7 April 2021

Speakers Highlight Critical Role of World’s 1.8 Billion Young People in Achieving Sustainable Development, as Economic and Social Council Youth Forum Opens

After a one-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Economic and Social Council Youth Forum reconvened today in a virtual format to mark its tenth anniversary, with speakers emphasizing the critical role that the world’s 1.8 billion young people can — and must — play in “building back better” and fulfilling the promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Over two days, the Forum will bring together youth leaders, activists and youth-led organizations to share ideas and promote greater engagement with young people to tackle and overcome not only pre-existing issues such as poverty, inequality and climate change, but also a raft of new concerns brought about by the pandemic, including youth unemployment and disrupted schooling, especially among girls.

Munir Akram (Pakistan), President of the Economic and Social Council, delivered opening remarks, saying that the Youth Forum’s tenth anniversary is an opportunity to reflect not only a decade of crises and challenges, but also to take stock of achievements in attacking poverty and building a better world.  Today, the world finds itself at an important inflection point as it faces multiple challenges, from COVID-19 and the pandemic-induced recession to rising poverty, the impending climate catastrophe, a new arms race and the resurgence of great Power rivalry.  “We must defeat the virus,” he said, condemning vaccine nationalism and emphasizing that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”.

International and national efforts to recover from the global recession must be mobilized to put the world back on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.  At the same time, he added, everything must be done to avoid a climate catastrophe, redress inequality and combat the forces of racism and extremism.  That can only be achieved through international cooperation and by fully utilizing and strengthening the United Nations and respect for its fundamental principles.  “Dear friends, the future belongs to you,” he said, encouraging the world’s youth to embrace boldness and innovation to build a more prosperous and equal world order.

António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that he is immensely saddened by what the COVID-19 pandemic has done to the world’s young people.  Some 1.5 billion students had had their education disrupted, one in six young people have lost their jobs and youth mental health has worsened considerably.  Those impacts have exacerbated challenges that young people confronted before the pandemic struck, including protracted conflicts and displacement, paternalistic attitudes and a narrowing of civil space, and the climate emergency.  In such a context, it is not surprising to see young people, online and in the streets, expressing their impatience.  “To ensure that these expressions of political action help deliver the future envisaged by the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to listen and rebuild trust.”

He called for meaningful opportunities to youth engagement as well as tangible improvements in education, employment, gender equality, environmental protection and digital connectivity.  In that regard, “Youth2030”, the Organization’s first system-wide youth strategy, reflects its commitment to strengthen its work with and for youth people.  The first Youth2030 implementation report shows that progress is being made, he said, pointing also to a surge in youth engagement through his Youth Advisory Group and the Special Envoy for Youth.  “Yet there is much more to do,” he said, not least in terms of reaching young people of all backgrounds and in all contexts.  He went on to announce that the role of young people and the rights of future generations will be at the heart of his forthcoming report to Member States on charting a common agenda.

Volkan Bozkir (Turkey) President of the seventy-fifth session of the General Assembly, said that for many young people, a year may feel like a lifetime.  “But take it from me — it really is not!  Do not become disillusioned.  This pandemic will pass,” he assured.  He encouraged youth to speak up, share their lived experiences, amplify the voices of peers who have been silenced and make space for those who have been marginalized.  Building a better world in the wake of the pandemic will require a whole-of-society and inter-generational approach.  “We are looking to you, as the drivers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, to guide us,” he said, adding that youth are the problem-solvers who will find the solutions to the existential challenges that humanity will face in the future, in addition to being the defenders of human rights, the keepers of peace and the guardians of the United Nations Charter.

Jayathma Wickramanayake, Special Envoy for Youth, speaking from Sri Lanka, noted that more than 11,000 young people are joining today’s meeting virtually from all over the world — making the 2021 Youth Forum the largest gathering of young people in United Nations history.  Expressing her hope that the virtual format will continue to allow a diverse range of young people to join the Organization’s future meetings, she nevertheless voiced regret that millions remain unable to participate due to lack of access to digital connectivity.  Today’s meeting is a chance to celebrate young people’s resilience and leadership, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, “we are also here to hold decision-makers accountable” for the decisions will impact today’s young people for decades to come, she said, welcoming the attendance of a diverse range of Government officials at the Forum. 

