United Nations Youth Programs

United Nations Includes Youth

While academics neglect youth as positive changemakers, the United Nations is more proactive, but youth activists I’ve interviewed don’t seem to appreciate UN youth programs. Although the UN facilitates youth activism and representation in its deliberations, Yara (17, f, Ethiopia) reported about young Egyptian activists attitudes towards the UN; “Most are not even commenting about it, because they either see it as too late or completely useless, to be honest.” From Brazil, activist Khaled emailed about the UN,


In Brazil we don’t usually make positive statements about the UN. Although it is an international organization, I believe that their powers are very limited, because when their decisions go against the interests of the rich countries, these countries ignore these decisions, as the USA has done lately in relation to decisions of the Security Council for example. Anyway, the UN is a closed and hostile space to popular participation as are all the governments.


In some countries youth learn about UN policies and global issues in school. Roohi, a 16-year-old girl, reports,


Here in Singapore, nearly every geography student studies the UN Millennium Development Goals, the Kyoto Protocol and the like. The grading system is such that you cannot score well if you don’t discuss the failures. This means that each student is made aware of the shortcomings of such international agreements, and this makes quite a few lose faith and hope that we can do something where others have failed. This readily available information makes it easier for us to form opinions and take stands about what we feel is right vs. wrong.


The UN was a central promoter of making human rights global issues, as in the UN Decade of Women. The first conference was in Mexico City in 1975, completed by the Beijing conference 20 years later that made the revolutionary statement that women’s rights are human rights. The UN focuses attention on youth, providing studies about their needs, training youth leaders and including youth in policy making. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child was the first international legally binding policy to insure that children have the full range of human rights, including participation in decisions that affect them. It mandates that children under 18 be included in UN programming and was ratified by 194 nations. The US is the only UN member state not to ratify it, partly because it is the only country to sentence children to life in prison without the possibility of parole, which is prohibited by the Convention.

The first World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth was held in 1998, and the UN continued to organize World Youth Forums and publishes the World Youth Report that includes youth activism. In 2002, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the children of the world in his opening statement to the General Assembly: “We, the grown-ups, have failed you deplorably… One in three of you has suffered from malnutrition before you turned five years old. One in four of you has not been immunized against any disease. Almost one in five of you is not attending school…. We, the grown-ups, must reverse this list of failures.” An International Coordination Meeting of Youth Organizations was organized in 2004 to better advocate with the UN and other global organizations.

UNICEF, the “world’s leading agency on children,” points out that adolescents can play a central role in halting the spread of HIV/AIDs, protecting against violence and abuse, contributing to survival programs for young children, and developing policy.[i] UNESCO advocates that because the world has over one billion people between the ages of 15 and 25, these youth should be involved in formulating global policies that concern them. Examples of how to include youth are available.[ii] UNFPA (UN Population Fund) supports an Internet site called Global Voices to report on youth issues. The social media site called Voices of Youth was founded by UNESCO in 1995 so that global youth can communicate online. Before its general conferences, UNESCO includes a Youth Forum discussing employment, democracy, sustainable development, student activism, etc.

The goal of the UN’s Child-Friendly Cities Initiative is to put children at the forefront of urban planning. UNHabitat researches youth issues and facilitates meetings and advocates for youth: “The challenge of putting youth at the centre of development strategies can be compared to the challenge, two decades ago, of putting women and gender issues on the development agenda.”[iii] It acknowledges that youth are victimized by urban poverty, child trafficking, sexual exploitation, high unemployment, HIV/AIDS, and living on urban streets. UNDP (UN Development Programme) works with a network of youth organizations involving about 30,000 young participants to improve adolescent sexual and reproduction health. It also works with an NGO called Restless Development to facilitate youth leadership in development.

