For the fourth year running, youth leaders from around the world gathered in Barcelona for COP26, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. In a nod to the EU’s challenge in preserving the bloc and the challenges they are facing in reforming the EU, the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of “Youth Engagement in Sustainable Development” was brought to the table. While the world faces numerous challenges related to youth, the prospect of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is vastly more uncertain, as EU leaders and policymakers now have to give priority to reaching children and adolescents and to making a positive impact on youth problems and interests in this generation.
There are various factors influencing youth engagement in sustainable development, from traditional media to finding and staying in education.
Against this backdrop, building this change must start with fostering engagement among at-risk youth in first, middle and high school and creating a platform in which young people, by-productors, peers and elders, can work together to find the best solution to their needs.
However, there are conflicting views about the link between SDG 17 and youth involvement in sustainable development. The World Resources Institute researchers quoted above contend that SDG 17 “invites youth participation in comprehensive social planning processes, including with respect to development plans”. This is far from the case in many countries. So, the World Resources Institute concludes that the effective implementation of SDG 17 will require concrete and tangible measures to be taken at national, regional and international levels.
While the research does not claim that it is impossible to implement SDG 17, there is evidence that young people do not see it that way. Instead, they see the Goal as one of inclusion in a larger social and economic development agenda.
Underpinning this dissatisfaction is the understanding that they are marginalized and left out of mainstream decision-making and participation. Being included in SDG 17 could make access to better healthcare, more jobs, better quality education and fair access to energy possible for young people. It could open up prospects for more productive work and greater freedom of choice in the consumption and sourcing of what they consume.
Therefore, very few young people, if any, understand SDG 17 in terms of its concrete benefits for them. Most youth are less concerned with what is expected to be achieved or how they can reach the end goal and instead focused on what the SDG can do for them, their parents and relatives. This is why some seem to think that to reach the SDG, they need to wait for the “next generation” to join their talks.
The current crop of decision-makers has yet to address the disconnect between SDG 17 and its very best aspirations, thus limiting progress in this field. Instead, the new generation of decision-makers is more focused on handling current challenges and failures.
That said, countries could expect support and political will for its implementation from the world’s most influential youth leaders, who are often the source of potential solution development and data that will inform next steps.
Given that the preparatory for the political institutions of the 2030 Agenda consists of the sustainable development summit and the World Summit on Sustainable Development, it is only natural that governments aim to involve the young leaders in this process. These leaders are present in all the 12 out of the 17 summit-related organs. They already play a crucial role in each of these activities, offering ideas that change, lead or even revolutionize an ongoing process.
If leaders want to realize the shared vision of SDG 17 and ensure that it reaches the young leaders who can “change” it and turn it into reality, they must take the most conservative assumptions on youth engagement and put them into practice in order to bring such change. This requires intra-governmental collaboration among youth leaders, governments, civil society and educational institutions that can realistically deploy these young leaders as catalysts to disseminate their ideas and generate momentum that can be used to drive meaningful change.
Instead of rushing to alter the next phase of the 2030 Agenda, it will only gain momentum if governments work together with youth to take the existing phases as a starting point and build on the best practices.