Achieving SDG16: Youth is the missing piece

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

Solidarity, community and direct action are guiding principles of Mutual Aid Kenya, a youth-led, grassroots disaster relief network. Founded in response to Kenya’s first case of COVID-19, this network of young activists and community organizers has expanded to reach over 2,500 families in eight slums in Mombasa and Nairobi through door-to-door delivery of essential supplies, organizing and educating communities, and advocating for bills and policies that protect communities through the COVID-19 crisis. Young people like these are at the forefront of movements for peaceful, just and inclusive societies. Yet, their needs and priorities continue to be overlooked, particularly in relation to the climate crisis and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic. Meaningful collaboration and representation lie at the heart of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 on peace, justice and inclusion. In order to make progress on the Goal, we must invest in youth leadership, create equal opportunities for all and remove barriers to youth participation in decisions about their lives and societies.

As part of the lead up to the ECOSOC Youth Forum 2021, the Major Group for Children and Youth, UNDP, UNODC and the Global Alliance for Reporting Progress on Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, young leaders and activists gathered to generate recommendations on how to make progress towards peace, justice and inclusion. The session stressed that efforts around youth engagement need to recognize young people as active agents of change in their communities. Adults and youth alike must promote the inclusion of young people, in particular the most marginalized, in all processes and direct youth to spaces where their voices, and interests, can be represented. At a minimum, youth should be able to influence decisions that impact their lives and societies. This means creating spaces for genuine collaboration and youth participation in decision-making both locally and at national levels. And it means supporting youth engagement in peace processes and crime prevention and providing flexible funding for youth organizations to help realize young people’s ambition, innovation and creativity.

Almost halfway to 2030, progress toward SDG 16 is backsliding. We are witnessing deepening inequalities and an increasingly shrinking space for civil society. Multi-stakeholder engagement involving youth is critical for the achievement of SDG 16, and targeted efforts are needed to enable such collaboration. As the global community prepares to review SDG 16 at the 2021 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), we are faced with an important opportunity to assess progress and gaps on peace, justice and inclusion. In addition, the Voluntary National Review (VNRs) process offers important opportunities to both examine and accelerate delivery of SDG 16 and the larger 2030 Agenda. Youth engagement and perspectives will be critical as collective action and mutual accountability are needed today more than ever. For the HLPF and the VNRs to reach their full potential, and translate reporting on SDG 16 into concrete action, these processes must enhance governments’ accountability to their young people.

Yet, meaningful channels of engagement that respect young people’s diversity remain wanting. In 2019, all countries self-reported participatory VNR processes. However, only 28 of 47 VNRs included SDG 16 data specific to women and youth. Governments and their partners should engage national and local youth organizations, movements and networks to ensure that young people are supported as stakeholders in VNR design, implementation and accountability processes, including after the VNR has been presented at the HLPF. Youth engagement is, in this respect a demographic and human rights imperative.

In the declaration commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations, Member States recognized that for too long, the voices of youth have been sidelined in discussions about their future, and they vowed to listen to and work with youth. As we prepare for this year’s HLPF, all actors must work to fulfil that promise, by creating clear avenues for young leaders’ rights, needs and priorities to be considered as we determine action needed to advance SDG 16. The Government of Kenya provided Mutual Aid Kenya with a platform to be heard – young volunteers presented a memorandum on the needs of communities to the Senate to inform the formulation of the Pandemic Response Management Bill. As the largest generation of young people in history continues to call for change, it is time for member states and the international community to listen.


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