UN75: Engaging Youth to Shape Our Future

by Steven Aiello, Founder and Co-Director of Debate for Peace

“Everything will be all right – you know when? When people, just people, stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves” — Dag Hammarskjold

UN75 is an opportunity to re-engage the global community, from the world leaders giving addresses at the General Assembly, to the billions of citizens watching those speeches from home. We cannot expect anyone else to solve our problems. Everyone has a role to play, a way to contribute, and a valued voice to add to the conversation. That’s the beauty of the UN75 initiative. I believe strongly in that message, having spent the better part of the last decade empowering Israeli and Palestinian youth to tackle regional and global challenges via Model United Nations (MUN).

Picture the world in 2050. Are you overall optimistic or pessimistic?

I asked that question to over 100 of my MUNers, 10-19 year old Israeli and Palestinian students. It was an almost even split between those who expressed optimism and pessimism about their future. When I asked them to expand on their fears for the future, climate change was by far the most common issue raised, followed by the wealth gap, as well as sexism, racism, and ultranationalist indoctrination. 

On the other hand, they found hope in technological advancements, but also in themselves: youth who “are more accepting towards others”, and “understand the systemic issues of our time.” Students shared that they were hopeful because of “the way the young generations today see the world…maybe this attitude can help stabilize the future”, and that “When I see kids, teens and young adults start to try and make a change, it gives me hope that things will change for the better.”

Youth today are very aware of the challenges the world faces, and motivated to make a difference, be it in addressing prejudices, socio-economic gaps, or climate change. Yet these driven young leaders also feel marginalized and ignored by the adults in power. 

When asked “Who do you rely on to solve major issues?”, most students answered “NGOs and non-profits” or “grassroots activists”, with those choices almost 50% more popular than “government leaders”, “religious leaders”, and the “UN and regional organizations” combined. These candid responses reveal the extent to which youth today worry that their future has been jeopardized by the shortsightedness of decision-makers of the past and present. They reflect the political intransigence and failure to compromise that can plague national and international politics. But they also show the power of civil society, in the form of both organizations and driven individuals, to initiative the change we need.

One of the remarkable aspects of Model UN is that most committees successfully pass resolutions, and quite often these resolutions go farther than actual United Nations resolutions. Even the most veteran MUN students are not seasoned diplomats, nor are they answerable to a foreign ministry, and so liberties are certainly taken. But I think there are other unique aspects to MUN, like the firm belief that every problem has a solution, the creativity to think outside the box and find that solution, and the determination to work together until those solutions are achieved. These are ways that MUN can contribute to the UN.

UN75 is more than just a look back at the past–it’s also prospective, as we prepare for the challenges of the future. Those challenges are immense. As these young leaders exemplify, we can’t sit at home and expect someone else to solve these issues for us. It’s our job to play an active role in engaging, educating, advocating, innovating, and collaborating. UN75 is a reminder that just like we all live on the same planet, we must all be invested in shaping our collective future. When that happens, when all levels of society are aligned towards creating the change we need, then we can be optimistic about where the world is headed.

Kofi Annan’s words are just as relevant today: “More than ever before in human history, we share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together. And that, my friends, is why we have the United Nations.”