Participation, Development and Peace - Youth Partnerships for the Future We Want

Delivered at the Opening Session of the Asia-Pacific Forum on Youth Volunteerism to Promote Participation, Development and Peace in Bangkok, Thailand.

Mr. Surin Pitsuwan, Professor Emeritus, Thammasat University, former Secretary-General of ASEAN, and recipient of the 2014 National Peace Corps Association’s Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award,

Mr. David Caprara, Vice-President, Global Peace Foundation,

Mr. Yeqing Li, President, Global Young Leaders Academy,

Distinguished Delegates,

Youth from across the Asia-Pacific region,

Welcome to the opening of the Forum on Youth Volunteerism to Promote Participation, Development and Peace – a collaborative effort between ESCAP, the Global Peace Foundation, the Global Young Leaders Academy and UNESCO.

Today we celebrate young people and their capacity to embody the values of volunteerism, while reaffirming our commitment to a better future for them and our future generations.

The Asia-Pacific region is home to 60 per cent of the world’s youth and they make up 17 per cent of our regional population. So roughly 717 million youth between the ages of 15 and 24 are a real potential asset for the region. Geographically, Asia-Pacific’s youth population is spread widely across all countries and subregions: 48.2 per cent, for instance, are in South and South-West Asia, 31.4 per cent in East and North-East Asia, 15.1 per cent in South-East Asia, 4.4 per cent in North and Central Asia, and 0.8 per cent in the Pacific. Even in ageing countries – such as Japan and Thailand – youth make up between 15 and 20 per cent of the working age population.

Tapping youth potential is critical to shape our shared destiny, as they are a source of new ideas, talent and inspiration. Harnessing youth energy, enthusiasm and expertise is vital for global and regional productivity and prosperity.

In November 1985, at its 80th plenary meeting, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 40/14 on International Youth Year: Participation, Development, Peace and this has continued to be a key focus for the United Nations. Better integrating youth into our economies will provide fresh impetus as we launch the post-2015 sustainable development agenda. Without the active and engaged role of youth in the development process, we cannot progress or build the future we want.

We know, however, that young people do not have equal access to opportunities. Take for example access to higher education: The average enrolment rate in tertiary education is over 65 per cent in our more developed economies, compared to just 15 per cent in many least developed countries of Asia and the Pacific. Even after completing formal education, young people often face obstacles in their transition from school to work, because education and training systems often do not match modern labour market demands. Equally critical is the issue of quality of graduates, given often-weak educational systems and standards.

Currently, more than 80 million of the region’s working age young people are unemployed, with many more underemployed. In several countries, more than 20 per cent of all young people are unemployed, and in the 15 countries for which we have data, youth are 5 to 7 times more likely to be unemployed than adults.

These challenges not only undermine individual prospects and livelihoods, they also represent a significant opportunity cost and loss in terms of economic output. Lacking sufficient economic and social opportunities, many youth are forced into high-risk and vulnerable forms of employment, while others have given up on the job search altogether.

It is therefore critical to carefully review current educational systems and facilitate smooth school-to-work transitions, as well as to promote targeted employment support programmes and strengthen public employment services.

Skills development and education provide young people with the necessary tools to make informed choices, and to participate more meaningfully in public life. As such, tertiary education is critical in preparing young people for the competitive workforce.

Youth also have the potential to offer inspirational and innovative leadership and to shape their own destinies. 2014 Noble Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai offers one such example. Fighting for her life, after being shot in the forehead, she resolved upon her recovery to promote the “right to education for women and girls” all over the world. At the Youth Takeover ceremony at the UN General Assembly, which I attended in March last year, she expressed her passion for this cause and articulated a number of very powerful messages.

A few of her words capture the stress and threats to the lives of too many girls in our region: “… [W]e realise the importance of […] light when we see darkness, our voice when we are silenced […and] pens and books when we [see] the guns.” Malala truly has lived her belief in the wise saying that “the pen is mightier than the sword”.

Many other girls and women are still struggling in deep trenches of poverty and injustice, and our youth such as Malala can, with passion, commitment and resolve, give them voice and show the path forward.

However, national and international leaders have a crucial role to play. Key is to lay the foundations for good policies and strong institutions. There are no short-term solutions to these challenges. Among others, we must together raise public spending on education, improve the quality and governance of education, and ensure that skilled, healthy and youthful members of society energize the private sector to generate job-led growth.

The entry of youth, and in particular young women, to the labour market has far-reaching impacts on society and economy as a whole, not least in terms of gender equality and economic growth. If women's labour force participation in Asia and the Pacific were at the level of the United States of America, for instance, the Asia-Pacific region could gain an additional USD 42.7 billion in terms of GDP.

Productive jobs will enhance economic productivity, facilitate social cohesion and stability, improve the disposable income of households and stimulate demand for services and products, which in turn drive the economy.

Volunteerism can lead the way; it can build capacity and enhance understanding of how all people matter. Volunteerism is noble work and youth can be instrumental in making it a tool that promotes peace and development.

For ESCAP and the United Nations, a dynamic youth agenda is vital to ensure the success of post-2015 sustainable development. We will do all we can to support your efforts, we laud you for your resolve, and thank you for your participation.

I wish you a very fruitful meeting and urge you to develop stronger alliances and friendships to advance development which is not only inclusive and sustainable, but which is also permeated with cooperation and peace.

I thank you.