Five Problems with Youth Advocacy at the UN

By Rebecca Oas, Ph.D. | September 4, 2014

NEW YORK, September 5 (C-FAM) “A year ago, there was a ‘youth takeover’ of the UN,” said the UN representative of Save the Children at a panel last week on children and youth as agents of change.

“Takeover” is a generous appraisal likely referring to the Secretary-General’s appointment of an Envoy on Youth, a variety of youth conferences, crowds of groomed activists attending disparate UN meetings and frequent reminders that over 50% of the world’s population is under 30.

Has the UN neglected youth in the past? Or is this surge in attention a tactic to advance controversial policies? Here are five aspects of youth activism as it is often framed within the UN:

Young people may be used as tokens for publicity. Being young might guarantee a person a seat on a panel, while simultaneously ensuring that his or her contributions are marginalized as the “youth perspective” and not evaluated according to their own merits. As young people gain education and experience, they can contribute – and be respected – in areas that affect all people, not just young. 

The “youth voice” is not monolithic.  Some of the loudest advocates for youth activism tend to characterize young people as having the same opinion. This notion is advanced at great expense with events like UNFPA’s Bali Global Youth Forum in 2012, where like-minded advocates were flown in from around the world to sign onto a document so radical that the host country distanced itself from it.

Privileged youth are disproportionately represented in the UN.  To be under 30 with sufficient clout to be invited to speak at a UN meeting requires one of two things: an incredible personal story (like Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl almost killed for attending school) or elite connections.  The youth panel last week featured individuals with parents in high-level international positions, advanced degrees from exclusive universities, or both.  Last year, a minor scandal arose when an internship with the Unitarian Universalist UN office was auctioned for $22,000 – for most, a prohibitive price for the chance to work without pay.

Morality is innate in the young.  “Young people have a sense of what is right…you just know [something’s] not fair,” said one young panelist at last week’s meeting.  “Unfortunately you lose that sometimes as you get older.”  Other speakers echoed the idea that if young people’s innate sense of right and wrong was bolstered by a basic understanding of the UN system, they could lead the world – presumably as long as they exited the system before their youthful idealism gave way to the pragmatism of maturity.  Even so, the panelists were quick to credit adults, particularly parents and professors, for guiding them to understand issues and develop opinions that unsurprisingly match the views of these adults.

Are young people equipped to fully grasp issues affecting their own demographic?  A common refrain at youth-focused events is the decisions made by the UN today will impact the next generation, for better or worse.  This is equally true of small children.  Being consulted is one thing – understanding and expertise are also required to be final decision-makers, along with legitimately representing a constituency of citizens or members.

None of this is to criticize the importance of engaging young people in global issues, or advocacy and scholarship activities like C-Fam’s Young Scholars Series of papers and International Youth Coalition blog. 

While C-Fam, like many organizations, advances a distinct perspective and set of values shared by youth and older people alike, the agencies most vocal about “creating a space” for child and youth advocates in the UN system pretend the youth independently come up with their own agenda – including promoting abortion and redefining the family – and carry greater moral authority due to their fewer years on earth.