Today, Oct. 24, we are celebrating United Nations Day and the 75th anniversary of the United Nations at a moment of great disruption worldwide, driven by the profound human, social, and economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. This historic crisis has resurfaced existing inequalities and injustices, provoked despair, polarization, and enhanced an exclusive form of nationalism. But it has also created political momentum to demonstrate that multilateral cooperation, while in need of revitalization, is a key vehicle for responding to global challenges. This belief was reflected by 87 percent of the more than one million participants (half of whom were under 30) in the United Nations (U.N.) Secretary-General’s UN75 global conversation, who responded that global cooperation is needed more than ever. This consensus, coupled with the demographics of the respondents, suggests that intergenerational co-leadership is key for reclaiming multilateralism and advancing recovery responses guided by its principles.
At a time when the world’s fate hinges on effective global and regional cooperation, young people are showing remarkable support for global and regional systems rooted in solidarity, cooperation, justice, and human rights. From making viral the Chilean anti-rape anthem calling against gender violence and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement against racism to, most recently, leading a social movement (#EndSARS) against police brutality in Nigeria, youth mobilization is at an all-time high.
Rethinking Youth Participation in Governance
But this generation is also ready to move beyond street protests and play an active role in politics and governance too. This is an opportunity to channel their energy towards engagement in recovery efforts and take forward the renewed vision for collective global action and the 12 commitments presented in the UN75 Declaration, which was adopted by world leaders on Sept. 21 during the U.N. General Assembly. However, young people’s participation in governance and policymaking does not take place in a vacuum. We must shift from shallow discourses emphasizing the need to work with youth, to create preconditions that, in fact, enable young people of all backgrounds to shape policies and help build solutions for current and future generations.
Thinking about youth only as the future is as outdated as the empty rhetoric praising youth participation in decision-making. This sole emphasis on the future has hindered us from thinking that youth, like adults and the elderly, can also be the present leaders with creative, courageous, and oftentimes visionary ideas to share. Leadership in governance, therefore, should not belong only to one group or the other, it should rather be manifested as the synergy between them.
In our latest report, Greater Inclusion of African Youth in Public Service and Governance, we term this approach “intergenerational co-leadership,” a strategy which promotes working across generations to co-design, co-create, and co-produce solutions for national, regional, and global challenges that are aligned with young people’s view of the future. This approach would help to address the generational gap that persists in governance. Africa, for instance, is the youngest continent in the world (70 percent of the population is under 30), with an average median age of 19.7 years. By contrast, only three percent of the continent’s population is over the age of 65. Despite this demographic, the average age of heads of states across the continent was 64.5 years in 2018. This clearly denotes a striking and undeniable generational gap in governance. This particular study was conducted on the African continent, but youth across the world face similar barriers (such as age restrictions, and high election nomination fees and campaign costs) to accessing governance structures.
International Institutions and Youth Participation: The UN75 Global Governance Forum
In contrast, international institutions and organizations have had some recent success in integrating youth into co-leadership structures. Institutions such as the United Nations and the African Union have been able to make significant progress in elevating young people and professionals’ voices in the system. UN75 served as a platform to amplify these efforts. For example, on Sept.16–17, I was delighted to serve as an Honorary Co-Chair of the UN75 Global Governance Forum. The Forum served as a platform to convene stakeholders from civil society, youth, scholars, policy entrepreneurs, U.N. system bodies and Member States, the private sector, and philanthropic institutions to honor the principles of multilateral cooperation and raise the ambition of the UN75 Declaration.
The Forum’s outcome document, the Roadmap for the Future We Want & UN We Need: A Vision 20/20 for UN75 and Beyond, presents 20 new multi-stakeholder partnerships (the “partnership track”) and 20 institutional, policy, and normative change proposals (the “innovation track”) to enhance global governance. Each partnership will advance one or more of the UN75 Political Declaration’s 12 commitments with a bias towards action. Proposed changes were developed across the Forum’s thematic pillars of sustainable development, peace and security, human rights and humanitarian action, and climate governance.
The Partnership Track
Among the 20 partnership proposals presented by the Forum are several that focus on expanding and revitalizing youth involvement in global governance. For example, the nongovernmental organization Search for Common Ground will lead “The Promise of Youth as Peacebuilders: Making the Case for Partnership and Investment.” This partnership aims to (1) transform social norms about young people (from perpetrators and burdens to partners); (2) strengthen institutional capacities to support young people’s agency, voice, and leadership at the front lines of violent conflict; and (3) improve investments that support youth-led action focused on shaping more just and peaceful societies.
Another youth and civil society-focused partnership will be led by the civil society coalitions, UN2020 and Together First, and the think tank, the Stimson Center. This partnership, “Enhancing Civil Society Space at the United Nations,” seeks to examine the efficacy of establishing a dedicated high-level champion at the U.N. to be appointed by the Secretary-General who would facilitate and implement a system-wide strategy to protect and enhance civil society (including youth-led organizations) space and participation across the organization.
The Innovation Track
One key policy innovation proposal calls for global support for renewable energy/climate action plans to respond to the economic consequences of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis. The policy recommendation notes that “COVID-19 has caused job losses, financial insolvency, and economic recession. In order to have a stable, sustainable recovery, a global plan (with strong regional and national dimensions) must target both economic and environmental sectors to create a green economy.” The proposal recommends a Common Risk Mitigation Mechanism to “aggregate the financial needs of developing countries regarding renewable energy and create a global market of renewable investment.” The proposal also advocates a Global Green Hydrogen Alliance to improve supply chains and utilization of hydrogen to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Lastly, it calls for the creation of a Global Risk Pooling Reserve Fund to “provide an insurance cushion for climate recovery, by pooling and reducing risk, lowering the cost of financing recovery, and creating a risk-resilience framework.”
Building the Next 75 Years of Global Governance
The consideration and implementation of these innovation proposals and partnerships will, in part, be determined by global dynamics, geopolitical shifts, but also the power and influence of non-hegemonic powers, such as transnational civil society. Increasingly, civil society, international institutions, and regional organizations can and must integrate youth voices throughout their processes, not just to imagine the future but to reimagine the present. The recommendations above reflect the contributions of intergenerational co-leadership throughout the Forum. This practice must be carried forward and expanded to meet the challenges we face.
Exclusionary nationalist, nativist, and populist policies have fueled an “anti-multilateralist turn” in recent years, but the health crisis can serve as an inflection point to push back. This is the time to be ambitious and claim a reimagined multilateralism. We need to recover stronger from the current crisis, but we will do so only by collectively upgrading and making more inclusive our current global governance system. The feedback received from the UN75 global conversation, the myriad ideas proposed, and partnerships formed over the past year, as well as the commitments made by member states through the UN75 Declaration, represent only the first phase of process. Young people stand ready to seize upon this momentum and co-lead the post-UN75 implementation phase.