Nine young leaders from around the world shared their thoughts on improving the multilateral system for their generation – and for generations to come. Back row, left to right: Butti Almheiri, Inés Yábar, Jacob Ellis, Saru Duckworth, Mai Sami Mohamed Ahmed. Front row, left to right: Anita Dywaba, Alice Mukashyaka, Claudette Salinas Leyva, Kelechi Achinonu.
The world is getting younger: Half of the global population is under 30, and 10 billion people will be born before the century ends. We asked nine young leaders how the current multilateral system can work better for current and future generations — and why it’s imperative that it does so, sooner not later.
Young people are not only the leaders of tomorrow, but they are also leading today. They are the innovators, thinkers, and doers who are addressing our most urgent global crises while challenging the status quo at every level of power. They’re calling for change in the multilateral system, a system designed over seven decades ago to foster global cooperation and protect peace, so that it better reflects our world today.
And they’re not alone in their desire for change. The UN Secretary-General has shown he’s committed to strengthening the multilateral system to better represent young people today — and be fit to serve for generations to come. At his request, the UN Foundation convened a group of young leaders from around the world — known as Next Generation Fellows — to map out a plan to do exactly that. Now the second cohort of Next Generation Fellows is building on the recommendations laid out in the report, “Our Future Agenda.” These young people are experts in their own right, focusing on a range of issues — from climate change to gender equality, education, and jobs — that will affect their lives and those of future generations. They’re working to reshape our multilateral system with, by, and for the young people of today and tomorrow.
Five years after the UN adopted a resolution to recognize the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace, we spoke with nine Next Generation Fellows about why the perspectives of young people are essential at all decision-making tables, what leaders get wrong about inclusion, and why we can’t afford to give up hope when it comes to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Young people are demanding action on our most urgent global crises – and challenging the status quo at every level of power. Nineteen-year-old Nicole Becker mobilized young people for climate action in her home country of Argentina after seeing similar protests by young Europeans on Instagram. PHOTO: Sebastián x Gil / UNICEF
“Our Future Agenda” opened with a declaration, “It is time to reimagine the United Nations and its role in the world.” How would you fix the multilateral system to be a platform for the future?
Claudette Salinas Leyva, Mexico, 23 | Fellowship Focus: Future Generations Our world is not the same as it was when the UN was created over 75 years ago. It isn’t 1945. To better equip the multilateral system for the future, we need to encourage more collaboration and partnerships with experts and stakeholders across sectors.
Alice Mukashyaka, Rwanda, 27 | Fellowship Focus: Transforming Education Reforms should reflect the current world we live in: the 21st century. We need to encourage greater participation and representation. And I’m talking about greater participation by a range of voices — from developing countries, civil society organizations, other non-state members, and, of course, young people. Greater representation of these groups could create a broader, more engaging platform for the future.
Jacob Ellis, Wales, 30 | Fellowship Focus: Future Generations We must also recognize that the multilateral system has done some great work in promoting and protecting the rights and interests of future generations. I appreciate the emphasis on reimagining rather than fixing something that might be broken. While the system does have areas to improve, I am quite proud of what the system has already achieved and I want us to build on that good progress. And finally, we need to think beyond what has to change and think more about how we’re going to change it. Implementation is key.
Countries are being urged to invest in young people and help them build skills that will advance climate action. Ahmad became a Youth Climate Leader with UNICEF after seeing the impacts of climate change firsthand on his family’s farm in Jordan. He believes his generation and generations to come can find solutions to climate change that will make the planet more livable for all people. PHOTO: Jude Al-Safadi / UNICEF
Why do you think it’s important for young people to be included across the multilateral system?
Anita Dywaba, South Africa, 24 | Fellowship Focus: Gender Equality You can’t have a system working for future generations and not include those future generations. This is why we see a gap between young people and the multilateral system. When young people are not adequately included in these multilateral spaces, they don’t see the UN’s relevance in their day-to-day lives. And to have the buy-in of the people who are going to be living in the future, you need to include them. You can’t make decisions about young people’s lives without including young people. It just doesn’t make sense.
Inés Yábar, Peru, 27 | Next Generation Fellows Lead It’s not enough to just include young people. Who are those young people? Are they already a part of the “golden circle” — the same young advocates who are always invited to join multilateral spaces? We need to be intentional about seeking out young people who live in harder-to-reach places like shelters, shantytowns, Indigenous territories, or rural and remote communities. It’s about going beyond our own networks and comfort zones, and asking ourselves every day: “Are we doing enough to include other people?” And as long as we continue asking, we’re probably heading in the right direction.
Mai Sami Mohamed Ahmed, Egypt, Age 28 | Fellowship Focus: Child Rights
Having worked with children and young people in the field in disadvantaged situations, I realize how they are the most capable of expressing their needs and expressing the world they want to live in. They are very powerful in delivering their messages. They don’t need others to speak for them. They are very capable of speaking for themselves and raising their demands. We should just be here to support their meaningful participation in different international moments with the UN or any other international setting.
Butti Almheiri, United Arab Emirates, 24 | Fellowship Focus: Climate Especially in the field of climate change, I believe countries must give more support to their youth and believe in them. Invest in youth and build their capabilities in the field of renewable energy and climate issues. Because we understand how and where the future is going. We need to be ready. And governments can better equip youth to be those leaders of the future
Young people are calling for a more diverse group of advocates, who are leading change, to be included in multilateral spaces. Renowned Youth Leader of the Indigenous movement, Daniela Soto plays a key role in the construction of peace. She is a 22-year-old indigenous woman from the Nasa people, a philosophy student and a victim of the armed conflict. PHOTO: Deisy Tellez Giraldo / UN Photo
How can our multilateral system better represent and deliver for youth and future generations?
