Helen Clark: Speech on “Youth as Partners for Change in the Implementation of Agenda 2030”

Nov 24, 2015

My sincere thanks go to Vice-President Kokuryo and Keio University for hosting my lecture here today on “Youth as Partners for Change in the Implementation of Agenda 2030”.

I am told that Keio University’s founder, Yukichi Fukuzawa, always emphasized the importance of learning in contributing to progress, particularly during times of change.  That approach is needed more than ever. We are living in times of great turbulence, and the impact of that on young people, as indeed on people of all ages, in the epicentres is profound.

Today’s generation of young people is the largest the world has ever known. One in every three people alive today is under the age of thirty,   and around ninety per cent of young people are living in developing countries, mainly in Asia and Africa.  In a number of countries mired in conflict – and sadly Syria and others come to mind, the lives of youth are badly impacted.

•    In Yemen, for example, a Least Developed Country experiencing a major conflict right now, forty-six per cent of the population is under sixteen.  Yemen’s youth have hopes and dreams which cannot be fulfilled in a nation at war. Peace is badly needed for development.

•    In Afghanistan, nearly two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25.  Afghanistan too is a Least Developed Country, and the insurgency there is at its highest level since 2007. Young Afghans have been prominent among the growing numbers of refugees making their way into Europe.

•    According to International Monetary Fund forecasts, by 2035 the number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa joining the working age population (ages fifteen to sixty-four) will exceed that from the rest of the world combined.  In the informal migration from Africa across the Mediterranean to Europe are many youth seeking opportunity because of a lack of prospects at home. This is a development challenge: big development investments are needed in the migration source countries, and international solidarity for that is required.

Meanwhile in many developed countries like Japan, the population pyramid is being turned upside down. When this year’s Keio University graduates were born, the ratio of people over sixty five years of age had only just exceeded one in every ten people. Today, almost one in every four people in Japan is over that age. When this year’s graduates are in their forties and in the middle of their careers, over-sixty-fives will make up one-third of Japan’s population.

The challenge of creating enough jobs and opportunities for the large global youth population entering the labour market is one of the major challenges our world faces. But there are others too, like:
•    inequalities, which are growing in the majority of the world’s countries, with few exceptions, and the fact that hundreds of millions of people are still living in extreme poverty;

•    protracted conflicts, which are badly destabilizing countries from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa and from the Maghreb to Iraq and Afghanistan. Radical insurgents from Boko Haram to Al Shabaab on the African continent and Al Qaeda and IS in the Middle East are making life unbearable for those on whom they prey. War and conflict bear a huge responsibility for generating the displacement of almost sixty million people from their homes in our world today;  

•    the devastating impact of natural disasters where disaster risk reduction either hasn’t been undertaken or hasn’t been adequate; and

•    global environmental challenges, including the costs of climate change, are also mounting. The impact of climate change threatens all countries, but especially the poorest and the most vulnerable.

All these challenges call for bold approaches to building a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. The alternative is a world characterized by even more turmoil and instability than the one we know today. No one can feel comfortable in such a world: the problems of one country or region – economic, social, or political - do spill over into others.

Young people’s potential as agents of change

Young people now and in the future will play a big role in how our world adapts to these challenges. With youth comes energy, innovation, and optimism – if there are supportive environments and opportunities. These lay the ground for major positive contributions by youth, and for a demographic dividend for nations and our world. The converse is also true – alienated, frustrated, marginalized, and/or excluded youth can’t make the positive contribution societies and our world as a whole need.

Our generation is the first which could actually eradicate extreme poverty, and the last able to be able to prevent catastrophic climate change. Yet, too often, young people around the world are prevented from fulfilling their potential as the change agents and social entrepreneurs we need. That’s because globally youth are:

•    disproportionately unemployed. In 2014, around 73 million working-age young people around the world were unemployed – out of the overall 200 million estimated to be unemployed;  
•    in many places youth lack access to the quality and affordable education and skills training which would help them get jobs or create livelihoods and improve their lives;
•    youth are often struggling to have their voice heard in systems of political representation dominated by those who are much older;
•    young women  and girls and LGBTI youth are discriminated against and subjected to inequalities and exclusion in a number of countries;
•    youth may be threatened by or swept up in conflict and violence. One-third of young people live in countries which have relatively recently suffered or are suffering violent conflicts.

Then, when young people do make positive contributions to change in their communities or societies, their efforts may go unrecognised, or be undervalued.

Why 2015 was a watershed year for young people

This year, thanks to the most inclusive consultations ever undertaken by the United Nations and its Member States, young people’s concerns and ideas about the future they want have been reflected in the new global development agenda, which - if implemented - can transform lives around the world over the next generation.

In September, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was launched at the United Nations in New York by world leaders. Embedded in Agenda 2030 are seventeen ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets.

