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Beyond Borders: Youth as Architects of Sustainable Global Ties

Blog Joint Futures 42, 31.01.2024

Youth cooperation has great potential to create a more interconnected world, argue Fidelis Stehle and Nadia Islam Tedoldi. This does not just have symbolic value – it is a strategic investment that recognises the interconnectedness of global challenges and the need to work together.


Sustainable solutions must be developed with and by young people

Young people today are already the world’s largest population group, numbering 1.2 billion. At the same time, young people are vulnerable, and they are growing up during a time of multiple crises. They are also members of the generation that must live with today’s negative developments the longest. Young people are rarely listened to and carry even less weight in political decision-making. The rights and interests of future generations are taken even less seriously.

However, members of the young generation are the change-makers and leaders of today and tomorrow. They have grown up in a globalised and digitalised world, and they are a critical resource for the innovation and action required for urgent change.

It is not about nice to have, it is about rights and better solutions

Young people are not only agents of change, they are also holders of internationally recognised rights and therefore need to be involved in decision-making processes. This requires inclusive and intersectional approaches. These must take into account that young people around the world are different and have different needs and interests. Here, it is particularly important not only to allow more privileged young people to have their say – as is often the case (e.g. in many youth delegate programmes) – but also to consider and find solutions that allow less-privileged young people from different socio-economic, regional, cultural and education backgrounds to participate and have their say, leaving no one behind. Addressing these issues requires a commitment to inclusivity and equal opportunities for all children and young people.

The current triple planetary crisis and global injustice are the result of an unequal distribution of resources, exploitation, colonialism and over-consumption. This results in inter- and intragenerational injustices, with the impacts of climate change disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable, who have the least responsibility for causing human-induced climate change. As young people are particularly vulnerable and affected by the consequences of climate change – such as the loss of schooling opportunities due to extreme weather events or droughts – it is essential to involve them in this and other decisions that will affect their futures.

Addressing this issue requires meaningful youth participation in settings where their voices are recognised and valued at the global level. Participation here means including young people’s perspectives in decision-making processes for a better future. But what does that look like in practice?

Meaningful youth participation is a process, not an event

Youth themselves must decide how they will participate – where and how exactly they want to get involved and contribute. Youth participation through self-organised and democratic youth organisations, acting as equal and independent partners, is a good way of doing this. In addition to these bottom-up approaches, there is also a need for initiatives and frameworks to promote youth participation by governments and international organisations, including the United Nations and its Member States. The recent policy brief referring to “Our Common Agenda” identifies some key principles for bottom-up as well as top-down approaches: Rights-based, Security, Institutional embedding and mandate, Designated places (not just separate processes), Needs-based resources, Transparency, Access for all, Voluntary, Easy access to all necessary information, Reciprocal accountability, Diversity and inclusion. Unfortunately, these basic principles are rarely fully realised, not in the implementation of German-African partnerships, nor in most UN youth delegate programmes, as the Global Youth Voices Report shows.

There is no such thing as “the youth” – youth is diverse

Enriching dialogue, cultural exchange and an understanding of shared responsibilities are the basis for initiatives that transcend geographical boundaries. Exchanges between international youth organisations in global activities, such as the World Scout Jamboree and the cooperation between youth delegates from different continents, are just two of many good examples. Mutual learning builds on the strengths of each region and uses innovative solutions for collective benefit. A major blind spot in addressing the needs of young people is the tendency to overlook the diversity of youth perspectives. Failure to recognise and address this diversity results in policies and programmes that are ill-suited to the specific needs of different youth populations and do not adequately address the nuances within this demographic group. Initiatives need to move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach and actively seek input from a wide range of young voices to create inclusive and effective engagement strategies.

A deeper dive into these perspectives reveals the unique challenges African youth face in their quest for global engagement. Access to information and resources varies widely: limited internet connectivity, inadequate education infrastructure and resources, and socio-economic disparities contribute to a digital divide that affects African youth’s access to knowledge. In addition, the systems that African youth must navigate are shaped by unique socio-political contexts resulting from the aftermath of historical legacies, uneven economic development and political instability. Recognising these differences is critical to fostering truly inclusive global cooperation. Understanding the diverse realities of African youth is essential for policymakers, as it provides insights that can inform more effective and targeted engagement strategies, such as diverse advisory panels that establish collaborations with local organisations and foster community forums characterised by strong accountability mechanisms.

Collaboration and empowerment

The role of civil society, and youth in particular, in decision-making processes is paramount. Although governments may be cautious and critical, meaningful youth engagement is a strategic imperative that offers significant benefits, especially for the sustainability and equity of decisions, society, the economy, and democracy and democratisation. Making this a reality requires participation and empowerment – from the local to the international level – and a strengthening of democracy, direct participation and citizen participation, in which the involvement of vulnerable and marginalised people, especially children and youth, must always be central. This also ensures that young people are involved in decision-making in a meaningful and inclusive way. This requires special spaces for youth participation, such as youth councils, but also genuine involvement in the actual decision-making processes.

Innovative solutions and fresh perspectives from young people not only enhance the relevance of policies but also contribute to the overall resilience and adaptability of our communities. When young people are involved in decision-making, their participation not only builds the capacity to foster leadership and critical thinking skills, but also cultivates a culture of dynamic civic engagement. The representation of diverse youth voices ensures comprehensive decision-making, thereby avoiding overlooking the specific needs of young people and recognising the multifaceted benefits, including economic development and adopting global perspectives. Embracing young people’s potential in decision-making, from the ground level to the top, paves the way for a society that thrives on diversity, innovation and the shared commitment of all its members. Programmes such as the CRISP East Africa Delegates Programme offer a tangible solution, demonstrating that youth engagement is collaborative rather than adversarial. The German government should engage in dialogue to convince African governments of its value and strongly support such initiatives, which not only build the capacities of young people at all levels, but also empower them to actively participate in shaping future advocates for human rights and democracy.

How can German policy act and empower?

It must be recognised that youth participation leads to just and better solutions and is not a “nice to have”. This requires a global expansion and strengthening of youth participation in decision-making at all levels. At the UN level, it must be a prerequisite for all decision-making processes. Germany and Namibia, as co-facilitators of this September’s World Summit for the Future, can set a good example here by firmly anchoring and mainstreaming this important issue.

In addition, UN youth delegate programmes should no longer be implemented primarily in the wealthy countries of the Global North; we need the global and diverse perspectives of the world’s youth. In this context, inequalities must not be reproduced – equitable and inclusive partnerships are needed. One way of doing this could be for countries to cooperate in order develop meaningful and democratic youth delegate programmes. Here, Germany can further expand and optimise its support and, for example, finance self-organised and democratic youth delegate programmes (together with local groups and independent democratic youth councils) with partner countries. One option could be a joint UN youth delegate programme with Namibia, implementing the Core Principles for the Summit of the Future and the UN General Assembly.

Fidelis Stehle is Germany’s UN Youth Delegate for Sustainable Development. Nadia Islam Tedoldi is the UN Youth Representative for Uganda with the AUNYD East Africa Programme.

Responsibility for the content, opinions expressed and sources used in the articles and interviews lies with the respective authors.