As COVID-19's disastrous impacts continue to push children & young people into poverty & exclusion, youth activists hold governments to account to demand that they build back better, not worse.
Every year since the agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the UN has hosted the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), at which governments report their progress on delivering the goals in their countries. This year's HLPF had a heavy focus on recovery from the devastation caused by the global pandemic, alongside its review of the Sustainable Development Goals. The UN has called for nations to 'build back better' - but, concerned by the lack of real commitments being made by governments to do this, 100 Million and the Global Student Forum brought together youth activists from all over the world to monitor the outcomes of the HLPF and advocate for stronger and serious action for the rights of children and young people.
The 100 Million/GSF Youth Caucus: monitoring commitments
At the end of the HLPF, Ministers make a formal 'declaration': this document usually reaffirms the existing commitments to the SDGs, and includes any new commitments based on the progress or lack of progress made in the preceding year. More and more evidence is being released demonstrating the reversal in progress across the majority of the SDGs in the past 18 months - including the tens of millions of children who remain out of school due to lockdowns, the likely increase in long-term out-of-school children, and the known increase in child labour. With this in mind, 100 Million and the Global Student Forum invited student leaders and youth activists, including child labour survivors and refugee and displaced young people, to create an informal Youth Caucus to analyse the potential outcomes for the most marginalised children and advocate for serious new interventions.
The first step taken by 100 Million and GSF was to identify the broad areas most relevant to marginalised children and young people. This included sections in the draft Ministerial Declaration on children and youth, any accelerated actions for COVID-19 recovery, as well as the SDGs on the Youth Caucus was a written consultation to identify the priorities and concerns of young people based on the draft Ministerial Declaration for this year's HLPF. 36 responses were submitted: 25 were submissions from youth-led organisations, with others submitted by individual youth activists. In total, 24 countries were represented, as well as two international and regional organisations.
Clear priorities were noted - including education recovery, financing the SDGs, tackling the rise in child labour, and urgently recognising the need for stronger action for refugee and displaced young people. Importantly, it was extremely clear that young people did not want their countries to be reliant on aid or loans from the international banks or the IMF - tax justice and better allocation of existing budgets were the priority. The full outcomes of the consultation can be downloaded here.
This consultation informed an online meeting of youth activists, where detailed inputs were made to demand specific action across all of these priority areas. Three areas were of great concern: the failure to include child labour, despite this year's HLPF taking place during the Year for the Elimination of Child Labour AND when the relevant goal - SDG 8 - was being scrutinised; the failure to include any new commitments for children and young people who have been unable to access education and related support systems (such as feeding programmes) during lockdowns; and the lack of any increased financing to deliver the goals. These inputs were agreed by the caucus, and used for national level advocacy with the government officials responsible for monitoring the SDGs.
Building Back Better or Worse? Youth Caucus Event
At the end of the HLPF, youth activists came together for a public event to make their final calls for action on the Ministerial Declaration. Despite some successful advocacy, which saw the inclusion of child labour and feeding programmes, the Declaration still paid only lip service to the needs of the most marginalised young people, with little or no new action to tackle the urgent issues being faced as a result of both the poor implementation of the SDGs and the impact of the pandemic.
In a frank opening speech, Amilcar Sanatan, from Trinidad and Tobago and representing the Global Student Forum stated:
Children and young people stand to be the most adversely effected by the pandemic, but as always our rights are being sidelined. Ministers are saying nice words, but there are no words on how their commitments will be financed. The time for nice words is over.
Ifeanyi Ofodu Raymond, a Nigerian youth activist from Wateteziafrica spoke passionately about the reality on the ground for millions of people, which is being witnessed day to day by youth activists.
Zero hunger is a human right, but people are dying at the grassroots level. People are suffering. Policies are not being implemented.
Henry Wright, the elected youth representative to the Education Cannot Wait global fund for education in emergencies encapsulated the real issue at hand - one which has been endured by children and young people living in situations of conflict and disaster for years.
Tens of millions of children have not received education [during the pandemic] - joining the hundreds of thousands of refugee and displaced children who were not receiving education previously. If governments had invested in learning, healthcare or protection, we would not be in this situation today. There can be no building back if there is nothing to build upon.
Amar Lal, 100 Million Trustee, human rights lawyer, and former child labourer from India raised the critical issue of the increase in child labour - which has not been acknowledged by the HLPF. Sherine Omondi, a youth activist from Kenya underlined this by stating:
There is no building back better in child labour - it should stop.
In a year when millions of children and young people have been forced out of school, and millions more forced into extreme poverty and child labour, children and young people need their leaders to take 'building back better' seriously - but all evidence suggests that many countries are failing to even get back to 'business as usual'. As a result, the Youth Caucus agreed a final Youth-led Declaration in response to the HLPF, and will use this to form further advocacy in national and international meetings.