Young people – the missing means to implement the Sustainable Development Goals?

It’s young people who will implement the new SDGs and make or break their success. Now, it’s time to turn rhetoric about their importance into hard policy and practice.

In the first of a two part special feature, Restless Development’s Director of Policy and Practice, Mark Nowottny, breaks down what’s at stake in the SDGs, and why we’re at a crucial turning point…

What’s going on?

Next week, Member States meet in New York the next session of negotiations to decide the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the global agenda for how we make the world a better place by 2030. Back in December, Ban Ki-Moon opened his report to UN member states by declaring young people to be the “torchbearers for sustainable development”. As Alex Farrow neatly documents in a recent blog piece, this was the culmination of two years of unprecedented formal recognition of the role of young people as leaders of development. Rarely has so much been said to recognise the leadership role of a single generation or, as the title of UNFPA’s recent World Population Report hinted, to recognise the “power of 1.8 billion”.


The 17 Goals and 169 targets – the “what” of development – seem to be nearly agreed, and by most accounts should be successfully launched at the SDG Summit in September this year. Now, attention turns to “how” governments can agree to deliver this new level of ambition for the world.

If you consider yourself outside the UN bubble, you could be forgiven for this having passed you by. Get past the inaccessible language – the policy wonks will tell you that what we’re talking about here is, loosely, the “Means of Implementation” – and you’ll find a myriad of different processes. There are the intergovernmental negotiations on the SDGs themselves, centred at the UN in New York and led by member states. These have been focussed in recent weeks on the indicators that will be adopted with the Goals and used to measure them (see the UN Major Group for Children and Youth’s position paper here). Then there are those talking about financing – the “Financing for Development” process is likely to culminate in Addis Ababa in July with an Addis Ababa Accord & Action Agenda that will chart a vision for how development should be financed. Who could forget the work of the ICESDF (that’s the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing, stupid)? Then, bubbling away in the background, there are those talking about development cooperation more broadly (everything from how governments in the global South can work better together, through to how development can be delivered through civil society and the private sector). You’d have thought that one global process to lead discussions would suffice here. Wrong. The more permanent UN Development Cooperation Forum operates in parallel to the new, higher profile, but less representative, Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation. There’s the UN Development Programme’s dialogue around the capacities and institutions that will need to be in place in to achieve the SDGs (here‘s what governments had to say on it at a recent meeting in Moldova). Don’t forget the Data Revolutionhow to invest in getting the right, disaggregated data, and how to best make sure that citizens, as well as governments, can report what’s really happening on the ground (the vision is best described recently in the “A World That Counts” report – and see our assessment of young people’s priorities here). Finally, there’s a whole parallel movement (spearheaded by civil society but with, yes, another intergovernmental process in tow – the Open Government Partnership) arguing that transparency, accountability and open government will be the step-changes essential for development. Keeping up?

So what?

Each of these processes matter enormously – individually and collectively – if we’re to put citizens and their power back at the heart of development and achieve better outcomes. Indeed, those who lament the breakdown of global governance and lack of global leadership could do worse than also engage in and transform these processes – they might just represent the thick fabric, however ugly, of what global decision-making looks like right now and be all the more important for it.

Young people have taken centre-stage in the design of the SDGs, not least through their engagement with the High Level Panel and UN Major Group for Children and Youth. But it’s critical that governments now back up the rhetoric, across these different processes, with concrete commitments that will enable young people lead development. Should they fail to do this, and development continues ‘business as usual’ – with young people peripheral rather than central – the creation of the new SDGs could yet become one of the largest exercises in tokenism ever undertaken.


At Restless Development, we know young people can lead the implementation of the SDGs in at least three ways:

  1. Young people can drive successful adaptation of the SDGs at national level, and they should. Half the world is under 25 years old, and 90% of young people live in developing countries, we cannot achieve the SDGs without them, and we shouldn’t want to. One of the weaknesses of the Millennium Development Goals was limited and delayed national uptake and buy-in. Try a straw poll of your friends and see how many have actually heard of the SDGs. But when the goals enter force, we know from young people’s mobilisation for the Action/2015 campaign, that they can pressure their governments to be ambitious and inclusive as they go through the process of adapting the SDGs to their own national policies and plans. We need to make sure there is space, commitment and resourcing at country level for young people to engage with their governments over the next three years.
  1. Young people are the biggest unused resource we have for directly delivering the SDGs promise. Not everything that matters is funded, and not everything that is funded matters – there has been a push to recognise the role of volunteering in implementing the SDGs. But young people in particular are already delivering transformative change all around the world – like in Sierra Leone, where they’ve led the biggest social mobilisation to fight ebola. It’s time we scaled up investment in the youth sector by building the capacity of young people and their organisations.
  1. Young people can be the data revolutionaries that hold governments to account. There’s broad commitment to monitor progress of the SDGs differently, with a bigger role for citizen-led accountability. But this won’t just happen. Looking at development data isn’t necessarily top of traditional NGOs’ interests or skills. But there’s a movement of young people who want that “critical friend” relationship with their government on the issues that affect their lives, and initiatives like our Big Idea can help nurture that.  


The SDGs are almost finalised. And we’re down to the final few meetings and discussions – mainly in New York, and mainly with ministers and ambassadors. There’s a lot at stake, and we urgently need to make sure everything is joined up, and set up, to hit the ground running in 2016 with an ambitious and funded set of global development goals. Come back next week to read our top recommendations for ambassadors in New York at the negotiations…

Power your creative ideas with pixel-perfect design and cutting-edge technology. Create your beautiful website with Zeen now.

Young people – the missing means to implement the Sustainable Development Goals?

by wearerestless Reading time: 5 min