On Monday last week (24 March 2014), experts from academia, UN entities, students, ambassadors, and champions for youth alike, gathered at Columbia University’s Faculty House to participate in the first day of a two-day public policy dialogue, which focused on the issues of youth inequality and marginalization. The event was co-chaired by the Office of the Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth and Columbia University, spearheaded by Columbia University’s Dr. Michael Doyle, Harold Brown Professor of U.S. Foreign and Security Policy, alongside Kate Offerdahl, a master’s student and Project Coordinator of the Columbia Global Policy Initiative project.

The discussion delved into and explored the nexus of where issues of inequality and marginalization converge, and brought into focus the need for a human rights-based approach when tackling fundamental youth issues.

Topics such as the juvenile justice system, as discussed by Mr. Jeffery Fagan, Professor of Law at Columbia University, were put on the table to highlight the global, problematic methods of policing youth. Abdulrazaq Alkali, the Executive Director of the Youth Society for the Prevention of Infectious Disease and Social Vices (YOSPIS), spoke on the societal benefits of youth participation. He contended that youth participation could spark fresh ideas and new innovations, whilst curbing the vulnerability and corruption of youth.

On the history of the youth rhetoric, Mr. Ravi Karkara, Global Expert Advisor on Children and Youth with UN-Habitat, noted that the conversation on youth has spanned decades, but a human rights approach has never successfully been implemented. Leonardo Castilho, a Human Rights Officer in the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), broadened the discussion of youth and human rights by asserting the idea that a human rights approach can be instrumental in advancing equality and combating discrimination. Also picking up on the thematic thread of human rights was Ms. Kate Gilmore, Deputy Executive Director for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). She maintained that the construct of rights is essential to the discussion of marginalization and inequality. Ms. Gilmore also put forth the idea that marginalization is an action; it is something done and imposes the question “who is at the centre?”

Mr. Andy Furlong, Professor of Social Inclusion and Education in the School of Education at the University of Glasgow, made the point that whereas marginalization was once an experience of the minority, it has now shifted to an experience of mass suffering.

Parallel to the discussion of marginalization was the theme of inclusion. Ms. Diane Sheinberg, a policy specialist on inclusive political institutions and processes, highlighted the significant gap in terms of the demands of youth activists being met, who seek to be involved in political processes.

Ms. Priya Deshingkar, Research Director at the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme Consortium (RPC), spoke on the topic of migration and the marginalization embedded within it. She discussed the issue of internal migration, its structural push factors, and their implications on youth.

Tying in a more philosophical line of thought to the discussion of the definition of “youth,” and how it is often understood, Mr. Chernor Bah of Sierra Leone, Youth Engagement Coordinator with A World at School, claimed that youth are often defined in the context of “lacking something.” He added that youth are often thought of in too broad of terms; there are too many inequalities and variances within the youth community to be defined homogenously.

Building upon the non-static and nuanced nature of youth was Mr. Shaheer George, a young activist and the Secretary General of the liberal social party in Egypt, Masr Alhurreya. He made important statements on the need to recognize the marginalization within youth in order to understand this phenomenon within the broader scope of society. He also stated that youth representation in the socio-economic and political spheres is not enough. There must be competent representation of youth in order to cultivate a sense of a true sense of empowerment.

A diverse representation of the youth voice was an essential element of this dialogue.  Alongside George was Ms. Crystal Lee, Founder and Executive Director of United Natives. Bringing the perspective of indigenous youth into the discussion, Lee spoke of the need for indigenous youth to have full and effective participation within the various arenas. Other voices of youth on the panel included Yahir Zavaleta of Mexico, who opened up the very important discussion of young people, health and HIV/AIDS. He noted that this is an issue that cuts across gender and sexuality, and that there are specific needs that must be met in order to create meaningful, effective policies.

The discussion, which yielded several inter-locking ideas surrounding marginalization and inequality, continued on the second day (Tuesday 25 March 2014) at the United Nations. Themes from the previous day were picked up and expanded upon.

youth marginalization trustee

A high-level discussion at the UN, on the second day of the public policy dialogue

Dr. Margaret Greene, an expert on the socio-cultural factors of health, gender and development policy, touched upon the multifactorial nature of health, and the different spheres it inhabits. She noted that health is not just health by its definition, but it is also of social and political concern.

Nur Laiq, an independent consultant on youth issues delved into the power of youth protesters, and noted the strength of youth within both the informal and formal channels of engagement.

Dr. Hanan Morsy, the Lead Economist for the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean region at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, explored the barriers to employment. Morsy picked up on key elements such as the skills mismatches of youth in the labour market.

Viewpoints from ambassadors and directors in international organisations offered another dimension to the conversation. Mr. Vincius Pinheiro, Deputy Director of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) spoke of the need to create jobs for youth, and create policies that target the specificities of youth. Mr. Ibrahima Sory Sylla, the Deputy Permanent Representative of the Republic of Senegal to the UN, emphasized the need for a streamlined, transparent and inclusive youth agenda. Ms. Christina Pucarhino, the Deputy Permanent Representative of the Republic of Portugal to the UN, spoke of the need to increase communication between young people and the UN system, as well as increase coordination between UN entities. Ms. Kristin Hetle, Director of Strategic  Partnerships at UN Women, discussed the importance to address the root causes of structural discriminations, especially as they pertain to young women and girls. His Excellency Azad Rahimov, Minister of Youth and Sport of the Republic of Azerbaijan, recognized that science can play a large role in the inclusiveness of youth, and also noted that education can also take place in spaces outside of school.

The two-day event was successful in tying many issues together and congregating many viewpoints that all connect to issues of marginalization and inequality. The conversation of youth in the context of marginalization and inequality is one that is continuous and important, as these elements are at the centre of contemporary youth issues.