When the hurricane season devastated the Caribbean last fall, youth took a heavy blow. Not only did they lose their homes and jobs, but also schools and education opportunities.
This is not a situation of their own making.
Young people are hurting disproportionally from vulnerabilities to climate disasters. We sometimes say that their time will come later, they are the generation of tomorrow. But what about today?
Nowadays, people under the age of 30 constitute more than 50 percent of the world population.
And they care deeply about our planet. The 2017 World Economic Forum’s Global Survey found that 48% of young people think that “climate change/destruction of nature” is the most serious global issue of our time — a figure much higher than among the rest of the population.
How can we harness young people’s potential?
First, we must think of youth as an asset. If they are denied basic living conditions, education and access to employment, the youth of today will be the poor of tomorrow, and their ideas and drive will be trumped by the hardship of poverty. Marginalization also creates fertile grounds for radicalization and conflict.
If young people have the right support, education, and means, they can go on to build better societies. They have energy, creativity, and innovation to power entrepreneurship and create jobs for themselves and others.
We must empower them to break cycles of poverty and fulfill their potential.
Second, young people are vanguards of change, driven by fresh ideas and enthusiasm.
Government and organizations increasingly recognize the value of incorporating youth into policy-making. The United Nations has supported Member States’ efforts through the World Programme of Action for Youth, and has established internal mechanisms, including the annual ECOSOC Youth Forum, to create platforms for young people to share their ideas and priorities.
To turn youth’s ideas into action and policies, more must be done to channel their voices into decision-making processes.
Third, young people are not idly waiting for others to transform their ideas into reality. They are leaders who roll up their sleeves and work hard to transform their societies.
For instance, in Bogotá, Colombia, boys and girls are leading the action to save their local river — the Río Fucha.
Dismayed by the community’s neglect of the river, and by the amount of refuse and pollution killing the natural flora and fauna, they took matters into their hands. Five years ago, they formed Reconexión natural to take care of the environment, for instance through organizing rubbish collection sessions.
So far, their achievements include involving 2000 people from their community, removing 7 tons of solid waste, and completely recovering a stretch of the river longer than 1.5 km — now newly inhabited with native flora and fauna. And they are committed to keep going.
This is not an isolated case. Many more young people share the urge to build a better future and have started their own ventures.
So what are the next steps to harness youth’s potential?
It starts with you: prioritize youth, support youth, empower youth.
If you are in a development agency, ensure you are addressing the needs of the youth. If you are in a policy-making organization, ensure your youth are involved in decision-making. If you have the means, share knowledge and support the leadership and initiatives of youth.
If you are a young person, do not wait until adulthood to fulfill your potential. Act now. Your generation’s time does not start tomorrow.
Marie Chatardová is president of the United Nations Economic and Social Council.