The Economic and Social Council opened its eighth annual Youth Forum today under the theme “Empowered, Included and Equal”, with youth delegates and Governments alike sharing ideas for ensuring that the benefits of a globalized world — from technological advancement and better connectivity to increased flows of people, finance and goods — unleash the potential of its 1.2 billion young people.
Opening the two-day event with a keynote address, Yolanda Joab, Founder and Executive Director of Island Promoting Resilience through Involvement, Development and Education, or PRIDE, said it is often difficult to relate to these words because voices such as her own are not always empowered, included or equal. To understand, one must start with what it is to be disempowered, marginalized and unequal.
As a 20-something indigenous, brown and proud young woman, she embodies many things that make some feel uncomfortable, she said. But, she is here today to cross comfort zones — “because progress does not happen any other way”. Hers is one voice in an anthem of warriors, united in that common pursuit. Spanning the battles against climate change, abuse and poverty, there is a simple connecting truth: “We still believe in better.”
She said the Sustainable Development Goals stem from that premise, and no one is more eager to act on the gift of hope — “in all its beautiful audacity” — than young people. She encouraged participants to keep believing, rising and uplifting others so that all young people are empowered, included and equal.
Jayathma Wickramanayake, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Youth, agreed that while globalization has led to remarkable advances, it has also deepened inequality — and many young people are being left behind. “This has been a factor in reducing trust in political establishments, and in rising populism,” she said.
Yet, young people have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to carry on “no matter what”. She had met young Rohingya refugees, an HIV-positive woman in Uzbekistan who fights discrimination and a young Swedish woman who launched school strikes to protest climate change — all of whom remind the world that young people are the motor keeping life going. With the right investments, this potential can be multiplied 1.8 million times over, she declared.
Turning to the work ahead, General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador) said the task this year is especially important, as discussions will feed into both the September Sustainable Development Goals summit and the Secretary-General’s Climate Change Summit.
They will also feed into the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in July, which will review progress made on six Goals, said Economic and Social Council President Inga Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines). “You are well placed to know whether the [Goals] are bringing improvements in your daily lives,” she said. “I urge you to assess where we stand and mobilize together to move us forward.”
Throughout the afternoon, the Youth Forum held breakout sessions to discuss key regional priorities for implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, and in parallel, thematic sessions on five Goals that will be under review in the Forum: Goal 4 (quality education), Goal 8 (inclusive growth and decent work), Goal 10 (reduced inequalities), Goal 13 (climate action) and Goal 16 (peaceful societies). It also held an interactive round-table discussion on “Youth 2030: Working with and for Youth People”, featuring ministers, high-level speakers and youth organization representatives.
The Youth Forum will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, 9 April, to conclude its work.
INGA RHONDA KING (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), President of the Economic and Social Council, opened the Forum recalling that this year’s focus is on the empowerment of young people, with an emphasis on inclusivity and equality. To create a more sustainable world, young people require the skills, values and jobs that empower them to contribute to sustainable development. “Our presence today reflects our concerted efforts — and determination — to ensure that you are fully vested in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” she said.
Indeed, there is an urgent need to address today’s defining challenges: access to quality education, unemployment, inequality, social exclusion and climate change. “We are all in this together,” she said, as such problems know no borders and can only be addressed through multilateralism. Over the next two days, the Forum will focus on the Sustainable Development Goals that will be under review in the July High-Level Political Forum: Goal 4 (quality education), Goal 8 (inclusive growth and decent work), Goal 10 (inequalities), Goal 13 (climate action), Goal 16 (peaceful societies) and Goal 17 (means of implementation) — all of which are critical for empowering young people. While there are signs of progress, evidence is emerging that the world is not on track to meeting many of the Goals by 2030. “You are well placed to know whether the [Goals] are bringing improvements in your daily lives. I urge you to assess where we stand and mobilize together to move us forward,” she said, encouraging participants to express their creative ideas, plans and vision for realizing the 2030 Agenda.
