Youth Perspective: Whose voice matters when it comes to sustainable development?


By Ravi Karkara & Doug Ragan


Harvesting Youth Partnership by Strengthening Inclusive Participation in the Implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals

In the year 2000, the United Nations announced the Millennium Development Goals to set a path for nation-states and citizens across the world in bringing certain fundamental changes to the planet, including the eradication of poverty, creating universal primary education, and promoting gender equality.

However, in the 15 years the Millennium Development Goals have been in place, it has not been very clear how youth participated in the development of the millennium development goals or in their implementation.

There has been a dramatic and significant change that has taken place from when the Millennium Development Goals were announced—today, the world has the largest youth population ever, with 1.8billion young men and women across the planet. Youth today are far more connected and integrated through online and offline communication channels than ever before and are often abreast on policy dialogue and discussions.

The last 3 years have seen an extensive participation of youth in the development of the Sustainable Development Goals. Their participation ranges from actively engaging in UN Development Groups and supported national consultations on post-2015 agenda to active engagement with the high level panel on the post-2015 development agenda as well as both online and offline participation in various thematic consultations that contributed to the development of this agenda.

The UN Secretary General’s MyWorld 2015 Survey saw unprecedented participation from youth—young people brought over 6 million votes from 193 countries using both online and offline methodologies to voice their opinions on the sustainable development goals. These methodologies ranged from youth going from favela to favela in Mexico City to young people in India asking rural communities in focus group discussions to vote.

Further, the UN & CSO co-hosted the World We Want 2015 Platform, which brought together voices of youth from across the planet in online consultations and dialogues. Young people also extensively participated in the open working group, the president of UN General Assembly’s meeting on youth, as well as the discussions of the high level political forum and financing for development.

The above measures have resulted in a mixed bag of youth focused targets and indicators in the recently adopted sustainable development goals. These include requirements that the goals are: action-oriented, concise, easy to communicate, limited in number, and aspirational. Further, it was agreed that the goals must “be useful for pursuing focused and coherent action on sustainable development”, “contribute to the achievement of sustainable development” and “serve as a driver for implementation and mainstreaming of sustainable development in the UN system as a whole”.

Every SDG requires youth action for success. With 1.8 billion youth, they are a demographic that cannot be ignored. Youth have expressed their voices and taken action—in most cases more than any other age groups, as we have seen from the more than 6 million youth votes on MyWorld. Without youth, the SDGs cannot succeed.

Although there is no specific SDG on youth, many of the 169 targets and indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals have brought a strong youth-specific focus–every single SDG will require youth to succeed. Take for example Targets and Indicators related to Goal 4 on Quality Education: Target 4.6 is to “ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy”.

Indicator 4.4.2 looks at the percentage of “youth/adults who are computer and information literate”, 4.6.1 the percentage of youth/adults proficient in literacy and numeracy skills”, and indicator 4.7.1 the “percentage of 15- year old students showing proficiency in knowledge of environmental science and geoscience”.

Under Goal 3 on Good Health: Indicator 3.5.2 examines “Coverage of interventions for the prevention of substance abuse interventions among people under 25” and Indicator 3.3.1 “HIV incidence per 100 susceptible person years (adults, key populations, children, adolescents)”.

Under Goal 5 on Gender Equality: Indicator 5.6.2 covers the “existence of laws and regulations that guarantee all women and adolescents informed choices regarding their sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights regardless of marital status.”

Under Goal 8 on Good Jobs and Economic Growth: target 8.6 is to “substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training” by 2020. Indicator 8.6.1 looks at the “percentage of youth (15-24) not in education, employment or training (NEET)”, and indicator 8.6.2 examines the Youth (15-24) unemployment rate”.

Under Goal 11 on Sustainable Cities and Communities, there is recognition that cities are fast becoming the preferred form of human settlement globally. Key Indicators relating to youth are the ensuring of access to adequate, safe and affordable housing, basic services and public spaces; and the achievement of sustainable urbanization through participatory planning and management.

These are just a few of the many youth related targets and indicators. We need to reaffirm that every single indicator has a youth aspect to it–without young women and young men, these indicators cannot succeed.

The most critical take back has been that young people from across the world have collaborated to bring forth their voices in the development of the SDGs. This is an important milestone in youth participation in the global policy framework as young people have offered their energy, commitment, and partnership, which need to be sustained as we move into the next step of sustainable development goals implementation. Youth will play a critical role in this process. Young people can participate in the following broad ways:

  1. Youth can extensively participate in creating awareness and communicating these goals to their peers and society at large using both online and offline methodologies.
  2. Young people and their youth lead organizations and networks can offer their participation by identifying solutions, innovative approaches, and taking action in the implementation of the seventeen SDGs.
  3. Young people can play a critical role in becoming the eyes and the ears, which simply means becoming the monitors for the implementation of the SDGs.
  4. Last, but not least, youth must become key players in ensuring accountability, ensuring impact of the SDGs to even the most marginalized youth populations in the world. Ensuring that the focus respects gender and diversity.
  5. Promote inter-generational partnerships between youth and older people as well as youth supporting children focused activities to make Agenda 2030 a reality.

Youth are leaders of today and it is important to engage with young people in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Youth must be at the center of achieving agenda 2030 for sustainable development and transforming our world.


Ravi Karkara Senior Advisor Strategic Partnership and Advocacy to the Assistant Secretary-General/Deputy Executive Director while Douglas Ragan is Chief, Youth and Livelihoods Unit, UN-Habitat

This article first appeared in Thomas Reuters Sustainability; it is republished with the permission of the authors

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