The Summit of the Future must deliver for young people everywhere

Restless Development’s Influencing Director Rosanne Palmer-White argues that in the midst of one of the most politically challenging years the world has faced, the Summit of the Future offers hope of a historic moment for young people. Politicians owe it to them to move beyond empty promises of a ‘future’ that never materialises, and must start by asking what young people want, and truly listening. 

“We are at a moment of acute peril […] Humanity faces a range of potentially catastrophic and existential risks. We are also at a moment of opportunity, where advances in knowledge and technology, properly managed, could deliver a better future for all”.

So says the opener of the recently released Zero Draft of the Pact for the Future, the globally negotiated outcome document that will come out of September’s UN Summit of the Future.

Proposed by the UN Secretary-General in Our Common Agenda report, the Summit of the Future is, theoretically, set up to reinvigorate efforts to reach existing commitments – such as the Global Goals – and to respond to emerging challenges.

With the world on the brink of polycrisis and in an unprecedented election year where  half the global population heads  to the polls, the Summit couldn’t come at a more important time. For the young people we work with at Restless Development – and across the global Youth Collective – action, real tangible action, is crucial for Summit commitments to have any impact on their lives and future.

At Restless Development, we have evidence to show  that despite half the world being under the age of 30 and more than a quarter under the age of 18, young people are systematically excluded and overlooked. In many contexts, young people under the age of 30 can’t run for office and even where they can, this is not always reflected in the make-up of parliamentary democracies. As an example, the average age of an MP in the UK in this Parliament is 50, a trend that has remained relatively unchanged since the 1970s. 

But despite this, young people are dealing with, and if present circumstances remain unchanged, will be left to cope with,  a highly challenging climate future, an employment market vastly changed by AI and a turbulent global politics that renders international cooperation ever more challenging. It’s surely a no-brainer that we cannot respond to future opportunities, challenges and crises without the involvement of young people.

For this reason, the Summit of the Future is an exciting prospect. In a year that began with wars and democratic backsliding, the promise of a process that envisages how the world could be and how we could get there has never felt more vital.

But that doesn’t stop me from feeling increasingly angry. 

Already in 2024, as the days go by, I am infuriated by analysts everywhere scrabbling for insight into the day’s events and their meaning, as if being able to provide a “take” on an issue makes it manageable. 

Because that’s the thing. It’s really easy to talk about the future, isn’t it? More so when you won’t be around for it. As the saying goes, “tomorrow never comes”, a gift for politicians and procrastinators everywhere when it comes to kicking the (policy) can down the road. With the populist political playbook increasingly focused on the culture wars of now, tomorrow becomes somebody else’s problem. A very significant problem when that “somebody” is in fact half of the world’s population.   

So I suppose this is my fear for the Summit of the Future; that it becomes a forum for making vague commitments to what could be, without the plan in place for what it will be. A “moment” for back-slapping, for celebrity and for flashy concerts, so just in that instance, that couple of days within an unforgivably humid New York setting, it feels like everything will be ok. The text is set, the red lines given and compromises grudgingly made in late night sessions under striplights. The hands grasped and shaken after hours of poring over line by heavy line. The future still uncertain but (as some negotiators relay to their capitals) very much open to interpretation. 

And this is why I feel so angry. 

You might not expect to hear this from a senior leader at a youth-focused agency. My role is tobe buoyed up with enthusiasm generated by working with young people every day, hearing about the groundbreaking work they’re leading and the change they’re driving.

And I am, I really am. But that doesn’t mean I can’t also be angry. Whether it’s the slow progress to tackle climate change in the face of a The Day After Tomorrow scenario (recent research by Utrecht University is a new fear unlocked), or the admission from a young feminist activist in our latest State of Youth Civil Society report that they always carry a first-aid kit in their backpack along with vinegar in case they’re gassed when out campaigning. Or indeed the horror of unimaginable scale unfolding in Gaza in which children are half of the population. It is simply not good enough to talk about the future as some hallowed territory where everything will be just fine. What happens now will inform the future for young people everywhere; action is owed to them.

