Youth in the SDGs: Getting Beyond the Rhetoric

NRG Advisory

Originally posted by Nicole Goldin, January 26, 2015.

It’s 2015. The year the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will expire and the race is on to finalize a new global framework of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in time for September’s UN General Assembly. The other week, civil society and celebrity joined in launching the Action 2015 campaign arguing that “the actions we take in 2015 will decide which way the world turns for decades to come” and calling on world leaders to “Please take the right path”. In late 2013, I wrote about the developmental, security and demographic context underscoring the need for youth inclusion in the emerging framework; for both a process and a product that give youth a meaningful say, and would ultimately encourage policies, investments, and data collection to better serve the needs and interests of today’s and tomorrow’s generation of youth (who together account for more than half’s the world population).

Since writing, over 7 million citizens worldwide voted via My World 2015 for their priorities – nearly 60% of participants were young people aged 16-30. Youth put good education, better healthcare and job opportunities, an honest and responsive government and food security at the top of their list. Now what?

In July last year, the UN member state-driven Open Working Group (OWG) submitted to the Secretary General its final proposed Sustainable Development Goals comprising 17 goals with 169 targets. Last month, Ban Ki-moon released his own synthesis report The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet claiming “Young people will be the torch bearers of the next sustainable development agenda through 2030,” and that “Today, more than ever, the realities of 1.8 billion youth and adolescents represent a dynamic, informed, and globally connected engine for change. Integrating their needs, rights to choice and their voices in the new agenda, will be a key factor for success.”

It is time, however, to get beyond lofty rhetoric and well-intended consultation. Studies and statistics show that youth are falling short. While (with good reason) youth unemployment and inadequate education make headlines, limited opportunities or weak status in other respects largely go unnoticed. The inaugural Global Youth Wellbeing Index released in April 2014 found for example that countries where 85% of youth represented lived scored below average on the composite of 40 indicators.

Though mentioned in its introduction, the OWG proposal does not have a stand-alone youth goal, and “youth” or “young people” are explicitly included in just 3 of the 17 goals, in 6 of the 169 targets: 2 under the proposed goal on education (goal 4), 3 under the proposed goal on employment (goal 8), and 1 under the goal for climate change governance (goal 13). In addition, adolescent girls are explicitly targeted in goal 2 (2.2) regarding nutrition. This won’t suffice. We know from theory and practice that inclusive growth and development is about more than skills and jobs; and that educational and economic success is interdependent with many variables including health, safety and security, rights and participation, financial inclusion, and infrastructure.

The suggested SDG framework also includes are a number of important indirect targets, including a noteworthy call for disaggregated data along a number of factors, including age (this will also be important to ensure female youth see the benefits of women and girls' empowerment initiatives). While necessary, these are insufficient. Youths’ success and positive outcomes will be the result of intentional policy and programmatic initiatives that are reflective of their unique developmental experiences, and designed to advance their specific needs and aspirations and support them in making healthy, productive and safe choices.

At the same time, with growing concern for inequality, a global commitment to end poverty, and a “leave no one behind” ethos, the eventual post 2015 agenda will likely gain even more traction than the current MDGs. It sets priorities and serves as global and local call to action among government, business and civil society stakeholders, and because the global framework will ultimately be implemented and inform policy at national levels, it is critical that youth are addressed in a more wide-ranging and concrete manner than in the current proposal. While I fully agree with those arguing the need to preen the number of goals and targets, I share the concern that young people will be too easily left out during implementation if they are not explicitly in the goals and targets where most needed. The good news is that much can be done within the current proposed targets. As Member State negotiations are getting underway to revise and consolidate, here are some illustrative ideas of specific points they could consider to better include youth into existing framework.:

  • Agriculture holds great potential for jobs and economic opportunity, but access to land and finance are commonly cited constraints by young farmers and would be ‘agripreneurs’. Consider incorporating language about increasing youth’s access to land and capital (target 2.3).
  • The leading cause of overall youth mortality worldwide is traffic accidents. Consider adding youth specific language to existing targets that call for reduced mortality and better road safety (targets 3.6 or 11.2).
  • Young people are pivotal to an ‘AIDS free generation’ and their needs in sexual and reproductive health warrant clear attention. Consider adding language around youth-friendly services (target 3.7). Also consider adding language about reducing adolescent fertility (aged 15-19) (target 5.6).
  • We know violence and conflict undermines youth development in many ways; an estimated 75% of trafficking victims are youth, and that young people can play an important role in peacebuilding. Similarly, the UN recently reported that nearly 45% of homicides worldwide occur among those aged 10-29. Consider incorporating language specific to young people to reduce violence and death (target 16.1) and to end forms of violence against children and youth (16.2).
  • Today’s youth are often referred to as “tomorrow’s leaders and policy makers” and young people put a premium on governance and participation in My World and other surveys. At the same time, age and other barriers often keep them from political office, decision and policy-making. Consider revising targets to ensure platforms for meaningful youth participation and promulgation/implementation of national youth policies (target 16.7).
  • If young people will be the “torch bearers,” then they should have a concrete role in its implementation. Yet youth currently receive no mention in proposed goal 17. Consider revising or adding targets that explicitly engage them in partnerships and monitoring or implementation otherwise (targets 17.16-17.19) (and look at Restless Development’s Big Idea initiative).

Our collective fate will be shaped by the forthcoming agenda. Further, it poses a critical opportunity to send an unequivocal message that youth matter and not just tell – but, show -- the world’s 1.8 billion youth they are priority. By taking the right path for and with youth, we can all arrive at a better destination.


Nicole Goldin is professorial lecturer at George Washington University, senior associate (non-resident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and runs a private advisory and consulting practice - NRG Advisory.