It is up to us to demand a seat on the table

    ECOSOC Youth Forum, January 2018, by Valia Mitsakis

    There is one universal truth about youth: we are not included in the decision making processes of our countries or the international community. Thankfully, there have been some steps taken to enhance youth participation; governments have started to include youth in councils and pass legislation to better their lives, and the United Nations used the “My World Survey” that asked young people to influence the formation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Lastly, Forums like this one have grown over the past few years and have allowed an increasing number of young people to raise their voices. However, there are still not nearly enough measures taken to include youth in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Agenda.

    I, together with 700 young people from all around the world as well as 50 representatives of governments, was fortunate to attend the ECOSOC Youth Forum on January 30-31, 2018 at United Nations Headquarters in New York City. The Forum had the overarching theme of increasing youth participation. In order to do so, it allowed for young people and member states to participate in conversations with one another. Governments shared policies they have established and youth shared their experiences and proposals with the international community.

    I would like to take this time to share with you my experiences of the Forum as well as some useful information that I learned there.

    The topic of the forum this year was “The Role of Youth in Building Sustainable and Resilient Urban and Rural Communities.” In simpler terms, the conference had two objectives. Firstly, to explore ways that international institutions and governments can engage youth in the implementation and monitoring of the Sustainable Development Agenda, and secondly the ways in which youth can assist in making communities friendlier toward the environment. 

    Opening Ceremony

    We do not have enough time.” - Ms. Salina Abraham, President, International Forestry Students’ Association

    The key takeaway of the first day of the Forum was that, indeed, we do not have enough time. There is too much to be done and not enough time to allow for us to deal with the inequality and injustice that is taking place in the world. For this reason, we need intergenerational dialogues to assure that everyone is taking part in the process of change-making. Specifically, the environment is deteriorating and it is imperative that grassroots organizations, international organizations and national and local governments work together to find ways to live more sustainably.

    An intergenerational dialogue took place during the first day between the new UN Envoy on Youth Ms. Jayathma Wickramanayake of Sri Lanka, and the Deputy Secretary-General Ms. Amina J. Mohammed of Nigeria.  It was really empowering to see these two women taking on the world’s most challenging problems. During this dialogue there were two interesting points mentioned. Firstly, the absence of space for youth in international, regional, national, and local governments, and second how young people can take part in the Sustainable Development Agenda.

    The Deputy Secretary-General described the Youth Forum as a town hall for the international community, however there needs to be implementation of the agenda in national governments in order for it to be effective. For this reason young people were encouraged to find ways to influence their governments at the national and local level. She also mentioned that cross-sector partnerships are important in the implementation of the agenda.

    The Deputy Secretary-General also mentioned that the UN needs to include young people in the process a lot more than it already does. The average age at the United Nations is 42 years old. Hence, she mentioned that young people have to be included in the United Nations.

    Presentations from Countries

    During the two days of the Forum we were able to listen to representatives from different countries report on what they are doing to engage youth in the process of change-making.

    United Arab Emirates: The Minister of Youth of the UAE underlined that youth are indeed taking part in the process of accomplishing the SDGs. In her country, youth councils allow for young citizens to connect with their representatives at the local and national levels. Additionally, there is a council with seven young members that advise senior government decision makers.

    Hungary: In the past 30 years, the country has been characterized by an aging population. Hence, it important for the country to engage young people in various sectors. In order to do so, Hungary spends 5% of its GDP on family related policies to encourage young people to enter the workforce.

    Spain: The country is implementing its first United Nations Youth Delegate Program.

    Netherlands: The youth delegate representing the Netherlands spoke about the Voluntary National Reviews for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. He mentioned that youth have ownership of parts of the reviews and are currently working closely with their government in the process of following up with the review as well as creating the next national review.

    Namibia: The country has programs that focus on youth employment. The government has implemented programs that focus on skill training as well as youth health clinics that promote sexual and reproductive safety. 

    Breakout Session

    Lastly, I would like to mention a break out session I took part on “Key Regional Concerns and Priorities for Meaningful Youth Participation in the SDGs” and specifically the region of Europe, North America, and other States. During this session, the moderator asked us to raise our hands in agreement or disagreement with some statements. There was one that caused the most debate among the participants: It’s okay to choose clothing companies that are unsustainable, if I cannot afford anything else.

    I would ask you to consider this statement as well.

    One side said that it is okay to choose affordable clothing, because it is okay for people to care about their own survival. The other side focused on the fact that individuals cannot set aside their ideologies no matter the circumstances.

    What would you do if you were in a situation like that?

    This statement and others like it made us consider the way we perceive the world. It helped us understand that people come from different backgrounds and face different circumstances. It also made us think about our actions when engaging with the world.

    During this breakout session, the ambassador of Greece HE Maria Theofili, spoke about the new initiative that the country announced in September to better the lives of young Greeks. The new initiative, called Youth 17-27, asks youth to submit proposals for changes they would like to see in the country. The goal is to link youth policy targets with the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals. As a Greek who witnessed the Greek financial crisis and a system that wasn’t very susceptible to the voices of young people, I am very much looking forward to a policy that will engage youth in the goals of the United Nations as well as one that will create a forum for young people to discuss the changes that they would like to see take place in the country. 

    Lastly, during this meeting we discussed how young people can assist in building sustainable communities and getting their voices heard by their governments. As a result of these discussions we drafted four recommendations to be considered by the rest of the Youth Forum. Those were:

    • Governments should become more accessible to young people by lowering the voting age to 16 as well as lowering the age that young people can run for office.
    • Access to quality civic education as well as access to information for all.
    • Governments should increase the space for young people to participate in decision making processes.
    • Governments should invest in youth organizations and youth initiatives to support their growth. Additionally, governments need to facilitate communication among different initiatives.

    All in all, the Forum gave participants the opportunity to be hopeful about the future of the international community. Most importantly, it allowed us to be inspired. It made us, young people, understand that it is up to us to demand a seat on the table.



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