The United Nations secretary-general’s special envoy on youth, Jayathma Wickramanayake, has a full agenda. From climate change to migration and inequality, young generations face a multitude of global challenges that international bodies pledge to tackle.
“We need to make sure the youth are a meaningful part of the process and treat them as equal members that contribute to dialogue and solutions,” Wickramanayake told Kathimerini in an exclusive interview in the context of this year’s Athens Democracy Forum.
With sincerity and cautious optimism, the special envoy discussed the reverse ageism that young climate activists face, the financial difficulties plaguing younger generations, and the need for youngsters to participate dynamically in democracy in order for it to flourish.
Established in 2013, the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth is a relatively new UN body. What is the envoy’s mandate and how has its scope evolved over the years?
Indeed, the position was conceived in 2013 under former secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and my predecessor Ahmad Alhendawi was the first ever UN youth envoy. He did a fantastic job in terms of setting up the structure, framing the narrative around young people within the UN, raising awareness and advocacy, and placing this new office in a leadership position within the UN system. In essence, my work builds on the foundation they both laid with their work.
I was appointed by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres two years ago, and assumed office with an agenda that is very young, but maturing at a very fast pace. Prior to becoming youth envoy I was very active in youth organizations and had been following the youth agenda for seven years before I assumed the position. I have seen very steep growth in the acknowledgment of young people’s leadership and agency, particularly within the UN and its headquarters. One of my first assignments by the SG himself was to develop a system-wide strategy for the UN with the support of our 40+ agencies, funds and programs. It’s called Youth 2030, and was launched last year and is currently in the implementation phase. On a personal side note, [on October 8] I was very impressed by a youth group in Thessaloniki called UNESCO Youth Club. By their own accord, they have translated the UN Youth strategy into Greek and presented a copy to me. It’s moving to see that we have already had a far-reaching effect.
Beyond that, the number of countries that bring youth delegates as part of their delegations to the UN has dramatically increased. The number of organizations in the UN that work with youth has also doubled – the UNHCR for example now has a youth advisory council. And of course the major conferences that we hosted this year, like the Climate Change conference last month, have youth task forces in advisory capacities and spaces for the youth set out from the outset. Ten years ago they would have had to fight for that space, so I’m very happy to see that it’s being created proactively. Of course the challenges still exist. We need to make sure these spaces are not used as tokens to add more color to events or have kids ceremoniously waving flags. We want youth that is meaningfully engaged as individuals who bring value to our conversations and projects.
One of the youth groups that is most deprived of a voice is refugee and asylum-seeking children. In Greece, the number of unaccompanied minors is on the rise again. How does the Office of the UN Envoy on Youth seek to leverage the international community in order to solve this problem?
My mandate is a global mandate, so it’s not restricted to advising or representing the secretary-general. It extends to the advocacy of 1.8 billion young people around the world, out of which I pay special attention to those that are most vulnerable and at risk. Rising numbers of young refugees, migrants and asylum seekers – particularly unaccompanied children in Greece and Europe – are of course deeply worrying for someone like me. On this issue I really align myself with the advocacy the UNHCR has been doing in Greece in terms of protection and care for unaccompanied children from the point of arrival to integration. As you said, the numbers are increasing rapidly: The last statistic I heard in Greece refers to 4,600 unaccompanied children. There is a huge need to bring the issue to light and think of solutions for their rights and dignity.
Particularly in the case of Greece, together with other UN partners we are asking for the scaling up of care facilities and the rapid implementation of new laws on guardianship and foster care, with the best interest of the children in mind. It’s important to mention that the UN appreciates the very generous support and solidarity that Greek people have given to young refugees. I want to make the point that it is not just the responsibility of Greece. In addition to being an arrival point, Greece is also a transit point for those seeking to relocate elsewhere in Europe. It’s a shared responsibility with other EU countries, and they need to step up their integration programs and open up relocation opportunities and family reunification schemes.
Another issue that brings shared responsibility to mind is climate change. It is a rare instance where the youth has been instrumental in the agenda setting of global conferences as large as the UN summit last month. What is the role of young people in the climate change dialogue?
