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Zimbabwe, 1 June 2015: Youth participation in the SDGs: Getting beyond the rhetoric

© UNICEF 2015
With young people accounting for more than 60 per cent of the total population in Zimbabwe – for the SDGs consultations to be meaningful they need to give youth a meaningful say.

By Richard Nyamanhindi

We are half way in 2015. This year the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will expire and the race is on to finalize a new global framework of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in time for September’s UN General Assembly.

In the last week of May 2015, Government, Development Partners and civil society met in Harare for a Multi-Stakeholder National Dialogue of the SDGs which will decide which way the world and the country turns for decades to come and calling on national leaders to take the right path.

In this context, the developmental, security and demographic context underscoring the need for youth inclusion in the emerging framework is very critical. With young people accounting for more than 60 per cent of the total population in Zimbabwe – for the SDGs consultations to be meaningful they need to give youth a meaningful say, so that the SDGs encourage policies, investments, and data collection to better serve the needs and interests of today’s and tomorrow’s generation of young people.

Since the beginning of the year, over 7 million citizens worldwide voted via My World 2015 for their priorities – and nearly 60 per cent of participants were young people aged 16-30. The more than 16,000 youth who voted from Zimbabwe put good education, better healthcare and job opportunities, an honest and responsive government and food security at the top of their list. What then is the way forward?

In July last year, the UN member state-driven Open Working Group submitted to the Secretary General its final proposed Sustainable Development Goals comprising 17 goals with 169 targets. A few months ago, The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon released his own synthesis report The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet claiming “Young people will be the torch bearers of the next sustainable development agenda through 2030,” and that “Today, more than ever, the realities of 1.8 billion youth and adolescents represent a dynamic, informed, and globally connected engine for change. Integrating their needs, rights to choice and their voices in the new agenda, will be a key factor for success.”

It is time, however, to get beyond lofty rhetoric and well-intended consultation. Studies and statistics in Zimbabwe and around the world show that youth are falling short. While (with good reason) youth unemployment and inadequate education make headlines, limited opportunities or weak status in other respects largely go unnoticed.

The inaugural Global Youth Wellbeing Index released in April 2014 found for example that countries where 85 per cent of youth represented scored below average on the composite of 40 indicators.

Though mentioned in its introduction, the OWG proposal does not have a stand-alone youth goal, and “youth” or “young people” are explicitly included in just 3 of the 17 goals, in 6 of the 169 targets: 2 under the proposed goal on education (Goal 4), 3 under the proposed goal on employment (Goal 8), and one under the goal for climate change governance (Goal 13). In addition, adolescent girls are explicitly targeted in Goal 2 regarding nutrition. This will not suffice when one looks at the number of young people in Zimbabwe. We know from theory and practice that inclusive growth and development is about more than skills and jobs; and that educational and economic success are interdependent with many variables including health, safety and security, rights and participation, financial inclusion, and infrastructure.

The suggested SDG framework also includes are a number of important indirect targets, including a noteworthy call for disaggregated data along a number of factors, including age (this will also be important to ensure female youth see the benefits of women and girls’ empowerment initiatives). While necessary, these are insufficient.

Youths’ success and positive outcomes will be the result of national policy and programmatic initiatives that are reflective of their unique developmental experiences, and designed to advance their specific needs and aspirations and support them in making healthy, productive and safe choices.

At the same time, with growing concern for inequality, a global commitment to end poverty, and a “leave no one behind” ethos, the eventual post 2015 agenda will likely gain even more traction than the current MDGs. It sets priorities and serves as global and local call to action among government, business and civil society stakeholders, and because the global framework will ultimately be implemented and inform policy at national levels, it is critical that youth are addressed in a more wide-ranging and concrete manner than in the current proposal.

While it can be appreciated that those arguing for the need to preen the number of goals and targets, there is fear that young people will be too easily left out during implementation if they are not explicitly involved from the preamble. The good news for Zimbabwe is that there is still time and room to include young people in the formulation and adoption of the SDGs in Zimbabwe.

As Zimbabwe begins the consultation process there are some illustrative ideas of specific points that could be considered to better include youth in the existing framework:

  • Agriculture holds great potential for jobs and economic opportunity, but access to land and finance are commonly cited constraints by young farmers and would be ‘agripreneurs’. There is thus a need to consider incorporating language about increasing youth’s access to land and capital (target 2.3).
  • Young people are pivotal to an ‘AIDS free generation’ and their needs in sexual and reproductive health warrant clear attention. There is therefore a need to consider adding language around youth-friendly services (target 3.7). There is also need to consider adding language about reducing adolescent fertility (aged 15-19) (target 5.6).
  • Today’s youth are often referred to as “tomorrow’s leaders and policy makers” and young people put a premium on governance and participation in My World and other surveys. At the same time, age and other barriers often keep them from political office, decision and policy-making. There is thus a need to consider revising targets to ensure platforms for meaningful youth participation and promulgation/implementation of national youth policies (target 16.7).
  • If young people will be the “torch bearers,” then they should have a concrete role in its implementation. Yet youth currently receive no mention in proposed Goal 17. There is a need to consider revising or adding targets that explicitly engage them in partnerships and monitoring or implementation otherwise (targets 17.16-17.19).

Zimbabwe’s collective fate will be shaped by the forthcoming agenda. Further, it poses a critical opportunity to send an unequivocal message that youth matter and not just tell – but, show – the country’s 6,8 million youth they are priority. By taking the right path for and with youth, we can all arrive at a better destination.



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