Claudette Salinas Leyva, Mexico, 23 | Fellowship Focus: Future Generations Multilateralism tries to ensure that everyone has a seat at the table. However, it needs to address the unequal distribution of power and resources among countries, and ensure that marginalized groups and voices are heard — not only at a special summit, but in every decision that’s taken.
Saru Duckworth, Nepal-USA, 24 | Fellowship Focus: Jobs We have so many spaces across the multilateral system where youth are brought in for their technical expertise, but it’s often done in very tokenistic ways. We rarely get formal responses from governments, or even from multilateral leaders on our recommendations and suggestions — even when they’re very specific and actionable.
Anita Dywaba, South Africa, 24 | Fellowship Focus: Gender Equality The multilateral system is definitely not designed for us. So even when we are included, we find ourselves in a system where we can’t express ourselves the way that we want to because we don’t feel safeguarded by the system. So it’s not enough to just “include” young people and give them a seat at the table. We need to make sure they’re comfortable enough to use their voice and express themselves and their perspectives at that table.
Kelechi Achinonu, Nigeria, Age 28 | Fellowship Focus: Justice
One, foster youth participation, get us involved, give us the platforms to get involved. Two, capacity building, upskilling: investing in youth, future generations, and youth leadership. Also important is intergenerational dialogue. … Then there has to be the part where we actually get to evaluate. So how are we currently doing it? Is it working? Are more young people upskilling in their leadership skills? How do we channel more energy to what is being done right?
Alice Mukashyaka, Rwanda, 27 | Fellowship Focus: Transforming Education You don’t see a lot of young people in most of the multilateral system, so we need to bridge that generational gap. We need to stop seeing older people and younger people as competing generations but as complementary to one another. Young people have something to bring to the table, and older people have experience and wisdom to share with us.
Activists raise local issues and make suggestions to policymakers during a state-level parliament session for young people supported by UNICEF in Mumbai, India. True inclusion in the multilateral system means not just inviting young people to the table but listening to – and acting on – their recommendations. PHOTO: Dhiraj Singh / UNICEF
What’s one key idea, solution, or innovation you think could speed up progress on the Sustainable Development Goals?
Butti Almheiri, United Arab Emirates, 24 | Fellowship Focus: Climate A majority of countries don’t have a baseline to measure implementation of the SDGs. This is a crucial problem that I believe the UN could help solve by expanding access to technology and digital platforms, especially for people in remote and rural areas. Solving this problem could be a gamechanger for the SDGs.
Saru Duckworth, Nepal-USA, 24 | Fellowship Focus: Jobs Young people are already leading, developing, and delivering different programs for the SDGs, including key issues like climate change and human rights. Youth are always among the first to recognize these issues, experience them, and contextualize them in their own communities. That’s something that has been really inspiring to see through Unlock the Future’s Engine Room [a global virtual forum for young changemakers to connect, collaborate, and mobilize ahead of the SDG Summit in September 2023]. I want to see a lot more of that in multilateral spaces.
Jacob Ellis, Wales, 30 | Fellowship Focus: Future Generations I want to see us celebrate the wins. The narrative around the SDGs is very much one of failure. But we know that there are good things to celebrate. There’s a Welsh proverb, or saying, that translates to: “‘Do the small things and do them joyfully. Enjoy doing small actions. Enjoy doing good deeds.’” Especially in the sustainable development field, we don’t fully enjoy the wins that we see before us enough, or celebrate the actions that we’re taking collectively. And if you think holistically about the SDGs, then I think you can find even better examples. In Wales, we’ve banned road funding — we don’t spend money on roads anymore. That supports the Goal on sustainable cities (SDG11), but also Goals that tackle air quality (SDG3, 7, and 11), health (SDG3), and biodiversity (SDG15).
Mai Sami Mohamed Ahmed, Egypt, Age 28 | Fellowship Focus: Child Rights Youth and children should be included in more different UN key moments. For example, they should be included … [in] complementary voluntary national reporting, which Save the Children recently created guidance for. Youth and children are the best ones to tell us whether the SDG implementation is making an impact or not. We should have a youth-friendly lens when drafting different policies and this can be achieved by inviting young leaders from different countries.
Kelechi Achinonu, Nigeria, Age 28 | Fellowship Focus: Justice
Measure what works, know what works, and focus on what works, but do that as fast as possible. If it’s not working, we drop it, or we pivot into something else, or we try to understand why it isn’t working based on data and go a different route rather than waiting until the end. I believe that by the time we do this, we’ll get to where we want to get to [and] see the result that we actually wanted to see because we did the right things.
Inés Yábar, Peru, 27 | Next Generation Fellows Lead There isn’t one key idea, solution, or innovation that could speed up the implementation of the SDGs because it’s not up to one person — it’s up to all of us. We can all contribute to achieving the SDGs in our own ways. What we really need is more commitment to the SDGs. Because if we aren’t all committed, then we will deliver with less ambition and maybe even stop along the way. There are so many things we can all do to help deliver on the SDGs. We just can’t give up.
MEET THE NEXT GENERATION FELLOWS
Convened by the UN Foundation, the Next Generation Fellows program puts young people globally at the forefront of the movement to make our multilateral system more inclusive and responsive to the needs of future generations.