Last week I was among the 700 participants from 160 countries gathered in Baku, Azerbaijan with for the First Global Forum on Youth Policies. Government officials, U.N. representatives, experts, practitioners and young people deliberated policy matters of the world’s youth — a demographic that constitutes a quarter of the global population and represents the largest generation in human history.
The forum, a first of its kind, was co-convened by several parties including the Office of the U.N. Envoy on Youth, UNESCO, UNDP and the Council of Europe to deliberate national and global youth policy: why they matter, what elements they should contain and issues they should address, how they should be implemented.
Why? It is (or should be) a no-brainer. More than 85 percent of our young people live in developing countries, emerging economies and fragile states. Without question, their fate is highly consequential to the landscape and trajectory of international economics, politics and security. At a time when inequality within and between nations is untenable, Magdy Martínez-Solimán, U.N. assistant secretary-general and former Spanish deputy minister for youth, lauded the ability of youth policies to promote inclusion.
“A national youth policy is essential as a social investment that provides opportunity, protects the most vulnerable of our young citizens, and strengthens the community,” she said. “It makes societies more equal.”
Often seen as the “next” generation, youth today are also very much the “now” generation. Though still underappreciated in national and international agendas, growth, prosperity and peace is to a significant extent dependent on whether they are well-educated, gainfully employed, healthy, safe, informed, and civically and politically empowered. Unfortunately, however, the promise in youth is often overshadowed — and in some cases undermined — by absent, underresourced or ineffective policies that lead to weak institutions and systems that are unfriendly to or inadequate in serving specific youth needs or providing the channels of participation that young people need to succeed and contribute to society.
“I call on all governments to help young people participate more fully in civic and public life, and in making decisions that will build a better world,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his opening message.
Comprehensive national youth policies send an important signal of commitment of a government to its young citizens, and also elevate the needs and aspirations of youth in the local, national, regional or global agenda. This helps to reinforce coherent policies and programs, support coordination across government agencies and institutions, leverage and attract resources for increased investment in youth, and set goals and targets that mandate monitoring and evaluation. Most importantly, youth policies provide a platform for meaningful youth engagement in political, economic and social affairs.
As per Youth Policy Labs’ latest mapping in October, 127 of 198 countries — 64 percent — have an active national youth policy, a robust increase from January 2013 when just 99 nations recorded a policy. The United States is among those still without one.
At the forum, Somali Minister of Youth and Sport Khalid Omar, committed to create his country’s first youth policy by mid-2015. In Somalia, 70 percent of the population is under 30, but a lack of economic opportunities and one of the world’s highest unemployment rates is threatening the road to stability.
Of course, simply having a policy on the books does not mean youth needs are being met. Many youth policies do not have informed baselines and lack substantial budgets, accountability, execution and enforcement, and rigorous evaluation. This needs to change.
Throughout three days in plenaries, workshops, and informal conversations and debates, we enthusiastically discussed these issues with technical depth and pragmatism. We shared our best practices and lessons learned. We identified shared challenges and common aspirations, while recognizing situational differences.
See more news on youth empowerment:
For example, while employment issues loom large — and with good reason given the widespread crisis of youth joblessness and idleness — there was consensus that youth should policy be integrated, designed and implemented on a cross–sectoral basis. Emerging evidence suggests that rights, health, education, safety and security, and infrastructure, all affect and are affected by the employment and economic situation among young people. These factors determine the prospects of young people everywhere, and governments must be responsive to their needs.
At the same time, as part of the plenary panel on common denominators, I spoke about need to recognize the uncommonality of denominators, especially in terms of how youth are defined and significance context. For example, youth policy in a low-income or post-conflict environment will necessarily be different from that in an advanced economy as its young people will face different challenges and opportunities.
We also asked ourselves tough questions — how to garner political will and ensure policies have ‘teeth’; how to ensure that the voices and needs of the most marginalized young women and men, boys and girls are heard and distinctly addressed; and importantly, how to ensure that this forum amounts to more than talk.
The forum resulted in the Baku Commitment to Youth Policies, which includes a useful set of guiding principles foundational to youth policies: inclusive, participatory, comprehensive, gender responsive, accountable, evidence-based, fully resourced and rights-based.
“[The] youth sector needs a platform for dialogue, technical support & investment in knowledge management,” Ahmad Alhendawi, the U.N. secretary-general’s envoy on youth, said as he revealed the commitment document. Thus, importantly, it also pledges to create a Global Initiative on Youth Policies to provide much-needed support for the development and implementation of youth policies through technical assistance, sharing of expertise and advocacy.
If implemented and utilized, this commitment, its principal ideas and its 700 “ambassadors” from the forum — including some 45 ministers and deputy ministers — can inform and advance the youth agenda at the national level, as well as in the post-2015 framework, in which the specifics of youth are currently woefully underrepresented — 5 specific mentions across 3 of the 17 goals and 167 targets.
The Baku Commitment and the conversations that led to its creation, show a promising trajectory for youth policy and broader agenda. My main disappointment in the forum came from the lack of international media or outside coverage. The youth agenda will go nowhere if the “true believers” are only speaking to each other — and perhaps why I was motivated to write this column.
It is in everyone’s interest that this changes, because #youthpolicymatters to us all.
Join the Devex community and access more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.