If the world really wants to step back from the brink, it had better “walk the walk” towards a more sustainable future for all, young speakers said on Tuesday, as thousands of their counterparts from across the world gathered, in person and online, for the opening of the annual Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum at UN Headquarters in New York.
Their call was answered by top UN officials.
“Our world needs you more than ever,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, in a video message for the event.
Organized by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), the three day forum and its dozens of side events will elaborate on the 2023 theme of accelerating the global recovery from COVID-19 and the full implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at all levels.
Young people are key to building a better future, the Secretary-General said. Indeed, the world’s roughly 1.8 billion young people, aged 10 to 24, make up the largest ever youth generation in history.
Pointing to a new UN policy brief calling on governments to include youth in consultations, he said young people play a critical role in the objectives of Our Common Agenda, his forward-looking action-centred vision for a better, brighter, sustainable future for all.
In this vein, the policy brief calls on Member States to recognize the importance of young people’s perspectives. Youth are also needed “to lend their energy” in preparation for the landmark SDG Summit in September, including in efforts to tackle poverty, he said.
“Today, I urge you to stand up for the SDGs,” he said. “Let’s shape a better future; let’s do it together.”
During the three-day Forum, nearly 800 in-person participants and thousands more online from all over the world will review progress on a range of SDGs, drafting input on how best to drive forward gains on pressing challenges, from building sustainable cities to cementing productive partnerships for fuelling green progress on industry, innovation, and infrastructure.
Deliver youth demands
The Secretary-General’s Envoy for Youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, said she returned from parental leave early just to be part of the dynamic gathering.
“The Forum unfolds against a backdrop of complex global issues, including escalating geopolitical tensions, a relentless climate crisis, persistent poverty,” she said. “To address these challenges, we have repeatedly heard that the world needs more solidarity, cooperation, and meaningful engagement opportunities for all stakeholders.”
This is especially true for young people, who are most often left behind, excluded, and marginalized, she said, urging decision-makers to keep the spirit of the Secretary-General’s ambitious recommendations and strive for concrete commitments and action to deliver on young people’s demands.
She urged every young person to “join forces, utilizing your leadership to elevate and champion the diverse voices and concerns of youth in all our diversity”, making a lasting impact for generations to come.
“We have the responsibility to create a world that is peaceful, just, sustainable, and equitable, leaving no one behind, as envisioned in the 2030 Agenda. In the seven years we have left, we must ensure that all young people are empowered to reach their full potential, have access to the resources needed, and can contribute to decision making at all levels.”
Walking the walk
In a keynote address, Jevanic Henry, a member of the UN Secretary-General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, said “We have wasted the past decade, talking about sustainability, but not truly walking to sustainability.”
While many pandemic-era innovations came from young people, he said “we cannot allow the creation of a post-COVID-19 cemetery of youth ideas which will put the 2030 Agenda in jeopardy.”
The entrepreneurial spirit of this generation and “our capacity to rapidly take forward an idea from paper to reality in the right enabling environment, is unmatched”, he said.
Wondering aloud, he asked what support exists for a young African innovator who wants to use artificial intelligence (AI) to improve water access or how Latin American youth can scale up the use of new solar technology.
“How many of our countries have a dedicated facility young people can tap into to develop the conversion of these ideas into sustainable livelihoods?” he asked, reiterating calls for increased youth investment.
‘We hear you’
Opening the gathering, ECOSOC President Lachezara Stoeva said the priorities Forum participants identify during the next three days will help to determine key actions for the successful implementation of the 2030 Agenda and strengthen commitments to the meaningful youth engagement in the work of the UN.
As ECOSOC “will be your home” during the Forum, she stated that “I can assure you that we hear you, we value you, and we are eager to learn from you.”
Shared visions for change
“You, dear friends, play a key role in shaping our future,” she said. “What we need is immediate, bold and transformative action to reverse course and redirect our energy on accelerating the SDG implementation for and with young people. What is expected of us is to uplift and amplify youth voices around the world. What we need are opportunities for young people to come together and share their visions for change and impactful action.”
“Let’s shape together the world you wish to live in and the future you deserve,” she said.
“As young people today, you are warriors,” said General Assembly President Csaba Kőrösi. “It is the way of the warrior to fight superior odds. You are making your mark in a world overcome by complex, interlinked crises, that have been supercharged by the COVID-19 pandemic, fighting for your lives, your families, your communities, and our planet.”
Fighting those odds “with little more than your voice, your phones, your social media accounts and activities, and your enthusiasm”, he said despite it all, “you are winning”.
Showcasing such successes as the Assembly’s consensus resolution requesting the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an advisory opinion on the legal obligations regarding climate change, he said young people’s ideas are “critical” to get the 2030 Agenda back on track with game-changing solutions.
The Assembly’s decision in September 2022 to call for creating a UN youth office is taking shape, and once established, it will “guarantee that your voices are systematically integrated across the UN system”, he said.
“Now is the time to share your perspectives because now is the time to transform our practices, the way we live, and the way we think about it,” he said.
Launched in 2012 to raise awareness of high youth unemployment rates and explore solutions, the Forum’s success led to its transformation into an annual gathering.
Learn more about the UN’s strategy for engaging the power and energy of young people, Youth2030, here.
Setting a place at the table
The 2023 Youth Forum is taking a close look at progress on a range of SDGs, including how young people’s unique climate action ideas are already yielding results. Here are some of the issues being discussed:
SDG 6: Clean water and sanitation – young people have demonstrated innovative approaches to advance efforts that need to be leveraged and supported with additional investments.
SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy – further engagement of young people in energy-focused processes at the national, regional and international levels is key.
SDG 9: Industry, innovation, and infrastructure – youth are increasingly demonstrating abilities to use technologies for the greater public good, including across the digital landscape.
SDG 11: Sustainable cities and communities – young people have been calling for inclusive urban policies.
SDG 17: Partnerships – young people’s meaningful contributions and participation in decision making will require understanding of the specific challenges they face, and opportunities they offer through their energy, creativity and innovation.