GA President Joseph Deiss meets with Supermodel Alek Wek before the Meeting

To mark the completion of the International Year of the Youth, the United Nations in New York played host to a High Level Meeting on Youth from June 25-26. The meeting was a formal recognition of the increasingly important role young people –defined by the UN as aged 15-24- are playing in the political, economic and demographic fabric of countries. Speaking at the General Assembly, Nigerian Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin from the United Nations Population Fund reaffirmed this, “soon more than a third of the world’s population will be young people, 90% in the developing world”.

Are governments to view this as a challenge or an opportunity? According to Ambassador Zinzou of Benin young people are an agent for change. “Their sensitivity, capacity to mobilize, idealism and willingness to take greater risk renders them a great agent of change for all societies”, he proclaimed. In the wake of the Arab Spring, in which uprisings were catalysed by the younger generations, young people have presented themselves as a challenge to government’s who would deny their human rights but an asset to humanitarian development across the globe. The Tunisian representative, whose country saw protests in 2010 that led to the ousting of the former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, named the country’s youth as “our biggest asset”. The globe has penned its future securely on its young population.

Despite the lauded potential of the world’s youth, the inability to access resources or opportunities to effect change in many countries has left young people blunted in their potential. This has also manifested into widespread incidents of youth unemployment, in Honduras four out of five the unemployed are young people and, according to UNICEF, 81 million young people were unemployed worldwide in 2009. Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe suggested the issue was more prevalent in developed countries. “Young people in developing countries are as talented, entrepreneurial and creative as their counterparts in the developed world but lack the necessary resources” he declared.

A contributor to the problem, suggested the Honduran representative, is government’s detached perception of youth. “We must all vanquish that age old cliché that ‘our youth will be the future’, not just the future but the present belongs to the youth”, he urged. This corresponds to a lack of involvement and representation for young people in political decision-making, a factor identified by the Indonesian representative amongst others. “We need to move on from youth policy to youth engagement and involve youths in decision-making,” he recommended. UN spokeswoman Monique Coleman added her personal opinion, “the greatest challenge to youth development is all of us to take young people seriously.”

The voting age of countries is not necessarily the issue; the majority of countries allow 18-year-olds to vote, including India where 74% of the population are under-35. It is in the higher reaches of policy-making where young people are under-represented, especially considering the majority of policies will affect their futures primarily.

Norwegian delegates at the meeting

Delivering his speech in sign language, the Swedish Youth Delegate regretted there were so few young people representing youth. Honduras would be quick to point out their 26-year-old minister who took the podium, but he was an exception and not a representation. In Sri Lanka, a youth parliament has recently been set up with 335 members representing all ethnic groups, however it is unclear how much power this body has in policy-making. The representative from Switzerland argued that the inclusion of young people in politics gifts governments the asset of a unique opinion. “Young people may not be right at all times but a society that gives them an opportunity may not be wrong at all times” he pointed out.

At the moment 18% of the world is aged 15-24 and this number will grow in the future. Future generations will be forced to confront the globe’s issues, some of which have been delicately ignored by current governments. Countries who invest in this influential body now will place their nation’s future in far better hands. As the representative for Benin puts it, “the 21st century will be the century of human capital, as embodied in young people.” Rather than praise young people for their potential, governments should act upon these words by inviting them to play a part in decision-making. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon himself attests, “increasingly young people are saying to their elders and governments, this is not the world we want.”