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Youth as a catalyst for delivering on the SDGs – A connection we can’t afford to ignore

This year’s World Wildlife Day celebrates the theme ‘Listen to the Young Voices’.

Its message is to mobilize the positive energy of the planet’s youth to call attention to the threats to wildlife. These include over-exploitation poaching or illicit trafficking.

Engaging ‘Youth as agents of change’ to improve the world for our wildlife is a powerful message. We see many examples of the positive influence that young leaders have had on development issues around the world. These success and impact stories are inspiring!

Let’s take a moment to learn how a young school teacher (Ms. Maratovna, 27) from the Russian Federation, who worked with the Center for Wild Animals, is designing awareness campaigns for local schools and communities (Saiga Conservation Alliance). Or how a young man (Ankit Kawatra, 24) addresses hunger and food waste issues with his “Feeding India” initiative. Or how a young lady from Kenya (Rita Kimani, 25) leads FarmDrive, a social enterprise that connects smallholder farmers to credit. And Samuel Malinga (27) from Uganda who is managing the SDG 6 aligned initiative ‘Sanitation Africa’.

I was inspired to learn about the wonderful initiatives of UN Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals. These are 17 global citizens who have been recognized for their spectacular leadership and efforts in achieving the SDGs. We need to build on this, and harness the enthusiasm of more young professionals to help resolve global issues related to sustainable development.

Involving youth as a catalyst for sustainable development is a clear agenda that the United Nations has set for itself. This is being put into action in youth programmes in many UN agencies. The initiative of the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth is an important vehicle to bring youth into the discussion, and ideally into the decision-making processes. This effort highlights the relevance of connecting young people’s views directly to the sustainable development agenda. Governments, decision makers, professionals and the research and development communities worldwide are joining forces to better understand and contribute to the success of the SDGs. A report in the Huffington Post, “The Role of Youth in the Implementation of the SDGs”, highlights how youth can play a stronger in shaping SDG action. It details the critical role of the Youth Assembly – a body that brings a youth perspective to UN deliberations. The report speaks of the need to connect Youth and SDGs – commenting that ‘…the sustainable development agenda opens to young professionals a chance to unite their perspectives and expectations to improve the health of the planet. Ultimately youth has the potential to influence a roadmap for changing the way we live, how value each other, how we learn, consume and grow’.

Connecting the world’s youth – across borders, regions, language and cultures, and beyond the conformist models of interaction and communication – is essential if they are to have influence and be a new catalyst in the development community. Organizations and platforms led by young professionals are now creating a new space and the recognition for youth to help shape the development agenda. Ten world’s young people are becoming more aware of regional, national and local policies that review and monitor the progress of the SDG agenda. Compelling examples exist of youth-oriented and youth-led platforms that pave the way for the next generation to be influence the development discourse.

I have been a chair of the steering committee of YPARD, Young Professionals for Agricultural Development, since 2010. This is an international movement by young professionals for young professionals in agricultural development. With nearly 15,000 members worldwide, YPARD encourages stronger youth voices particularly for agricultural systems and agro-biodiversity. I am supporting YPARD’s efforts to build a strong youth community to share real opportunities for rural youth. Ultimately the goals is to build an inclusive and sustainable agriculture–food system that embraces many partners – from field to community, town to city, and populations to policy makers.

‘Youth’ takes many forms – skilled, unskilled, educated to different levels, entrepreneurs, family groups, professional and career-driven; youth at risk… All of these facets of young people have an impact on their decisions and their immediate future…Keron Bascombe (YPARD member, youth blogger and writer & coordinator Tech4agri interface).

How can we remove barriers to deeper youth engagement and leadership in international development agenda? UNU-INWEH see continued capacity development and mentoring as the keys to making this happen. Over many years, UNU-INWEH has run programmes and activities with a sharp focus on strengthening the capacity of young professionals to be future water leaders. The next step in this effort – UNU-INWEH’s Embedded Learning Experience (ELE) programme, brings to young professionals the practical experience of working alongside senior water professionals on the Institute’s research agenda. These graduate-level students also gain experience of the UN system, while enrolled in their programme, in an accredited university anywhere in the world. ELE gives students hand’s on experience in live UNU-INWEH projects that address today’s pressing water and development challenges. This is a unique opportunity to learn and experience project and programme management . This glimpse into the workings of the United Nations system is a learning experience not offered in conventional academic curricula. Leading up to its launch today, ELE has refined over the past year with partner universities, McMaster University, Canada and UNU associate institution-Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology, South Korea. See what our scholars have to say about it (Box 1).

Vladimir Smakhtin, UNU-INWEH Director, stresses the critical role of youth in the future of sustainable development: “We believe that SDG goals, including SDG6 – Water and Sanitation for all – can only be realized by involving the talents, perspectives and positive energy of the world’s youth. Targeted capacity building programmes, no matter how small, for young water professionals are imperative. Over the years, UNU-INWEH has run a vibrant internship programme. Our new ELE programme, that we launch today, complements it.”

Additional note on our capacity development activities

UNU-INWEH manages the Water Learning Centre, that serves water professionals and new graduates interested in upgrading their knowledge of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) and access a knowledge base and resources to help them in the interdisciplinary aspects of water management.

Other UNU-INWEH knowledge sharing and capacity development initiatives include specific for young professionals include: annual two-week training course (mangrove management) , with UNESCO-MAB and Annamalai University, India. In partnership with The Nature Conservancy an on-line course in mangrove management that builds capacity of professionals and institutions in developing countries on monitoring, research and conservation of mangrove forests. Water Without Borders, a programme with McMaster University (Canada) that trains graduate students on multidisciplinary knowledge using peer-to-peer learning and experiential problem-based learning to advance their learning on global water issues.

Box 1: Scholars Speak

UNU-INWEH has provided me with the opportunity to work in an international environment and experience first-hand the operations of the United Nations. During my programme I was able to maximize my learning experience by assisting with the reporting of the projects and working with team members and experts from other institutions to contribute towards UN Water & Security research and training projects conducted in developing countries. It’s a privilege to gain knowledge about water & environmental related issues and how UN handles the problems, and process of all projects on sustainable management of aquatic ecosystems. This valuable experience at UNU-INWEH will help me to shape my career and further studies on the environment, human security and sustainable development

Ms EunJung Lee , 2017 ELE Student Scholar

The ELE programme provided me an invaluable experience of transferring my classroom knowledge into an innovative workspace of professionals in the landscape of environmental research and education. As a candidate under the joint supervision of Dr. Nidhi Nagabhatla and Prof. Colin Mayfield, I was able to explore the interface between water research and policy, as well understand the operations of training programmes conducted in developing countries. I had the unique opportunity to learn and engage in meaningful dialogue and discourse that addressed contemporary problems related to water justice through UNU-INWEH’s various programmes and events. The ELE programme provided me the opportunity to mobilize my interests and knowledge into an innovative workplace, and has enabled me to transcend as a different maker within the landscape of international development and water research.

Ms. Preethi Anbalagan, 2016 ELE Student Scholar

Find the orginal blogpost on the UNU-INWEH websiteNidhi Nagabhatla, is a programme Officer at UNU-INWEH; Chair Steering Committee- Young Professionals for Agricultural Development (YPARD); and Representative of Youth at the Global level in the GFAR Steering Committee.