Analysis by Dr Palitha Kohona
Ambassador Dr Palitha Kohona is former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in New York- He chaired the negotiations on the Colombo Declaration on Youth.
COLOMBO (IDN) – On July 15, the United Nations observed the UN World Youth Skills Day designated by the General Assembly to highlight the need to rapidly develop marketable youth skills. On the same day, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) released the World Youth Report on Youth Civic Engagement. There were many events held around the world to mark this special day.
The UN event was an important milestone in a process that began in 2013 when the then President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his address to the General Assembly, with great foresight, called on the world body to allocate a special day to highlight the need to develop youth skills.
On December 12, 2014, following months of informal and formal negotiations, the UN GA adopted resolution A/RES/69/145 on the World Youth Skills Day, based on a text tabled and promoted by Sri Lanka.
An imaginatively conceived proposal, the resolution envisaged a partnership among governments, the UN system, civil society, business, academic institutions and youth in developing effective responses to the employment challenges, skills deficits, facing youth today and mainstreaming youth in the post 2015 development agenda.
Coming from a developing country which had recently emerged from 27 years of terrorist inspired and devastating armed conflict, and the nightmare of thousands of youth perishing in the violence, President Rajapaksa recognised the necessity of providing the world’s burgeoning young population with a viable alternative to violence, especially the skills necessary to secure worthwhile and satisfying employment.
Employable skills were considered to be at least one effective means of deterring youth from drifting towards violence and early deaths. Rajapaksa’s government had already begun to address this challenge domestically, having established a Ministry of Youth Affair and Skills Development under an energetic minister, Dulles Alahapperuma.
Prior to tabling the resolution and the normal laborious negotiating processes in New York, Sri Lanka hosted the successful World Youth Conference in May 2014 with the participation of thousands of youth from around the world and policy makers, including the President of the General Assembly, John Ashe, and the SG’s youth envoy, Ahmed Alhendawi.
103 countries participated in the event. Uniquely in the history of world youth conferences, which began in 1936, the Colombo Declaration on Youth was adopted unanimously with the concurrence of both the policy makers and the youth representatives.
Sri Lanka’s efforts to mobilize support for the draft resolution to have the UN designate a youth skills day received enthusiastic support from the UN SG, DESA, especially Under Secretary General, Wu Hongbo, the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth, the indefatigable, Ahmad Alhendawi, the office of the President of the General Assembly, UNICEF, UN agencies in Colombo, an impressive range of youth organisations from both the developing and developed worlds, and the international community.
Sri Lanka, as a developing country that had done remarkably well in realising the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) was in the forefront, consistently campaigning to mainstream youth in the formulation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) through its mission to the UN in New York.
Of the Sri Lankan population, 26% fall into the category of youth. In Sri Lanka itself, youth unemployment had been reduced already to 15% by 2010. While 33% of youth in Africa and wider Asia survive on less than $2 per day, Sri Lankan youth poverty levels had come down to 8.9% by 2010. 94% of the country’s youth have access to electricity and almost 80% to mobile phones.
Following the model of northern European countries, and recognising that all young school leavers will not be able to seek an academically oriented route into the future, Sri Lanka has begun to emphasize vocational education at high school level.
Gender parity in junior and secondary education has been achieved in Sri Lanka but shortcomings still exist in attracting females in to the commerce and science streams. The Sri Lankan Youth Parliament was launched in 2011 designed to train future political leaders. Today many members of the Sri Lankan national Parliament fall in to the category of youth.
Of the global population, 1.2 billion are youth. With 90% of these youth living in developing countries, engaging them productively will remain a particular challenge to the countries of the South. 600 million youths will enter the job market in 2026. The challenge of youth is now an issue for some countries of the developed North as well with high levels of unemployment adversely affecting a large number of youths in countries such as Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal.
Sri Lanka’s policy makers continue to take the view that youth were not a problem but an essential part of a solution to many challenges confronting the world today. A large number of those categorized as youth are in the voting age and are in a powerful position to influence electoral outcomes in democracies. This was a strength that needed to be properly mobilised and channelled.
With the rapid aging of the populace and the retirement of workers in many countries, especially in the developed world, it would become the responsibility of today’s youth not only to generate adequate wealth to sustain themselves through meaningful occupations, but also to produce revenues to fund the social services for the aging members of the former work force, who could include their parents.
Imparting relevant skill sets and creating adequate income generating and satisfactory employment opportunities for the masses of youth, especially in developing countries, would thus be a critical challenge to society and a test of its resilience.
While skills relating to literacy and numeracy may have substantially been enhanced in many parts of the world, it is the acquisition of marketable skills in a fast evolving world that now poses the critical challenge.
Skills in areas such as ICT, international languages, modern agriculture, fisheries, environmental management, sustainable energy production, entrepreneurship, etc have not become adequately disseminated among broad sections of youth, particularly in developing countries. Consequently, large numbers of literate youth remain hopelessly unemployed or unemployable and dissatisfied, making them an easy target especially for organisations trolling for volunteers for violent enterprises.
Previously, policy choices impacting on youth had almost always been developed by mostly well-meaning policy makers who were past the youth age group. Recently, a demand has begun to emerge that the needs, concerns and aspirations of youth had to be taken in to account in determining national and global policies, with their active participation, especially in the formulation and implementation of the SDGs.
One consequence of this demand is that the SDGs are sprinkled with youth related targets, in particular in SDG 4.4. The need to enhance technical and vocational skills among youth has been specifically emphasised.
The Colombo Youth Declaration fully recognised the need for youth involvement in all aspects of policy formulation. The example of Northern European countries which appear to have addressed this need successfully has to be kept in mind. It will now be incumbent on youth and their organisations, to work through their national bodies to have those targets realised.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said that “while young people hold the key to society’s future advancement, they face many barriers to their personal progress”. “More than 73 million are unemployed.” This should, he also said, “encourage us to renew our resolve to invest more in empowering young people”.
He added: “There is no better investment than helping a young person to develop their abilities. Successful skills programmes link young people with opportunities to gain experience and jobs. It is especially critical to cultivate girls and young women with skills in science, technology and innovation.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 03 August 2016]
Photo: Youth representatives at the High-level event on “Mobilizing Generation Zero Hunger”, September 2015. Credit: UN Photo/Cia Pak
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