Author: Isi Madojemu
Chief Editor: Alanna O’Malley
Dossier: Mind the gap, UN Governance in perspective
Torchbearers and architects are how the UN describes young people when discussing the 2030 Youth and Sustainable Development agendas. From this perspective, young people are recipients, partners, and participants in the development, implementation, and review of the 2030 agenda. This article focuses on a subgroup of non-state actors who can mobilize sectors of society the UN is unable to reach directly. It draws attention to the potential of young people at multi-stakeholder events, what hinders that potential, why more attention should be paid to this subgroup, and what can be done to bridge the gap between multilateral institutions and youth organizations. The focus is on UN-led multi-stakeholder events like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (UNFCCC) as they offer non-state actors, UN agencies, and state actors an opportunity and environment to engage and create a plan that tackles the impacts of climate change.
In the past two decades, the UN System and organizers of multi-stakeholder events created mechanisms to engage and consult with young people. For instance, in 2009 the UNFCCC added Youth NGOs (YOUNGO) to the constituency of non-state actors, in 2013 the Secretariat created the Envoy on Youth, and in 2018 the UN launched Youth 2030 strategy, a system-wide effort to improve how the UN works with young people on issues related to peace and security, human rights, and sustainable development. Despite these efforts, the reality is that most young non-state actors have less access to resources and political bargaining power than well-established non-state actors also competing for the attention of the same representatives. Even though there is a system-wide strategy to involve young people at events, discussions, or negotiations, not enough is done to ensure they have opportunities to contribute at critical moments of the decision-making process. Recently through its UN75 campaign the UN asked what young people think is needed to build a better future. The next step is responding to the request for more diverse actors in the decision-making space and direct access to channels of power.
Are Young Non-State Actors a subgroup of Non-State Actors, and Why are they Important?
Non-state actors at multi-stakeholder events play diverse roles across the whole policy spectrum. They assist in setting the conference agenda, information sharing, capacity building, implementation, and rule setting, help state actors monitor, manage, and implement agreements, or seek to influence the negotiation settings. While non-state actors lack traditional forms of political authority, they have access to alternative power sources to gain them a seat at the table. The sources of power a non-state actor can use include symbolic (invoking a moral claim), cognitive (knowledge, expertise), social (access to networks), leverage (access to crucial agents and decision-making processes), and material (market share and position in the global economy). Different actors wield these powers to different degrees. For example, a non-state actor representing business and industry interests might use their value to the global economy or global supply chain to demand a say in the negotiating process whereas young non-state actors rely on their claim to represent a vulnerable and marginalized sector of society. It is also different for research and monitoring groups who secure their seat though their ability to provide expertise knowledge and independently evaluate proposals, monitor implementation, and propose solutions. While there are similarities between the groups, the difference between non-state actors is found by looking at the interests they represent, the sources of their power, and how they describe their role in the multi-stakeholder environment.
Multi-stakeholder events managers sometimes organize non-state actors into loose groups which represent diverse but broadly clustered interests or perspectives. For example, the organizers of COP through a consolation process with non-state actors created the following categories: Business and Industry NGO (BINGO), Environmental NGO (ENGO), Local Government and Municipal authorities (LGMA), Research and independent NGO (RINGO), Trade Union NGO (TUNGO) Indigenous peoples’ organization (IPO), Women and Gender NGO, Farmer NGO, and Youth NGO (YOUNGO). The categories represent individuals or groups with a broad spectrum of interests that align and sometimes conflict, they are not monolithic blocs. Take BINGO’s for example; some demand for environment friendly policies while others seek to greenwash their practices or roll back regulation.
YOUNGO and young non-state actors represent an active community of people implementing innovate solutions to problems their community face. Take for example Vanessa Nakate who utilized social media platforms to start a global awareness campaign to save the Congo rainforest and Mariama Djambony Badji who spearheaded a project and campaign to build classrooms in remote areas using material with a low environmental footprint. They are an important subgroup at multi-stakeholder events as they represent a group of actors who can act individually or collectively to cooperate or compete with other non-state actors for space to influence the agenda or negotiations.
The problem for young non-state actors is exclusion from negotiations and key discussions at multi-lateral institutions. The issue with treating young non-state actors like research or business and industry representatives is that it overlooks structural, cultural, or political barriers between young non-state actors which frustrate their efforts to participate and overlooks problems they face when competing with non-state actors who have access to greater resources. As the long-term success or failure of multi-stakeholder agreements hinges on young people committing to plans made today, it is crucial they are participants in decision making processes and not just witnesses to rubber stamp agreements made in their absence and on their behalf. It is important that they are treated as an asset rather than a nuisance and provided an opportunity to have their voices heard or they will find other ways to address their needs which brings into question the UN’s purpose and relevance to young people and their needs.
