Speech on Youth, by Helena Fraser, Resident Coordinator, Uzbekistan
When I was a teenager, our school used to invite speakers to visit and talk to us about their careers, their life-stories, their ambitions.
Often, these speakers would tell us that we were young and could change the world, if we tried hard enough.
To be completely honest with you, I was not always entirely convinced. Often their examples were abstract, and didn’t really connect to our lives. We didn’t really know what they meant…
So today, I want to try to illustrate the power and potential of youth with some examples from my own career with the United Nations, from two decades working in humanitarian crises and assistance across the world, from Georgia to East Timor, from the war in Syria to UN Headquarters in New York and Geneva, and now, happily, here in Uzbekistan.
And throughout what I say, I want you to consider four points:
-My first point is that every country is only as healthy, prosperous and happy as its youth.
-My second, is that young people are both resilient and innovative, in ways that are sometimes shocking or surpising, but also transforming and energizing!
-My third is the fine line that separates a country’s youth from being a demographic burden, and a demographic dividend: a nation’s greatest challenge, or a nation’s greatest asset. If we nurture our young people, and help them find appropriate outlets for their talent, youth can be a great dividend, contributing to a country’s growth and prosperity enormously. BUT, the opposite is also true. When young people are not encouraged, supported and engaged, they can cramp, destabilise, and – quite literally – stunt its future growth.
-My final point concerns development: the potential and possibilities of policies. I want to explore what the UN, governments, communities and families can do to look after youth.
We are often told that a country’s youth is its future, but what does this mean? Let me begin with some points from the crisis I worked on until June of this year. For nearly three years I worked on providing humanitarian assistance to the war in Syria. I am sure you have all seen the stories coming out of this horrible conflict. And you are all aware, I am sure, of the scale of the suffering. Perhaps nowhere on earth is the connection between a country’s youth and its future clearer than when children’s lives are consumed by conflict.
There are 6 million adolescents and young people remaining inside Syria. One third of them are displaced from their homes. 2 million are out of school. In neighbouring countries, there are over a million Syrian refugee children and young people who should be in school, but are unable to attend. Millions of adolescents and young people have been forced into the war effort either by the government or by the opposition.
These numbers can be overwhelming. When I started working on the Syria crisis in 2014, I think this was one of the many dreadful statistics that made me most upset – that so many children and young people were being denied their basic rights, unable to fulfil their potential, prevented from achieving their dreams.
It was terrible, talking to colleagues who had met kids hiding from bombs in Syria, or fleeing across borders, or forced to drop out of school in order to earn a few cents a day working in the fields or the city streets.
And Syria’s inherent wealth, which was founded on having a young population with high literacy rates, great higher education opportunities, and a productive and diverse industrial and agricultural industry to employ them, was devastated. The terrible truth is that Syria will take decades to recover.
How to even begin to address a situation like this?
The only way is to work with youth, listen to their hopes and ambitions. And once you do that, you also start realising how powerful and strong many of these young people are, and how ready they are to try to rebuild their lives if only they are supported to do so.
In 2014, the UN started a programme, together with partners, called ‘No Lost Generation’: working with the governments of countries hosting Syrian refugees, and with community leaders inside Syria, to tackle some of the priorities affecting young people: Protection, Education, Health, and Participation. Participation is especially important – and the UN is working to ensure adolescents and young people are included in decision-making on all issues that affect them.
And indeed, Syrian youth has shown incredible resilience. They have shown remarkable capacity to recover, once they reach places of safety. And after they get protection from violence, all they are asking for – like young people around the world – is for decent education, good training, and effective participation.
While Syria is an extreme case, it is true that with many competing demands for scarce funds, too many countries often do not fully recognize how critical young people are to their national economies, societies, and democracies – both today and in the future – and consequently make too few public investments in programmes to harness their productive resources.
By building a strong foundation from an early stage, supporting families and communities to support young people, investing in programmes tailored to children and youth can advance a country’s development and contribute to its prosperity.
Global data has shown that failing to invest in children and youth can also trigger substantial economic, social, and political costs resulting from negative outcomes such as early school drop-out, poor labour market entry, risky behaviours, and crime and violence.
In fact, in many countries the overall damage to society amounts to several per cent of the gross domestic product per year. Rough estimates show that preventable risky behaviours induce losses to society that reach into billions of dollars. For example, in Latin America and the Caribbean, a range of negative youth behaviours reduces economic growth by up to 2 percent annually. These are just numbers. They tell us nothing of the other costs, such as psychological distress, poorer health, less civic participation, or intergenerational effects.