MARÍA FERNANDA ESPINOSA GARCÉS (Ecuador), President of the General Assembly, said that, since its inception in 2012, the Forum has become one of the United Nations most important tools to help young people drive the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. “This year your task is especially important,” she said, noting that their discussions will feed into both the September Sustainable Development Goals summit and the Secretary-General’s climate change summit. “These events cannot be talk shops, and they cannot be photo ops,” she stressed. Noting the economic benefits of climate smart action are estimated at $26 trillion by 2030, she called for truly inclusive intergenerational action to unleash such economic potential. “There is no limit it what this generation […] can deliver,” she said. And while young people are right to be impatient, angry even, at older generations, she stressed that people of all ages must work together to deliver on their commitments.
Underlining the need for more jobs, better jobs and greener jobs, she noted that some 64 million young people are currently unemployed and more than twice that number live on less than $1.90 per day. Later this week, she will convene a high-level meeting on the future of work, with the crucial participation of young people. Noting that many conflict-affected and fragile States are struggling to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, she said such countries are also home to about one third of all young people. The discussion Tuesday on youth, peace and security will therefore be fruitful. “You are key actors in our shared struggle for a fairer and more equal planet,” she said, pledging to work with them towards the delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals. “The 2030 Agenda is not only a shared ambition, it is our joint plan of action — so let’s go to work,” she stressed.
JAYATHAMA WICKRAMANAYAKE, Special Envoy of the Secretary-General on Youth, expressed regret that many invitees were not able to attend this year’s Forum due to difficulties in obtaining the necessary visas. “This is truly regretful, as the world today needs to see more solidarity, engagement and opportunities for exchange across border and cultures, rather than less,” she said, stressing that is especially true for young people. Citing several 2019 milestones, she said it is the first year when Heads of State and Government will come together to collectively review progress against the Sustainable Development Goals. Meanwhile, the International Labour Organization (ILO) turns 100 years old, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) marks its fiftieth year and the International Conference on Population and Development is observing its twenty‑fifth anniversary.
Describing climate change as the most systemic risk facing the world today — as underscored by the dramatic impact of extreme weather events including recent wildfires in California and floods in Mozambique — she recalled that the Secretary-General identified youth mobilization as one of the priorities for his September Climate Summit while also calling on leaders to “come with a plan” instead of a speech. Within the Organization itself, the Secretary-General’s Youth 2030 strategy seeks to unify all United Nations agencies, funds, programmes and departments in support of delivering on the common vision of a world in which the human rights of every young person is realized and in which youth are recognized for their positive contributions as change agents. Outlining the components of that strategy, she said the inputs of young people are especially important in the United Nations reform process.
Describing several groups in particular need of the United Nations support, she spotlighted the 260 million young people who are not in school; the 65 million who are unemployed; the millions of young women and girls who are married or become mothers as children; and the huge numbers who are willing to risk their lives to find a better future by taking on the challenge of migration. While globalization and technological progress have led to remarkable advances, they have generated increased inequality and many, including many young people, are being left behind. “This has been a factor in reducing trust in political establishments, and in rising populism,” she said.
Citing her many visits with young people around the world, she said youth have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to carry on, unbroken and with a sense of pride, in the face of obstacles. “Young Rohingya refugees have shown me that, despite their dismal circumstances, young people are the motor of keeping life going, no matter what,” she said, also spotlighting the work of a young HIV‑positive woman in Uzbekistan who fights discrimination and the young Swedish woman who launched school strikes to protest climate change. “With the right investments, this potential can be multiplied 1.8 million times over — the number of young people that the world holds today,” she stressed, warning that without youth no sustainable development or lasting peace can be achieved.
