Young People at the Centre of Sustainable Development Goals

05/27/2015 01:13 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

In early February, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC) hosted the annual Youth Forum to discuss what it will take to transition from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and youth involvement in the process. During the two days conference that brought together youth leaders and advocates from different countries and backgrounds, issues of access to quality education, peace and security, achieving gender equality and employment, were synonymous with every participant.

The world today is more youthful than ever before; we have 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 15-24 years .In Africa alone the median age of the population is 19 years. Even though young people have been an asset to achieving sustainable development in their individual countries; for a long time, governments, policy makers, political and business leaders, and international organizations have been lacking in addressing issues that affect the youth with urgency. Of late, there has been some gradual changes in youth engagement in policy issues but that is not sufficient-young people have to be part of the implementation team. This year is of particular importance as we will be transitioning from Millennium Development Goals to the proposed 17 ambitious Sustainable Development Goals. Young people with specific focus on young women and girls have to be at the center of this development agenda. We have to make sure that we address the consistent lack of access to quality education, unemployment, lack of sexual reproductive health resources, and lack of strategic engagement in politics and governance.

As of 2014, International Labor Organization estimated the global youth unemployment rate at 13.0% which is thrice the adult unemployment rate. This is a major crisis at the moment. Having many young people unemployed, underemployed or disengaged can pose a threat to the political stability and peace of a country. There has been a growing list of different militant groups that are taking advantage of young people who have been ignored by the political and economic systems. In the recent tragic terrorist attack in Northern Kenya that left almost 150 college students dead, one of the attackers was identified as a recent graduate of University of Nairobi law school. Governments cannot wait any longer to address the issue of unemployment lest we continue losing our greatest asset. Governments and international organizations should include more young people in public appointments. The private sector should also be given incentives such as tax breaks for a certain period when they employ more young people since high employment rates leads to increased purchasing power that will benefit the very same private sector. Government programs such as Youth Enterprise Fund in Kenya and Youth Enterprise Support in Ghana were envisioned to support young people to be entrepreneurs and job creators; however, many of the youth still lack adequate vocational, technical, and business development skills necessary to set up and grow businesses. Non-governmental initiatives such as the Mara Mentor are providing a platform for youth to have access to mentors, networks, business skills training and capital to support their ventures.

According to UNESCO, it is estimated that 122 million youth globally are illiterate and 70% of them are young women. It is not possible to achieve gender equality when young women are the largest percentage of the youth demographic that cannot read and write. Without an education you don't know your rights and thus you cannot fight for what is legitimately yours by the constitution - this is a tragedy that many young women and girls grapple with. Education system must be inclusive not only at the elementary level where gender parity is being achieved according to the MDGs, but at all levels. The education systems must be tailored to address the demands of the economy while promoting peace and social cohesion among communities and nations. Education system should encourage entrepreneurship and problem solving and government should provide incentives such as tax breaks to young people who choose to be job creators. There should also be ongoing relationships between schools and both the public and private sector players to provide students with internships and mentorships that would enable graduates to be ideal candidates for the jobs that they are interested in. To make sure that young people play their role effectively in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, it is imperative that each and every one of them has an education that empowers and gives them a voice of their own.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the World Programme of Action for Youth (WPAY) that was adopted by the General Assembly in 1995. The document provides a policy framework on how to engage and address youth issues around the world and is focused on 15 key areas. The UN Secretary General launched the #YouthNow in February, a social media campaign that raises awareness on youth development opportunities and challenges leading to the WPAY+20 event on May 29th. The commemoration of WPAY+20 will offer an opportunity to highlight the overall progress that has been made and address the challenges moving forward. The most exciting part of this high level event is the fact that young people will be at the center of it and part of the discussion. It is time for young people to be part of the team that addresses their problems and come up with organic solutions that are innovative. As the UN Youth Envoy always say, "Nothing for Young People, Without Young People".