Image credit: UN - Photo: 2022

UN Can Model Innovative Ways to Engage Youth

Time for a National Forum or Assembly

By Simone Galimberti

The writer is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE, a not-for-profit NGO in Nepal. He writes on volunteerism, social inclusion, youth development and regional integration as an engine to improve people’s lives.

KATHMANDU (IDN) — One of the pillars of Our Common Agenda, the UN Secretary-General’s global blueprint on delivering a better future based on cooperation and multilateralism, is a strong focus on inclusion, protection and participation.

These are all central elements of a new social contract, one of the most ambitious goals that Secretary-General António Guterres aims to achieve, rebooting the ways people interact and collaborate with the state.

Borrowing from the UNDP, the State of the World’s Volunteerism Report (SWVR) defines a social Contract as “a dynamic and tacit agreement between states, people and communities on their mutual roles and responsibilities, with participation, public goods, public policies and taxation chief among them”.

The fact that such relationships are not set in stone but can instead evolve is worthy being considered.

“The relationships between people and states, and the power dynamics between them, continue to be reshaped, repurposed and reimagined in response to new challenges such as ageing, gender inequalities and climate change,” the report further explains.

The way citizens interact with the state at all its levels becomes paramount if the purported aim is really about empowerment, and that’s one of the main reasons why the report, published by UN Volunteers (UNV), dedicates an entire chapter to deliberation.

Thinking of the traditional ways, decisions are made, and their outcomes are more and more essential in an era of public disenchantment towards policy making.

Interestingly, a new dynamism could be brought in by the field of deliberative democracy.

Yet despite being an area of study and practice that has been progressing and becoming more and more recognized, it is still daunting for deliberative actions to find a way to truly get to the mainstream.

Offering youth proper, effective platforms not only to interact with but also to engage with governments through policy proposals and recommendations is key if we really want to bring to life a new form of a social contract.

“The engagement of young people in societal decision-making is often viewed by their elders as a concession,” explains Mark Weston, an Independent policy consultant who recently wrote a policy paper on young people and the social contract for the Office of Global Insight and Policy at UNICEF.

“Meaningful engagement,” as Weston calls it, would also boost trust in the government, and there have been attempts, the policy paper explains, at creating a stronger pathway for youths to participate, including lowering the age of vote or even the unquestionably more powerful idea of offering quota in the parliaments for youth candidates.

Ye true participation through deliberation requires a degree of boldness and vision never seen before.

Local governance should be drastically redesigned in order to establish novel channels of collaborations and partnerships, concepts that, for example, the SWVR dedicates a lot of attention.

If initiated, such innovations would allow citizens, especially the youths, to have influence and to some extent, yield power. For example, at the minimum, such platforms could provide recommendations and policy ideas but in the best scenarios, they could have real binding powers.

Yet the truth is that, while examples of such deliberative democracy are slowly spreading, they still remain too scattered and unable to find mainstream acceptance among the general public and policy makers.

The United Nations could drastically change this current scenario in two ways: by creating mechanisms of youths’ participation at local levels in every country it operates and by establishing a bold global mechanism for youths’ involvement in policy making.

If better engaging youths at local levels has always been a priority for the United Nations Offices around the world, what is missing is a real forum where youths can be activated as advisors and watchdogs at the same time.

Imagine, for example, establishing a UN Youth National Forum or Assembly in which the members could have an opportunity to propose new ideas but also to review what the UN Country Team has been doing.

While national hosting governments are primarily responsible for such tasks in their quality of being the official counterparts to the UN, providing youths with a permanent mechanism to interact, discuss and, importantly, feedback could provide a further level of legitimacy to the work of the UN around the world.

Novel ways could be devised on the ways youths are selected, for example, through open competition with specific attention that youths from the most vulnerable categories have a fair shot at participating in the selection process.

The selected members of these forums could exercise their functions on a volunteering basis and for a maximum of one year in order to offer the opportunity to more peers to participate and contribute.

There could be bimonthly plenary sessions, online or in person or a combination of both but with a commitment that those living far from the capitals can get as much exposure as possible from this experience.

Thematic commissions based on SDGs could meet virtually on a monthly basis to review the progress being made by the UN country agencies. However, the real value of such a platform would be to guide the UN officials during their planning phases.

Striking a balance between meaningful engagement and tokenistic outcomes won’t be easy. Still, the fact that youths will be enabled to review and comment on the work of the UN can be symbolically powerful.

The now strengthened Offices of the Resident Coordinators could be in charge of the entire process by also involving focal points within each agency or program based in the country.

While there is no doubt that additional resources are going to be needed, the innovative nature of such platforms would be certainly met with interest by the international community, especially if governments officials will be involved in the discussions as observers.

Yet it is going to be globally where the UN’s bold vision on youth empowerment would draw the world’s attention.

The UN could shape the most ambitious participatory initiative involving youths, a permanent UN Youth Assembly that could, potentially, become a game changer in the way youths can be empowered, provided a platform is created by them and for them.

It is high time that the ambitious and visionary agenda set by Secretary-General Guterres could be translated in real deeds on the grounds.

Shifting from words to actions, from theories and blueprints we can read in policy briefings and reports to real processes where youths’ voices and opinions are seriously taken into consideration, is going to be transformative.

The New Social Contract, if to be really put into practice, will require a high degree of versatility to accommodate different needs but also a steadfast commitment towards the new generations.

Meaningful engagement means real participation and real opportunities to shape the agenda.

If we want governments to start rethinking their local social contracts with their own people, the UN should model the way and enable youths to start playing the role that they truly deserve to have.

From there, a chain effect in empowering youths could then take place and truly transform our understanding of governance and decision-making. [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 August 2022]

Image credit: UN

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence. You are free to share, remix, tweak and build upon it non-commercially. Please give due credit.

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