20 September 2021
Youth at the HLPF: Facing the Ongoing Challenge of Meaningful Participation
Photo credit: Antenna/Unsplash
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The authors analyze youth participation at HLPF to take stock of formal participation in international political processes.

For some, the Ministerial Declaration lacked a commitment to meaningful participation of young people in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the SDGs, marking "a step back from previous commitments”.

Networks among youth representatives could provide avenues to bring them to the heart of SDGs management.

By Amandine Orsini and Yi hyun Kang

Youth have been voicing up, especially on environmental protection issues such as climate change and biodiversity. The informal actions of youth have gained more attention in recent years. But what about their formal participation in international political processes?

We analyze youth participation at the 2021 session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) to give some elements of an answer.

HLPF 2021 Started with Youth, but Finished without Them

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the HLPF was organized online. The virtual proceedings started with a video produced by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), addressing COVID-19’s effects on the learning and mental health of children and youth, as well as the importance of young people’s participation in decision-making processes. Acknowledging the limited involvement of youth, the video urged governments: “We must work alongside with them (…) work with and for children.”

And yet, the HLPF 2021 program had no specific section on youth, limiting youth inputs to two interventions delivered during the high-level opening and the participation of Jayathma Wickramanayake, the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, as a speaker at the last session. The Ministerial Declaration adopted at the HLPF mentions youth only in its 34th paragraph (out of 50), recognizing their key roles but failing to suggest ways to favor their inclusion in the process.

As noticed by the European Youth Forum: “The lack of commitment in the Ministerial Declaration for meaningful participation of young people in the implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a step back from previous commitments.”

“Nothing about Us without Us”

The 2021 HLPF had a record number of side events (276), and 17 of them were related to children and youth. Dozens of youth representatives organized these events, and 50-100 attendees participated in each one. Indeed, many young participants recognized that online meetings improved access to such events, even if the increase in quantity (of youth attendance and interventions) does not guarantee the quality or results of participation (e.g., endorsement of youth claims by governments).

We could observe different perspectives on youth during these side events. The Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY), the official youth constituency within the HLPF, organized a side event entitled ‘Meaningful youth participation at the United Nations.’ This event, attended by about 100 people, gathered ten young speakers who presented their experiences regarding youth participation at the UN. By demanding “meaningful participation”, youth aim to replace practices of tokenism, the symbolic use of youth. Instead, the MGCY supports youth-led actions: “Nothing about us without us.”

Another side event was co-organized by the UN Youth Delegates (which has sponsored youth representatives within national delegations since 1995), from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Ireland, and Sweden as well as the MGCY, YOUNGO (the youth constituency at the climate change negotiations), and the World’s Youth for Climate Justice organization. The event, attended by about 80 people, gathered six speakers from international institutions and youth organizations to discuss a youth-led call for an International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on the impacts of climate change on human rights. This event demonstrated that young people are active within the SDG process by working through national delegates.

Other side events were organized by youth-serving organizations such as the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, UNICEF, or Leonard Cheshire International. Discussions highlighted youth as the carriers of innovation or as the object of protection. Those perspectives were relevant, but seem to perceive youth as a key actor to help implement the SDGs, and not necessarily an equal partner to monitor and evaluate the SDGs’ implementation.

More Avenues Needed to Formalize Participation

During the HLPF 2021, youth claimed their need for more than just consultation on the SDGs’ implementation. They asked for participation at all policy stages (from planning to implementation and evaluation). However, young people still require a better formalization of their participation in official processes, for this to happen.  

While a diversity of actors represents youth in the SDGs negotiations, meaning that youth are quantitatively present, youth are still looking for the avenues to bring them to the heart of SDGs management. Synergies and networks between youth representatives could be one way forward.

This guest article is authored by Amandine Orsini, Professor of international relations at Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles, and Yi hyun Kang, Post-doc researcher for the Youth Earth research project (FRS-FNRS grant T.0020.21), Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles.

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