By Andrey Prigov
Since the creation of International Youth Day in 2000, the United Nations has taken a bold stance to address the scope of issues that affect the nearly two billion global youth between the ages of 10 and 24. Every August 12 is now celebrated with youth-focused workshops, concerts, and cultural events. These activities have sought to encourage the political participation of youth by stressing the power of young people to be ambassadors for change within their respective communities. The promising success of the initiative prompted the UN to pass a historic Security Council resolution in 2015 that recognized that “young people play an important and positive role in the maintenance and promotion of international peace and security."
Last Friday, I had the opportunity to participate in International Youth Day celebrations at the Headquarters of the United Nations in New York City. This particular event brought young people from across the world together to discuss youth issues within the thematic framework of "Youth Building Peace." The captivating event featured a diverse set of policy makers, entrepreneurs, and humanitarians who shared inspiring stories and brainstormed solutions to the challenges that continue to disincentivize young people from participating in peace-building measures.
Speaking to the assembly hall, Norwegian Minister Counselor Halvor Sætre identified three underlying ‘traps’ that many prior youth engagement efforts have unfortunately fallen into: the trap of generality, through their basis on non-fact assumptions; the trap of negativity, through their unbalanced and unhelpful perception of youth as vulnerable/easily malleable people; and the trap of gender bias, through their lack of focus on the visible and invisible barriers between boys and girls. In order to prevent the same mistakes in the future, Sætre contended that new UN programs would need to do a better job of understanding the needs of young people.
The youth who could propel that mentality shift could not have been better represented than by the extraordinary second panel group. Coming from all over the world, the five visionary faces embodied the very essence of youth participation and outreach. A young man from Nigeria described his efforts to prevent the radicalization of youth in his hometown. Another young woman talked about how growing up with a parent in prison propelled her to found a college scholarship program for other teenagers in the same position. Taken as a whole, these inspiring stories underscored just how much impact young people could have in building peaceful communities.
Although ambitious in its scale, the conference did appear to suffer from some of the same problems that it addressed. Understandably, the event was not extremely high on the United Nations agenda. Even so, the comparatively low attendance by both UN dignitaries and young participants was overall disheartening. It felt a bit disingenuous to hear the UN representatives talk about recent efforts to encourage youth participation while only expending the minimum amount of resources to organize and advertise the event.
Logistical challenges aside, the conference was still successful in sending a message that young people should have a role in how public and foreign policies are implemented. Given such a positive result, it is my hope that the annual gathering will soon outgrow the constraints that it currently functions under; by reaching out to more youth in the future, the UN will undoubtedly put itself in a position where it could better reach its youth objectives.
Only through a broad, multi-organizational effort that guarantees equal opportunities for youth and explores the lapses in today’s model of inclusivity could such change gradually become a reality.
For more information about the conference, check out their website here.