From the 5th – 10th May 2014, the biggest youth conference in the world brought together young people from over 170 countries and took place on the foot of the Indian Ocean in the ‘Wonder of Asia’ Sri Lanka. The event carried the tagline of ‘Mainstreaming Youth in the Post-2015 Development Agenda’ and served as one of the principal methods of hearing young people’s voices in the next development agenda moving beyond Millennium Development Goals.
Last week, I had the honor and huge responsibility of representing the Global Youth Network for Road Safety at the World Conference on Youth 2014, which took place in Colombo, Sri Lanka from 5-10 May. This ambitious event aimed to ‘mainstream’ youth voices in the upcoming development agenda; The Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda.
Starting with the clear incredible achievements of the conference, I must commend the organizers on bringing such a diverse group of young people together from every corner of the world. From Angola to Australia, Poland to Palestine and Barbados to Bhutan, it was incredibly exciting to see the sheer assortment of youth passionate about a huge range of burning issues. If one thing is certain, this conference was a testament to knowing that we live in a world where young people are driving real grass roots impact on a range of issues.
The WCY put on an incredibly cultural show capturing the essence of Sri Lanka.
My mission stood to bring awareness to the biggest killer of young people in our modern world, road traffic crashes and the unimaginable burden that comes with an unsafe and unsustainable transport system that exists across the world. I was selected as an International Youth Delegate in this regard.
After a luxurious and (obviously) very expensive opening ceremony consisting of a mile of drummers and dancers welcoming delegates to the grand opening hall President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of the United Nations General Assembly John Ash and UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth Ahmad Alhendawi opened the event with inspiring words on making this conference count and calling on the world to ‘listen’ to young people.
The following days consisted of round tables on key foundations and thematic areas of focus where young people discussed their burning desires to change the current status quo challenging injustice, violence, preventable death and inequality, still existing since the Millennium Development Goals.
With that in mind, you would think placing road safety on the agenda would be child’s play. That was not that case. Many people were unaware of the issue, even in the health thematic area. Surely, if we look at the statistic and note which phenomena are killing young people the most, we would see that safe and sustainable transport is urgently required to curb the 1000+ youth killed every day on our roads killing more young people than HIV/AIDs, Malaria and Tuberculosis. What also was not clear what the input of #GPY2015 and the fact that right to Safe and Sustainable Transport is voted as the number one idea. This platform seemed to exist in isolation.
Round table discussions took place to capture young people's views on key thematic areas.
Running parallel to the roundtable discussions were the ‘negotiations’ on the Colombo Declaration held with national government representatives and two seemingly self appointed youth negotiators who sat at the negotiating table and fed information from the round table discussions. From here, it became very clear that this was a conference ‘on’ youth and a convoluted process would filter out getting your point across even if you screamed in the round tables. What is further, there was no representation from the big five UN Permanent Members, France, China, Russia, UK or USA meaning that the overall Colombo Declaration process lacked influence from global powers and inevitably, could be sidelined and archived in the global archive of 'Declarations', on a shelf somewhere.
In version three of the Colombo Declaration, the term road traffic crashes was included through an addition by our Saint Lucian friends who we worked with during VYBZING 2013 under OP16 of the declaration which focused on the pressing health concerns facing young people. At least in this stage, even though it was pushed through government lobbying, attention to our cause was highlighted.
After extensive lobbying and talks with government representatives, Saint Lucia added road traffic crashes to version 3 of the Colombo Declaration.
However, in the final hours, it was decided that road traffic crashes would fit under ‘non-communicable diseases’ and injuries as a catch-all ‘compromised language’ term. For me, this made little sense. As the biggest killer of young people, the NUMBER 1 cause of death of youth aged 15-29 is road traffic crashes and to not have a reference to this under health is like saying HIV/AIDs should not have a special mention but be categorized under the wider term of ‘sexually transmitted diseases’.
Non-communicable diseases account for 36 million deaths annually and do not draw attention to the fact that the biggest killer of youth is road crashes. In the same vein, injuries account for thousands of causes. More needs to be done. Already over 100 countries are working for youth and road safety issues with thousands of young people represented in our network, yet the declaration failed to recognize this.
This illustrates the global struggle to get road safety included on global agendas and that youth themselves still have a way to go to understand and acknowledge the risk that the roads bring to their lives. To me, it was a valuable learning experience in understanding the complexity of the UN system and the great task the global road safety community faces. Nevertheless, we can be proud that have a Decade of Action for Road Safety where 100 countries signed up to make road safety a priority, a UN Resolution on on road safety passed just last month, yet much awareness is still needed. While road crashes exist amidst a huge array of issues affecting young people, for me, the Colombo Declaration was not ambitious or bold enough in stating the needs and recommendations of youth. I don't deny the enormous task of creating such a document though.
One great outcome of the event was educating young people about road safety and YOURS.
Furthermore, the process of influencing change to the Colombo Declaration was definitely not clear enough leaving many of the delegates in dissolution and confusion. For those with no experience in diplomacy or lobbying, many delegates decided to visit the countryside. Moreover, the fact that governments (namely Saudi Arabia) bombarded the youth ideas with their own agendas stifled the process incredibly especially since key terms such as LGBTIQ, Caste and the definition of marginalized groups such as the plight of the Roma people were removed or not mentioned in the final document; playing it safe. While it remains key that government buy into the declaration and hence sat at the table in the negotiation process, it doesn't help that most of the world's governments especially the G5 were not present.
However, overall I must say that as far as youth conferences go, this was by far one of the most visually spectacular events with beach parties, cultural shows, hospitality and the opportunity to meet so many truly inspiring young people from all around the world. I'm sure this will pay dividends to Sri Lankan tourism over the next 15 years.
A spectaluar show for the youth delegates to the conference.
Whether the Colombo Declaration is taken forward or not (whose impact will take years to realize), it is clear that the delegates will return to their homes and continue the real impactful work they do with stronger networks all around the world. I am proud to have been part of such a historic event. On a personal note, I was very happy that hundreds of delegates listened to my passion for road safety and understood the gravity of the situation as well as hearing their important causes too. Youth were definitely given an opportunity to discuss their goals for a Post-2015 Development Agenda but we must always go beyond discussion and ask our leaders, 'Now what?'. Our work continues.