Opinion: Fearless optimism — the power of youth in the UN's new normal

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File photo by: @thiszun

In the context of the new normal that has unfolded post-COVID-19, and as we plan and rebuild to recovery, what does the future of the United Nations look like to you? To answer this question, we must go back to the beginning.

2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the signing of the U.N. charter — an agreement built upon a war that swept the world into mistrust, hatred, and destruction. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, history is repeating itself.

The new normal has exposed the fragility of the global balance in a world that is increasingly fragmented. It has exposed the worst of humanity by exacerbating inequality and climate change. And most of all, it has exposed the U.N.’s own weaknesses in its painfully slow response.

The U.N. is in dire need of modernization, and from this crisis we are forced either to fail or to evolve. The outcome lies in the future generation.

Young people are powerful in their fearless optimism — an optimism that 75 years prior believed in peace after a raging world war. As similar world reordering repeats itself, today’s youth can see beyond the crisis: A recent poll indicated that 93% of young participants believed the U.N. would see its centennial year.

It is the U.N.’s duty to lower the ladder down to unheard voices, and it can do this by using young people’s greatest tool: technology.

While youthful optimism may be dismissed as naivety or lack of experience, it is nonetheless revolutionary. Youth figures such as Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg are perfect examples, alongside millions of untold stories of local young actors who share the same passion and belief in a better future.

Behind the scenes are universities and think tanks filled with young academics who can provide fresh perspectives to U.N. consultations and young entrepreneurs who can guide creative business solutions through bottom-up leadership. On the streets are young activists braving uncomfortable issues such as gender and race, most recently in the largely youth-led #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movement.

It is evident that young people can make change when systems won’t, and with an outdated system of its own, the U.N. may look no further than its youth talent to revitalize its approach.

The inevitable process of digitalization, which the virus has only accelerated, is further changing the world of work and the way people interact. Technology promises agility and connectivity, and in a rapidly transformative digital age, the U.N. must adapt. While new precautions will need to be enforced to create a safe online space, the efficiency of technology promises a quicker response to crises, as well as a medium to communicate and rebuild global solidarity.

Can the UN establish a virtual new normal?

COVID-19 has changed the way the United Nations conducts its business. The transition from large conference rooms to Zoom meetings has been bumpy and wrought with transparency concerns, U.N. observers say.

Young people are at the heart of this technological movement, being the most active online users and two times more networked worldwide. Technology also plays a central role in young people’s global rise to prominence. It has helped them to mobilize and collaborate, and it has given them a voice where before they had none.

This is crucial considering the average age in parliament is 53 years old when almost half the global population is under 30 years of age, meaning young people are never at the center of political decision-making. It is the U.N.’s duty to lower the ladder down to unheard voices, and it can do this by using young people’s greatest tool: technology.

Young people are therefore the co-creators of the future we want, a future that fulfills the U.N.’s core vision of peace, equality, and development. In order to empower these local young actors, the U.N. needs to first provide the foundations by dedicating its current resources to the Sustainable Development Goals.

Post-COVID-19, this is more crucial than ever given that the world’s most overcrowded, deprived areas with poor sanitation and health care have suffered most. In order for young people to actualize their potential, they must be freed from the constraints of poverty, malnutrition, and illiteracy.

Finally, as a symbol of peace, the U.N. must stand for remembrance of the current crisis. While we look to our youth and technology for the future, the past and its powerful lessons must not be forgotten.

Ensuring that the suffering humanity has endured remains only a memory is an aim shared across the world; in the aftermath of a global crisis, nations stand in solidarity as they did when the U.N. was first created. With the lessons of today, and the world’s shared vision and youthful hope, the U.N. can rebuild not just to recovery, but build back stronger than ever before.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Maisie Zheng

    Maisie Zheng is an 18-year-old completing a bachelor's degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Maisie is the U.K. representative for U.K.-ASEAN partnerships at the ASEAN Youth Organisation and sits at the head of the editorial board, as well as working on the communications team of Advocates for International Development. As an advocate for youth engagement, she is also a current member of the Common Futures Conversation platform at Chatham House, engaging with policymakers to help pioneer solutions to current global issues alongside other young people.