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Behind the Scenes at the Winter 2015 UN Youth Assembly

Dignitas Youth leader Yi-Min Chun recently attended the Youth Assembly held at the United Nations in New York City. In this blog post, she shares her experience at the conference.

Two weeks ago, I found myself on the bustling streets of New York City commuting through morning rush hour traffic. Walking down 42nd street, coffee in hand, I could feel the excitement coursing through my veins. After picking up my registration kit at the Museum of Tolerance, I would be joining 500 youth from over 30 countries around the world to participate in the annual Winter Youth Assembly at the United Nations. As a youth delegate, I arrived with optimism, enthusiasm, and the thirst to absorb all that would be offered at the Youth Assembly.

The Winter Youth Assembly at the United Nations is a 2-day conference that attracts a broad range of youth (16-28+ years old) from around the world. The objective of the conference is to foster dialogue between youth, participating UN high officials and staff, the private sector and civil society groups. With the world transitioning from the UN Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals at the end of this year, I was particularly keen to learn more about the role of youth in implementing the post-2015 development agenda. The theme of this year’s conference was “Bridging the Gap Between Youth Employment and Global Development”.

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The conference opened with greetings from several UN high officials, as well as Ahmad Alhindawi, a former Youth Assembly delegate who subsequently became the first-ever UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Youth. For many delegates, Alhindawi was one of the most highly anticipated speakers for this conference. However, instead of hearing about his journey or the challenges he faced to ensure youth voices are heard on various UN agendas, delegates listened for 10 minutes as Alhindawi shared a listing of organizations that youth could work. Another 10 minutes were dedicated to answering prepared questions on partnership and human rights from two selected high school students. Following Alhindawi’s brief appearance, I could not help but notice that while only 20 minutes were allotted to hear from the UN’s Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth, a whole hour was given to Microsoft, one of the conference sponsors, to promote the company’s Youth Sparks program.

One of the central concepts discussed to fulfill the theme of this year’s Youth Assembly was sustainability. Many of the speakers touched on sustainable development, sustainable economies, sustainable growth, but few were able to describe its core definition. Even the success stories presented were explained at a superficial level and were not sufficient enough to empower delegates to replicate solutions in their own communities. For me, what was missing was an exploration of the framework or tools youth need in order to have a sustainable mindset and to make a sustainable impact.

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To mobilize effective action, it is critical for youth to have a foundational understanding of the key development challenges. As part of the conference, I attended several 30-minute workshops on topics ranging from new technologies used to achieve the MDGs, youth and human rights, and the future of finance. The speakers at these sessions touched upon various development issues but were unable to bring them into a context relatable for youth. The focus of the conference seemed to be more about the experience of actually being at the UN and highlighting the work of conference presenters rather than engaging youth in a meaningful dialogue on the critical development challenges. Moreover, there were no networking sessions or NGO fairs to provide further opportunities for delegates to interact with each other and share ideas.

I do applaud the Friendship Ambassadors Program for its commitment to hosting the Youth Assembly for the past 12 years at the United Nations. It is clearly a successful platform for bringing together youth from all over the world. I had the opportunity to meet delegates from Egypt, Haiti, China, and even those from my hometown in Toronto, Canada. However, the conference speeches and workshops lacked the in-depth content I was expecting. I learned more about the realities and challenges in devising solutions to global challenges through my own personal networking. If the hope of the annual conference is to inspire youth to become leaders and engage in the post-2015 agenda, I would encourage the planners to build in real opportunities for knowledge exchange.

Dignitas InternationalBehind the Scenes at the Winter 2015 UN Youth Assembly