By Doreen Bogdan-Martin, Director of the ITU Telecommunication Development Bureau
As the United Nations turns 75, and with only 10 years left to make the 2030 Agenda a reality for all, a global call for action for and with youth is needed now more than ever. One of many reasons is the unprecedented global health crisis unleashed by COVID-19. While attention is currently focused on those most immediately affected by the virus, there are many indications that the pandemic will have long-lasting social, cultural, economic, political and multidimensional impacts on young people.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently said that the coronavirus pandemic has led to the largest disruption of education in history, with schools closed in more than 160 countries in mid-July, affecting over 1.6 billion children and youth, many of whom are not connected to the internet. He warned that the world is facing “a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities.”
The theme of International Youth Day 2020, “Youth Engagement for Global Action”, seeks to highlight how engaging young people at the local, national and global levels can enrich national and multilateral institutions and processes, as well as helping them significantly enhance their representation and engagement.
Closing the digital gap with ICTs
ICTs have the potential to rapidly and radically improve people’s lives by facilitating access to information, simplifying the delivery of essential services, and enabling social and economic participation. However, the opportunities that ICTs offer are seldom equally distributed or accessible. As Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, I want to close the digital divide and ensure inclusive, equal access and use of ICTs for all.
Youth have the right to achieve full economic, social and digital inclusion. ICTs are tools through which young people can substantively contribute to, participate in and leverage their social and economic development. Connected to each other like never before, young people want to contribute to their communities, propose innovative solutions and drive social progress and change. As early adopters of ICTs, young people are uniquely placed to harness the power of digital technologies in new and imaginative ways.
New inheritors: Empower, engage, participate
As the ones who will inherit the world that technology is now shaping, I believe is vital that we hear young voices, and truly listen to what they want from technology. As the UN specialized agency for ICTs, we have a key role in making sure these new inheritors become part of the solution to the challenges the world is facing.
That’s why in June of this year, during the Telecommunication Development Advisory Group (TDAG) meeting, I presented ITU Members with a new Youth Strategy. This strategy aims to focus our work on youth in a strategic, coordinated and systematic way, to be Fit4Purpose, to reduce the youth digital divide, and to ensure the participation of youth in ITU as key stakeholders in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. With their unique cultural and personal perspectives and experiences, youth can show us how the power of technology can change the world and help us to accelerate progress towards the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Three lines of action to engage and empower youth now
Our new Youth Strategy is focused around three areas of action:
• EMPOWER: Supporting youth empowerment by creating a community of young leaders.
• ENGAGE: Bringing young people together to engage with ITU and its Members.
• PARTICIPATE: Fostering youth dialogue and participation in ITU activities and decision-making processes.
The strategy is also strongly aligned with the vision and objectives of the United Nations Youth Strategy: Youth 2030 – working with and for young people. ITU has a clear mandate to contribute to the inclusion and empowerment of youth in the digital society, affirmed in a series of Resolutions from the Plenipotentiary Conference and the World Telecommunication Development Conference.
Leading by example: Youth empowerment at ITU
As a concrete next step, we propose to make youth a key element of the upcoming World Telecommunication Development Conference in 2021 (WTDC-21) and beyond, in order to mainstream youth engagement and participation in the work of ITU.
What will this actually look like in practice? Our vision is to see more youth participation in ITU programmes, events and activities, as well as in decision-making. And we aim to promote more ICT and youth-related policies within ITU Member States to ensure inclusiveness and empowerment of young people, particularly in developing countries. We also want to prioritize regular dialogue and consultations with youth that will lead to concrete actions, such as incorporating a youth perspective in the implementation of the ITU Strategic Plan.
First steps have already been taken, with the setting up of an ITU Youth Task Force, made up of staff from across ITU, and the launch of the Giga project in partnership with UNICEF and others. Work on Giga, which seeks to connect every school to the Internet and every young person to information, opportunity and choice, is advancing steadily, with the first round of countries in Africa, Central Asia and Latin America already engaged.
We’re also excited about our new International Center for Digital Innovation partnership with the UAE, called I-CoDI, which will open the doors for young tech entrepreneurs and budding tech professionals to explore new ways to apply digital technologies to existing business problems, social challenges and practices, in ways that can benefit all of humanity and drive progress towards the global goals.
Looking to the future
We are already working to organize ITU’s first-ever WTDC-21 Youth Summit, which will emphasize youth participation, calls for action and innovative solutions that address the issues young people most care about. And to ensure our youth-related activities are robust, comprehensive, and action-oriented, our inaugural I-CoDI workshop will focus on validating and finalizing our Youth Strategy. I am especially excited about this, given that I-CoDI’s aim is to provide ITU with the foundation – both physically, and culturally – to place innovation at the core of its activities. It is my hope that I-CoDI will play a valuable role as an internal space to promote innovative thinking within the ITU, and also as an external space for our Member States and key constituents.
I invite all stakeholders and Members to support the implementation of this new ITU Youth Strategy, so that together we mobilize, empower and engage youth everywhere, and harness young people’s natural affinity with and understanding of technology to fully leverage the transformational power of digital in our efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. The current times demand urgency, ambition, and bold actions.