In February 22, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi as a Youth Delegate and to bring athe voice of young people at the table of environmental decision-making.
The Children and Youth Major Group of UN's Environment Program was born during the ’92 Rio Conference, which recognized the importance of involving different stakeholders in the work of the UN. For 30 years now, the main group has been working to bring up the voices of young people, but a place at the decision-making tables still can't be taken for granted.
During this year's Environment Assembly in Nairobi, a few member states questioned the importance of stakeholder commenting and involvement. Young people had to use their limited chances of speaking to defend their place instead of being able to forward their views on the actual topics themselves.
Young people were expected to shake the system and come up with new ideas - but often on the terms of old practices
The reservation of some parties toward the younger generation became apparent on several occasions during the meeting weeks. To open the dialogue, the young people held meetings with delegations from different countries and the UN staff. The discussions revealed two kinds of opinions on the views of young people. Many thought the statements of young people were necessary to shake up the dusty structures and provoke member states to act quickly. Others thought that the statements of the younger generation did not fit into the traditions of the old organization by expressing things directly, and the messages should be diluted.
The end result is often a balance between these two requirements: Young people should be able to speak to member delegations in their own language and not suggest anything radical, but still keep the messages clear in statements and drive change. In other words, the delegations want young people want to bring new things to the table, but on old-fashioned terms.
The question for the UN Environment Program is: How can an organization be reformed if it forces all new entrants to bend to old rigid molds?
The UN needs to face radical changes if it is to tackle ecological crises
It is clear that, despite its importance - or perhaps because of it - the UN needs to regenerate. The slow and inflexible patterns of action of its programs are not fit to solve modern crises. When young people's participation is to be reconciled with these old ways of working, their best offering - such as innovation, immediacy and a strong belief in change - will be less.
The UN Environment Program needs to make a rather radical change of direction in order to achieve more in environmental issues within the next decade than in its previous 50 years of existence combined. And internal change will not happen unless you are receptive to new ideas or practices.
Change is possible - and starts with each member and participant
While the slow pace of change at the UN can sometimes be frustrating, it's still happening. To mark its 50th anniversary, the UN Environment Program organized a session called “The UNEP We Want” following the Nairobi Environment Assembly, where various stakeholders were able to express what role they hope to see UNEP taking in the future.
Terhi Lehtonen, State Secretary at the Finnish Ministry of the Environment, gave an excellent perspective when he said that the UN Environment Program is not a separate entity from those present in the session, but is made up of its member states, interest groups and staff. The choices, attitudes, and actions of all us determine what kind of organization the UN Environment Program is.
Lehtonen's idea also applies to a more mundane context; We cannot hide behind the fact that an organization, company, or society is too rigid for change, but each of us can, by our own actions, influence the kind of community around us.
Despite their weaknesses, the UN Environment Program and Assembly both made an impact. It was inspiring to see how the country delegations negotiated for weeks from morning to night to take the resolutions forward during that meeting. The experience was truly rewarding in many ways; I got to learn about UN policies, global environmental decision-making and political influence. And most of all, seeing a representation of 192 countries in the same hall solving global challenges sparked hope for the future.