YOLANDA JOAB, Founder and Executive Director of Island Promoting Resilience through Involvement, Development and Education, or PRIDE — emphasizing the words empowered, included and equal — said it can be difficult to relate to these words, because voices such as her own have not always been empowered, included or equal. To discuss what it is to be empowered, the discussion must start with what it is to be disempowered, marginalized and unequal, often trapped in a culture of silence. As a 20-something indigenous, brown and proud young woman, she embodies many things that make some feel uncomfortable. But, she is here today to cross comfort zones — “because progress does not happen any other way, by doing business as usual”. It happens when the marginalized become included and everyone realizes their universal right to equality.
In the place she calls home, she greets the mother ocean every morning and her children will learn how to fish. Where she is from, the connection between people and place is a code people still live by. In these places, climate change has come to call first. Eventually, everyone will need to address such problems as food security, water security, relocation and both coastal and cultural erosion — “things we have to answer to now”. The question is: “Are you only going to act on this when it comes for the places that you call home?”, she asked. Hers is but one voice in an anthem of warriors, united in that common pursuit. In all battles against climate change, abuse and poverty, there is a simple connecting truth: “We still believe in better.”
She said the global community set the Sustainable Development Goals from a belief that better is possible. Despite all the ugliness she has seen, she has also seen hope — “in all its beautiful audacity”. No one is more eager to act on this gift like young people, who, no matter how many times they are knocked over, get up. As a generation, they make the decision to be bigger and tougher each day, teaching, creating, imagining and marching because “we believe in better”. Young people speak up for things they know they will be knocked down for. “We can’t wait for permission to lead tomorrow. We deserve action now,” she said.
Stressing that no one will reimagine the world like a young person with imagination or dream as fearlessly as a young person who is not afraid yet, she said discussions in the coming days must be equally as bold. Decisions in the High-Level Political Forum in July and the Climate Summit in September must be bound to the belief in better, increasing space for young people to participate in decisions at all levels, particularly those from the Pacific, as one cannot talk about climate change without talking with those affected by it first. For youth back home watching, “they need to believe in us as much as we believe in them”, she said, encouraging youth participants to keep believing, keep rising, remembering to uplift others so that together, young people can all be empowered, included and equal.
The Forum then began an interactive round‑table discussion on “Youth 2030: Working with and for Young People”. Moderated by Ms. Wickramanayake, it featured ministers, other high-level speakers and youth organization representatives.
IRADE KASHGARY, major group for children and youth, said members of her community are persecuted in China because of who they are and where they are born. In the past, her land was lush and green, and people coexisted with their neighbours. Born of a convergence of many cultures, her community comprises scholars and leaders. But, an estimated 2 million Uighurs have been forced to give up their traditions. More than 12 million live in fear because of their identity, with children sent to orphanages while they still have living, caring parents. Equality empowerment and inclusion stem from tolerance and just institutions. As a young woman whose family fled persecution, she stands in solidarity with young people around the world who grapple with a sense of identity in a world that favours the rich and the powerful. “We Uighurs want to do more,” she said.
The Minister of State for Youth of Singapore described efforts to engage 8,000 young people on such issues as definitions of success, sustainability and mental well‑being. Many young people expressed their views and worked to shape solutions. “We know they want to move from conversation to action,” she said, describing the Singapore Youth Action Plan, which aims to develop a youth vision by 2025, building on past engagements, as well as on research and data, identifying opportunities for youth to partner with Governments, communities and businesses. She cited the Sommerset Youth Belt on Orchard Road that aims to co‑create a plan for a “youth belt” as a space to support social action.
LUSINE KALLON, Deputy Minister for Youth Affairs of Sierra Leone, said he is here today as the youngest Deputy Minister in that capacity since 1961, an opportunity stemming from the President’s commitment to empower young people. Forty per cent of the top appointees are young people, who consult with other youth in realizing the 2030 Agenda and the African Youth Agenda 2063. Noting that Sierra Leone is working to create a world where the human rights of all young people are realized, he said the 2016 Youth Service Act is being implemented from a belief that human capital is key. The Government engages youth through workshops and seminars, while the development plan for 2019‑2023 aims to increase youth empowerment by 15 per cent with special attention to gender equality. It also aims to ensure that the national youth services are fully operational.
