides “great opportunities, but for most, also many challenges and issues,” recognizes Helen Kerfoot, Chairperson of the UN Group of Experts on Geographical Names which will meet on 20 and 31 August, immediately before and after the main event. The Conference and the expert group meeting will give participants a chance to discuss problems of authorizing, storing, and disseminating geographic information in an easy to access and timely fashion. About 300 representatives from 100 countries are expected to take part, among them diplomats, senior officials from national surveying and mapping institutions, scientists and academics.

Asserting national authority

Experts will deal with the technical problems involved in the domestic standardization of geographical names, and will prepare draft recommendations for the procedures, mainly linguistic, that might be followed in the standardization of their own names by individual countries. But what does “standardization of geographical names” mean? According to the UN Group of Experts Manual for the National Standardization of Geographical Names, published by DESA, determining and selecting the best or most appropriate place names in their written form is the answer. “Standardization means being consistent, having a systematic approach in recognizing names used within countries, an approach based on formalized rules,” says Ms. Kerfoot. These rules can be modified with experience and as needs evolve.

A nation’s people regard geographical names as an essential part of their cultural heritage. The UN experts recommend creating a national names authority in each country to establish and record official place names, rather than relying on nongovernmental or international map-makers, atlas publishers and gazetteers. According to Ms. Kerfoot, “Having a single names authority avoids overlapping work among government departments which do not have a clear authority to say how a name should be spelled.” And, she adds, such authorities could play an important part in preserving the oral tradition of indigenous people and minority groups.

That said, the conditions for standardization will depend on the resources and organization of each government, the number of languages involved and the cultural or political relationships within and among regions of a country. No two countries with effective programmes approach standardization in the same way and their organization, principles, policies and procedures vary widely. According to the standardization manual, no one method is preferred to than another as long as each sets “consistently written names that are nationally accepted and agree with local spoken and written usage.”

Fifty countries currently have some form of national authority on names. In some cases, decisions on names are handled by national governments, while in others provinces or states may register official names under the guidance of a central committee, as is the case in Australia, Canada, and Malaysia. National standardization is the cornerstone on which international standardization is based, Ms. Kerfoot reminds us. “Clearly a UN goal is that every country have such a mechanism in place and can provide their names data for international use.”

Standardization of geographical names in developed countries certainly did not occur overnight. It is an expensive proposition requiring a great deal of time and effort. Yet developing countries do not need to walk the same path, says Yacob Zewoldi, head of the Statistical and Geographic Conferences Unit in the Statistics Division in DESA. They can study the experiences of other countries to find shortcuts, and they can take advantage of the support provided by the UN Group of Experts. Mozambique, which has recently hosted two training courses on geographical names with the assistance of the expert group, is a case in point.

The role of names in development

In Mozambique, some place names are written in Portuguese but not in the local language, marked in the wrong place, or not marked on maps at all, a situation that is common in low-income countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Given the continent’s 2,000 languages and dialects and limited government budgets, standardization of geographical names is seriously hampered “either by lack of resources, lack of expertise or both,” says Mr. Zewoldi.

In sub-Saharan Africa, there are obviously more pressing needs than a set of good maps, but standardization of place names is crucial for air travel, road transport, and inter-jurisdictional exchange, all preconditions for expanded trade, which can, under the right conditions, spur development and fight poverty.

“For the good of humanity, toponyms certainly do not rank as highly as clean water or health,” says Ms. Kerfoot, “but do contribute to the well-being of society if they are well known, unambiguous and can contribute to the infrastructure for rural and urban planning, risk management, postal and services delivery, mine removal, etc.” Geographical names are pivotal to presenting the practical results of spatial data analysis and interpretation in such areas as tsunami warnings, danger of forest fires, loss of natural habitat and climate change vulnerability. In all those cases, clear place names are essential to the planning and provision of emergency and humanitarian aid.

Jumping on board the Internet

Today, the massive use of Internet and other multimedia tools to disseminate information and growing demand on cartographic services face experts on geographical names with important challenges. “Although technological advances in communications have given us a great boost,” acknowledges Ms. Kerfoot, “the new environment is certainly demanding: there are bigger expectations to meet.” Geographical names can now be shared and used around the world. Last year, an estimated one hundred million people across the globe used Google Earth, a virtual planet drawn from the superimposition of images obtained from satellite imagery and aerial photography on a three-dimensional globe within a geographic information system.

Three years ago, the Group of Experts on Geographical Names recommended the development of a global data storage system to collect, manage and disseminate names of countries and major cities in the world with a population of more than 100,000. As a result, the Statistics Division in DESA, which houses the secretariat of the Expert Group, will be releasing a global database prototype at the conference in a multilingual, multi-scriptural and geo-referenced format. In the database, names for places in the world link to a map, so that information on names, spelling and pronunciation can be accessed, including links to standardized forms. Websites of national governments can have links to the new UN database, providing countries and general users with a reliable and consistent source of information on geographical names.

Yet this much broader audience only enhances the need to give a greater impulse to the standardization process, stresses Ms. Kerfoot. The relatively unreliable nature of place names on the web is a weak point. For this reason, the Group of Experts on Geographical Names is working with Google Earth to ensure that reliability on geographical names is at the heart of the services offered by this application. A pilot project between the two is being set in motion.

The UN Group of Experts on Geographical Names is correcting inaccurate place names contained in Google Earth, starting with Finland’s geographical names. This country has claimed that about thirty percent of Finnish toponyms in Google Earth contain some kind of error due in large part to the omission of names that have been approved in more than one language (Finnish, Swedish and Saami), and the misrepresentation of characters in the written forms of names in these languages. The Conference on Standardization of Geographical Names will be also hearing a presentation by a representative of Google Earth. “We have to jump on board rather than pretending that Google Earth does not exist,” Ms. Kerfoot underlines. “We clearly want to work with them. We do not want geographical names to be the best kept secret, but rather to make them as well known and accessible as possible.”

Complete information on the Conference, and the UN Group of Experts on Geographical Names, can be found at:

Mr. Ban Ki-moon

Lack of progress on MDGs requires action

On 31 July, Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom joined Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his call for action to meet the Millennium Development Goals. According to Mr. Brown, millions of lives are at stake in what amounts to a development emergency.

Webcast: (38 minutes)
Audio summary: (1 minute)