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Youth Are Central to Shaping Global Education Policy

Students attend lesson in the Democratic Republic of Congo town of Bunagana (REUTERS/James Akena).

While the United Nations is still discussing plans to get the secretary-general’s new five-year global education campaign off the ground, a group of young people met in December and developed their own strategy to move it forward. Amidst family obligations, school and work, members of the secretary-general’s Youth Advocacy Group (YAG) flew into London from all corners of the world to outline their plans for supporting Education First. Their dedication to ensuring that all children and young people have the chance to go to school and learn is a reminder that real change comes from committed individuals taking bold, decisive action.

The YAG is comprised of 16 remarkable youth chosen from over 600 nominations. They represent geographic diversity– coming from the Philippines to Serbia, Zambia to Chile, India to Jamaica and more – and diversity in the issues they work on, which include indigenous rights, inclusive education for children with disabilities, LGBTQ rights, youth involvement in politics, sexual and reproductive health, and educating street children and refugees. Ultimately, they all share the common concern that education should be any government’s first priority and are committed to making the three goals of Education First – putting all children in school, improving the quality of education and fostering global citizenship – a reality.

Often an oversight in international education discussions, the YAG developed a plan of action to bring the many voices and perspectives of young people into the fold particularly as debates ramp up around meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the next three years and developing a new agenda post-2015. Their plan includes three action areas: creating a strong social media presence, being technically fluent on international education issues, and building strong partnerships with international organizations and an expansive network with youth organizations in their respective countries and regions.

The question now is how to ensure that the efforts of the YAG achieve the impact and scale they intend. One solution is for youth to establish themselves as expert voices on education and a valuable resource for international organizations to tap. During their time in London, the YAG met with representatives from the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies, Nigel Chapman, CEO of Plan International, a civil society organization wholly committed to meaningful youth engagement, and senior education advisors at the U.K. Department for International Development (DFID) who expressed their excitement to work in partnership with the youth. In particular, the Rt. Honorable Justine Greening, secretary of International Cooperation at DFID, wrote to the group praising their commitment to achieving quality education for all.

However, the YAG will also need strong support from champions at the highest political levels to push for their meaningful participation in discussions where the voices of young people are not currently included. Fortunately, in addition to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, one of these advocates is the secretary-general’s newly appointed Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown. Special Envoy Brown met with the youth advisors while in London and promised them his unwavering support for their efforts. 

In an increasingly interconnected world, young people—as early adopters of technology and social media—are well-positioned to mobilize their global networks in support of campaigns to address barriers to education. And the YAG has already demonstrated this power having played an instrumental role in helping to secure 2.5 million signatures for the I am Malala petition in response to the shooting of Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai. Those signatures resulted in the establishment of a $10 million Malala Fund by the Pakistani government and conversations around increasing the percent of Pakistan’s GDP to education from 2 percent (one of the lowest rates in the world) to 4 percent.  The youth advisors did not stop here. They are now working to garner one million signatures for a petition calling on the Indian government to eliminate all forms of child labor in advance on a parliamentary vote this year. Child labor, although not in the headlines like Malala’s shooting, denies 215 million children, ages five to 17, an education because they are forced to work.

One area where youth are often the least present is in international conferences and meetings on education. Special Envoy Brown is working to change this. He invited the YAG to participate in and help design a summit of heads of state, U.N. agencies, civil society, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on April in Washington, DC in advance of the World Bank and IMF annual spring meetings. At the education summit, the heads of U.N. agencies, World Bank President Jim Kim and Special Envoy Brown will meet with countries least likely to achieve the second MDG on universal access to primary education by 2015 to identify ways for countries to reach this target, including through the MDG Acceleration Framework.  At Special Envoy Brown’s request, the YAG will help organize a meeting of civil society organizations following the summit to discuss ways they can support country-level efforts to meet the MDGs. The YAG will also be mobilizing youth in the lowest performing countries to pressure their governments to make education for all, particularly the most marginalized, a top priority.

As the post-2015 education debates get underway, the global community is challenged to include stakeholders who are the most affected by development policies but oftentimes have the least voice, such as young people. Now is the time for the Youth Advocacy Group to establish itself as a strong constituency committed to bringing the perspectives of young people, including those most marginalized and hardest to reach, to the international table. It is incumbent upon the international community, national governments and policymakers to step up to the plate and see youth as central to discussions on education. Youth should be consulted as experts in the early stages of any policy design and not included at the end in a tokenistic manner. As the Youth Advisory Group has demonstrated in its short three months in existence, it’s not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.

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