By Matthew Ayibakuro
It has been just over two weeks since I joined over two hundred youths from all over the world in Nairobi for the Youth Forum of the 14th United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The conference was aptly themed, “From Decisions to Actions” with an apparent focus on the implementation of the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted at the UN in September last year.
As youths, we had been invited for the first time to UNCTAD to contribute to the discourse on the key issues of education, more and better jobs and state accountability, with the ultimate objective of “Shaping the World we Want”. But did we really achieve this goal?
A fortnight after leaving Nairobi, as I look back on what was, without doubt, an enriching experience, I realise that our participation in UNCTAD 14 will surely shape the world we want, but not in the ways we expected when we were selected for the conference and definitely not through the major activities or outcomes that UNCTAD itself organised the youth forum around.
UNCTAD Provided the “Form” for Youth Participation
As is the case with most instances of social exclusion of groups in society, a few years down the line, many might be asking how and why it took most UN bodies like UNCTAD 50-60 years before creating space for youth participation in its discourses. However, UNCTAD deserves commendation for taking the first step in this respect in Nairobi. And this was indeed a first step in most ramifications: the organisation of the youth forum reflected this in the piecemeal manner the agenda and activities were undertaken and in the fact that there was no predetermined plan for youth participation in the main events of the Conference.
But this was a good first step nonetheless. Participation is often comprised of “Form” and “Substance” very much akin to UNCTAD 14’s theme that distinguishes “Decisions” from “Actions”. And by inviting us to Nairobi, UNCTAD had taken a major step in providing the “form” for youth participation in development discourses. It would however be mistaken on our part as youth, and also from UNCTAD’s perspective, to magnify this beyond what it really was: a formal recognition of the role of youth, nothing more; nothing less. Looking back now, I realise we were never really going to change the agenda of UNCTAD or indeed that of the United Nations on the key issues we discussed in Nairobi, neither were we going to significantly impact the policies and programmes of our governments back home with the outcomes of our conversation.
So Where does the “Substance” of Youth Participation Really Rest?
My understanding of the essence of my participation in UNCTAD 14 and positively of youth participation in fora of that nature came full circle in the evening of July 20; the penultimate evening of the youth forum. Due to my research interest, I had been working with the sub-group on state accountability at the forum and on that evening, for about seven hours (5pm to 12 midnight) over fifteen participants drawn from countries as diverse as Uganda, India, Mexico, Iceland, New Zealand, Namibia, Australia, South Sudan, Great Britain, Dominican Republic, Liechtenstein and Nigeria worked together on what was to be the Youth Declaration on state accountability.
We discussed, argued, voted and reached consensus on the use and expression of paragraphs, sentences and even words as they describe the world we want on the broad range of issues bordering on state accountability.
Back in my room that night, I put down the first thoughts of this reflective piece. The substance of our participation in the forum rests, not in the declaration that was presented to UNCTAD the day after, but rather on what we had made and would eventually make of the space created by UNCTAD for us to meet; to understand the experiences of youth in our various countries, to learn from the process of creating consensus in a room with people from all over the world, to create and sustain life-long networks between ourselves. They were, in reality, the factors that would shape the world we want on the long run.
In a fitting coincidence, shortly after listening to Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, the Secretary General of UNCTAD who put together a final cocktail dinner for us on the final day of the forum and to whom we will always be grateful for commissioning the forum in his time, I had a fascinating conversation with one of the delegates, a young artist from South Africa. She took the trouble to explain how her art was all about providing spaces for people to meet, to dialogue and create connections. She convinced me never to disregard the importance of such spaces in fostering good in the world. And so we must all recognise and appreciate UNCTAD for providing such a global space for us to meet.
Going Forward: Bridging the Gap From Decisions to Actions
Like artistic spaces, neoliberal theorists often argue that government should have as limited a role as possible in the economy, by concerning itself only with creating an enabling room for private enterprise to thrive. In the same vein, how we thrive as youth with the space provided us by UNCTAD is left to us. It is our prerogative now to use this space to continue the conversation, to forge a common voice and demand for more spaces, to proffer and build solutions and thereby bridge the time-lapse between decisions and actions as the world moves towards realising the SDGs.
To create the needed impact therefore, our approach has to look beyond just influencing how governments, inter-governmental and non-governmental institutions move from decisions to actions, to how we can make use of the spaces created to reach our decisions and take our actions and shape the world we want in the process.