A Quest for Relevance: The United Nations’ Tryst with Youth
BY VANDINIKA SHUKLA
It was an ordinary Monday afternoon when some of my colleagues and I at the United Nations Women’s Headquarters in New York suddenly disappeared from our offices in unison. We rushed to a small conference room at lunch with determination in our pace and long lists of ideas and demands in our notepads. After many emails, bilateral discussions, consistent micro-nudges, and outspoken clashes at every team meeting, the under-secretary general and executive director of UN Women had finally agreed to an internal youth town hall for staff under the age of 30. The urgency of responding to youth inclusion at the workplace, not only in numbers or project mandates but also in strategic decision-making for the organization, was felt by senior management.
This small victory came after almost three years of being the youngest in the room. Coming from a background of youth activism, I felt excited that I “made it inside” and disappointed that I did not see more people like me. I recognized and valued the importance of experience in an institution that doubles as the world’s largest norm-setter and also one of its most intricate bureaucracies. Yet, I could not ignore the dissonance between the UN’s expertise in upholding the highest standards of diversity in its programming and the reality of how the institution engaged with youth—youth interests represented in its programming but not in the voices hired for decision-making.
Arguably, the UN has made significant efforts at responding to youth interests and at creating channels of communication with youth representatives to inform their policy decisions. As one of the few systematic mechanisms of appointing youth within the UN, the secretary-general’s Envoy on Youth serves as a global advocate for addressing the needs and rights of young people and bringing the UN closer to them. Most recently, advocacy related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been centered on making the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development accessible to younger citizens in both rural and urban settings. Engaging youth has been a primary message for the success of the SDGs, with innumerable initiatives involving celebrity influencers, superheroes, translated and interactive handbooks, and cohorts of appointed UN SDG Young Leaders.
The UN is readily placing its future in the hands of the youth and making an active effort to know what the youth think. Yet, there remain many opportunities for multilateral institutions like the UN to give youth direct channels to power. Global governance faces a challenge greater than just the underrepresentation of youth in multilateral institutions or the lack of platforms for them to engage with policy priorities. Recent threats to multilateral governance and demands for UN reform need to be studied in conjunction with the sharp ascent of youth civic engagement. In their quest to remain relevant, and in the context of beleaguered multilateralism, institutions like the UN need to both understand youth outrage and harness youth activism for a new, 21st-century global-governance model.
Action and reform to preserve the future of the UN and youth civic engagement can no longer exist in silos. They need to inform each other’s future and in radically bigger ways.
Exploring these trends draws attention, first, to the risk of tokenism by the UN in its engagement with youth. UN reform needs to bring young people to the decision-making table in positions of power, instead of passively inviting their inputs, ideas, and experiences. Second, youth civic engagement in domestic politics of UN member states will inform transformation of the New York headquarters. Young people need to be more strategic in amplifying their voice and influence within multilateral institutions through significantly more active participation at the local, regional, and nation-state levels. Youth and the UN need each other for improved development outcomes, but the status quo seems to exhibit only a cursory understanding of this bond.
Reconciling Threats to Multilateralism with Youth Civic Engagement
Despite its history of orchestrating humanitarian gains and establishing global norms of peace and cooperation, multilateral governance is on trial. Current events reinforce a narrative of decline for the UN, especially the rising preference of some member-states to return to bilateral agreements. The present US presidential administration’s hostility and skepticism toward binding international agreements on the environment, arms control, and other topics signals a reorientation in US policy and questions traditional notions of collective global security and mutually beneficial trade.
As political scientist Yasha Mounk puts it, “nationalists are in battle with globalists.” Scholars are pointing to threats to democracy and consequently a disruption of norms of global cooperation. From Poland to Venezuela, authoritarian populists have exploited nationalism to disable democracy. In China, Turkey, and Russia, authoritarian leaders have played on nationalist sentiments to concentrate power in their own hands.
