Today, there are 1.2 billion young people aged 15 to 24 years, accounting for 16 percent of the global population. Projections suggest that the youth cohort in sub-Saharan Africa will continue to grow and will likely represent almost 30 percent of the world’s youth by 2050, up from 18 percent in 2020 and almost 22 percent in 2030. Africa is the only region where the youth will continue to grow in the foreseeable future, presenting both an opportunity to reap the demographic dividend and a big challenge to social cohesion as well as massive migration in search of opportunities if appropriate policies are not implemented to harness the dividend. Youth are both a major human resource for development and key agents for social change, economic development, and technological innovation. Failure to foster youth development inclusively or fulfill young people’s rights can lead to inequalities with long-term economic and social consequences.
Far from being mere beneficiaries of the 2030 Agenda, young people have been active participants in its development and continue to be engaged in the processes of SDG implementation, follow-up, and review. The active engagement of youth in sustainable development efforts is central to achieving sustainable, inclusive, and stable societies and to addressing multi-faceted challenges to sustainable development, including the impacts of unemployment, poverty, gender inequality, climate change, disaster risk, and public health emergencies.
The United Nations has long recognized that the knowledge, talents, ideas, and enthusiasm of young people are vital for the continuing development of the societies in which they live. The Report of the UN Secretary-General on Youth and Peace and Security present two main challenges for the youth participation – i) opportunities for young people’s political participation are still inadequate, and ii) structural barriers limit the participation of young people and their capacity to influence decision-making and insufficient investment in facilitating their inclusion, in particular through education.
Before COVID-19, youth were already three times more likely to be unemployed; one in five young people were shut out of education, training, or employment, and one in four-faced violence or conflict; and 126 million young workers were in extreme and moderate poverty worldwide (International Labour Organization, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic and social impacts have disrupted nearly all aspects of life for all groups in society. For young people, the COVID-19 crisis poses considerable challenges in education, employment and disposable income, and even mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and inequalities experienced by the youth, all further amplified in humanitarian contexts where fragility, conflict, and emergencies have undermined institutional capacity and limited access to services.
Notwithstanding limited strides in youth empowerment, young people continue to suffer disproportionately from conflict, poverty, and now the most severe effects of COVID-19. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres sounded alarms about the acute impacts young people around the globe are feeling amid the virus outbreak, from job losses to family stress, mental health, and other hardships. The increase in unemployment as a result of COVID-19 is expected to exceed the rise in rates of unemployment in the aftermath of the 2009 global financial crisis. Secretary-General voiced that “the world cannot afford a lost generation of youth, their lives set back by COVID-19 and their voices stifled by a lack of participation.” Member States must address such challenges, beginning with support for young people’s participation, organizations, and initiatives, protecting civic spaces and committing to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with a massive boost in investment in young people to pursue sustainable and resilient recovery from the pandemic.
The impacts of COVID-19 are, and will continue to be, felt most harshly by young people already living in difficult and disadvantaged circumstances. Moreover, while the youth and future generations will shoulder much of the long-term economic and social consequences of the crisis, their rights and well-being may be neglected due to short-term policy considerations.
An inclusive response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic requires an integrated approach to public governance, which could effectively address the impact of response and recovery measures across different age cohorts. In particular, to create an enabling ecosystem to empower youth, government institutions should collaborate with the private sector, CSOs, ICT sector, and other stakeholders. To avoid exacerbating intergenerational inequalities and to involve young people in building resilience in society, governments need to develop an effective governance mechanism. “Building better” requires decision-makers to acknowledge generational divides and address them decisively to leave no one behind.
It is critical to empower youth to engage with the local and national government for inclusive information-sharing, engage in monitoring and evaluating COVID-19 responses, engage in delivering responses to COVID-19, and tackling the spread of inaccurate information, debunking myths, and confronting stigma. Only by instituting a mechanism to engage young people can the government truly facilitate dialogues with the youth and support them in addressing their specific needs. Meanwhile, the government can create an enabling environment for encouraging the youth to co-design and co-create inclusive government services for vulnerable groups while pursuing sustainable and resilient recovery from COVID-19.
In the wake of the outbreak of COVID-19, many activities such as healthcare, education, and work have been forced to be converted online, and the society has become more dependent on the ICT and digital government systems. Subsequently, there has been a big surge in use and demands on ICT digital government services, which has accelerated the pace of digital transformation. Digital transformation enables organizations to put in place seamless business continuity plans for times and crises, which would create a minimum impact of their business-as-usual operations and facilitated remote work and collaboration. In building resilient societies to recover from COVID-19, it is also crucial to acknowledge the important role of youth in accelerating digital transformation as young people are better equipped with ICT knowledge and expertise. On the other hand, ICTs and frontier technologies, in particular, can further empower young people in mitigating the negative socio-economic impacts of the pandemic.
Recognizing the capacities of the youth as an important stakeholder in the recovery from COVID-19, if empowered, youth can: participate systematically through consultations and knowledge-sharing, involved in decision-making processes at all levels, including budget allocations, and engaged in the implementation of response measures; assess the impact of COVID-19 on their communities by leveraging digital tools to build resilience in societies against future shocks and disasters; engage in responses to COVID-19 as health workers, advocates, volunteers, scientists, social entrepreneurs, and innovators and others.
Against this background, the Division for Public Institutions and Digital Government (DPIDG) of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), with the support from its Project Office on Governance (UNPOG), and in collaboration with the Ministry of the Interior and Safety of the Republic of Korea and Incheon Metropolitan City Government, are co-organizing 4th Youth Forum on SDG Implementation on “Empowering the Youth to Build Resilience in Society – in the Context of Pursuing Sustainable and Resilient Recovery from COVID-19”. The Forum will serve as a unique platform for young people to share their vision and to elaborate their substantive contributions in pursuing sustainable and resilient recovery from COVID-19. Consequently, the youth forum will be a platform to enable the youth to raise their voices and exchange ideas to accelerate SDG implementation, whereby focusing on the roles of public governance.