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14.11.2019 Europe

Unesco conference brings youth from fringe to decision table

By Christina Okello - RFI
©UNESCO/Marie Etchegoyen
NOV 14, 2019 EUROPE

Youth leaders from across the globe have urged to be taken seriously in a rare one-on-one debate with heads of state at Unesco. The lively exchange at the UN's cultural agency focused on reinventing multilateralism, at a time where this system of global cooperation is increasingly contested.

Eleven seasoned leaders, flanked by six young change makers, not only sharing the same stage, but trying to find common ground on some of the world's most pressing issues.

The debate, which kicked off Unesco's 40th General Conference Tuesday, sought to identify how to bring young people to the decision table on issues ranging from climate change, education and new technology, in a bid to reinforce global solidarity.

Event organisers called it a "historic moment" for multilateralism amid growing pressure from politicians and people who question the benefits of globalisation.

"In the face of nationalist movements, international cooperation has never been more important," Youssef Chahed, Tunisia's Prime minister told RFI ahead of the conference.

"If everyone builds a fortress, this can lead to conflict, as French leader Emmanuel Macron has warned, so we must defend a multilateral system," he added, echoing similar words by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Unilateralism winning
Multilateral institutions like the United Nations were set up after the Second World War to bolster international cooperation between states, but are being challenged today by unilateral policies such as Donald Trump's "America First" and Brazil's contempt for multilateralism.

"We get the sense that it's unilateralism that is winning. What's at stake now is how to revive multilateralism," explains Guillaume Devin, a political professor at Sciences Po University, refering to the theme of Tuesday's conference.

Increasing division among states has slowed down progress notably in the fight against climate change, prompting young activists to take to the streets to denounce world leaders' inaction.

"When you look at these youth protests, they are often unorganised. Tuesday's debate is important because, by including young people in political deliberation, you're giving them a structure," Devin told RFI.

For Tunisia's Prime minister, the youth are a "key stakeholder" but don't participate enough in public debate.

Youth the future
"Because of their innovation and capacity to invent new solutions, young people have a crucial role to play in our future and must be listened to," Youssef Chahed said.

Chahed was not alone in his praise of the youth's qualities. Nearly all the heads of state, from countries ranging from El Salvador, Estonia to Sierra Leone were also quick to flag up what young people can bring to the table.

"They are the future leaders, so you have to start teaching them by involving them in activities such as governance," Sierra Leone's President Julius Maada Bio, told RFI.

"Nobody has the monopoly of information and ideas these days. Parents can actually learn from their kids," he said, after speaking on a panel on how to include young people in the fourth industrial revolution.

"In a pure democratic society they should actually be in charge, but I'm representing them now. So, we have to make sure that their voices are taken on board," Bio said.

Time to listen
Youth panelist Victoria Ibiwoye hopes that will be the case.

"I think that it's so incredible to see that young people can share the same stage with heads of state, which is something that you don't see very often," says the founder of OneAfricanChild Foundation, a youth-led NGO addressing the inequality in education.

But "it's one thing to have meetings like this, it's another thing to go back home and to see that what has been shared has been implemented on the ground," she told RFI.

"Youth already have a voice, what we want now is to be listened to," she said.

Christina Okello chaired Tuesday's debate on "Rethinking Multilateralism With Young Change-Makers at Unesco

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