Nothing for Us Without Us: Young Leader Reflections from SDG Action Weekend

By Zunaira Ali, Youth Engagement Fellow

Youth have the capacity to not only change the world for the better but also to save it. I had the honor of joining hundreds of other young leaders at the SDG Action Weekend and 2023 SDG Summit on September 18-19 in New York at the United Nations building. I exited those doors with a renewed sense of responsibility and a determination to promote and facilitate positive youth engagement through action.

Convened by the President of the General Assembly, the Summit drew world leaders, young changemakers, and stakeholders from all walks of life. It also marked the halfway point to the deadline set for achieving the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

The United Nations Secretary-General, H.E. Mr. António Guterres, opened the SDG Summit with a reminder that, “The SDGs aren’t just a list of goals. They carry the hopes, dreams, rights, and expectations of people everywhere. And they provide the surest path to living up to our obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, now in its 75th year. Yet today, only 15 percent of the targets are on track.”

And while this is a point of concern for everyone, youth and children are most affected by the extended delays in achieving the SDGs. Hence, we feel the need to get involved more than any other stakeholders. To make that happen and encourage the youth perspective, here are some recommendations to promote positive youth development on all levels:

  1. Education: Education is critical for empowering individuals and societies to be active in the pursuit of social, economic, and environmental justice. The significance of education was highlighted as one of the 12 high-impact initiatives during SDG Action Weekend 2023, also known as SDG Acceleration Day. Currently, 244 million children are without schooling, and one in four young individuals face exclusion from education, employment, or training. A staggering 770 million people, predominantly female, lack literacy skills. This gap can be bridged through access to quality and equitable education. The session, Transforming Education: Learning to Build a Better Future for All,  brought together Member States to share their experience of implementing a transformative education agenda and to launch the Transforming Education coalition as a new vehicle for the Transforming Education Summit (TES) acceleration.
  2. Access:  There has been a lot of focus and debate around access for youth in high-level interventions beyond participation. Youth have been integral in consulting on important issues and have the capacity to work in intergenerational environments. But sadly, youth have not been mobilized enough to address high-level forums.

Youth engagement is at the heart of my work at YouthLead. I work with diverse, international youth groups of varying ages. It’s a blend of knowledge-sharing, peer-learning, and leadership development through mentorship. So, I was a little disappointed that, from my point of view, youth participation appeared to be lower than anticipated in the SDG Summit sessions. Here are ways I believe youth can get more involved:

  1. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum: The ECOSOC Youth Forum is held once a year around March/April to accelerate the efforts in achieving the SDGs. The Forum provides a platform for young people to engage in a dialogue with Member States and other actors to amplify their views and concerns and galvanize actions on how to transform the world into a fairer, greener, and more sustainable place guided by Sustainable Development Goals. You can read more about the 2023 ECOSOC Youth Forum here.
  2. High-Level Political Forum: HLPF is the central United Nations platform for the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the global level. It usually takes place around June/July annually and encourages maximum youth participation. For information on the 2024 Forum slated for July 15-17, visit hlpf.un.org/2024.
  3. The Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth: The UN system itself has made demonstrable progress in involving youth in the SDGs and related processes. The Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth fosters a collaborative and integrated approach to UN initiatives on youth issues. The office aims to encourage youth engagement and solicit young people’s insights and ideas to inform UN activities. Signing up for their newsletter, The Pulse, is a great way to stay up-to-date on opportunities and events.
  4. Authority: While youth have been given a seat at the table, they are very seldom part of the decision-making. With the current youth bodies and independent youth-led communities, there is a need to promote direct youth authority in driving substantial change. For example, Youth groups like the Major Group for Children and Youth have been promoting and facilitating youth engagement in high-level events. Positive youth engagement can be truly implemented by mobilizing and equipping these groups with tools to succeed. Learn more about membership guidelines and how to get involved at unmgcy.org/get-involved.

While there are gaps to be filled between youth and policy-making bodies, there have also been increased efforts to include and highlight youth perspectives for the SDG 2030 goal. The world is moving towards machine learning, integration of AI, and remote work opportunities to involve global youth. Now is the time to transform our working models with those innovations to effectively seek and achieve change. My overall experience of attending these high-level events has allowed me to understand the ecosystem better, and I look forward to facilitating an active engagement of more youth members.