Students in a public school in Chennai, India. Photo: Jessica Shapiro
''I will not let my generation be wasted.''
So said a 22-year-old teacher I met in a slum in Mumbai. I had been making my way around the cows, beggars and carts scattered across the small laneways of this slum. So many colours grabbed my eye. So many smells filled my nose. Everywhere you looked there was activity.
Finally I came to a room filled with computers. Young men and women were seated at them, their eyes fixed on the screens. Standing in the middle of the room was teacher Antesh: a young man determined to solve youth unemployment.
The world's slums are filled with young people who have been unable to enjoy a full education and pursue employment. This was the reason why Antesh had spent his adolescence in a state of despair. He turned to alcohol and drugs to numb his sense of hopelessness.
Thankfully he received a scholarship at age 15 to complete a beginner's course in literacy, numeracy and computer software. This proved to be his turning point.
Antesh went on to earn an undergraduate degree and a master's in communications. When he graduated, he surprised his teachers by rejecting the corporate graduate path. Instead he returned to his slum to start a youth investment project.
Antesh's vision was to equip young people with accredited training in literacy, numeracy and computer software. When I met him, he was delivering this in partnership with local businesses. Already he could share stories of students using their training to gain employment in India's IT boom.
Antesh's initiative provides a powerful demonstration of how to tackle youth unemployment. It also highlights the ideological shift we need to make. We must move away from seeing youth as ''clients'' of welfare.
The patron-client paradigm of youth policy has failed. It, in part, has led to young people bearing the brunt of the global financial crisis. Instead we need to treat young people as partners.
Young people such as Antesh can co-design entrepreneurial solutions to education and employment challenges.
This is the raison d'etre behind the proposed UN permanent forum on youth (UNPFY). We lack a global forum in which governments, in partnership with young people, can build and implement an agenda that advances the participation of the world's youth. The UNPFY body intends to fill this gap.
Countries are lining up to support the proposed UNPFY. Brazil, Mexico, Norway, Benin, Sri Lanka and Morocco have all signed up. The question is: will Australia support it?
It would certainly be valuable to the Australian government's foreign policy objectives to do so.
Australia's campaign for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council 2013-2014 will come to a head when votes are cast in October.
The campaign has demanded a long slog from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Since Europe is backing Finland and Luxembourg, which are competing with Australia for the two seats available, the government has focused its attention on the votes it can win from regions such as Africa.
It is in such developing regions that the role of a UNPFY can be most valuable. Indeed, developing countries have 87 per cent of the world's 1.2 billion young people and are experiencing a significant ''youth bulge'' in their populations.
This youth swell has intensified the youth unemployment crisis. Nowhere is this crisis more acute than in North Africa and the Middle East. In 2010 youth unemployment levels reached 23.8 per cent in North Africa and 25.5 per cent in the Middle East.
It was unemployed and frustrated young people who were central to the removal of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
These events show how powerful young people can be in driving social change. On the other hand, widespread joblessness among youth, if left unabated, can also lead to increased drug use, violence and crime.
The youth bulge does not have to mean doom and gloom. Rather it poses an opportunity to turn a substantial portion of the global population into a skilled and socially conscious cohort.
Already there is much to build on.
Two months from now, governments will meet in Brazil for the Rio+20 summit. As they review progress towards achieving sustainable development, youth leadership will be a clear stand-out. Around the world young people are proving themselves to be a resource for poverty reduction and sustainability.
What can a UNPFY add to this? Will it just be another talk fest?
Not with the world's youth watching it.
In Nairobi recently, more than 200 young people from around the world developed a declaration on the UNPFY. The principles agreed included a requirement that youth organisations be integral to the selection of the UNPFY's members. These members, in turn, will be accountable for listening and acting on the voices of marginalised and vulnerable youth.
As the Australian government enters the home stretch of its Security Council campaign, endorsement of the UNPFY might just provide an extra kick to help it over the line. The case is simple: young people are a resource. Let's not waste them.
Chris Varney is a former Australian youth representative to the United Nations.
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