The taxi driver who picked me up at the airport was a young man who told me, in utmost seriousness, "Here in Bali, magic is real." Most other places don't have magic, he said, and people only believe in concrete things they can actually see. But in Bali, he told me proudly, there is magic in all things and people believe in the possibilities they imagine, not just in the reality they see before their eyes.
Thinking back on last week, I wonder if it was this magic that explains the historic conclusion of the International Conference on Population and Development Beyond 2014 Global Youth Forum in Bali. Was it magic that made it possible for a group of young leaders from around the world to develop the Bali Global Youth Forum Declaration, a landmark set of policy recommendations that have the power to shape the future of their governments, the UN and the global development agenda for generations to come?
Magic or not, young leaders at the Global Youth Forum believed in what is possible, not just in the reality they see before their eyes. Like the Balinese, these young leaders chose to create a reality that they can imagine -- one in which all young people have the opportunity to finish school and find decent employment, where girls are protected from genital mutilation and child marriage, where schools teach life skills and comprehensive sexuality education, and where governments involve youth as equal stakeholders in the creation of policies and programs that will shape their lives.
The young activists who participated in the Global Youth Forum represent the largest generation of young people in history, one that makes up 43 percent of the world's population. Participants at the Forum included 900 young leaders from 126 countries, representatives from governments, civil society and the UN, and almost 2,000 youth delegates who participated virtually.
This youth-led process was directed by youth for youth, providing a venue for young people from diverse regions, cultures and religions to come together, share ideas, discuss challenges and envision the reality they want to see, rather than merely accepting the one that they are inheriting. This Forum, which concluded on December 6, is part of the UN's International Conference on Population and Development Review, which includes a series of global stakeholder meetings to set the global development agenda for 2015 and beyond. The UN Secretary General will present recommendations from the Global Youth Forum to the UN General Assembly, and these recommendations will influence global, regional and national policy.
Invited to participate as an expert facilitator at the Forum, I led discussions that explored obstacles and opportunities to improving young people's health, access to education and equitable political participation. Unlike most global conferences where a few high-level government officials dominate all discussion, young people spoke out as equals with national policymakers and UN experts. In one session I facilitated, a young man from the Philippines debated with the UN Special Advisor to the President of Liberia about youth sexual rights. In another, a young woman from Afghanistan advocated with a USAID representative about the need for governments to establish mechanisms that ensure youth engagement in the creation, implementation and monitoring of all national policies and programs.
Throughout the Forum, young people took the lead in defining their own agenda and in creating the most progressive policy declaration the UN has ever seen. The Bali Declaration includes concrete policy recommendations concerning governmental and UN accountability to youth, civil society and the engagement of the private sector to create economic opportunities for young people, increased investment in education for young women and provision of a basic package of youth-friendly health services.
As Director of the Adolescent Girls' Advocacy & Leadership Initiative, a global program that improves adolescent girls' health, education and livelihoods, I was especially inspired to see young women speaking out on the unique challenges they face and advocating for girl-friendly policies and programs. Zohre, a young woman from Iran, spoke eloquently about the need for government and civil society to create safe spaces for girls to come together to learn life skills and develop their own leadership. Edith, a young woman from Ghana, told me how joining a youth radio program at age 11 changed her life. Now one of the leaders of the same radio program, Edith's goal is to use media to help other young women and girls to raise their voices to advocate for their own needs.
The compelling work of these young leaders and the historic results of the Forum demonstrate that youth are a powerful force for change. Already successful in transforming the global development dialogue, these young leaders are now advocating for space at the national decision-making tables so that they may contribute to the policies and programs that will build their countries' future. Given the opportunity to continue influencing the global development agenda, young people will play a crucial role in enabling their countries to fulfill national priorities and in helping the UN achieve its goals.
The momentum from the Forum has the potential to transform the way that the UN and national governments understand and engage with young people. By adopting the recommendations emerging from the Forum and creating mechanisms to enable young people to participate equally in decisions that affect them, world leaders have the potential to transform the status quo in their countries and on a global scale.
By effectively creating a comprehensive set of policy recommendations, young people have taken the lead in transforming the global development agenda. It is now time for government policymakers and UN decision-makers to respond with the same degree of leadership and commitment to ensure the effective implementation of these visionary recommendations.
So was it magic that made the Bali Declaration possible? Or maybe just the power of young leaders coming together to envision a better future and create their own reality? Either way, my taxi driver would be proud.