The new agenda is a universal one, and thus relevant to countries at all stages of development. It covers all three dimensions of sustainable development – the economic, social, and environmental, and it addresses the many interlinked challenges which are affecting young people and their societies.

Young people played a key role in forging this agenda by telling governments and the UN their needs and ideas through a broad consultative process, including the online My World survey, and then by being represented in the negotiations on the new agenda through the Major Group for Children and Youth which is a formal stakeholder and participant in UN processes.   

Key elements of Agenda 2030 include the commitments to:

•    promote peaceful and inclusive societies which provide access to justice for all, and build effective and inclusive institutions at all levels. The inclusion of this Goal is recognition of the link between achieving sustainable development and peace. The preamble of the 2030 Agenda itself notes that “there can be no sustainable development without peace, and no peace without sustainable development”.
•    eradicate extreme poverty;  
•    ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services;  
•    ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational, and tertiary education ;
•    prevent all forms of violence against women and girls, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation ;
•    ensure full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities ; and
•    create the 470 million jobs needed globally for new entrants to the labour market between 2016 and 2030.  

The SDG agenda is reinforced by the outcomes of other major global development-related processes this year, which have also been shaped by youth participation.

In March, the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction  took place here in Japan. It set the next global agenda for disaster risk reduction, the Sendai Framework, which aims to strengthen the resilience of all countries and communities to disasters, such as that which Japan experienced following the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami.

Youth groups were very active at Sendai and had their own tagline: “We call on you to call on us”. The Sendai Framework recognizes that young people must be accepted as partners of change in disaster risk reduction. Young people in disaster-prone communities around the world are already helping to create and maintain safe schools and higher education institutions; providing safety education in schools and colleges; and mobilizing other young people to play key roles in community-based actions for disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation.

In July, governments and civil society agreed on the international framework for financing development over the next fifteen years. This Addis Ababa Action Agenda recognizes that investing in children and youth is a critical component of sustainable development.

The final major agenda of 2015 will be set next month in Paris. The 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP21) is expected to agree on a new global climate change deal. This would be the outcome of years of hard work, and advocacy, including by the many young people who have been involved throughout.

COP21 will be preceded by a large Conference of Youth, gathering 5,000 young people, under the banner: “Young people are ready to act now for a more sustainable and desirable society”  . Young people must be able to play their part to ensure that the worst and irreversible impacts of climate change can be avoided.

How can young people be partners in the implementation of Agenda 2030?

Taken together, implementation of all these agendas would transform prospects for people and our planet. But finalizing global agendas is one thing. Implementing them is another. Radical adjustments are needed in the way we live, work, produce, consume, generate our energy, transport ourselves, and design our cities.

Who is better placed to seize on these opportunities and take these steps than young people? Their energy, ideas, and commitment to sustainable development have already been instrumental in shaping the new agenda. And we see young people creating positive change in their communities around the world, for example in:

•    coastal settlements in Panama, where school children are training to respond to tsunami warnings;

•    Kenya, Africa’s “Silicon Savannah”, where young entrepreneurs working in an important innovation hub, iHub, are using information and communication technologies (ICTs) to solve local problems. For lifting the productivity of business in Africa, as elsewhere, use of ICTs is critical. One example: iHub developed an app which gets real-time market information out to farmers. iHub is also exploring ICT applications for healthcare, education systems, and for linking marginalized groups in society. Every way you look at it, ICTs are important for development;  

•    Israel, where I was really inspired when I attended the ID² - Israeli Designed International Development gathering last year. Seventy young innovators, entrepreneurs, and international development professionals from Israel and around the world developed amazing ways of applying technology applications to development challenges. There were plenty of ideas articulated there which could be operationalised and would benefit many people. Some of these were very creative, like having plants which glowed in the dark replacing electric lightbulbs! There was another project tackling the issue of cervical cancer detection, a silent killer of so many women around the world where services are not in place for detection and treatment. Using mapping so that NGOs and other development initiatives could avoid overlaps was another important innovation that came out of ID²;  and

•    West and Central Africa, where young doctors, engineers, and traders are using technology and mobile communications to tackle health, humanitarian, and other challenges. For example, using Open Street Map, a crowdsourced application to create a map of the world to obtain accurate information on the most remote areas of Niger; using the internet and social networking to increase sales for market traders in Senegal; and founding a web portal in Mali dedicated to information and awareness-raising to prevent the spread of epidemics.

Universities and young people enrolled in secondary and tertiary education like those here at Keio University also have a vital role to play. Well educated, creative, and innovative young people who can reimagine their societies, redesign infrastructure and systems, and drive technology change are needed to make the transformations called for in Agenda 2030.

The partnership agreement I have just signed between Keio University and UNDP will lead to important collaboration through lectures, seminars, events, research, studies, and skills development. These will deepen UNDP’s knowledge and, we hope, that of students at this university in the years to come.