Yet with all of this said, there is a lot to be encouraged by in the Zero Draft. The fact that for the first time ever, there is a whole chapter dedicated to young people and a Declaration on Future Generations – also being intergovernmentally negotiated – annexed to the Pact, demonstrates the commitment of the co-facilitators to a future with young people at the centre. It focuses on finding pathways back to international cooperation and reaffirming commitments to crucial UN agreements that chart a course to sustainable development and international peace and security. The rights of women and girls feature throughout alongside robust language on financing development. There is no sugar-coating of the issues, with an acknowledgement of the vast and growing inequality that threatens “the wellbeing of present and future generations”.

The Zero Draft is a solid start out of the blocks on the journey towards September’s Summit. But Restless Development does not see this as “job done” just yet. Here’s how we think the Pact could be strengthened further:

1. Working with young people needs to be a partnership. Chapter 4 recognises the “important contributions” of young people in tackling the world’s biggest challenges. Young people aren’t just making ‘important contributions’, they’re leading the way on every SDG issue, whether that’s supporting other farmers to adapt to the changing climate in Tanzania or advocating for – and securing – much needed maternal health services in Zambia. It’s not on young people to resolve the multiple crises the global community finds itself in, but their leadership is an important part of the solution. With so many youth-led organisations and youth experts within civil society, why not meaningfully partner with young people to ensure that the aims of the Pact are  realised?

2. One size most definitely does not fit all. One of the things I realised early on in my time at Restless Development, is that outside of our organisation the term “young people” often gets used to capture a whole generation of individuals, who are just that: individuals. Acknowledging that young people are not a homogeneous group and so embody, in UN speak, “all nations, and all peoples and all segments of society” also means recognising the complexity that comes with being a young person. As with all global issues, what is relevant in one location, won’t be in another. Asking the question and engaging a wide range of people is how smart policies can be devised, something that the School of International Futures knows well.

3. Whatever happened to asking young people what they want from funding? Chapter 4 contains some welcome statements on developing a Global Youth Investment platform and encouraging all States, the UN, private sector and more to provide flexible funding designed “with the specific needs of youth organisations in mind”. We know that youth organisations are clear about their needs, but are rarely asked (at least if the wide range of inaccessible donor calls and practices out there are anything to go by). As part of the State of Youth Civil Society 2023, Restless Development did ask young feminists this question, and they were not slow in responding. Creating flexible funding mechanisms focused on youth movements is huge and exciting news; for these to succeed and to be worth this important investment, young people must be involved from the very start.

4. (Youth-led) accountability is key. The inclusion of statements encouraging States to establish national youth consultative bodies with a mandate to engage in national policymaking, alongside an encouragement to establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism is very welcome. The suggestion of regular reporting into the General Assembly is also positive y, as is the proposal to grant more formal status to the ECOSOC Youth Forum, demonstrating that the co-facilitators of the Summit of the Future process really understand the strategic significance of young leaders around the world. But Restless Development would like to see stronger emphasis on what we view as a lynchpin in the success of the Pact. Encouragement is not enough; new structures to include young people must be fully resourced and regular reporting must be defined and mandatory, with young people actively involved in every delegation that reports. 

    While I know my anger will continue to simmer, my hope is that in the midst of possibly one of the most challenging years the world has faced – at least in modern times – the Summit of the Future and its Pact will become an historic moment. Not historic for the talking or for the inevitable glamorous events and celebrity statements, but for commitments which however dry and detailed, draw a line in the sand for what young people can expect from the future and the part that everyone will play in realising it. A Summit that has asked young people what they want and listened.

    The international community owes this to young people; after all, tomorrow never comes, but today will.

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    The Summit of the Future must deliver for young people everywhere

    by Rosanne Palmer-White Reading time: 7 min
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