Amid the turbulent news cycle of 2016, the UK government’s decision to scrap its UN youth delegate programme went largely unnoticed – but it is difficult to overstate how much of a setback this decision was for the UK youth sector.
While imperfect, this programme represented young Britons’ only formal connection with the UN system. Every year, it saw two youth representatives attend the annual UN General Assembly (UNGA) and develop policy proposals to address youth concerns back home.
This September, young people from across the world will gather in New York to share their perspectives at this year’s UNGA. At a time when the UN is debating some of the most significant issues facing the world – from climate action to tackling world hunger and global poverty – the voices of UK youth will sadly be absent from the discussions.
Far from being a luxury expenditure, ensuring the international voice of UK youth ought to be a central component of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office’s (FCDO) strategy for multilateral engagement.
The UK stands in stark contrast to many of its allies who recognize the power of youth. The decision to axe its UN youth delegate programme has isolated the UK from the 72 per cent of Council of Europe member states and 60 per cent of UN Security Council members who currently send UN youth delegates.
Similarly, 62.5 per cent of G7 members states and 65 per cent of G20 member states have active UN youth delegate structures. Meanwhile, the EU has not only created its own UN youth delegate structure, but also declared 2022 the European Year of Youth.
While other countries are leading the way, it is evident that Britain needs to do more to repair youth distrust before post-pandemic marginalization brews anti-social behaviour, mental health complications and other social issues.
Faced with multiple global challenges, young people deserve to have their voices channelled through the UN in a structured way and not as an afterthought.
Recent polls show only 19 per cent of young people aged 18-24 trust politicians. 45 per cent believe politicians are doing a bad job representing them, and nearly half (49 per cent) believe that ‘there aren’t enough opportunities to learn about politics and democracy in school’. Nowhere is this more accurate than in the foreign policy sphere, which has traditionally been closed off from young people. While this may have sufficed in the past, today’s global interdependency has shown how this is simply outdated. Youth today drive various international causes, from democracy and human rights to the fight against climate change.
This is a global trend, but while other countries have invested in their youth, the UK has lagged behind by cutting funding and failing to provide opportunities for youth input. A prime example is the government’s failure to make up for the multimillion-pound shortfall in youth sector funding after Britain withdrew from the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme. To counter youth disillusionment, the UK government must convince young people that their views are valued and respected. Investing in a UN youth delegate structure would be one way to do so.
In a recent speech at Chatham House’s London Conference, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly remarked how ‘multilateralism is not at odds with national sovereignty and democracy’, but rather, ‘its purpose is to protect and reinforce’ these principles. To be successful in this mission, and to bolster UK soft power, the government should commit to financing and facilitating new platforms for exchange between youth actors and decision-makers, especially at the international level.
Given the UN’s centrality within the UK’s 2023 Integrated Review Refresh strategy, bringing back UK UN youth delegates – this time under a more sustainable and well-managed programme – would be a powerful symbol of a more inclusive and representative foreign policy.