"This generation of young people is the first generation in modern history to be poorer than their parents." This is how the 2017 ECOSOC Youth Forum began at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on January 30th, through the words of Ahmad Alhendawi, UN's first Envoy on Youth.
Over 700 delegates came from around the globe to attend the Youth Forum, from youth ministers and UN youth delegates to civil society leaders and youth organizations which are influencing the lives of millions of people. Of those organizations, the World YMCA's delegation was by far the largest, having 24 delegates from almost all continents. With 10% of the world's population living in extreme poverty and with increasing rates of youth unemployment throughout the world, the Forum focused intensely on how young people can be supported in order to become more employable, make more jobs available to them and at the same time, involve young people in decision-making at all levels.
The Youth Forum was recognised and attended by high-level UN officials, such as the President of the UN General Assembly and the Social and Economic Council's (ECOSOC) President, who also chaired the plenary meetings, as well as over 40 government representatives from throughout the world. This was an important step both in directly listening to young people and their representatives, as well as in sending an underlying message that young people are starting to matter in policy discussions.
Poverty was at the center of the discussions of the entire Youth Forum and, although the "eradicating poverty" Sustainable Development Goal is quite utopian, the President of the General Assembly, Peter Thompson, brought inspiration through a few simple, but powerful words: "Poverty is an affront to human dignity." As such, a large part of the talks focused on social inclusion of young people, underlying the critical need to intensify efforts to support youth of all backgrounds, but especially the least advantaged.
World YMCA delegation
Being at the UN means, on one hand, that you are the furthest you can be from the grassroot activities, but at the same time, the closest you can be to influencing global priorities and public policies. On the other hand, it also means quite a lot of formality and protocol. But the ECOSOC Youth Forum managed to strike a good balance and made sure that both official speakers and young people had a voice, by splitting the Forum sessions between the plenary meetings, where speeches and statements were read, and the "breakout sessions", where the participants divided into small groups in several conference rooms and discussed directly and openly on the issues. Those breakout sessions were actually the most engaging and provided a great opportunity to speak up, to discuss with your fellow delegates and to see the results influencing the final agenda of the entire event. However, more time would have been useful in order to listen to everyone who wanted to speak and also allow for more time for debate, as most participants were very eager to speak and express their opinion, sometimes the "competition" to be selected to speak being quite fierce. That in itself was quite an uplifting and inspiring experience, as the very experienced young leaders provided a huge energy, passion and desire to be of help to the youth that they were representing.
The YMCA delegates were ever-present in all the sessions of the Forum, being actively involved in all the parallel workshops, but also in the plenary meet, with the keynote closing speech that was offered to the YMCA, an important recognition of the work that is improving lives every day, in all corners of the world.
During its 2 days, the ECOSOC Youth Forum pushed youth priorities to the world's agenda. It recognised that young people are facing challenging times throughout the world, that inequality is disproportionately affecting youth and that we have to act now if we don't want to pass regrets to the next generation. Switching between gloomy and inspiring moments, between recognising the brutal reality that young people are facing and the opportunities that await them if they achieve their potential, the Forum was in the end an important stepping stone in advancing the needs and priorities of young people around the world to the global policy-makers. Also, it was an important reminder for all of us who are working with young people that what we are doing every day, with every young person who we support, is more important than ever and can eventually bring sustainable change in our communities and countries.
Empowering young people is our mission. Our responsibility. And ultimately our investment in hope.