The future is LIT: Youth leadership for human and planetary health

August 12, 2021


Malaysia’s youth are at the forefront of hands-on, “action learning” activities such as reforestation and other ecosystem restoration initiatives. Photo credit: Nurul Fitrah Marican/The Rimba Project


Two months ago, UNDP’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, Kanni Wignaraja said of UNDP’s work with youth:

“We’re letting young people run with it, and we’re trying to catch up.”


Reflecting on her provocation to “let youth lead,” we recognize that this is only possible if there are provisions for youth agency and leadership in a cultural landscape that tends to reward the tried-and-trusted over the enterprising-and-experimental.

This International Youth Day, with the futures of human and planetary health at stake, we ask, what does it mean to throw our weight behind today’s new and emerging ideas, the hope of tomorrow? What does it mean to do so in a non-tokenistic, non-patronizing way?

For a truly lit future shaped and led by youth—those who will inherit tomorrow—we offer a very simple action outline: Listen – Invest – Trust (LIT).

LISTEN and learn

In a world that prides action over reflection, listening is not sexy. And yet, unless we first set aside time to engage with and listen to youth—unless we create intentional space to hear them out, hopes and fears and all—we cannot support youth ambition in a deep and meaningful way. Over the last year or two, we have undertaken various efforts to listen to youth on a variety of themes and concerns.

1. In partnership with UNICEF Malaysia and utilizing their U-Report platform, we conducted a Solutions Mapping Campaign, mobilizing youth to map out emerging issues and solutions in the community during the first Movement Control Order in 2020. 289 submissions were received, including stirring examples of community resilience and refugee support to the healthcare response, and shedding light on weak signals and widening inequalities—top three winners here. We also conducted a survey on the efficacy of the Government’s COVID-19 PRIHATIN cash assistance. The survey revealed that while a majority of respondents who were eligible received the assistance and found the process uncomplicated, youth aged between 18-21 years risked being left out if they were unemployed, informally employed, or not enrolled in an education institution. This is because formal employment and enrolment were the only means of capturing individuals below 21 in the system.

2. In partnership again with UNICEF and supported by EcoKnights, we conducted the National Youth Climate Change (NYCC) Survey, reaching almost 1,400 youth in Malaysia to better understand the knowledge, attitudes and perceptions of youth towards climate change. Results were published in the Change for Climate report. We learnt that young people are worried about their future and are taking action to address climate change, and that there is a need to make information locally accessible and meaningful, and to strengthen local climate narratives.


Two youth-full publications: Change for Climate and the KISAH Futures Anthology.


3. The KISAH Futures Competition, organized in partnership with MIGHT, Universiti Malaya, and Think City collected stories of post-COVID Malaysian futures across themes like social cohesion, future of work, community well-being and urban design. A selection from nearly 700 submissions across two language categories, English and Malay, was published in an anthology.

4. A Movers Workshop entitled ‘The World We Want’ gave insight into current and future priorities of youth in Malaysia, informing development of UNDP’s regional programme for 2022-2025. In the next 5-10 years, young Malaysians are most hopeful about post-COVID recovery; digital inclusion; and gender equality. On the other hand, they are most worried about globalization, geopolitics and power; conflict and disaster; and climate emergency.




INVEST in youth action and leadership

Youth concern and innovation for human and planetary health, and for social and ecological well-being, is a strong thread running through all our listening activities. Much more than talk, young people are already taking leadership on the ground and UNDP is proud to support youth leaders in social entrepreneurship and environmental action.

The Youth Co:Lab (YCL) supports youth social entrepreneurs in three ways:

1. Developing entrepreneurship and problem-solving skills through national bootcamps and incubation programmes. To date we have supported over 300 young people with design thinking, entrepreneurship and networking capabilities, bringing 25 young start-up founders into the regional YCL Springboard Plus programme to develop their skills in impact management, business integrity, and pitching for international funders. Timogah, a homegrown e-commerce company was selected to participate in a 100-day accelerator programme run by Accelerating Asia, one of the Springboard Plus partners. Timogah aims to help small and rural farmers explore the untapped markets of crops, jungle produce and authentic food from Borneo. Buy their products here!