Today, over 1.8 billion young people face challenges never experienced before, she said.  More than one in eight have no access to education, most of whom are girls, and many have lost their jobs during the pandemic.  Mental health issues and gender-based violence among young people are on the rise, and they are disproportionately vulnerable to the impact of the ongoing climate crisis.  Despite all those challenges, she warned that it would be a mistake to think that young people have been sitting passively during the pandemic.  In fact, they have been the most resourceful during this time of crisis, showing older generations how to adapt and respond to the rapid changes taking place.

In addition, she said, young people before and during the pandemic have taken to the streets and public virtual spaces to demand urgent climate action, gender equality, racial justice, democracy and respect for fundamental human rights.  Despite their remarkable resilience, “young people cannot save the world on their own,” and adult leaders must commit to translating their words into action.  Youth require political will and financial and human resources to ensure that their demands are met.  Among other things, young people have called for a more inclusive United Nations.  In response, the Secretary-General launched Youth2030, aimed at ensuring that the United Nations helps nations deliver on a sustainable, just and inclusive future.  Now, amid the pandemic, there is a new chance to make an even greater shift towards that critical goal, she said. 

Anika Jenne Dorothy, Executive Director of the Green Congress of Kenya, delivering the keynote address from Nairobi, urged all participants to “stand for something” in their daily lives, from parenting to careers and public participation.  While stories have at times been used to malign women and girls, they can also empower them, bring dignity and reveal truth.  They can help women and families fight back against gross injustices and the biggest challenge of all, the lack of resources available to push forward the gender equality agenda.  “It is evident by now that we cannot talk about girls’ interventions without talking about girls’ education,” she said, pointing out that some Governments in Africa have adopted a no-return to school policy for pregnant girls.

Spotlighting serious issues that underpin the need to return to school — including rising rates of abuse, teenage pregnancy, the erosion of confidence and rampant harmful practices committed against girls — she declared: “I am here to tell Governments today that it is not enough to declare that girls must go back to school, we must also invest in systems and structures that enable girls’ holistic re-entry.”  Those include protection from female genital mutilation and gender-based violence, the provision of school uniforms and sanitary towels and scholarships to fund their education.  Investments are also needed in community-driven organizations, which fill the gap between school, parents and Governments. 

The larger global community also has a role to play, she continued, calling for an urgent re-evaluation of funding matrices for girls’ education and a prioritization of direct, unrestricted funding for women and girls’ organizations.  “Even before COVID-19, we were not getting it right,” she said, adding “we cannot assume we are doing enough”.  She called for a radical shift in implementing the global development goals aimed at getting all girls in school, along with the structural support systems needed to allow them to succeed.  Those changes will be crucial for the many women and girls currently existing with nothing but a glimmer of hope, she stressed.

Interactive Discussion I

The Youth Forum then held an interactive discussion on the theme “#YouthLead: Youth People in the Driver’s Seat to Build Back Better”.  Moderated by Ahmad Alhendawi, Secretary-General, World Organization of the Scout Movement, it featured presentations by Carlos A. Alvarado Quesada, President of Costa Rica; Nadine Khaouli, Co-Founder, Kafe be Kafak and Member of Generation 17; Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization (WHO); and Chandra Tripura, Founder and Director, Hill Resource Centre.

Mr. ALHENDAWI, noting that the Scout Movement has seen many crises in its history, said that the pandemic has been a wake-up call that exposed vulnerabilities at many different levels.  Stressing the importance of building back better, he emphasized that an interdependent world is only as strong as its weakest link.

Mr. ALVARADO said that instead of thinking in terms of the moment, people should consider how they are the result of what others have built before them.  In that regard, young people are not mere spectators, but true actors.  Today’s generation is the best educated in history, with the highest degree of knowledge in all fields, but education must be widespread in all regions without exception.  That means building more infrastructure and committing more financing for education, for girls as well as boys, and for Governments to commit to putting education first.  He added that a transformational shift is under way concerning gender relations, particularly among men, and that young people must be leaders in that respect.

Ms. KHAOULI said that the past year has been difficult for her country, Lebanon, due to political and economic instability, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Beirut explosion that killed more than 200 people and displaced thousands of families.  In response to the blast, young Lebanese went out onto the streets, helping the injured and clearing up the rubble, but who was there to help them rebuild their own shattered lives?  Today’s development challenges are complex everywhere, but the contexts are different.  She emphasized that youth must be supported and empowered to create a better and more sustainable future so that they can think in terms of staying in their own countries rather than leaving for other places.  Never underestimate the impact of collective yet united young voices, she added.

