Youth Engagement for Sustainable Development by Vladimir Proano (A’20)

by cpinkerton
Sep 24

The United Nations system runs on partnerships. This dynamic is evident at all times: during member-state negotiations for an upcoming vote and during the search for funds to execute a project. Naturally, partnerships are also key when thinking about the bigger picture and the challenges that loom ahead. This is acknowledged by the UN’s own Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with number 17 calling for revitalization of “the global partnership for sustainable development”. Yet partnerships in the context of challenges such as climate change, migration, and humanitarian crises are as complex as they are necessary, making it daunting to understand and teach about them.

As the UN’s official training and capacity-building arm, UNITAR’s mandate is closely aligned with training relevant stakeholders on how to best manage and use partnerships for these goals. During the past months, I have been able to work on training programs for diplomats and government officials, but I had yet to see UNITAR’s work with civil society. This week, we hosted a group of students from Shanghai who traveled to Geneva to learn about sustainable development, SDGs, and their individual roles as Chinese citizens in addressing contemporary challenges.

There is ample talk in foreign policy circles about China’s increasing influence in global markets and military investment. Unfortunately, conversations often get carried away by specific discrepancies such as the ‘trade war’ with the United States as they are presented in such an “us v. them” tone by the media. This representation can make it difficult to consider China as part of the solution. This logic extends to other countries as well.

While this does not make valid criticism any less real, it can hinder conversations and opportunities to engage China on truly pressing topics. Climate change is perhaps the most important on this list, as it is soon to become an existential matter. In this context, my office, the Social Development Programme Unit, hosted the group of high school students from Shanghai. We used this opportunity to present on the work that the UN Office in Geneva does with sustainable development, to discuss Chinese engagement, and to get their feedback.

During their week-long visit, they had the opportunity to hear from scientists, trade experts, and UN officials. Each student shared a presentation on a sustainable development topic of their choice. Their selection of topics reflected their concern with waste management, pollution, and gender equality, all of which are central pillars of Agenda 2030. What was most interesting, however, was how many students included suggestions on how to manage these challenges and made connections between their proposals and the different programs and youth engagement platforms they had seen. Students were actively taking notes to take back home and get involved in youth networks and action hubs sponsored by UN agencies.

Their ideas reminded me of other meetings and presentations I have attended throughout the summer, in which the importance of China, India, Brazil, and other large countries pushing for development was constantly emphasized. Yet there seems to be immense political obstacles to establishing partnerships and collaboration with these actors, even when they have highly capable and motivated youth, just like the ones we had just met. The question, then, falls on how to reach these individuals and bring them into discussions about sustainability and inequality when government leaders remain stuck on political gridlocks that are not necessarily contributing to long-term prosperity

To name a few examples, we can look at how the United States recently withdrew from the Human Rights Council and weakened protections on several species threatened by climate change. The Chinese government maintains especially strict control over environmental activism. Such a gross disregard for international accords and pressing global needs has pushed agencies like UNITAR to try new strategies to create awareness and build capacity. Many of UNITAR’s trainings are now held directly with interested individuals and not delivered through a partnership with the national government. With technology, interested individuals can access dozens of courses online on their own.

Another solution has come through the role of local and subnational governments, which are increasingly more involved with sustainable development and the protection of human rights. Shanghai, for example, has taken the lead in recycling in mainland China, with a steep fine and a complex waste-sorting system. In the US, cities have taken measures to counter the central government’s policies on migration, waste management, and production. This has been an opportunity for agencies like UNITAR to launch partnerships with regional and local governments and build capacities there, where there is greater certainty of their implementation. Until central governments decide to act on these matters, UNITAR and many other organizations are continuing awareness and implementation of the Goals in cities and civil society, which are both at the forefront of these very issues.

As someone who aspires to work in the field of development, I would like above all to see immediate action on topics of top priority. It is necessary, after all, if we expect to have an inhabitable earth for the next decades. Yet addressing climate change or growing inequality does not rely uniquely on swift intervention, but also unprecedented amounts of funding, infrastructure, and cultural change are needed to make lasting change. The way in which productivity, property, and natural and human rights are perceived will have to change. This goes hand-in-hand with education at all levels, which makes the work of UNITAR so important. As eager as we may be to support swift direct action – which again, is central to the development effort – we must not lose sight of the vital aspect of sustainability and the role education plays in this.

The opportunity to listen from students who aspire to be diplomats, engineers, scientists, and activists in the near future and witness their interest in getting involved and improving the tireless work of international public servants has been a fantastic closure to my time in UNITAR and Geneva. It has reaffirmed my interest in this line of work and has introduced me to the intricacies of marrying ‘high politics’ with human realities, which, despite being difficult, is necessary now more than ever. With countless lessons and enormous appreciation for the work of the people I have shared these past three months with, as well as the key support of the IGL, I wrap up my time in Geneva and look forward to bringing these experiences to Tufts and beyond.