Young people are marginalized or sidelined in formal negotiating settings because they lack the resources, authority, and status that other non-state actor groups enjoy and are unable create the same kind of leverage to influence the process. Even though there are equal rules among non-state actor’s, differences between them reveal how some can influence the environment while others have little or no impact at all. Creating spaces for young people in formal negotiation or reserving time and space with key stakeholders at multi-stakeholder events is not special treatment but ensuring a key constituent of the global population is present and contributing to the multi-lateral efforts.
The Political Potential of Young Non-State Actors
The potential of young non-state actors lies in their ability to host activities before, during, and after multi-stakeholder activities that could influence the event agenda, a negotiation, or how policy is created in the future. They can implement various strategies to spread their message, solutions, or demands which could influence negotiations or future proceedings at multi-stakeholder events. As young people often lack the material and leverage powers of business and industry non-state actors, their potential in formal spaces of UN-led multi-stakeholder events is limited. However, when focus is shifted from the formal spaces of conferences, high-level meetings, or plenaries, their potential is increased through their ability to host national dialogues, side events, discussions, and exhibits outside formal spaces that could influence decision makers or the proceedings of multi-stakeholder events.
Young non-state actors have three opportunities to influence multilateral efforts led by the UN. 1) Through national democratic process, 2) lobbying of national UN representatives appointed by elected governments, 3) in the formal and informal spaces of multilateral events. Young non-state actors occupy an interesting space between national and international political spaces because they can influence the decision about who represents them, and lobby appointed officials at international forums. The problem is young non-state actors lack resources which makes it difficult for them to develop long term relationships with key actors or turn symbolic or ad-hoc initiatives into sustained methods of participation. A closer inspection of young non-state actors reveals their political potential but also some of the challenges they face when participating at UN led multi-stakeholder events. The issue for young people is that organizers who create participatory mechanisms at multi-stakeholder events do not pay enough attention to the different capabilities of non-state actors to utilize them. Instead of tokenistic rhetoric, pre-rehearsed speeches and questions and answer sessions, or staged meet and greets, organizers of multi-stakeholder events should provide more resources, space, and time for young non-state actors present and discuss their ideas in detail with key stakeholders. Furthermore, young non-state actors should be integrated into the planning, execution, and follow-up of multi-stakeholder and intergovernmental events. They should be included in the planning, management, and execution of multi-stakeholder events to co-create mechanisms of engagement with non-institutionalized youth groups and forms of activism.
If the UN wants to remain an important institution for young people plus utilize their ideas, energy, and resilience then more must be done to: 1) Bridge the gap between multilateral institutions and young non-state actors. Institutionalize youth participation and build a bridge between informal and ad-hoc forms of youth engagement with formal processes. 2) Systematically put youth on the agenda of intergovernmental and multi-stakeholder events. 3) Make funding mechanisms more available to youth organizations. The organizers of multi-stakeholder events can support young non-state actors by removing barriers that prevent their participation in conferences, negotiations, and dialogues. They can also ensure that youth engagement is not a one-time feature but a reoccurring aspect and theme of all UN-led multilateral activities.
Young people remain at the fringe of policy making and are often overlooked in decision-making processes, dialogues, and negotiation. As young people face the long-term implications of today’s decisions it is important to bridge the gap between them and decision-making processes at multi-stakeholder events. The UN system and multilateral institutions have created mechanisms to consult and engage with young people. However, more needs to be done by organizers of multi-stakeholder events to create mechanisms that engage with non-institutionalized youth in the youth work and volunteering sectors. The reason to highlight this sub-group of actors is that they pose a threat to the immediate and long-term plans of the UN if young people today see the UN as an irrelevant institution. They pose a threat because the implementation and long-term success of proposals from UN led multi-stakeholder activities partially rests on non-state actors responding to calls for action.
Isi works as a research assistant to the Chair of UN Studies in Peace at Justice, Professor Alanna O’Malley. He holds an MA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Leiden University. He is also the Co-President and Co-founder of UN Youth Impact, a student and young-professional initiative based in the Hague. Recently he joined the Board of Women in International Security Board as Digital Office