However, young people are demonstrating different values. A global youth-led revolution is underway. It includes not only the March for Our Lives demonstrations against gun violence in the United States but also millions of young citizens raising their voices across the world. It includes girls in India demonstrating against police inaction over sexual assaults; young people on the streets of Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, supporting refugees; and Yemeni students demonstrating against a war that has destroyed hundreds of schools and left 2 million children with no education.
Youth-led multilateral movements have had transformative impacts on global governance already. In July 2013, the first-ever youth “takeover” of the UN took place. With Malala Yousafzai’s first public address after being attacked in Pakistan, the UN Youth Assembly marked the beginning of a movement of youth voices drawing the spotlight to issues that matter to them. Malala’s clarion call to “pick up our books and our pens” to “wage a glorious struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism” launched the first steps of advocacy that ultimately led to the success of the Financing the Future: Education 2030 initiative in 2017. At the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly, civil society, member-states, private organizations, and multilateral institutions made commitments to fund education, including the European Union’s commitment to dedicate 8 percent of its humanitarian budget to education in emergencies in 2018, almost double the global average of 3.6 percent.
Future of the UN: Damaged but Not Broken
Pessimism toward multilateral governance does not indicate a decay of these institutions but instead an urgent call for an overhaul of business as usual.
In a telling metaphor, Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, said that after 70 years, the UN is considered a “comfortable part of the international furniture.” Yet, Rudd warns that without the UN, international politics would be left with increasingly brittle state-on-state relationships, with little remaining to mediate, negotiate, or resolve interstate crises when they arise. To stop this impending drift to irrelevance, a UN that responds to the generation that will design the world for the next 70 years will be essential. New paradigms of global governance need young voices to be at the center of UN councils, not simply as a prerequisite constituency that brings them social media traction or a paternalistic afterthought.
In an attempt to make the UN’s 20th-century institutional structure and culture adapt to 21st-century realities, UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced grand proposals to reform the UN at the beginning of his term. Among these was the landmark Resolution on the Repositioning of the UN Development System, adopted by the UN General Assembly in May 2018 to make the UN focus “more on people than process, more on delivery and less on bureaucracy.” Soon after, in September 2018, a UN Youth 2030 Strategy was launched as an initiative to work with youth, ensuring their views inform UN processes., The strategy specifically outlines the UN’s aim to support youth leadership across the organization and build staff awareness and capacity on youth-related issues, including strengthening systemic initiatives like the Youth Focal Point function in UN country teams.
Yet reality on the ground may not be as hopeful. Anshul Tewari is the founder of Youth Ki Awaaz (YKA), India’s largest youth-based citizen media platform with more than 4 million readers every month., When I asked Tewari whether multilateral governance matters to Indian youth today, he answered with a firm “absolutely not.” Tewari explained that, “When the SDGs were launched, one of the main goals of many civil-society organizations was to make them accessible to the general public. Unfortunately, the SDGs are not personal or relatable to the everyday young person because the issues they face on a day-to-day basis are not being actively connected to the SDG commitment that India has made.”
While meaningful engagement with youth beyond tokenism will come from long-term behavioral shifts and leadership within the organization, the UN needs to begin with getting rid of age as a barrier to entry for its boardrooms. Younger voices will bring the realities of their lived experiences, drawing stronger linkages between issues important to them, their country’s international commitments, and the real impact of UN initiatives.
Emerging economies and the new political order may supersede youth as drivers of change in the UN, particularly given the pressure for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council by long-standing proponents of reform like India, Germany, Japan, and South Africa. However, youth—as the future beneficiaries and leaders of global governance—will still remain an important constituency that will determine the sustainability of reform that guarantees UN’s relevance across generations.
Alternatively, however, some youth activists argue that regional governance will be more effective than multilateral governance in influencing policy shifts and ensuring that people feel the benefits of global-governance solutions or international cooperation more directly. With the rise of new economic powers, a multipolar world with less valuable linkages may be making regional networks more relevant than global governance. So, perhaps youth advocates need to knock on these doors instead.
