THIS September marks the fourth anniversary of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, where world leaders established the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030.
Malaysia’s delegation to the meeting in New York was led by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
And, as young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg expressed so powerfully to world leaders at the UN climate summit in New York, global challenges to the environment and development are relevant for children and youth.
There are 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24, the largest generation in history. Close to 90 per cent live in developing countries, and their numbers are expected to grow.
Connected via high technology like never before, young people want to and contribute to the resilience of their communities, proposing solutions, driving social progress and inspiring change.
Investing in youth is fundamental to implement the SDGs. This is especially true in the Asia-Pacific region, home to about 700 million youths, 200 million of whom are from Asean.
The National Statistics Department said there are 14.6 million Malaysians aged between 15 and 39, or 45.4 per cent of the population.
The Malaysian Productivity Centre said these young people are our hope for ensuring a stable future for our economy based on a long-lasting workforce and a sizeable market to support our businesses.
All businesses, infrastructure, systems and policies will be supported, used, maintained and executed by our youths for decades to come.
It is these young people who will start businesses, work in factories, build homes, take loans, study, become consumers of our goods and services, and be our leaders.
With the skills and opportunities to reach their potential, they can drive development and contribute to peace and security.
We must encourage and empower young people to help translate the SDGs into policy at every level, to help implement, monitor and review progress, and to hold governments accountable.
The UN identified possible roles for youth in implementing the SDGs:
CRITICAL THINKERS: Youths have the capacity to identify and challenge power structures and barriers to change, and to expose contradictions and biases;
CHANGE-MAKERS: They also have the power to act and mobilise others.
Youth activism is on the rise the world over, bolstered by broader connectivity and access to social media.
As one European commentator put it: “It is clear, for example that tackling climate change needs to involve all people, young and old, privileged and underprivileged, from developed and developing countries.
“Young people want and deserve a role in what should be a participatory process and the school strikes for climate action were born out of their desire to make global leaders aware of and act on their concerns.”
INNOVATORS: Beyond bringing fresh perspectives, young people often have direct knowledge of and insights into issues that elude adults.
They understand best the problems they face and can offer new ideas and alternative solutions.
At a forum on Youth and the SDGs, UN General Assembly president Miroslav Lajčák said: “If we neglect young people, we will not achieve a single SDG.”
He highlighted the role of youth in innovations that help reverse the trends that are harming the planet as well as in preventing conflict and building peace.
“I want to conclude with a blunt truth: our international system simply was not set up for young people. If you look at photographs of the signing of the UN Charter, you will not see any young men or young women. That is why, for years, young people were not seen, and were not heard, in the conference rooms, like this one.
“Young people can no longer be dismissed as the rebel fighters; the terrorists; the disenfranchised.
“They are the innovators, the solution-finders; the social and environmental entre-preneurs,” he added;
COMMUNICATORS: Too few people are aware of the historic, far-reaching agreement by world leaders to improve the lives of people and the planet by 2030.
Young people should partner to communicate the development agenda and their concerns to their peers and communities at every level, locally, nationally and regionally.
Much like Thunberg’s remarks on Sept 23, anyone who saw it will never forget the speech by 12-year-old Canadian environmental activist Severn Cullis-Suzuki at the 1992 Earth Summit, admonishing and appealing to everyone to help stop the destruction of the earth’s resources;
LEADERS: When young people are empowered with knowledge of their rights and equipped with leadership skills, they can drive change in their communities and countries.
Youth-led organisations and networks should be supported and strengthened, especially marginalised youth.
The level of awareness on sustainable development among Malaysian youth is reasonable, as reflected in the activities of university students and national youth organisations, but we have yet to see here the high level of activism personified by Thunberg, Severn Cullis-Suzuki or Malala Yousafzai.
May our youths be more vocal in expressing their concerns and grievances and taking up the call to engage in shaping the destiny ahead.
The writer is a senior fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and former official of the United Nations University