Research and action are especially needed in the emerging areas of youth participation and development; for example, on financing for youth development; youth in peacebuilding; youth in resilience-building; youth and migration; youth and social accountability; and youth-led innovation.

UNDP as a partner of young people

UNDP is committed to partnering with young people who want to shape and contribute to development. Our Youth Strategy, launched last year, guides us to:
•    use UNDP’s presence in more than 170  countries to help remove barriers to the inclusion of youth in development;
•    scale up UNDP support for youth entrepreneurship and employment, civic engagement, and political participation – giving special attention to young women and to youth from marginalized groups;
•    support legislative and policy reforms in favour of young people; and
•    harness young people’s online and offline networks.

Already in line with our strategy,
•    UNDP is creating new opportunities for social entrepreneurship and young people’s direct involvement in creating change in their communities. For example:

-    In Eastern Europe, UNDP and UNICEF are supporting social venture incubators which have been conceived and designed by, and are now led by, young people. The Social Innovation (Kolba) Lab in Armenia supports young innovators to become social entrepreneurs through the provision of training and mentoring.

-    In Nepal UNDP is partnering with Restless Development, a youth-led civil society organization, to form networks of youth organisations which can empower young people to participate in SDG implementation.

-    In Liberia, as part of the Ebola response, UNDP supported the recruitment of 1,300 young people to go door-to-door in their communities to raise awareness of Ebola and of the measures which need to be taken to stop its spread.  This was life-saving work.

•    UNDP is supporting countries to build youth participation in political decision making and accountability. Last year, UNDP brought young parliamentarians and politicians together from across Latin America and the Caribbean to identify what could help. That has already resulted in the preparation of two draft laws – one providing for the protection of youth, and another for the creation of municipal youth councils.

•    To promote youth being at the table in peace processes, in August UNDP, together with the Government of Jordan, organized The Global Forum on Youth, Peace, and Security. More than 500 government officials, policy experts, youth-led organizations, and young peacebuilders from over 100 countries came together to help shape a new international agenda on youth, peace and security. They adopted the Amman Youth Declaration, which urges the international community to recognize and support the positive role of youth as peacebuilders.   

•    UNDP is one of the partners in an initiative currently being led by the International Labour Organization (ILO) to define an ambitious UN strategy on youth employment.

•    UNDP supports young people’s involvement in online and offline initiatives and campaigns. UNDP recently supported the #PurpleMySchool campaign, aimed at creating safe spaces for LGBTI youth in educational settings throughout Asia.  

•    There are also regular opportunities to interact with UNDP through Twitter and Facebook chats and contests, in which we invite young people to submit their videos, photos, and stories on development. UNDP also recently held an online consultation to help shape its 2016-2021 HIV/AIDS strategy. I encourage you to follow @UNDP and @UNDP4YOUTH on social media to learn more about these initiatives.

•    UNDP will continue to support the UN ECOSOC Youth Forum as a space and mechanism for dialogue between youth, UN member states, civil society, UN entities, and other partners. The next forum will take place in New York in February, and it will specifically address the role of youth in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

•    UNDP supports governments as they incorporate Agenda 2030 in their national and local strategies, plans, and budgets and strengthen their data systems. Within the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development, UNDP supports a greater alignment of youth policies with development priorities, more effective implementation of national policies for youth, and inclusion of young people in national decision-making.

•    UNDP also helps national governments and partners identify obstacles and bottlenecks to progress for youth, for example, through taking action against youth discrimination.

•    UNDP will support involving youth in national monitoring and reporting on Agenda 2030; for example, by involving young people in defining national indicators, and ensuring youth-led data collection and monitoring.

•    UNDP is appreciative of Japan’s sponsorship of Junior Professional Officer positions for young graduates in the UN system, including in UNDP. You can find their inspirational stories on our website.

•    There are many other opportunities for youth involvement in the UN, including as UN Volunteers placed around the world, and as UN Online Volunteers helping to develop projects and conduct research.

I hope that here in Japan youth networks and coalitions will become engaged with the global sustainable development agenda. As well, there is a very active UN Association here in Japan, which supports the UN to reach broad constituencies and promote globally agreed agendas. We need more youth involved in these associations around the world.


Over many years in public life in New Zealand, including being Prime Minister for nine years, and now in my current position at UNDP, I have seen how young people’s incredible drive and commitment can change things for the better. On a daily basis, young people show their power for transformational change.

There’s an old saying: “Nothing about us - without us”. Involving young women and men as partners in the implementation of Agenda 2030 is both a right in itself and an important condition for the success of the Agenda over the next fifteen years.  Young people’s energy must be harnessed for its effective implementation.

UNDP looks forward to working together with Keio University to support the engagement of students and faculty with these exciting new agendas.

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