TRINE RASK THYGESEN, State Secretary for Development Policy of Denmark, described tools to include young people in decision-making “not because it’s nice, but because we need to”. She described an expanded youth delegates’ programme, a network of global youth advisers working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and a tool-kit for mainstreaming young people into the embassy. She then passed the floor to a youth delegate who described a project in Morocco, where young Danes are working with young Moroccan decision-makers to create opportunities for engagement through youth-to-youth training. “We are young people working with and for other young people,” he said, a trademark of the Danish Youth Council’s efforts. “If you want to focus on us, you need to invite us in,” he said. “You need to work with us as equal partners in development.”
ASHRAF SOBHY, Minister for Youth and Sport of Egypt, said his country’s Vision 2030 strategy provides a road map for inclusive sustainable development. Egypt’s wide youth demographic — representing some 65 per cent of its population — is a major constituent in that process and cannot be ignored, he stressed, noting that the Government is ensuring the full engagement of young people. In particular, work is under way to bridge skills gaps in the Egyptian labour market by training young people in technological arenas; boost youth participation in sports and cultural programmes; and empower young women. In addition, he said, a quota has been established for young people to sit on the boards of various organizations.
JULIANE BOGNER-STRAUß, Minister for Women, Family and Youth Affairs of Austria, said that, wherever citizens feel directly involved, positive results are registered. In that vein, she recalled that a new European Youth strategy was introduced in 2018 under Austria’s presidency. It focuses, among other things, on the protection and promotion of human rights, good governance, the rule of law and security. “It is time not only to listen to young people, but to let them actively shape policies that affect them and the future they want to live in,” she said.
NATALIE DANIELA HAAS, youth delegate from Austria, expressed frustration about leaders who warn young people to be patient and realistic while seeking to accomplish their crucial goals. “Don’t be realistic, don’t ask for patience — be bold, take action, take responsibility and empower us,” she stressed, adding that nothing “about us” should be undertaken “without us”.
Participants then turned their attention to a discussion of individual Sustainable Development Goals, offering national perspectives on their achievement and work that remains to be done.
On Sustainable Development Goal 4 on “ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” the representative of France said the Government provides free childcare, breakfast and other services to children in need. France also works alongside other countries to support Ministries of Youth — as well as the development of educational and work opportunities — for young people around the world.
The representative of the major group for children and youth said that, despite significant progress in expanding education to young people around the world, some 260 million are still out of school and many more do not have a quality education. In 2018, countries signed the Brussels Declaration through which they committed to various actions relating to the right to inclusive quality education and the fundamental role of education, training, life‑long learning, higher education and research as key drivers for sustainable development. The current meeting is another chance for participants to engage towards that goal, she said, expressing hope that, throughout the Forum, young people will help drive that important mission forward.
LALINIE GOPAL, Minister for Sport and Youth Affairs of Suriname, said her country developed its youth programmes based largely on the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) Youth Ambassador Programme. To implement Goal 4, the Government provides school packages to children and families in need, helping them to perform more successfully in the classroom. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs supports teenagers in such areas as technical and vocational training and helps to promote a healthy lifestyle. “Our world keeps on changing every day and so do all the challenges that come with it,” she said, calling on leaders to empower youth with the skills and resources needed to tackle those evolving challenges.
ALEXANDER BUGAEV, Head of the Federal Agency for Youth Affairs of the Russian Federation, said his ministry seeks to develop the talent of young people in a wide range of arenas. Spotlighting the importance of volunteering in that respect, he said youth organizations in the Russian Federation are exempt from taxes while they perform volunteer work. Young people’s social organizations, which play another crucial role, are also actively supported.