So what does the UN do to support countries to tackle this?
The World Programme of Action for Youth, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1995, provides a policy framework and practical guidelines for national action and international support to improve the situation of young people around the world.
Implementation of the Programme of Action requires the full enjoyment by young people of all human rights and fundamental freedoms, and also requires that Governments take effective action against violations of these rights and freedoms and promote non-discrimination, tolerance, respect for diversity, with full respect for various religious and ethical values, cultural backgrounds and philosophical convictions of their young people, equality of opportunity, solidarity, security and participation of all young women and men.
At the practical level, around the world, the UN system encourages countries to invest public resources in children and youth. The UN also works to support Governments in formulating and implementing appropriate policies.
In every country around the world, UN agencies analyze the state of children and youth, raise awareness about necessary investments in particular areas, and collect international experience to identify successful policies that can serve as example for other countries.
We also provide advice for the design, implementation and evaluation of children and youth related policies. For example, here in Uzbekistan, the UN population fund (UNFPA) works with the Government at the central and local level to collect and use population data to formulate socio-economic development strategies, and with the Ministry of Health to ensure youth-friendly health services in primary health care centres across the country. With support from the UN, the MoH has developed an action plan to better respond to young people’s needs. And UNDP is working with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry to develop entrepreneurship opportunities for young people, and with the Women’s Committee to include more young women and girls in leadership development opportunities.
The UN prioritizes investments in youth—particularly health and education—so as to foster opportunities for developing a skilled and healthy labor force. Through strengthening health and education programs to address the full range of child, youth, and adult needs, children can grow into healthy adults who can contribute more significantly to economic growth. Through these investments, nations develop a labor force well equipped to move into new opportunities that emerge from a demographic dividend.
And here I want to come back to the fine line I mentioned, the line between a youth dividend and a youth burden.
If today’s large cohort of young people cannot find employment and earn satisfactory income, the global youth bulge could undermine economic growth, peace, and security. Experiences from many countries have shown that a large population of jobless, frustrated youth has the potential to become a source of social and political instability. The right investments, however, allow countries to harness the youth bulge for a dividend of economic growth and improving the lives of young people today and in the future.
Key policy actions needed are those that expand youth opportunities, give them the skills to participate fully in the economy and public life, and promote healthy behaviors. To seize the potential of youth, leaders need to prioritize policies that invest in child survival and children’s and young people’s health, including reproductive health; improve the quantity and quality of schooling and vocational training; enhance the job market; enhance girls’ and young women’s equality; and encourage young people’s participation.
Youth involvement helps ensure that policy actions are relevant, and helps develop youth as partners and leaders in development. It’s important that youth are viewed as assets and active agents of change, who can contribute their energy, idealism, and insights to a nation’s growth and progress.
And this brings me back to what a pleasure it is to be working for the UN in Uzbekistan at this exciting moment in your country’s history, and at a time when the Government is showing its recognition of the challenges facing youth and its determination to harness the huge potential of youth in Uzbekistan for a positive dividend.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly, President Mirziyoyev emphasized that “The planet's future and well-being depend on what kind of people our children will grow up into”. And his words have been accompanied by action: 30 June this year was designated ‘Youth Day’ and the same day, in line with priorities articulated in the Action Strategy 2017-2021, the Youth Union of Uzbekistan was created to act as a channel and voice for youth participation and entrepreneurship. The Presidential decree “On measures to improve the effectiveness of the state youth policy and support the activities of the Union of Youth of Uzbekistan" assigned twelve fundamental tasks, which are aligned to the UN World Programme of Action for Youth. And just last week the Government of Uzbekistan adopted a resolution “On organizational measures to create clusters of youth entrepreneurship”.
But – as my experience from working in many countries has shown -- action to harness the youth dividend cannot come from Government alone. Young people are the future of your country.
So how can you help?
Know your rights under your Constitution, know the UN treaties and conventions that Uzbekistan has signed, know the opportunities that your Government is setting up for you.
Engage within your families, your communities, your youth groups and with your Government. Support those less fortunate to enhance their opportunities.
Seize these opportunities and help your country to flourish!
In 2012, the teenager Malala Yousefzai was shot in the head by Taleban militants in Pakistan, because of her work championing girls’ education. After a long recuperation, during which time she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she is now enrolled at Oxford University.
Malala is the ultimate role model for youth overcoming adversity, and for the power of health and education to change young lives, and for the power of youth to inspire the world. Let her words inspire you:
“Let us make our future now, and let us make our dreams tomorrow's reality!”