High-Level Luncheon

Investing in Adolescents and youth to eradicate poverty and promote prosperity to realize the demographic dividend and achieve the 2030 Agenda

17 July 2016, Delegates Dining Room

Opening statement by Jayathma Wickramanayake,

Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth



Honourable Ministers,

Your Excellency Mr. Peter Thomson, President of the General Assembly,

Your Excellency Mr. Frederick Shava, President of the Economic and Social Council,

Dr. Natalia Kanem, Acting Executive Director of UNFPA,

Distinguished delegates,

Fellow Youth representatives,

Ladies and gentlemen,


Thank you for giving me this opportunity to address you today on the topic of investments in youth to realize the demographic dividend and achievement of the SDGs. 

My name is Jayathma Wickramanayake and I am the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth. In fact, today is my first day in office and this is my first event in my new capacity. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

“How often do we get a chance to be a part of something big? To design our own future? How often do we get a chance to look back, learn from our mistakes, and decide how to go forward? Some opportunities are for a lifetime.

I made these comments three years ago, at the opening ceremony of the World Conference on Youth 2014, held in my home country, Sri Lanka. At that time, the global development agenda was at a crossroad between the Millennium Development Goals and the Post-2015 Development Agenda. As a young person, I was personally excited and thrilled, anticipating an agenda that will widen and enrich how we perceive and experience development. And being surrounded by over 1500 young people that day, representing billions of young people globally, I felt the same excitement emanating from them.

Today’s generation of young people, the largest the world has ever known, is growing up in an unpredictable world.  On the one hand, there are enormous opportunities that if properly seized would bring about enormous transformation in their lives. On the other hand, there are challenges and risks, which if not properly addressed will diminish their potential.  There are enormous disparities of opportunity, wealth and power. 65 million people world-wide have been forced to flee their homes as a result of conflicts and war. It will take the creation of 600 million new jobs to absorb all the new workers over the next decade. The world needs to urgently address and reverse the negative effects of climate and environmental degradation.

This is the case for the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals — a truly ambitious agenda to shape a better, fairer, and more peaceful world for all. The United Nations is racing to help those caught in crisis, but as it has been repeatedly mentioned, it cannot reach everyone, everywhere.

Therefore we need the commitment of all actors: from governments to private sector from research community to civil society actors, including youth organizations and networks. Given their sheer numbers, engaging the world’s 1.8 billion young people in the implementation of the SDGs will be critical to ensuring the 2030 Agenda’s success. Today’s demographic and development realities make young people the generation of our time: the SDG generation.

I myself am part of the so-called youth bulge. I come from a region that has the largest concentration of 10-to-24 year-olds in the world. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh rank in the top 5 countries in terms of world’s youth population. In these three countries alone, we have almost half a billion youth and adolescents. Africa is home to another 226 million young people and will see their numbers continue to grow in the next decades.  With youth making up such sizeable proportions of the overall populations, these two regions are experiencing a critical demographic transition, which if harnessed adequately, could serve as the backbone to achieving the SDGs.

But let us pause here and ask ourselves this question: Are we doing everything within our power to ensure that young people are fulfilling their potential as agents of change of our common future? The answer is no. To quote the late Executive Director of UNFPA, Dr. Babatunde, who was an ardent advocate for investments in youth, “we are leaving young people behind looking for opportunities that do not arrive”.

I therefore encourage all leaders present here to empower youth. I call on young people to mobilize your peers. Only by tapping into the biggest asset we have – our youth can we create a much better world for everyone.

Allow me to focus on three proposals for harnessing demographic dividend to contribute to our discussion during the interactive segment:

First, we need coordinated planning and investments with a focus on developing the soft and technical skills of young people compatible with the realities of the age of technology and labor market demands. Later today my Office will be convening with other partners a special event to mark this year’s annual commemoration World Youth Skills Day.

We will share lessons learned and best practices on strategies to address and meet future skills needs, ensuring that young people across the globe seize the employment opportunities provided by the digital economy and the changing world of work.

Education and training can make the difference for youth between poverty and employment, success and failure. With the 2030 Agenda, all Member States have committed to  ensure that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education. It is time to take that commitment seriously and even go beyond the commitment to provide universal access to education at all levels including technical and vocational education. Promotion of non-formal and informal education also remains key in equipping young people with the skills necessary to realize their full potential.

Second, we need to accelerate our efforts to provide access to sexual and reproductive health services for young people, so they are able to make independent choices in the ways they plan their lives, and their families. This is not only about extending a favor to young people, this is making sure they can exercise their rights. However, teenage pregnancies, high maternal mortality rates and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, due to the lack of access to, or knowledge of sexual and reproductive health services,  prevent millions of young people, especially young women from reaching their full potential. Greater investments in young people’s access to sexual and reproductive health services, including contraceptives, comprehensive sexuality education and information, on the other hand, empower young people to establish and lead healthy life styles, which in turn create conducive environments for progress in other sectors, including the economy.

Finally and underpinning the previous two points, we must create and bolster policies that empower young women and girls and promote gender equality. Young women are disproportionately affected by the strains of conflict and poverty and still lack access to education, finance, health services and other essentials needed to reach their full potential even in peace-time. With millions at risk of child and forced marriage, early and unwanted pregnancy, and gender-based violence and discrimination, we can no longer afford to waste any time or effort. We must embrace and actively work towards a transformation that will empower girls and young women, everywhere, and particularly in the poorest and most remote places on the planet. Without special attention to empowering girls and young women we will fail at harnessing the demographic dividend and in turn fail to achieve the SDGs.

So today, on the very first day of assuming my new role as the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, I speak for the 1.8 billion young people worldwide. I speak for my fellow brothers and sisters, who are fighting for a better world, believing and hoping that the world we want is truly possible.

I speak for young girls who are fighting with their societies to access basic education. I speak for the young women breaking glass ceilings and achieving greater heights.

I speak for young people, who are not willing to give up, even if conflict and grief have wreaked havoc in their lives.

I speak for all of us, and the generations to come, who have the right to a better world.

Excellencies, Let young people be a part of this development process. Let young people contribute with our skills, our dedication, our ideas and our active engagement. Let young people be active partners, not passive beneficiaries. And please know, that you have the assurances of my fullest commitment to engage with all stakeholders in pursuit of a world where young people everywhere reach their full potential and no young person is left behind.

After all, some opportunities are for a lifetime. And we all have one such opportunity before us.

Thank you.