On Sustainable Development Goal 8 on “promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”, TINA HOCEVAR, Vice-President of the European Youth Forum, said the future of work brings uncertainty for young people. However, much can be done in the present. In the future, critical skills will relate to climate adaptability, and must give humans a comparative advantage over automation. Changes are also needed to safeguard workers’ rights, improve social protection platforms, help younger people care for older generations and ensure that the future labour market leaves no one behind. In that regard, she called for investments in a new global economy that put people and planet at its centre, in line with the values of the younger generation.
ELÍAS TENORIO, Technical Secretary for Youth of Ecuador, described his Government’s policies aimed at developing young people’s technical skills, supporting entrepreneurship, including youth in decision-making and ensuring that the latter are brought on board in the development of all national policies.
AGUSTIN ALEJANDRO BATTO CAROL, EIDOS Global, said youth are savvy social change‑makers. He described a 2018 project that included a social innovation warehouse showcasing young people who are changing the world. He cited various other projects in such countries as Argentina and Syria, stressing that young people are committed to quality and meaningful work, as well as human-centred and planet-sensitive economies. He called for equitable, open technology, and the replacement of neoliberal policies with those that prioritize people over greed and growth.
MUNGUNCHIMEG SANJAA, Vice-Minister for Population and Development and Social protection of Mongolia, turning to Goal 10 on “reducing inequality within and among countries”, said the Government is working to ensure young people’s participation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. She cited a law on promoting youth development, adopted in 2017 and which entered into force in 2018, noting efforts by the National Youth Council and a network of youth development centres in rural areas that offer life skills and help with starting a business.
ROBIAMNY NADESHA BALCÁCER VÁSQUEZ, Minister for Youth of the Dominican Republic, described various programmes, especially municipal councils that carry out programmes and coordinate with civil society. Young people can attend forums and participate in them projects as “agents of change”, she said, noting that such projects offers education to vulnerable communities. Last year, the Ministry spoke with 250,000 throughout the country about teen pregnancy, bullying and other important issues. With UNFPA, the Ministry developed an app for young people to ask questions, she said, also describing an online consultation that will be launched in the coming days.
VICTOR LOPEZ CARMEN, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Global Youth Indigenous Caucus, said indigenous youth face discrimination, poor access to health care and lack of inclusion in decisions. As a result, their way of life is at extreme risk. Stressing that Goal 10 does not specifically mention indigenous people, he said it is linked with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Without implementing that instrument, Goal 10 will not be reached. Stressing that its article 21 recognizes indigenous people’s inequality, he said indigenous youth have the right to fair redress and States must be held accountable for the intergenerational impacts of colonialism.
ALISHER SADULLAEV, Deputy Chair of the Youth Union of Uzbekistan, said young people in his country represent more than 60 per cent of the population. He challenged the Government to support them. Young people are the best chance the world has to solve such pressing issues as climate change, growing equalities and the rise of intolerance. Noting that, in 2017, the President of the General Assembly had proposed an international convention on the rights of youth, he said the Youth Forum is the best place to discuss this idea. As Uzbekistan’s commitment to youth has found strong support at the United Nations, the country is committed to becoming a pilot country to ensure no one is left behind.
The representative of Lithuania said “everything we do, we do together with young people”. Instead of quotas, young people in her country — acting through youth councils and other structures — play a major role in developing legislation and implementing public programmes. Youth organizations are the best tool to make young people’s voices heard, she stressed, urging other countries to support their own structural dialogue processes.
VIBHU SHARMA, youth disability rights activist, said the capacity to harness the potential of youth is crucial to achieving global goals and targets. However, that also includes more than 200 million young people with disabilities, she said, noting that lack of access — as well as stigma and discrimination — pose special challenges and exacerbate poverty. Programmes for young people sometimes do not consider the needs of those with disabilities. Meanwhile, she said, only 52 per cent of men and 19 per cent of women with disabilities have access to employment. In 2018, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) launched a “Generation Unlimited” partnership, through which stakeholders aim to reach young people with disabilities with inclusive education, occupational opportunities and services. “Inclusion starts with us,” she stressed.
