Whipped by War, Ignored in Peace, World’s Youth at Last Get Top UN Focus

From Syria to central Africa to Central America, violence or armed conflict has ensnared a quarter of the world’s 1.8 billion young people, according to the United Nations. Yet youth rarely get called on by the deciders to help navigate a path toward peace and security. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says it’s time to offer them a voice.

“If we are to create a more peaceful, sustainable and prosperous world for all, to fulfill the vision of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, we need young people to lead,” Guterres said during the opening of the General Assembly on September 24 as he introduced the Youth 2030 initiative.

The 69-year-old UN supremo is merely catching up. Touting strategies to harness youthful energy has become a growth phenomenon as leaders watch the ranks of adolescents and young adults surge in sub-Saharan Africa and worry what shocks to the system this youthquake might bring. Africa may soar to almost 1 billion young people by 2050, from around 600 million today.

Youth 2030 at UN 24 September 2018
UN chief Guterres meets the future (UN photo)

The World Bank has held youth summits each year since 2013 to channel good vibes, the African Development Bank is two years into a decade-long quest to create 25 million youth jobs and spark entrepreneurs, and the European Union is renewing its youth initiative. Even the UN’s development agency beat UN headquarters in the youth race by rolling out a strategy in 2014.

Yet the UN chief’s formal entry into this game carries more weight than most entrants. With the world body engaged in consequential corners of conflict, from peacekeeping missions to relief for refugees to the Security Council itself, the UN wields influence to bring a youthful cast to deliberations. Guterres ran the UN refugees agency from 2005 to 2015, witnessing a rising tide of displaced and desperate people. Many were young.

“With Youth 2030, I want the UN to become a leader in working with young people,” Guterres pledged, “in understanding their needs, in helping to put their ideas into action, in ensuring their views inform our processes.”

Epicenter Youth

Any visitor to a big African city immediately detects the epicenter of the youthquake. Investing in the health and education of young people in Africa’s fastest-growing poor countries is the top priority “to continue improving the human condition,” Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda Gates assert in their 2018 Goalkeepers report on sustainable development goals pursued by their foundation. By 2050, they estimate that more than 40 percent of the world’s extremely poor people will be found in two countries: Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As the famed philanthropists see it, that’s an opportunity, not a nightmare.

“People worry about insecurity, instability and mass migration,” the Gates duo write. “We wish they would also recognize young people’s enormous potential to drive economic growth. They are the activists, innovators, leaders and workers of the future.”

Youth 2030 builds on Security Council Resolution 2419, adopted unanimously in June by the 15-nation highest authority of the UN, which calls on increasing the role of youth in negotiating and carrying out peace agreements. The resolution urges the secretary-general and his special envoys “to take into account the views of youth in relevant discussions pertinent to the maintenance of peace and security, peacebuilding and sustaining peace, and to facilitate the equal and full participation of youth at decision‑making levels, paying particular attention to the inclusion of young women.”

Guterres is modeling that advice. His special youth envoy is Jayathma Wickramanayake of Sri Lanka, a 27-year-old activist for civic and political engagement by young women. “#DYK 73% of countries restrict young people from running for office?” she alerted her Twitter followers this week. Youth 2030 matters because it calls “for young ppl’s rights to participate in all public affairs!”

Jayathma - UN youth envoy
UN Envoy Wickramanayake

The UN resolution also asks governments to fight terrorist recruitment of young people over the Internet and to invest in inclusive education and training to develop next-generation potential.

Just who counts as “youth” is up in the air. Folks dreading the approach of 40 will be heartened to learn that the World Bank pegs 35-year-olds at the top end of its age range. The UN Security Council accepts 18 to 29 years old as officially youthful, while recognizing that countries have adopted broader age spans.

“It is a rare treat to see so many young people at the United Nations,” Guterres observed as he kicked off his outreach. “Unfortunately, far too rare.”