The UN Interagency Network on Youth Development was established in 2010 and the first Envoy on Youth took office in 2013. Many other UN agencies work on improving the status of global children and youth.[iv] Probably more than any other international organization, it has been proactive in training African youth.[v] Beginning in 1981, the UN General Assembly asked governments to include youth delegates and some Scandinavian countries complied. More countries began to include youth representatives after the General Assembly adopted the World Programme of Action for Youth (WPAY) in 1995. WPAY coordinates UN youth programs and identifies priority actions for youth such as education, employment, hunger and poverty, environment, drug abuse, juvenile delinquency, leisure-time activities, girls’ rights, and youth participation.[vi] It aims to include youth in political decision-making, similar to the European Youth Forum and the Nigerian National Youth Parliament.

The UN is placing increased emphasis on the inclusion and support of youth, recognizing their ability to contribute to development. The UN set aside 2010 as the International Year of the Youth to “advance the full and effective participation of youth in all aspects of society.”[vii] The official slogan for the International Year of Youth (IYY) was: “Our Year. Our Voice.” The Global Youth Movement for the Alliance of Civilizations initiative proposed at the UN General Assembly in 2005 “aims to highlight concrete actions of youth to advance cross-cultural understanding.”[viii] A World Youth Conference was held in Mexico City in 2010, sponsored by the government of Mexico and the UN.[ix] The conference focused on themes that pertain to young people: poverty, education, information and communication technologies, health, gender equality, human security, human rights, sustainable development, international migration, citizens’ participation and advocacy, and global partnership and cooperation.[x]

At the UN’s Global Youth Forum in Bali in 2012, the representatives advocated that national governments should appoint a young Youth Minister and elect youth parliaments to advise national parliaments. They should include a variety of young people with a focus on young women and “youth belonging to vulnerable groups.” A Facebook page called “Global Youth Voices” was formed to encourage youth input, as does my “Global Youth SpeakOut” page on Facebook and WordPress.

To prepare for a 2012 report for the United Nations on youth programs, 21 governments and 49 youth organizations responded to a survey.[xi] Rapidly increasing in number, two-thirds (131) of the world’s countries had national youth policies (NYP) in 2016, up from 99 countries in 2013) and 13 had a national youth council (as in Argentina and Germany.)[xii] A list of the countries with NYPs is provided in an Oxfam report on global youth inequality.[xiii] UNESCO created a guideline for setting them up, with an emphasis on youth participation.[xiv] Some countries have youth ministers to implement NYPs, as in Germany and Senegal. European countries and Oceania are more likely to have them. The NYP of Belize was designed by youths led by a Minister of State with Responsibility for Youth and Sports. He explained their youth council will make sure the government implements policy. Some countries have also developed national databases on youth. However, to be successful the NYPs need funding, youth participation, and implementation. Various books discuss youth participation in government policies.[xv]

The UN Secretary General appointed a youth envoy in 2013, part of his priority for working with youth and women to address the needs of the largest generation of youth the world has ever known.[xvi] Ahmad Alhendawi (29, m, Jordan) announced his priority is to find the 425 million jobs that young adults will need in the next 15 years and higher wages for the 2 million youth who earn less than $2 a day. “We can’t lose this generation,” he said in a UN webcast. Alhindawi also aims to facilitate youth participation by helping to shape the post-Millennial Development Goals agenda, especially to include marginalized youth such as girls. His third goal is to coordinate an infrastructure of youth programs in different agencies in the Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development. The UN Secretary General also set up Youth Advisory Councils to UN offices in countries around the world and ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) Youth Forums. Alhindawi has encouraged governments to set up youth-led advisory groups and the World Bank has also set up its own youth advisory groups around the world.

Alhindawi believes that the System-Wide Action Plan on Youth (SWAP) developed under the leadership of Ban Ki-moon is the most important UN document since the World Programme of Action for Youth in 1995. SWAP’s priorities are employment and entrepreneurship, health and education, and youth participation and rights. The UN Commission on Human Rights initiated a “Free and Equal” educational campaign to promote equality for GLBT people in 2013, explaining that at least 76 countries still criminalized consensual same sex relationships. UN agencies including UNICEF, the Global Education First Initiative and its Youth Advocacy Group, and UNESCO produced an Advocacy Toolkit for youth in 2014.[xvii]

Save the Children NGO released a report in 2012 to update the UN Millennium Development Goals titled, “Ending Poverty in Our Generation.”[xviii] The report advocated that inequality be addressed in the new goals since the income of the poorest 77% equals that of the top 1.75% of the world’s population. It pointed to Brazil and China as countries that have made progress towards equality and suggested need for financial and trading systems to benefit poor countries.