The representative of the International Youth Organization for Ibero-America underlined the importance of supporting young people in realizing their rights. Noting that, too often, young people live in poverty or are forced to become refugees, he called for more efforts to promote and protect their rights through international instruments. Underscoring the importance of tackling such critical issues as climate change and the digital divide — while protecting the rights of migrants and refugees — he said his organization is also working towards the elaboration of an international treaty on the rights of young people.
As delegates turned their attention to Sustainable Development Goal 13 relating to climate action, SHAMFA DUDJOE, Minister for Sport and Youth Affairs of Trinidad and Tobago, spotlighted her country’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change. Over recent years, it has experienced harsh dry seasons, rising sea levels, coastal erosion and damage from more frequent extreme weather events. Trinidad and Tobago is a party to major international instruments related to climate change, she said, adding that youth involvement is crucial to achieving the national targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent in the public transport sector and by 15 per cent in other main sectors by 2030.
ZAHID AHSAN RUSSEL, Minister of State for Youth and Sports of Bangladesh, said young people have long served as the champions of his country’s history. They have also played a catalytic role in recent years, driving forward change in such important areas as the fight against climate change. Youth-based organizations run awareness-raising and youth mentorship programmes in schools, while the Government provides support to youth-led, climate adaptation-focused efforts.
Turning to Goal 16 on “promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies”, ZEOGAR WILSON, Minister for Youth and Sport of Liberia, recalled that young people played a crucial role in his country’s recent election. Youth played particularly important roles in mobilizing and registering voters and preventing violence, he said, adding that many young people were trained in electoral dispute management and oversight strategies. Among other things, they also shared materials aimed at spreading non-violent messages in their communities.
RAYAA ALMANTHANI, Member of Parliament of Oman and Member of the Board of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) Forum of Young Parliamentarians, spotlighted the importance of developing legislation that fosters sustainable development. Laws must be evaluated in light of the 2030 Agenda, she said, adding that State budgets must also be aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals. The IPU Forum of Young Parliamentarians researches the role and efforts of parliaments around the world, works with civil society and advocates for the participation of young people. Beyond mere listening, “young people need to be active partners” and should be fully supported, she stressed.
Participants then took up Goal 17 on partnerships.
CARLOS SANVEE, Secretary-General of the YMCA, said that, as a global movement, his organization touches on 13 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. He described a project in Togo, his home country, focused on increasing food production through an ancient method, stressing that the issues facing the world’s 1.4 billion young people are so big they required going beyond one’s own traditions. He advocated “radical collaboration” in dealing with those important challenges.
TIAGO BRANDO RODRIGUES, Minister for Education of Portugal, said young people experience discrimination, political exclusion and limited access to health and education. “We must work together to take action against the violation of these rights,” he said, stressing that postponing action is not an option. He encouraged youth delegates to participate in the World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth, to be held in Lisbon, on 22 and 23 June.
The representative of Hungary said the young people in her country are determined to create a better future for themselves and others. As youth unemployment among 15-to-24-year‑olds is 11 per cent, she cited a programme focused on job‑protection action and a strategy to protect young people online. Hungary also joined the United Nations youth delegate programme in 2016, which has earned a high reputation among Hungarian young people. A youth delegate then took the floor to urge States to provide young people with the support they need to realize their future.
HADRAMMEH SIDIBEH, Minister for Youth and Sports of Gambia said youth make up 60 per cent of the population in his country, citing various programmes carried out with partners, notably a review of national youth policy, a national enterprise development initiative and the “Action on Youth” project, which offered capacity-building and training. Going forward, the Government aimed to strengthen the Ministry of Youth and Sports, implement a robust youth employment strategy and operationalize a national youth development fund, he said, underscoring a focus on gender equality in all such efforts.
The representative of China said the Government has taken measures to ensure the basic rights of all people. Religious freedom has been fully protected. Noting that representatives of non-governmental organizations had made unfounded accusations against China, which he opposed, he expressed hope that the moderator would remind speakers to focus on the topic at hand.