I’ve been asked this question before and my reply is the same: Get onto the streets of any city on a Friday and you will find your answer. There is no more space to talk about the role of youth in the debate because they are undeniably leading it. We need to recognize that climate activism didn’t start this year, but that those young climate activists who are taking part in the school strike for the climate have been able to give the movement a new life and a new face. They have been really successful in translating the message of climate dialogue from a futuristic action to a priority of today. I have a lot of respect to what they have created.
The biggest challenge here is bringing all those conversations and activists together in order to create networks, build solidarity across different parts of the world and send a collective message to world leaders. Greta Thunberg, Catarina Lorenzo and Paloma Costa did exactly that, and ignoring this call to action would push these young people even further away from engaging in formal discussion and political processes.
Yet a reaction we witnessed across the world, and particularly in Greece, was reverse ageism when it came to those young activists, with a demeaning and often patronizing response. What is your message to the older gatekeepers of the world who refuse to take the voice of the youth seriously?
Greta Thunberg gave the best answer to this question, when she was was met with the intimidation and demeaning treatment you describe. When asked to go back to school, she said two things: First, why go to school and prepare for a future when science is warning us that we may not even have a future? And second, why go to school and learn about facts when leaders and policymakers are ignoring them? Taking part in the school strike is a strong political message in the sense that it tells the world that if politicians don’t take the youth’s future seriously, then there is no point in investing in it. Beyond that it is important to realize that the youth is not just complaining, but also offering solutions, pointing to what scientists are saying and referring to specific numbers, targets and industries. We brought two groups of youth innovators to the Climate Summit earlier in September who were using technology to build some impressive climate solutions. From startup entrepreneurs to innovators, young people are putting a number of tools on the table.
Another way this reverse ageism relates to Greece has to do with the decade of crisis the country underwent. Youth unemployment soared to 50 percent at its peak, and salaries for young people remain relatively low. How can we improve the economic independence of young people around the world?
If you look at the UN’s Youth Strategy it has two different elements. The second relates to priority areas, and a very important one decent employment for young people. Greece has the highest rates of youth unemployment in the eurozone, but also globally we have more than 64 million young people who are unemployed, millions more underemployed, and about 150 million employed but still in poverty because they are not fairly compensated. The issue of creating jobs for the youth is important, but youth across the world is constantly telling me they don’t just need employment but jobs with dignity. We are now entering the fourth industrial revolution and the gig economy, and we are looking at how we can promote self-employment and entrepreneurship through youth-friendly regulation and financing, and how we can ensure the youth become job creators and not just job seekers. Education is also key here, as we need to make sure that young people are equipped with the skills that will allow them to participate in the economies of the future.
On the point of fair compensation, however, the UN continues to offer unpaid internships.
You are right and it is a huge issue. Our Youth Strategy has recognized that the UN needs to set a leadership example here. We are consistently pushing the UN system to come up with solutions to make the opportunities we offer accessible to any youth from any part of the world and regardless of financial status. I am happy to say that a number of agencies like the International Labor Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in some countries have started to pay their interns, and currently the UN Development Program - UN Population Fund (UNFPA-UNDP) joint board is also reviewing the issue. With the growth of the youth agenda inside and outside the UN and our continuous advocacy, we are already seeing some changes and we certainly hope to speed them up.
To end our conversation with a theme that relates to the Athens Democracy Forum, states and international institutions are failing to keep up with the fast pace of technological change and innovation. What role do youth have to play in that challenge?
This question puts me in a difficult situation, because I work in an organization that is very formal, protocol-oriented and bureaucratic. From my conversations around the world I see the effects of what you are asking: Young people are losing faith in formal institutions, like governments or the UN, and expressing a lack of interest. If the youth is detached from political processes, that is definitely not helping our democracies flourish and be successful. Millennials and Generation Zers grow up with technology embedded everywhere, from applying for jobs to transferring money to conversing with a friend across the world, but our institutions have not been able to keep up with the pace of progress and reflect that. In addition to that, the lack of representation of young people in politics and decision-making also contributes to a sense of disengagement. This makes young people vulnerable to extremist rhetoric and provides a breeding ground for populism to flourish. That is why conversations like the Athens Democracy Forum are important: We need to have an honest, hard look at the existing institutions and see what we are doing wrong that is pushing young people away.