Mr. TEDROS said that a youth-focused recovery from the pandemic is the right approach — one that must involve people of all ages.  Noting that more than half the world’s population is under the age of 30, he said that the skills, energy and ideas of young people are essential for expanding health care, including via digital means, and addressing pollution and climate change.  He added that WHO, through its website, will soon be looking for applicants to join its Youth Council, which will provide advice to the agency’s leadership.  He also looked forward to the Global Youth Summit, to take place on 23 to 25 April in a virtual format.

Ms. TRIPURA, presenting the perspective of indigenous youth, said that long before the pandemic, indigenous communities have experienced mental and physical health issues.  Their livelihoods have been based on natural resources, especially forests, but due to deforestation and unplanned development, their futures are at risk.  Many indigenous peoples, particularly youth and women, lost their jobs due to COVID-19, but the pandemic also revealed how resilient indigenous people can be as they made use of traditional knowledge.  Going forward, building back better will require recognition of indigenous self-government, protection of indigenous territories and meaningful participation in decision-making, monitoring and evaluation processes, she added.

Mr. ALVARADO, responding to a question from Ms. KHAOULI about the changes that young people must make to be better prepared for the future, said that education is key.  However, there are two other challenges.  One is mental health, he said, noting the potential hazards of social media as a cause of depression and a sense of alienation from the world.  That is something that needs to be looked at closely.  Another challenge — one that can never be forgotten — is climate change, as young people are going to be facing its consequences.  Quoting the science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, he advised young people “to do what you love, and love what you do”.  To be an agent of change is to get the best paycheque of all — a sense of purpose and a sense of direction in life, he added.

Interactive Round Table I

Next, the Forum convened a virtual, interactive round table on the theme “Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals with and for Youth”.  Moderated by Jayathma Wickramanayake, the Secretary-General's Envoy on Youth, it featured interventions by ministers and Government delegates, as well as representatives of youth organizations, focusing on national progress, gaps and next steps in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Ms. WICKRAMANAYAKE, opening the discussion, said today’s session will focus on the participation of young people in building back better after COVID-19 while also taking stock of the broader implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals from a youth perspective.  She urged the thousands of young people watching from around the world to take to social media and use the chat box on the Forum’s online feed, to share which Goals they are working on and what they see as the most crucial priorities going forward. 

Outlining the contents of the first progress report of the United Nations “Youth2030” strategy — launched in 2018 by the Secretary-General to boost impact and expand global, regional and country-level action to address young people’s needs and rights, and to ensure their engagement and participation in the 2030 Agenda — she said it found that the United Nations response to youth’s needs during the pandemic was rapid and robust.  While the report demonstrated that United Nations country teams are engaged in planning, coordination and implementation for youth as beneficiaries, she said the Organization stands to improve its engagement with youth themselves.  She also announced the launch of a “one-stop-shop” online portal for comprehensive information about the Youth2030 strategy.

A diverse array of speakers, ranging from Vice Presidents to grassroots activists, took the floor over the subsequent three hours to examine progress in achieving some of the Sustainable Development Goals’ targets most relevant to youth — especially Goal 1 on ending poverty, Goal 2 on eradicating hunger, Goal 3 on health and well-being, Goal 8 on decent work, Goal 10 on reducing inequalities and Goal 12 on responsible consumption and production.  Many representatives outlined their countries’ redoubled efforts to engage young people in these critical areas, while praising youth leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Several speakers also called for deeper, more meaningful Government consultation with youth, stressing that only young people can drive the equitable, sustainable COVID-19 recovery that future generations deserve.

Nantaporn Thirapongphaiboon, Youth Delegate from Thailand, said inclusiveness is the key to accelerating change and allowing young people to contribute effectively to the 2030 Agenda.  “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought us closer to a more serious reality, and we must not go back to that old ‘normal’, where different generations were separated in working towards a sustainable future,” she said.  Today, a significant number of youth-led grassroots initiatives and social movements are supporting the global recovery.  Describing her own work at Thailand’s Food Rescue Foundation, where the majority of staff are young people, she said the group partners with the private sector to distribute food to the neediest families affected by the pandemic.  Young people in Thailand have also participated in Government policy dialogues to raise their voices and share their concerns, she said.

