Turbo-Charging the UN for Agenda2030: No Place for Youth?


In September 2015, 193 world leaders gathered at the United Nations Headquarters in New York to adopt a historic agenda for sustainable development. The agenda, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), aimed at a range of pressing issues from ending extreme poverty to fighting inequality and injustice all while addressing climate change and environmental degradation. Last year marked the official halfway point to the 2030 deadline, yet an assessment of around 140 targets showed that the SDGs are “in deep trouble” with only 15% of the goals on track. In 4 months, this year’s General Assembly will gather at the Summit of the Future to adopt an action-oriented document, and plans to put forward an updated strategy as to how to realize the commitments made in Agenda2030.

Photo of the ECOSOC Youth Forum Delegates
Teaser Image Caption
Delegates at the ECOSOC Youth Forum

While the Summit has enjoyed considerable media coverage, Assistant Secretary-General Felipe Paullier aptly summarises that in reality: “The Summit isn't about what's going to happen in September but what's happening until then”. Preparations for the Summit have been underway for months and contributions to the substance of the outcome document, the “Pact of the Future”, have been channelled through stakeholder conferences, written contributions by the private and public sector, and negotiations with and between member states. These contributions are what will ultimately shape the document the most. One of these preparatory meetings to inform the contents of the Pact and monitor the progress of the SDGs is the ECOSOC Youth Forum which gathered close to a thousand delegates at the UN headquarters and an additional 20,000 online during this year’s forum. 

Youth Engagement at the Forefront

With around 90 SDG indicators deemed to be youth-related, young people have a vested interest in the realisation and success of Agenda2030, yet their engagement remains a work in progress. The main access points for youth to engage with the UN are the Major Group on Children and Youth, the UN Youth Delegate Program with around 90 participating member states, and the newly established UN Youth Office. The Economic and Social Council is the only UN organ with a dedicated space for youth engagement through its annual 3-day Forum. However, all other organs have far less structure, with the Security and Human Rights Council completely lacking a formal mechanism of this kind. 

This year’s ECOSOC Youth Forum mirrored the recurring concerns voiced by younger generations that the existing opportunities for engagement do not prioritise overcoming barriers to inclusivity and diversity by an absence of systematic and structured resourcing to support participation. Participants willing to engage in multilateral processes are expected to volunteer time & pay out-of-pocket expenses, fostering a high turnover rate of participants and inconsistent representation. Furthermore, effective preparation to engage in the decision-making processes proved challenging due to limited access to information in a timely manner, barriers in coordination across youth constituencies and insufficient guidance and training to make it a fruitful debate for all representatives. 

The fact that these concerns, which the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres himself publicly acknowledged in his Brief on Youth Engagement a year ago, acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy at this year’s conference, is in itself a justification why global standards on meaningful youth engagement are still desperately needed. Making these standards a reality will require sufficient time, funding, and a clear framework to support activities. It also should take three specific aspects under consideration: representation, inclusivity and empowerment. Those standards will establish a monitoring and evaluation framework to track progress against the original commitments and should, as per the recommendation of the Secretary-General, include mandatory reporting to the UN General Assembly. Achieving this will necessitate a “shift in mindsets to recognize youth as equal partners in pursuing improved policies and a more equitable society”.  

Looking Ahead

In his brief, Guterres suggests that to put the SDGs back on track, youth needs to become a part of this effort. Therefore, in addition to Standards on Meaningful Youth Engagement, his suggestions include granting formal status and strengthening the mandate of the ECOSOC Youth Forum and creating a Youth in Politics Index to counter the fact that currently only 2.6% of parliamentarians worldwide are below the age of 30. Finally, the Secretary-General recognises that formal youth access to UN bodies should be expanded to organs such as the UN General Assembly. What stuck out regarding the aforementioned ambitions was a quote by Former High Commissioner of Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, reiterating that a seat at the table shouldn’t be the goal in this context. Instead, it should be to “pick the shape of the table”. To elaborate on this metaphor, the scope of engagement opportunities should extend beyond issues deemed of specific relevance to young people and feature access to all UN bodies, especially the Human Rights Council and Security Council, eliminating inconsistent and ad-hoc invitations, fostering transparent communication, and a just and consistent representation.

Finally, to echo the sentiments at the Forum, resources need to be put towards commitments and the focus of the Pact needs to be on implementing change. This includes, but is not limited to, eliminating the expectation of self-funding when organising opportunities for young people to participate in multilateral processes through events such as the Forum or internships. Both categorically exclude a majority of young people as a result of the locality of the headquarters and the absence of remuneration for work undertaken.

“There is no trade-off between meeting the needs of the present and taking into account the needs of the future” 

Antonio Guterres

Above all, the Summit of the Future is a chance to re-think the SDGs, through the lens of intergenerational solidarity, and future-proofing commitments made within Agenda2030. The more than 50% of SDG targets that were classified as weak and insufficient in the latest report  come alongside the knowledge that privilege, poverty, and systemic inequalities transmit powerfully across generations - so achieving the SDG targets is thus not optional. When updating our approach to achieving these commitments it is essential to keep in mind that the future is not knowable and implementation strategies need flexibility to account for inevitable and necessary change. Change, at a scale that is needed to achieve the SDGs within the deadline, will simply not be possible without the buy-in and contributions of a wide range of actors, especially the 1.2 billion young people alive today and future generations who are also the future custodians of the planet, who will lose the most if crises multiply.