– As Prepared-

Statement by H.E. Mrs. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly

5 August 2019

YMCA leaders, members and change agents,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon!

It is such a pleasure to be with you today to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the YMCA.

The energy in this room is fantastic! I don’t want to imply that we don’t see the same levels of enthusiasm at the UN in New York – but, I’m sure my dear friend Jayathma will agree, this is a whole different level.

I’ve just come from a brilliant discussion with some youth leaders, and now I see thousands of you from across the world, all committed to making social justice, peace and equality a reality. I am already inspired!

Over the past few weeks I have been reading a bit about your history: your roots in this country, your humanitarian work during the first and second world wars; your pivotal role in shaping the United Nations from its earliest days in San Francisco in 1945. Your contributions to the fight against Apartheid and racism in all its form, your advocacy on the climate crisis, the work you do on the ground – to help young people living in poverty, with HIV/AIDS, or without access to education.

All of you in this room, and many more watching online, are part of this history. I commend you, and I thank you for what you do every day.

Never underestimate your collective power. You have 65 million members – that’s basically the population of the UK, which is an influential global player. So are you!

Some of you might be thinking – yeah, that’s easy for her to say. But I wasn’t born a politician. I was like you – someone working at the community level, with persons with disabilities, with refugees and migrants.

By working in your communities, you have already taken the first step that I took on my path to the UN. And you don’t need to work for the UN to make a difference. You already have power.

You have power as an activist – you can use your voice, like young people across the world have done on climate change.

You have power as a citizen – politicians are more likely to support the Sustainable Development Goals, for instance, if they think their constituents care about them.

You have power as a consumer. When it comes to issues like plastic pollution – one of my priorities this year – your personal choices can shift the behaviour of companies. I am proud, for example, that we recently made the UN Headquarters single-use plastic free.

And whatever path you choose – doctor or data analyst,  entrepreneur or engineer, biologist or blogger, poet or parent – you can contribute to a safer, fairer and more sustainable world.

We can use our collective power. Whatever our differences, all of us want the same things out of life, more or less: a safe place to live, enough food to eat, a good education, a clean environment, access to healthcare, the freedom and the opportunities to be who want to be.

María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés

President of the UN General Assembly

Dear friends,

We have come a long way since the YMCA was founded in 1844.

Back then, only a handful of countries had a life expectancy of over 40. Today, the global average is over 70 years.

Since 1945, when the UN was established, we have seen dramatic reductions in poverty and the elimination of smallpox. We have seen women gain suffrage in virtually all countries and gender gap close in primary and secondary education – at least at the global level.

And the UN has been a key part of that story: through its peacekeeping missions; through its humanitarian agencies that feed, shelter and protect millions of people every day – I recently visited the Zaatari camp in Jordan, which was a profoundly humbling experience; and through its role as a convener and a platform for states to adopt the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals, which have the potential to transform our world – and save humanity.

We must never forget these achievements when we hear the UN criticized for being a “talk shop”. Apart from anything else, talking is important. We need to talk more. And to listen.

But, as you all know, that is only part of the story.

Across the world, too many people have been left behind.  Six hundred million young people – a third of the total youth population – live in fragile and conflict-affected states.

Young people make up a third of those unemployed globally. And over the next decade or so, we will need to create roughly 40 million jobs per year just to keep pace with the growing population.

Fifteen million girls give birth each year, often due to barriers in accessing information and health services.

Between 90 and 150 million young people have disabilities. Many of them face severe social and economic disparities, in poor and rich countries.  Every five seconds a child dies – mostly from preventable diseases. Every. Five. Seconds.

And too many young people feel their best hope for a better future is to move – from rural to urban areas, or across borders – often risking their lives.

And the gains we have made over the past 70 years are now at risk. Multiple crises – environmental, political, economic and social – are driving conflict and instability around the world.  If carbon emissions don’t peak next year, the climate crisis will lead to even greater chaos.

These problems do not respect borders. They cannot be contained by walls.  Today, a drought in Asia could lead to soaring food prices in Africa. A market crash in Europe could precipitate a global economic downturn.

Our world is getting smaller. Clearly, we need more cooperation, not less. But at a time when the case for multilateralism should be obvious, we are witnessing a rise in nationalist sentiment.

Across the world, many governments are turning inwards, too preoccupied with domestic problems to invest in the global solutions we need. Some are actively trying to undermine our rules-based international order, or to exploit the legitimate grievances of those disadvantaged by unchecked globalization.

People, meanwhile, are losing faith in the ability of institutions to keep them safe and improve their lives.

So what can we do?

We can use our collective power. Whatever our differences, all of us want the same things out of life, more or less: a safe place to live, enough food to eat, a good education, a clean environment, access to healthcare, the freedom and the opportunities to be who want to be.

And the good news is we have, in the SDGs, a blueprint for achieving that vision if only – and it’s a big if – we can all work together. And that is where you come in.

This is the largest generation of young people in history. Between now and 2030 – the deadline we have set ourselves for achieving the SDGs – half the world’s population will be under 30.

Many politicians see this as a problem. And yes, it is not without challenges – many of which you are actively discussing: the future of work, for example. But this is also a great opportunity. 

Your generation is highly educated and creative. You are willing to take risks and to challenge received wisdom. You were born as global citizens of an increasingly interconnected world.

You understand, better than some policy-makers, that the problems we face cannot be solved by one government – or indeed by governments – alone. You are instinctively multilateral. We cannot afford to exclude you from decision-making. We cannot afford not to have you as our partners on the ground.

As President of the General Assembly, I tried hard to ensure that young people are involved in our work. I know that Jayathma is doing everything she can to make the UN less grey! But there is so much more we could do.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The challenge I set for my Presidency was to make the UN more relevant to people. And I ask for your help.

We need your solutions for the challenges we face. We need you to spread the word about the SDGs. And we need you to challenge us, to give us your ideas on how to make the UN more effective, more inclusive, more transparent and accountable.

Next year, the UN will turn 75. And governments have agreed to mark this anniversary not by looking back, but by looking forwards. There will be a Youth Forum next year to discuss “the future we want and the UN we need” – the outcomes will be presented to world leaders at the anniversary summit in September 2020.

And if you’re thinking, well, I’m not going to be able to go to New York, the UN will be initiating dialogues on this theme around the world, and I very much hope that YMCA global, nationally and locally will be part of that conversation.

Finally, I am very aware that if we are asking you to do all of these things, we also need to do more to empower you. That is why my constant refrain to governments is:

Change the narrative on youth from one of problems to one of opportunity. Integrate national youth policies into broader development plans and civic, political and economic activities.  And boost funding for youth programmes. In nearly all countries, the youth sector is under-funded. This includes youth ministries as well as youth organizations and networks.

We need to invest in the capacities, agency and leadership of young people even as we call on them – on you – to work with us to address global challenges.

Dear friends,

At the UN, we often quote former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, who said: the UN was not created to take us to heaven, but to save us from hell.

These words are meant to serve as a bit of a reality check. But whenever I hear them, I think: we can do better. You can do better.

So I wish you all the best for the coming days, and for the future. We are counting on you!

Thank you.