Zeljka Josic, State Secretary for Demography and Youth of Croatia, prior to giving the floor to one of her country’s youth delegates, said young people have suffered most around the world from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic — especially from movement restrictions, home-schooling and social distancing.  Many lost their jobs and household incomes.  Noting that they are also at higher risk of developing mental health problems as a result, she said Croatia launched a project aimed at providing professional psychological support for young people, including in rural and remote areas.

Taking the floor next, Josip Perkušić, Youth Delegate from Croatia, said his participation in today’s national shared statement is an excellent example of the Sustainable Development Goals in action.  Noting that, like other nations, Croatia is confronting great health and economic challenges amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the way forward is through collective action by the whole international community, aimed at maintaining just, peaceful and inclusive societies.

Sandrine Gouvêa, Regional Youth Focal Point of the Major Group for Children and Youth in support of the United Nations Food Systems Summit, said the novel and complex challenges faced since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic have included rising rates of hunger.  In her country, Brazil, 19 million people went hungry in 2020.  Achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2 on eradicating hunger will require more action and political will, she said, calling upon national, regional and local Governments to work together to develop potent and achievable action plans, in full consultation with marginalized groups including youth, women and people of colour.  “Having marginalized voices as their guide is the key to just and sustainable recoveries,” she emphasized.

Itinterunga Rae Bainteiti, of the Pacific Youth Council, said more than half of the Pacific region’s population are under the age of 25.  In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic touched the lives of peoples and communities in countless ways, impacting employment, education, entrepreneurship, mental health and the tourism sector in the Pacific region.  Against that backdrop, he called on Governments to enact policies and legislation that are reactive and solution-based; support evidence-based research on the impacts of COVID-19 on youth mental health and well-being; invest in economic recovery plans that support youth entrepreneurs; and finance youth-led initiatives, including those focused on climate change, migration and displacement.  In that regard, he pointed out that the Pacific is one of the world’s most disaster-prone regions, with more than 50,000 people likely to flee their homes annually due to extreme weather patterns.  Adapting to those challenges requires not only local and national actions, but also transnational responses, he stressed.

Anne Muthoni, a civil society youth activist from Kenya, said her team of 20 youth champions works to support the design and evaluation of effective, quality humanitarian action.  “The COVID-19 pandemic has seen young people more than ever responding to emergencies,” she said, noting that her group’s grantees are still doing impactful work ranging from empowering young people living with albinism and HIV/AIDS to supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) individuals.  Young people have collaborated with Governments to deliver accurate COVID-19 information through radio talk shows and have also used interpersonal communication materials to encourage community members to get tested for the virus.  However, she said, a chronic lack of funding and sustainable income models still remains the biggest challenge facing youth-led organizations.  In that vein, she urged Governments to provide sustainable financing to youth groups, stressing:  “COVID-19 isn’t the last emergency we are experiencing or going to experience.”

Yuldashev Oybek Bahodirjon ogli, Director of the Youth Affairs Agency of Uzbekistan, agreed that amid the COVID-19 pandemic young people are at an even greater risk of being left behind in the fields of education, employment, economic opportunities, health and well-being — all during an important developmental stage of their lives.  Emphasizing that the planet’s future depends on what kind of adults children will become, he outlined a range of Government measures aimed at intensifying dialogue with youth, guaranteeing decent jobs and providing meaningful leisure activities. 

Jorge Arreaza Montserrat, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Venezuela, pointed out that more than 35 per cent of his country’s population falls into the category of young people.  Outlining Government programmes aimed at providing opportunities for study, work, housing and political engagement, he said young people in Venezuela are fully able to realize their human rights.  Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, his country joined the call to make the COVID-19 vaccine a global public good, even as it struggled under a set of cruel, inhumane unilateral coercive economic measures imposed upon it.  Denouncing those measures as crimes against humanity, he reiterated Venezuela’s determination to continue working with the United Nations towards a social transformation and “reboot of multilateralism” — rendered even more urgent by COVID-19 — in which young people play their rightful leadership role.

Filsan Abdullahi, Minister for Women, Children and Youth of Ethiopia, focusing her intervention on Goal 10, reducing inequalities, said inequality in its varied forms — between developed and low income countries, between the rich and the less fortunate, between men and women, and boys and girls — has been a persistent concern “from time immemorial”.  While some progress has been made in that regard, there is now evidence the COVID-19 crisis is making inequalities worse.  The pandemic’s economic and social impacts have been heavily felt by women and young people, and youth are experiencing a higher level of mental stress amid lockdowns and social distancing measures.  In Ethiopia, peace and security also remains high on the agenda, as young people suffer disproportionately from the effects of conflict.  Going forward, both conflict and climate change impacts must be resolved in ways that include young people and reduce inequalities both between countries and within respective borders, she said.

