My first visit to the United Nations (UN) headquarters was in 2007, when we visited as tourists after the Harvard Model UN conference in Boston. A decade later – after many more simulation conferences and years with the UN Association of Singapore (UNAS) – I went back with a little more excitement, as part of a Singaporean delegation with the National Youth Council. Across the two days we participated in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum, which was organised around the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as the role of youth in poverty alleviation and the promotion of prosperity, bringing together policymakers and youth leaders from around the world. The potential for action, in this vein, was high.
But the excitement and expectations, unfortunately, did not meet with reality at the UN. “Full of sound and fury; signifying nothing”. Criticisms of the UN – gathered through model UN, academic research, and every-day commentaries – have centred on its characterisation as a talk-shop, and I felt the same at the ECOSOC Youth Forum. Here are some thoughts:
Pro: Setting a global agenda – for youths
Agenda-setting is a key strength of the UN, and in particular through the General Assembly – which offers the 193 member states a democratic platform through a “one state, one vote” structure to pass resolutions – collective interests could be realised. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 started with eight goals and 21 targets, while the SDGs in 2015 followed with 17 goals and 169 targets, ranging from the ending of poverty and hunger to the strengthening of institutions. For most countries and international non-government organisations, the MDGs and the SDGs are useful blueprints for socio-political and economic development, allowing for the prioritisation of policy priorities and the implementation of solutions.
Anchoring the ECOSOC Youth Forum on the SDGs therefore provided a good structure for discussions. Getting youths involved in this process is important too, given the growing ambiguity of global circumstances and the corresponding need to prepare.
Pro: Productive regional and thematic breakouts
Breakout sessions are productive when they allow more diverse perspectives to be articulated, when active conversations – not one-sided, monotonous presentations – are encouraged, and when side-meetings are arranged at the end of these sessions. There were two breakouts at the youth forum: first, on the more specific SDGs; and second, on key regional priorities for youth development. Even though the first discussion went too deep into the merits of social entrepreneurship, when SDG 9 entailed broader questions about infrastructure, industrialisation, and innovation, we heard more about the challenges on the ground. The African delegates, for instance, were frank about the lack of funding, resources, and governance structures in their home countries, and one also lamented the lack of progress through the ECOSOC Youth Forum, since the previous edition last year.
The second breakout on regional priorities highlighted progress in Asia (China, above all, has lifted hundreds of millions out of absolute poverty in the past decades), yet overall throughout the forum there was inadequate focus on the region.
Pro: Potential for greater Singaporean engagement
At UNAS and through the simulation programmes we run, we are always thinking about bringing model UN and the UN to more Singaporean students. Yet through these years, we have not thought about bringing Singapore – and its youths – to play a more active role in the UN. After all, it is one thing to highlight the shortcomings of the UN and the ECOSOC Youth Forum (three of which will follow), but another to improve upon these shortcomings.
The challenge for UNAS and for Singapore is to think bigger. Some of the possible projects include: incorporating the SDG as part of our training programmes and our preparatory conference; developing a better-defined runway of training, conference, as well as both giving back and the raising of awareness, leading to a side-event or even a parallel session at the actual UN; and working to translate outcome documents or resolutions into policy recommendations, to move from rhetoric to action.
Con: Orchestrated “interactive roundtables”
There were plenary sessions touted as “interactive roundtables”, so the uninitiated (like myself) expected spontaneous exchanges of ideas or arguments, guided by a facilitator and a series of well-crafted themes or sub-themes. Instead most of these roundtables, especially the first one featuring ministerial participation, were orchestrated, so every segment – down to the questions that were asked, and the youth representatives asking these questions – was preplanned. Ministers droned on with their scripts, even though these documents could have been disseminated beforehand, and little of substance materialised. Even with the other plenary sessions without the ministers, there were a plethora of problems: poor time management; speakers going on different, unrelated tangents; the lack of diversity in panel representation; and the largely superficial remarks made.
Con: The lack of empirics and rigour
A key reason for this superficiality was that many of the remarks throughout the forum were not grounded by empirics or rigour. By empirics I mean data and figures, to support claims of progress with programmes or policies, and by rigour I mean more substantial evaluation of these programmes or policies, rather than presenting unrealistic, one-sided report cards. When a minister is content with going through his or her list of “plans”, for example, questions must follow. How were the plans formulated, and how extensive was the consultation with young people? What are the projected returns, and what are the key indicators for success? Have past indicators been met, and if not, what has been done to rectify the gaps? Can you prove that the country has actually been successful with its policies, through quantitative or qualitative analyses?
Con: So what?
And after all the grandiose speeches and the self-congratulatory standing ovations – full of sound and fury – what next? This is the sixth edition of the ECOSOC Youth Forum, and it is not clear whether the organisers at the UN are looking beyond participation numbers or social media engagement as measures of success. At what point do we move beyond the rhetoric to action, and what is the vision for subsequent editions of the forum leading to 2030? And how are they and the UN holding themselves accountable, for successes and failures around the world? I believe both the absence of a clear vision as well as reliable implementation mechanisms are the bigger problems, which cannot be left to individual member states per se to rectify.