Starting at the Rio+20 meeting in 2012, the UN solicited youth input into the new Millennium Development Goals that expired in 2015.[xix] Over seven million people, mostly under 30, responded to the My World survey to formulate these new goals. The respondents suggested new issues to be included such as: honest government, protection from crime and violence, better job opportunities, equality between men and women and protection of the environment.[xx] The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) titled “Transforming Our World” were passed by UN members in September 2015, consisting of a set of 17 goals with 169 targets to end poverty by 2030 at the cost of $3 trillion. They sound noble but academic Glen David Kuecker calls them “lipstick on a pig” because the same power broker corporations, NGOs and consultants are in line for the development funds.[xxi] Kuecker predicts that, “The SDGs will provide just enough growth so that just enough food, medicine, and education are available for the multitudes to ensure the system remains seamless in its reproduction and capitalism remains non-negotiable,” controlling the system from behind the scenes, similar to the Matrix films.

The 2016 meeting of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) finally acknowledged that the missing link in the fight for gender equality is the youth voice by organizing the Youth Forum CSW.[xxii] It published A Declaration on Gender Equality that features these youth issues: decision-making, climate change, sexual and reproductive health, violence, economic empowerment, migration, access to media, religion, sports, and engaging young men.

[i] “Adolescents and Youth,” 2009. http://www.unicef.org/adolescence/index_bigpicatuare.html

[ii] http://www.youthpolicy.org/library/documents/adolescent-participation-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean/

The report draws from best practices in 18 programs and additional research.

See also http://www.youthpolicy.org/library/documents/a-potpourri-of-participation-models/

[iii] http://www.unhabitat.org/list.asp?typeid=3&catid=531

[iv] http://www.un.org/youthenvoy/about/

[v] http://www.wfuna.org/youth-impact-africa




[vi] http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unyin/global.htm

[vii] http://social.un.org/youthyear/

[viii] http://unaocyouth.org/gym

[ix] www.youth2010.org/site/



[x] http://www.youth2010.org/site/

[xi] “Implementation of the World Programme of Action for Youth,” Report of the UN Secretary General, November 29, 2012.


[xii] http://www.youthpolicy.org/nationalyouthpolicies/

[xiii] Jennifer Glassco and Lina Holguin, “Youth and Inequality,” Oxfam, August 12, 2016, Appendix 1.

Click to access bp-youth-inequality-global-120816-en_0.pdf

[xiv] “Empowering Youth through National Policies,” UNESCO, 2004. www.unesco.org/youth Shows a map of countries with policies and reviews them.


[xv] Barry Percy-Smith and Nigel Thomas, editors. A Handbook of Children and Young People’s Participation. Routledge, 2009.

Roger Hart. Theory and Practice of Involving Young Citizens in Community Development and Environmental Care. Routledge, 1997.

David Driskell. Creating Better Cities with Children and Youth: A Manual for Participation. Routledge, 2001.

Kelly Curtis. Empowering Youth: How to Encourage Young Leaders to Do Great Things. Search Institute, 2008.

[xvi] Biography: http://j.mp/13J6yoq
UN Programme on Youth: http://j.mp/iR3FSe

[xvii] http://www.globaleducationfirst.org/4240.htm

[xviii] http://www.savethechildren.org/atf/cf/%7B9def2ebe-10ae-432c-9bd0-df91d2eba74a%7D/ENDING_POVERTY_IN_OUR_GENERATION_AFRICA_LOW_RES_US_VERSION.PDF

[xix] http://www.worldwewant2015.org/node/362419

[xx] http://millionvoices-data.worldwewant2015.org/

[xxi] Glen David Kuecker, “UN Sustainable Development Goals: The Matrix Reloaded,” TeleSur, October 2, 2015.


[xxii] http://www2.unwomen.org/~/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/news/stories/2016/youthcsw-2016-declaration.pdf?v=1&d=20160321T155235

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