João Paulo Rebelo, Secretary of State for Youth and Sports of Portugal, speaking on behalf of the European Union, stressed that youth cooperation is “in the EU’s DNA”.  One of its most iconic initiatives, the Erasmus+ programme, has opened opportunities for millions of young people for years.  However, to make youth engagement work better, “we need more than listening”.  The world needs new thinking and new ways of connecting and learning from each other.  For that reason, the European Union recently also launched a Youth Sounding Board for International Partnerships, which will provide a space where young people can be meaningfully involved in the bloc’s external action and international cooperation.

Tumiso M. Rakgar, Minister for Youth Empowerment, Sport and Culture Development of Botswana, emphasized that young people are an incredible asset to any country and are worth investing in.  Spotlighting the many socioeconomic shifts experienced amid by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said Botswana’s young people are becoming accustomed to their new realities even as the country struggles to reduce poverty and hunger, promote decent work and economic growth, reduce inequalities and promote sustainable production.  He drew attention to Botswana’s ongoing review of its National Youth Policy and Action Plan, with technical support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and outlined the ways the country is working to combat its high youth unemployment rate. 

Shamma bint Suhail Faris Mazrui, Minister of State for Youth Affairs of the United Arab Emirates, advocated for laws requiring people under the age of 30 to be represented on every corporate board.  Recalling that her country created over 250 youth circles with direct connections to decision-makers, she said its leaders listened, organized and acted on behalf of young people throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.  Among other things, she called for radical action by Governments in sharing perspectives on how to inspire and learn from one another in the “new world” after COVID-19, and in bringing young people from all walks of life into their delegations.   

Vanja Udovicic, Minister for Youth and Sports of Serbia, said his Government supported a range of projects critical for young people even before the adoption of the 2030 Agenda.  Among other things, it recently boosted its funding of initiatives aimed at connecting young people with employment and training opportunities.  During the pandemic, its awareness-raising campaigns reached young people around the country and online.  The Government also organized many digital activities, youth exchanges and clubs.  Its Volunteers Online campaign also allowed young people to donate nearly 40,000 volunteer hours to support their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

Among other speakers who outlined their “new normal” amid the pandemic was Sara Ishaq Hassan, Director of Human and Financial Resources at the Youth and Sports Affairs Ministry of Bahrain, who said her Government has adapted to COVID‑19 by shifting many of its programmes to virtual platforms.  Despite those challenges, it remains committed to accelerating the development of Bahraini youth.  Young people contributed positively to the Youth Summit 2020, an event that brought young Bahrainis together to provide constructive solutions to various challenges facing the Government.  In addition, the Ministry for Youth and Sports Affairs encourages a fair, competitive and open environment through national clubs and youth empowerment centres, and conducts studies on how to enhance youth engagement, she said.

Anja Fortuna, Vice President of the European Youth Forum, said decent work for youth has been a significant global challenge since the 2008 financial crisis. Today, that issue has been further exacerbated by the current pandemic, which threatens to severely impact the progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 8.  In Europe, young people already had the highest unemployment rate of any group, as well as the highest risk of poverty, and were just beginning to see improvements in those trends when COVID-19 struck.  Getting back on track will require learning from the mistakes of the 2008 crisis response, in which austerity and relaxed labour laws allowed poverty to flourish.  “Our COVID-19 recovery will only be sustainable if it encompasses youth and recognizes their rights, moving away from the ‘any job is better than no job’ mentality to a focus on quality employment,” she said.

Also participating were ministers, first ladies, senior Government officials, youth delegates and other speakers from Colombia, Denmark, Portugal (in his national capacity), Mongolia, Palau, Thailand (in his national capacity), Guatemala, the Russian Federation, Georgia, Tajikistan, Zimbabwe, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Philippines, Fiji, South Sudan, Honduras, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Malta, Kazakhstan, Hungary, Brazil, Ukraine, Nigeria, Austria, Turkey, Vanuatu, Canada, Iceland, Uruguay and China, as well as others who delivered statements without interpretation services.  

Representatives of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Ibero-American Youth Organization also delivered remarks.

For information media. Not an official record.