“Development with people and planet at the center!”
This unanimous call to action echoed through the halls of the United Nations during the ECOSOC Youth Forum 2019. The air was crisp with the energy and idealism of young people from across the world.
They spoke of the need for immediate change– that 1.2 billion young people around the world cannot achieve their potential if they don’t have access to basic rights, especially education. It’s not surprising that while more than 260 million children are out of school globally, 64 million young people are unemployed1 and 145 million are living in poverty.
The ECOSOC Youth Forum, held on April 8-9, gathered nearly 1000 youth advocates from around the world and provided a unique platform for young people to discuss their vision of the Sustainable Development Goals, make their voices heard to ministers and government officials gathered for the Forum, and provide contributions to the upcoming UN meetings, including the High-Level Political Forum and the SDG Summit in September.
Education is critical to development
Education was top of mind for the participants of the Forum – at the sessions and in hallway chats. SDG 4 (ensuring equitable and inclusive quality education for all) is one under review at this year’s High-Level Political Forum, where countries will take stock of the progress they’ve made on education.
But more importantly, education is central to achieving all the SDGs. From ensuring that children are ready for work in the job markets of the future, to achieving gender equality, affecting climate action and building peaceful societies, education is critical to development and getting it right is key!
Fundamental to this is building strong systems to deliver the quality, equity and learning outcomes needed. GPE and partners were advocating for more young people to get engaged on this issue of system building as a critical aspect of the education agenda.
And governments agreed. At the Interactive Roundtable on Youth 2030: Working with and for Young People, ministers of youth affairs from many countries, including GPE partner countries like Sierra Leone and the Gambia, emphasized their ongoing initiatives to provide free quality education with a focus on gender equality.
Young people are at the heart of the education challenge
Young people are seeking jobs in a rapidly automating labor market. They face a future with climate disasters and severely depleted natural resources. And we know that providing quality education has the potential to change individual lives and transform communities.
Every extra year of schooling increases an individual’s earnings by up to 10%2. Universalizing upper secondary education by 2030 would prevent 200,000 disaster-related deaths in the 20 years that follow. 3
During a word cloud exercise at a break-out session on the Asia and the Pacific region, the moderator asked participants to share their three main concerns in the region. ‘Education’ was at the center of the cloud as the issue of greatest concern.
Similarly, young people from Africa, the Arab States, Latin America, Europe and North America demanded political commitments on SDG 4 as part of their recommendations for the HLPF and other meetings.
What does education and SDG 4 mean to young people?
This was the central theme of the session on SDG 4 that I (Victoria) moderated. In free-flowing discussions, participants talked about the centrality of education in the 2030 Agenda, equity and inclusion in education and skills for the 21st century. They spoke about their vision for education and a peaceful sustainable world where:
- Education is recognized as a human right, beyond its economic returns, that enables learners to drive social progress.
- Girls and boys including those from the most marginalized communities, refugees and migrants have access to quality education.
- Young people are able to develop skills for work and have opportunities for training.
- Teachers are adequately trained.
- Young people have access to comprehensive sexuality education.
- Young people are able to participate and contribute to decision-making in their communities.
To turn these goals and aspirations into reality, we must integrate these concerns into education systems. But systems are run by people and require planning and accountability.
GPE’s intervention in the session on Looking to the Future focused on the importance of education sector planning in achieving SDG 4 and the critical role of young people in accountability processes.
Young people are the foremost users and stakeholders of education systems. They are partners and agents of change, and their unique knowledge and experiences can help shape our understanding of challenges and solutions in education systems.
Youth participation in policy dialogue is key
With the recent launch of the UN Youth Strategy, and other key initiatives to support young people like UNICEF’s Generation Unlimited, young people have more opportunities than they did in the past to engage in policy dialogue and implementation.
And yet, young people’s voices and concerns are not given due prominence in mainstream development narratives - often despite being the group most gravely affected by development challenges.
In the closing session, the UN Secretary General António Guterres emphasized the need to hear the voices of young people and integrate their recommendations into policy-making, to great cheer from young people at the Forum. And importantly, he highlighted,
“Above all else… the importance of investing in quality education and decent work for all young people.”
Young people have made their voices heard – they yearn for a guarantee of their basic right – the right to education.
Agenda 2030 provides the perfect framing and opportunity for political leaders, multilateral institutions and development partners to work together to ensure that all children and young people have a quality education.