Thirty percent of the population of the Arab region are youth between the ages of 15 and 29 years.
The 2018 Arab Forum for Sustainable Development (AFSD) explored the role of youth in a larger framework, linking natural resources, the common good and inter-generational justice and, for the first time, the AFSD agenda included a youth representative in almost all of the Forum’s seven plenary and nine special sessions.
Mitigating risks to inter-generational justice requires policy choices that allow future generations to benefit from natural resources and the common good in the same way past generations have.
Preparing young Arabs to become agents of change is a process that needs to be nurtured early on in life.
The UN’s 2030 Strategy and Global Partnership Initiative for Youth was launched the day before the opening of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly to create a surge of interest in the ways youth can be agents of transformative change in their societies. In this year’s Arab Forum for Sustainable Development (AFSD), this focus was front and center, and participants explored the role of youth in a larger framework, linking natural resources, the common good and inter-generational justice. The AFSD is the Arab region’s platform to consolidate national multi-stakeholders’ ideas and tackle regional issues in a collaborative way. It’s key messages, articulated in an outcome document that was presented at the High-level Political Forum (HLPF) in New York in July, form the voice of the Arab region at the global level.
From 24-26 April, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) based in Beirut, Lebanon, welcomed over 300 representatives from government, civil society, the private sector, international and regional organizations, and youth to discuss pressing issues such as water scarcity, desertification and land degradation within the 2030 Agenda framework, as well as the role of each stakeholder in forging solutions to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Almost all of the 17 SDGs contain a direct reference to natural resources. This is particularly relevant to Arab countries as they face pressing challenges linked to transboundary issues, including water, energy, and migration that are exacerbated by high population growth rates and conflicts. With the number of displaced persons and refugees growing, so is the increasing pressure to manage and preserve natural resources in a more efficient way so that equal access—and basic human rights—are guaranteed for present and future generations.
Added to this increasing pressure are the risks to inter-generational justice. Mitigating these risks requires policy choices that allow future generations to benefit from natural resources and the common good in the same way past generations have. Together with a change in the cultural mindset allowing for meaningful youth involvement, starting at a young age and covering all aspects of the political sphere, these will form the basis for sustainable and resilient societies that are adequately equipped to withstand an impending natural resources crisis.
Thirty percent of the population of the Arab region are youth between the ages of 15 and 29 years, according to the Arab Human Development Report (‘Youth and the prospects for human development in a changing reality’, UNDP, 2016). This demographic reality translates into approximately 105 million people who, together with next generations, will be affected by decisions taken today. Despite the obvious potential of youth as agents for transformation towards more sustainable societies—as well as their role in holding national governments accountable—they continue to be largely excluded from the political decision-making process. For instance, the average age of ministers in the region is 55 years, proving that young people’s voices are not heard loudly in the political arena. In addition, most Arab countries lack a strategic vision for youth development.
In response, the AFSD reiterated the importance of engaging youth to achieve the 2030 Agenda and provided young people with a platform to further define their role in the transformative change process underlying the SDGs. For the first time, the AFSD agenda included a youth representative in almost all of the Forum’s seven plenary and nine special sessions. One of the latter was co-designed and co-led by youth and included a snapshot of the situation of young people in the region, using innovative, fact-based infographics.
It is important to note that the situation of youth often exhibits significant disparities between those living in urban and those living in rural areas. To address this problem effectively, platforms fostering youth involvement must grow from the grassroots level.
Preparing young Arabs to become agents of change is a process that needs to be nurtured early on in life and therefore demands first and foremost the adaptation of education systems to those promoting technology and science, and harnessing innovation and entrepreneurship. Currently, acquired skills and expertise often do not match the requirements of the labor market, resulting in widespread youth unemployment across the Arab region. Therefore, the AFSD called for policies that support and drive youth’s access into new professions originating from the ongoing “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
The AFSD youth session titled, ‘Youth in the Arab Region and the Transformation towards Sustainable Societies’, also called on the media as a key partner to support the youth in their striving towards more self-determination. Freedom of speech and expression is an important step towards the establishment of common positions and objectives to allow youth to speak with one clear voice about their needs in securing a sustainable future for themselves. Media, especially social media, has already become an important tool to support youth matters but further sensitization of the media is required to ensure continuous advocacy and widespread backup for the concerns of young people.
Despite the importance of structures that help policy-makers listen, they are not sufficient to guarantee that youth concerns are being taken seriously and that they are considered an equal partner on political grounds. A special role in this endeavor falls on Arab parliaments, which are encouraged to allocate specific budgets for youth development and capacity building to help youth overcome challenges by applying innovative solutions. At the same time, advocacy and sensitization on the role and responsibilities of youth must be nurtured foremost inside the family. If democratic structures are cultivated within the family, young people are more likely to continue promoting them in their societies.
At the closure of the three-day regional AFSD, participants had reaffirmed their commitment to the 2030 Agenda and to take bold steps towards transformative, sustainable and resilient societies. Business-as-usual scenarios are overwhelmingly unsustainable. Re-thinking development planning, including the need to incorporate natural resources and to present ways of meaningful involvement in the decision-making process to all stakeholders, and especially the leaders of tomorrow, is key to achieve transformative, structural change across all pillars of sustainable development. We look forward to engaging in the new youth strategy, and to continuing this conversation at the next AFSD.