A BETTER FUTURE: YOUNG
PEOPLE HAVE THE KEYS
When looking 25 years ahead, we will be better off, young people say. The young generation is hopeful about the future - and ready to engage in shaping it. But United Nations needs to reform itself to provide better bottom-up democratic spaces and give youth a stronger voice in decision making.
WRITTEN BY JOHANNA DINESS AND GUDRUN GADEGAARD PEDERSEN
To mark the UN’s 75th anniversary, the UN invited people from all over the world to join conversations on how to tackle the challenges we face and how to build a better future for all.
ActionAid Denmark brought together 18 young people (20-35 years old from Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zambia, and Bangladesh for a roundtable discussion shortly before the UN General Assembly in September 2020.
One thing which stood out from the conversation, was the young panellists' high hopes for the future. On the question: “Overall, do you think that people in 2045 will be better off, worse off, the same as you are today?”, the vast majority of the participants answered “better off”. And this despite of the fact that the same participants voiced how the COVID-19 crisis has hit hard on young people’s employment, education, and income opportunities.
New technologies provide hope and opportunities
The young panel mentioned new technologies as the main reason for their optimism. The participant who opened the debate on the future did not hesitate: "I believe the future will be better. The reason for this is cheaper and smarter technology. We are already enjoying the fruits of existing technology, but it will impact all sectors, and for example make the health system better and drive development on an overall basis."
Many more participants joined his viewpoint, one said: "Use of technology is a driver for progress - with increased access to technology, we equip us young people with skills and knowledge and make us and the world better." The technological optimism comes from a generation of global youth which has actually seen a rapid change in the use and access to technology. In 2017, 2.7 billion people used smartphones, and in 2020, the number grew to 3.3 billion1. In 2007, 20% of the world’s population were internet users. By 2017, it had increased to almost half of the world’s population – 49%2.
When looking specifically at countries in the lower middle-income group – such as Kenya, Zambia, Nigeria, and Bangladesh where the majority of the panelists are from – the internet usage has been growing at even more incredible rates. From 2007 to 2017, the share of internet users in lower middle-income countries rose from 5.6% to almost 32%3. In some countries, internet use virtually exploded in very few years in the 2010s. In Bangladesh, the number of users tripled from 2013 (10 mio.) to 2016 where almost 30 mio. had become regular internet users4. In Kenya, the term Silicon Savannah has coined a US$1 billion tech scene which has fostered hundreds of cutting-edge tech start-ups and spurred the last decade’s rapid development in East Africa.
Technology can be a driver in a creative development led by youth, as one participant explained: "With new technologies we have more opportunities to do things differently than before. Increased knowledge makes people more aware of for example gender inequalities and can drive development. There is a rise in the number of young people taking action and are able to bring fresh ideas into the global economy, business world and educational sectors," and he concluded:
"I believe that the young people have the keys for a better future."
A huge global inequality in the access and use of technology still needs to be addressed.
While by 2017, 85% in the group of high-income countries were internet users, only 16% were so in low income countries such as Ethiopia5. And certainly, the group of young people participating in this online conversation do not represent all those young people who are still excluded with no access to new technologies, internet and struggle to read and write due to poor education.
Covid-19 lockdowns reveals technological challenges
The current lockdowns highlight the need for accessible technology for all. School closures due to COVID-19 have impacted 94% of the world’s student population – nearly 1.6 billion learners - and up to 99% in low and lower-middle income countries6. While distance learning in high income countries covers about 80–85%, it drops to less than 50% in low income countries7.
The current situation calls for urgent measures to access education and information technology for all8, and it actualizes the SDG agenda and commitment of all countries to ‘leave no one behind’ and deliver results on SDG target 17.8 which obliges members states to enhance the use of information and communications technology. If we promote a fair world without inequality and where education is available for all we need investments in technology and tech-skills, not least commitment from authorities to focus on this area.
Concerns for the future: From top-down to bottom-up
The young panellists also voiced serious concerns for the next 25 years to come. The fear of not being heard, and not being part of decion making processes, was voiced by several participants as many lower middle-income countries see a shrinking civic space and more authoritarian measures. Choking the energy and youth engagement by narrowing down the space for participation remains a serious obstacle, according to the youth.
To finish off the debate, participants were asked how the UN could support a brighter future. One clear recommendation was to ensure more participatory and democratic spaces – and to democratize the already existing ones. Several participants noted that the agenda setting in the UN is still largely dominated by few high-income countries, and there is an urgent need for global action and cooperation, led through bottom-up participatory channels.
A Kenyan participant framed it: “What should the UN do better? The UN must come to the ground. Coming to the ground does not necessarily mean they should establish offices in every country but ensure that agenda setting at the UN is bottom-up. Currently the decisions and actions of the UN are largely driven by western powers who come up with dozens of "solutions" for instance for the Global South that are completely out of touch with reality. Simple things like what we are doing right now of sharing feedback in this survey could go a long way to democratize agenda setting and decision making the UN”.
The vivid debate and inspirational inputs from the panel lead us to conclude that the young people consulted are optimistic about the future because of increased access and use of technology. To keep the optimism, it is vital to pursue the “leave no-one behind” agenda and make technology available for all, especially for active democratic participation. But technology cannot stand alone. Real democratisation requires a systemic change which puts youth and marginalized groups at the forefront and include their voices from the very beginning of decision-making processes. Top-down structures must be turned upside down and made participatory for all.
JOHANNA DINESS is Youth Data Analyst in the Youth Data and Policy team of ActionAid Denmark.
GUDRUN GADEGAARD PEDERSEN is a Youth Data Analist and part of the Youth Data and Policy team of ActionAid Denmark to document the impact on youth from the Covid-19 crisis.