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Daddy, do the MDGs belong to me?

Posted on 12/02/2015
By Vijay Krishnarayan

With this year’s Commonwealth theme: ‘A Young Commonwealth’, Vijay Krishnarayn considers what impact the Millennium Development Goals will have on a new generation of Commonwealth citizens. 

My children, Max and Leah have a fair understanding of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They have studied them at school and try to look interested across the dinner table as I tell them how important this global compact is. That is when I fully comprehend our failure to enthuse those with the greatest stake in the future of development. They are the MDG generation. Under 15, their lives have been lived in a world brought closer together in part by the MDGs. 

This year we will see the next set of global development goals agreed. The MDG generation will transition from children to citizens. They benefitted from advances in addressing maternal mortality and improving school enrolment and will now become participants in achieving the goals that the world will set for 2030. 

This is what makes this year’s Commonwealth theme: ‘A Young Commonwealth‘ so poignant. It highlights the nexus between the agreement of a new development agenda and the well-being of young people. The sub-text of the theme is as important as the headline. It tells us that the MDG generation are agents of their own development – not passive recipients. They will shoulder a large part of the responsibility for achieving the new development goals as well as being the primary beneficiaries. They will be doing development – rather than having development done to them. 

The capacity of young people to effect their own development will depend in large part on their ability to engage with the institutions that shape their daily lives. These institutions can be public sector bodies such as government ministries or departments. Increasingly they are private sector entities that have been contracted by governments and in some instances they can be civil society organisations that are delivering services instead of the state. Whether they are public, private or voluntary in nature, institutions operate through their own established rules and relationships, which can include and exclude. 

The challenge that the Commonwealth Foundation has set itself is to improve the ways in which citizens engage with those institutions. We do so recognising that some are better placed to influence the ways in which those institutions work and therefore gain most. There are sections of society that do not participate or engage with those institutions. The phrase ‘No one left behind‘ has resonated strongly in the discussion over the past two years on what should follow the MDGs. This is in part because of the recognition that people currently excluded or ignored by institutions need to be included in processes, structures and policies. 

The phrase is particularly relevant to young people. The UN Secretary-General synthesised the various outputs of the global discussion on the future of development in the report: The road to dignity by 2030: ending poverty, transforming all lives and protecting the planet. In it there is a frank admission of the failure of institutions to engage: “Millions of people, especially women and children, have been left behind in the wake of unfinished work of the Millennium Development Goals.” At the same time the report acknowledges that: “Young people will be the torchbearers of the next sustainable development agenda through 2030.”

There is therefore an appreciation – at least at the highest levels, that young people are central to the achievement of any new development agenda. But what do young people themselves have to say about participating in this enterprise? The report: Partners for change: Young people and governance in a post-2015 world, was produced by the Overseas Development Institute, Plan and Restless Development and reflects on young people’s experiences of participating in development. It highlights the active participation of young people in the My World Survey which aimed to gather individual citizen’s preferences for a post MDG framework. Young people were the most active community to engage with the survey with 3.3 million of the 4.4 million responses coming from people aged 16-30. In indicating their preferences they consistently called for ‘an honest and responsive government.’ Young people want to have their say – and are looking for ways and means of getting through to policy makers.

The report concluded by observing that for young people to meaningfully engage in processes that affect them a number of challenges need to be addressed by institutions. The issue of power is central to this thesis. The political, economic and social deficits in power faced by young people are realities. Further – some young people are at a greater disadvantage than others as shown by levels of young women’s participation in political processes. It argues for the development of the capacity of young people to participate making use of technology as well as the formation of communities of practice. In addition to addressing the demand for young people’s participation the report recognises that the supply side needs to change. Local, national, and global agencies that make institutions work need to have their capacity developed so that they are more receptive to the participation of young people. Monitoring is also cited as an important tool to help improve the scale and quality of young people’s participation.

The Commonwealth’s demographic shape means that it is incumbent on all of its agencies to address these challenges. The Commonwealth Foundation uses its grant-making to encourage people’s participation in development processes. The way in which young people and their advocates have used this facility illustrates the specific issues faced, as well as the innovative approaches being taken to tackle them.

Our recently awarded grants recognise the ability of young people to find new ways of making themselves heard in spaces where they can engage as equals in conversation. These projects target the participation of young people in political processes acknowledging that some are alienated or intimidated by the ways in which democracy is experienced. Crucially each of the projects addresses the need for constructive engagement between young people and institutions.

I hope that when my future dinners with Max and Leah turn to issues of sustainable development they will be able to identify their aspirations in the new goals that will be agreed by global governments later this year. They and their generation will be expecting a clear commitment to enabling the participation of all citizens in decision making so that no one is left behind. Acknowledging this expectation the UN Secretary General in his synthesis report reminded us that: “Effective governance for sustainable development demands that public institutions in all countries and at all levels be inclusive, participatory, and accountable to the people. Laws and institutions must protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. All must be free from fear and violence, without discrimination. We also know that participatory democracy, free, safe, and peaceful societies are both enablers and outcomes of development.” This paragraph summarises the hopes of many this year with young people among the most anxious to see it realised.