Yentyl Williams, youth activist and founder of the African Caribbean and Pacific Young Professionals Network (ACP YPN), advocates this approach, stressing the comparative advantage of accessibility for regional bodies. Williams argues that “without regional bodies, youth civic engagement at the UN risks being seen as a top-down exercise wherein youth return to their regional, national, and local contexts preaching a foreign gospel of multilateralism and grand ‘goals’ that are abstract.” Williams argues instead that youth engagement must “connect effectively to local contexts.” Williams transmits the ownership of youth inclusion to member-states: “if each diplomatic mission were to have a youth delegate from their country attend meetings, or an internship scheme which allowed young professionals to attend meetings, this could be an effective way of improving representation.”
Voting for Strategic Domino Effects
When threats to democracy shake confidence in multilateral institutions, youth bear the ripple effects. In cautioning about the retreat of democracies, Abramowitz and Repucci argue that “as we look to the future, young people, who have little memory of the long struggles against fascism and communism, may be losing faith and interest in the democratic project, contributing to a dangerous apathy.” Recent voting trends, particularly among the developed nations in the Security Council, reflect a disenchantment among youth that will prove costly to the United Nations and its values. In the 2010 US midterm elections, for example, only 24 percent of millennials (18–29 year olds) voted, compared with 51 percent of Americans aged 30 or over. Similarly, while 64 percent of registered voters aged 18–24 went to the polls in the EU Referendum in Britain, 90 percent of those over 65 voted. Most recently, 2018 US midterm elections showcased progress with 31 percent of voters under the age of 30 turning out to vote, compared to young people representing only 10 percent of the national electoral in the 2014 midterm elections, but turnouts still remained far from ideal.
Politicians tailor their policies according to the demographic distribution of the vote share. Young people tuning out of domestic politics gives political parties more reason to ignore them, leading to administrations whose UN delegations will consequently not represent youth interests either.
John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University Professor Kathryn Sikkink, who studies human rights and global-governance regimes, recommends that “while young people around the world have many contributions to make to global governance, the first of many is to participate extremely actively in their national, state, and local elections.” In stressing that “global citizens are always dual citizens,” Sikkink points to the risks of being a global citizen in this increasingly interconnected world while neglecting our national citizenship responsibilities. Sikkink emphasized that without large voter turnout, the interests of young people will not be reflected in the national elections influencing their government’s position on cosmopolitan issues. National elections of permanent members of the Security Council have a tremendous influence in the direct future of the United Nations and, thus, UN reform as desired by youth, especially in contexts of rising populism. Paradoxically, therefore, the answer to sustaining the future of multilateral governance may be best found in youth civic engagement at the local, regional, and nation-state levels instead of UN hallways. Until young people vote in the UN General Assembly and Security Council as members of their countries’ delegations, we cannot risk apathy in our activism and civic engagement.
Solutions for Engagement
The answer to the puzzle of youth engagement at the UN will involve building power in different ways: youth-led campaigns and movements, structural reforms within the UN, engagement in regional bodies, and simply voting in domestic elections. As the UN opens its doors to direct power for young people, youth must ensure that our values and expectations are represented in institutions that are mandated to act as brokers of a more connected, cooperative, and representative world.
We are witnessing generationally unprecedented forms of activism, with young people of conscience and conviction wearing their social ethics on their sleeves, hearts, and bodies. We are watching the world question institutions that have historically translated equality and compassion to justice and international law. But to find the rising crescendo that moves us from darkness to light, we as youth must save the UN, as it saves us and our values from fragmentation.
Vandinika Shukla is a master in public policy student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and serves as the vice chair of the steering committee of Girls20. She previously worked on policy advocacy and design for gender-responsive implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals at UN Women.
Edited by: Stefan Norgaard
Photo by: Wikipedia
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 Anshul Tewari (founder, Youth Ki Awaaz), interview with the author, 30 January 2019.
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 Yentyl Williams (founder, ACP Young Professionals Network), interview with the author, 30 January 2019.
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 Kathryn Sikkink (professor of human rights policy, Harvard Kennedy School), interview with the author, 13 December 2018.