Reflections from the African Youth SDG Summit: Unleashing the Power of Youth 

We don’t just want a seat at the table for token representation. We aspire to shape the outcomes, influence the discussions, and ensure our voices are authentically heard, says Caleb Masusu

Last week, I had the incredible opportunity to immerse myself in the dynamic energy of the African Youth SDG Summit, where the vigour and vitality of young change-makers took centre stage. Amidst the backdrop of the vibrant Lusaka city, the summit proved to be a compelling testament to the potential of youth to drive transformative impact.

However, a narrative has been playing out at these global gatherings – a narrative that we, the youth, are well acquainted with. Often, our voices are overshadowed by lengthy, technical reports that can be outdated by the time they reach the podium.

Global leaders and “Experts” from big organisations sometimes seem to have a slightly off-key approach, assuming they understand our needs better than we do ourselves. This disconnect was palpable at the summit, where an assorted group of young minds gathered, yet found themselves occasionally disengaged from sessions that didn’t resonate with their realities.

A Youth Summit Should Amplify Youth Voices.

One can’t help but wonder, why label it a “Youth Summit” if youth voices are relegated to the background? Young people are often given a mere fraction of the spotlight, urged to be brief and orderly – For instance when a student from the University of Zambia and another young Journalist decided they had enough of this in one of the high-level panel discussions. 

This highlights how these summits can inadvertently drain the very essence of youth participation. Sadly, this also echoes the broader struggle for SDG implementation – with young innovators and change makers still facing challenges with restrictive funding for their idea or lack of it. 

The summit also brought to light that there is a tendency by organizers to group young people in one homogenous group where those who possess higher levels of education and exposure are more likely to be the ones benefiting the most from these regional gatherings. There’s a need to pivot towards spotlighting local stories and examples. 

Sometimes high-level discussions may favour Western-centric scenarios over embracing African narratives –for example in one of the sessions I attended with [Norah Kumwenda] we were made to watch a film about war from a certain Western country and then later asked to reflect on the impact of conflicts on children. While I personally condemn all forms of conflict everywhere, I would think that since I am at a summit for Africans, a film about the conflict in South Sudan or the Congo would be more relatable for an African audience.  

Navigating Hurdles and Celebrating Triumphs. 

While organizational hiccups marred the summit’s flow, it almost seemed like there were more things to do on the program than the available time. Rushed discussions ensued, with the tick-box mentality prevailing. Yet, despite these glitches, the summit bore witness to the potential of youth-led initiatives. 

An event hosted by the Copperbelt University School of Medicine Debate Society left a personal lasting impression. Here they interactively shared their stories on finding online youth opportunities, using illustrative art by amplifying African narratives to decolonize the medical health sector and reminded us of the impending impact of the climate crisis –

 “Should a young African, begin to change the conversation from the impact of the climate crisis on the global south to accountability from big oil companies”? [my colleague Noah asked at the end] – an overdue conversation if you ask me. 

A Noteworthy Exchange of Ideas: The side event hosted by the Carter Center and moderated by a colleague[Mark Ngoma was another standout, where I had the opportunity to interact with [Hon. Eric Nwakwe, Special Advisor to the Governor of Imo State on Youth Affairs, Nigeria] who shared his journey in politics and observed, “Joining a Political party  is one of the best ways young people can have access to resources and sufficient support and mentorship to build their leadership in politics” – my unanswered question here remains “How can we incentivize political parties to prioritize youth leadership and not exploit them for their Youth vote?” 

Inclusive Approaches for Lasting Impact: And of course I couldn’t miss the collaborative event by Restless Development Zambia and Marie Stopes Zambia,  showcasing a perfect mix of youthful perspectives and expert insights. This event highlighted the path towards inclusive approaches for enhancing sexual and reproductive healthcare services, citing inspiring examples from Zambia and Kenya.

Last but not least, The Melton Foundation’s event on youth-driven innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa reverberated with youthful excitement. The phrase “Zambia Kuchalo” resonated with attendees, summarizing the essence of our shared aspirations. As stories were shared and insights flowed, the event underscored the power of storytelling in championing the SDGs.

A Call for Genuine Engagement. 

I guess what I am trying to say is that many of my Summit experiences reflect a universal yearning among young people. We don’t just want a seat at the table for token representation. We aspire to shape the outcomes, influence the discussions, and ensure our voices are authentically heard. Meaningful engagement is the bridge that connects our aspirations with program designs.

As I shared my perspective in a recent Accountability Now Podcast, it became clear that the way forward for organizations involves consulting and partnering with young people to design programs that truly resonate with their needs. The African Youth SDG Summit will remain a sounding board for lessons for organisers planning to convene continental youth platforms.

Features Image by Caleb Masusu

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Reflections from the African Youth SDG Summit: Unleashing the Power of Youth 

by Caleb Masusu Reading time: 4 min
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