2. Connecting young social entrepreneurs to valuable mentorship opportunities. Six of our young women founders were selected for the Cherie Blair Foundation Mentoring Women in Business programme. One of these, Endosome Enterprise rethinks waste and envisions to shape a circular economy from waste for the future. They focus on starting recycling activities in smaller communities that are left out of big-city recycling programmes.

3. Providing a regional platform to showcase social enterprises. At this year’s Youth Co:Lab summit (with over 2 million views, participants from over 120 countries and territories, and 80+ speakers from over 25 countries), #DemiLaut was featured as part of the Social Enterprise Showcase’s climate series—visit the virtual marketplace here. #DemiLaut empowers traditional artisan fishing communities—supporting the livelihoods of over 30 fishing families to date—and promotes sustainable fishing and food security.

Meanwhile, the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP) provides grants to over 150 local communities including indigenous people, community-based organizations and other non-governmental groups for projects in six areas: Biological Diversity, Climate, Land Degradation, Sustainable Forest Management, International Waters, and Chemicals.

SGP projects address issues of natural resources and land and seascape custodianship through the lens of local communities. Youth-led SGP grantees have been at the forefront of (i) storytelling via filmmaking, e.g., Suara Community Filmmaking (by MELAPI) and Malaysian Ocean Youth Ambassadors, and (ii) environmental justice. Organizations like KUASA and Green Semporna actively highlight ecological degradation ranging from deforestation in coastal areas and forests, to coral reef destruction by destructive fishing practices and gear.

Some grantees played pivotal roles during the pandemic. When movement was restricted during the early days of the pandemic, local farmers could not sell their produce and some communities required food aid and hygiene kits. Green Science and Technology bought supplies from 14 indigenous villages and redistributed food to 336 families. Meanwhile, GreenSmiths pivoted to providing environmental education through online channels to the pandemic’s “lost generation” of children and youth missing out on in-person learning.


Buying and redistributing produce that would otherwise be thrown away and cause farms to accumulate food waste. Photo credit: Green Science and Technology


Perhaps what is most remarkable is that young people are going beyond addressing the symptoms of issues, to wrestling with their root causes. Going beyond food systems, they are rethinking social-ecological structures, building empathy and engaging in ecosystem restoration.

TRUST and strengthen youth agency

Most recently, UNDP Malaysia participated in the global Youth Climate Tour, a series of country dialogues featuring UNDP’s work on climate in partnership with youth stakeholders across different countries and regions. The Malaysia episode provided a platform for our YCL young entrepreneurs and SGP grantees to engage with UNDP’s audiences beyond Malaysia.


The Youth Climate Tour featured Haaziq Ibrahim of #DemiLaut (left) and Hawa Wahid of KUASA (centre). Photo credit: Nasha Lee/UNDP Malaysia


Building on all we’ve learned and done, we will continue to throw our weight behind young environmental leaders. On the horizon is a joint programme with UNICEF we’re calling the Youth Environmental Living Labs—or YELL, for short. Designed by UNDP Malaysia and UNICEF Malaysia, YELL aims to:

Localize climate narratives with an emphasis on local and indigenous perspectives on nature and the environment.

Strengthen the ecosystem of actors to enable youth environmental leaders today and tomorrow to thrive.

Bringing together our YCL, SGP, Climate Change & Energy, and Accelerator Lab teams, in partnership with UNICEF, YELL will mainstream youth participation in local environmental change through action learning, facilitated through four broad mechanisms:



Join us for the soft launch of YELL on 28 August (RSVP here).

We’re also looking for partners. If you’re interested, do get in touch with us at!

YELL. Our voices will be heard.