GlobalGoals UN | Ari Afsar, artist and activist, Andrea Carrasquel, director of client services at Cultura Colectiva, and Aicha Cherif, filmmaker and activist. - Photo: 2023

Youths at the Centre of the Multilateral System

By Simone Galimberti*

The author is the co-founder of ENGAGE and The Good Leadership. He writes about youths’ involvement in the UN, social development and human rights.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, 29 April 2023 (IDN) — Reimagining how the world will be in a few decades from now can be daunting, overwhelming and worrisome at the same time. It is surely a process that can trigger anxiety as humanity is struggling to find the necessary resolve to confront and fix the immense problems afflicting it.

Trying to find new ways to mend the current trajectory heading towards self-destruction is equally challenging. Making such attempts in a way that young people can truly lead and based on their voices and sense of agency, especially those of young women, might end up like an imperative that, no matter the good will, will never truly be fulfilled.

It is a bit like strongly desiring meaningful changes in the power equation that is modelled on governments controlling the entire agenda but at the same time knowing, well in advance, that what is truly doable can only do so much.

Enabling a true pathway for youth participation won’t only mean re-thinking the standard processes of decision-making that, in both liberal and authoritarian systems, remains fundamentally the same, top down and led by professional politicians.

It would instead elevate young people as real partners for change, creating opportunities for their massive involvement at grassroots levels, truly implementing what in jargon is called “SDGs localization”.

To be fair, there is no want of trying at least from the UN Secretary General António Guterres, who with his Our Common Agenda blueprint, is providing world leaders with concrete ideas on how to fix the planet.

While truly making an effort to do a better job at youths’ participation globally, the blueprint has been struggling to get noticed even if the document itself is not bold enough. Youths, for once, could come to its rescue, but they need stronger options and more radical ideas.

The overarching goal for Mr. Guterres is to get the buy-in of global leaders on it by 2024 when he hopes that many of its propositions will be discussed and finalized during the Summit of the Future.

While the negotiations and an effort to involve youths in the process in framing a list of potentially game changing plans are ongoing, a series of complementary and reinforcing ideas on how to give agency to them are slowly emerging.

The only problem is that none of these nor transformational nor progressive as they should be. An international working group, the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism (HLAB) co-chaired by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former President of Liberia and Stefan Löfven, the former Prime Minister of Sweden, recently came up with a pathway to pave the way for the Summit of the Future.

Its overarching premise is that, if humanity wants to safeguard the survivability of the planet, we need first to get serious at reforming the multilateral governance system and a more inclusive, bottom-up multilateral system could make the difference.

“A Breakthrough for People and Planet, Effective and Inclusive Global Governance for Today and the Future”, the final outcome of the group published on 18 April 2023, offers six major pathways for this type of change.

From launching a proposed pact for the planet, to a different and more inclusive financial system, to a global coordination on digital connectivity and artificial intelligence, to an ambitious agenda on peace and it also includes a focus on the needed “anticipatory action” to safeguard the planet.

One theory is about ensuring a strong focus on representing “we the peoples” in the multilateral system that should be people centred, representative and accountable. Youths should certainly have a role to turn around the way the multilateral system works.

There is a proposal of intergovernmental committee on youth, offering a global platform for young voices in the General Assembly but also this, while ensuring representation, won’t give power.

Much better and stronger commitments must be made to seriously and meaningfully involve youths. The office of the UN Secretary General has also been pushing other ideas through a series of policy briefs.

The latest is focused on youth participation and it provides some doable ideas to have youths exercise agency and voice to shape the global agenda.

Are the proposals bold enough?

Those hoping for a radical change might feel disappointed by the incrementalist approach offered. While it will definitely help to ensure easier and better participation of youths to the work of the different programs and agencies but we are at risk, as explained by Davide Fanciulli to end up with the usual tokenistic approach.

“However, the engagement of young people is still often limited to tokenistic roles and “nice-to-have” initiatives. Moving away from “youth-washing” practices does not only require commitments on paper.

It must be accompanied by transparent resource allocation, equal access to policymaking, and constant stewardship from dedicated entities at the local, national, and international level” he explains in a piece for the SDG Knowledge Hub.

For example, having permanent Town Hall meetings with youths in all the agencies and programs is an interesting attempt to involve them but it does not go far. But it actually does not even get closer to what we need.

The upcoming UN Youth Office, basically an upgrade of the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, can be an exciting change. Yet it will probably end up being designed with the intrinsic limitations of the UN system, and it will hardly break through its rigidities and formalities.

Moreover, we should ask if it will be effective only through moral suasions and soft power to flip the power of decision making towards youths or instead if it will have real enforcing powers.

I am afraid that we all know the answer: some positive changes will happen, but it will be mostly cosmetic. The Breakthrough report also offers some good ideas.

New fellowships, more paid internships, innovation prizes and positions on high level processes, “which could become a mandatory part of every multilateral process” are steps in the right directions.

Yet we know that, even if all ideas will come to fruits, no major “breakthrough” in youth empowerment will happen The same can be said of Envoy for Future Generations.

It is not that the UN should dump investing in innovative foresight researches and involve on this the youths, but how such envoy would work and coordinate with an empowered Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth?

Also, the idea of “establishing a commission or a forum for future generations as a subsidiary body of the General Assembly and/or regularly convening an informal meeting of the General Assembly” might just not be truly impactful.

Perhaps it is going to be inevitable that in order to fix the multilateral system, we need first to fix the way national and local governance work. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Stefan Löfven with their colleagues actually make an effort in this direction.

In practice, they propose to elevate the roles of cities and local governments and give them a formal role in the international decision-making governance. There could not be a better entry point for youths to be truly involved and enabled to lead but it requires bold changes in the ways local affairs are conducted.

Localizing the SDGs could be a starting point. National governments now playing a dipropionate powerful role in international negotiations should pledge not just the mandatory creation of advisory national youth councils.

This is the old school and it is not working.

They must commit to facilitate, even with quotas, the participation of youths in local decision-making that should be more and more centred on deliberations rather than just elections.

Locally, the Voluntary Local Reviews centred on assessing the SDGs implementation should not only be made mandatory for all national governments to enable to be implemented.

They should have, again in not a tokenistic form, an obligatory clause that would allow youths to truly have a meaningful role. Local councils filled by either elected or appointed officials, should, in the same way, have a mandatory large representation of youths.

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum, recently held at UN Headquarters in New York was a good initiative. On this, there are no doubts.

Yet we also know that it represents a far too timid and possibly, on the long run, even a wrong approach to truly ensure youths have a seat on the table and one where they are not just bystanders. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: GlobalGoals UN | Ari Afsar, artist and activist, Andrea Carrasquel, director of client services at Cultura Colectiva, and Aicha Cherif, filmmaker and activist.

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