January 26, 2016

Youth and the SDGs: A Q&A

Written by Q&A with Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA, and Jose “Oying” Rimon II, Bill & Melinda Gates Institute

This post originally appeared on Global Health Now’s website. Reposted with permission.

The Sustainable Development Goals represent “a significant moment in the history of development,” says Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

Young people, long a key concern for Osotimehin, are a much more significant part of the SDGs than in their precursor, the Millennium Development Goals. Yet, there were missed opportunities to address youth needs, such as comprehensive sexuality education, Osotimehin tells Jose “Oying” Rimon II, director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In the recent conversation, Osotimehin shares his views on the SDGs, their impact on women and young people and his expectations for the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP), January 25–28, 2016, in Nusa Dua, Indonesia.

This interview is part of a series of Q&As leading up to ICFP.

Rimon: After the long process of consultation to write the new Sustainable Development Goals, are you happy with the outcome?

Osotimehin: The world has come together to agree on a comprehensive way forward that builds on lessons learned from previous efforts to eradicate poverty, ensure individual rights and well-being, and promote gender equality and women’s empowerment. All this while promoting inclusive economic growth and protecting the planet.

Critically, the 2030 Agenda reaffirms the International Conference on Population and Development’s call for human beings and their rights to be at the center of sustainable development, with a particular focus on women, young people and vulnerable groups.

The Sustainable Development Goals alone would be a truly transformative, integrated platform for our work, but the political declaration that prefaced them goes even further. It is a powerful human rights statement that recognizes the centrality of empowering and enabling women and young people, including for realizing the demographic dividend. It also includes strong focus on data systems, the use of population data and projections and links to humanitarian and emergency situations.

I was particularly pleased to see reference to the demographic dividend—the first time that the concept has appeared in such a major United Nations outcome document. This is something for which we at UNFPA advocated quite strongly. Investing in the power and potential of young people could not be more relevant as we enter the new development era, and we are already working with a number of countries to help them to make the right investments to harness the demographic dividend.

The goals are ambitious, and they will require enormous efforts across countries, continents, and sectors—but they are achievable. And UNFPA has a critical role to play in helping countries achieve them.

R: You are known for championing young people. How do you think youth issues were addressed in the new SDG framework?

O: For those who champion the power of young people to shape the world, I would say that the Sustainable Development Goals present a mixed picture. The 2030 Agenda recognizes the importance of addressing people’s needs throughout their lives, and there are also more references to young people than there were 15 years ago. Importantly, numerous targets within the gender goal specifically address the empowerment of girls and our responsibility to protect their rights. Countries also committed to nurturing youth, both to enable them to realize their individual rights and to help their countries reap a demographic dividend.

But when it comes to protecting and nurturing young people, I am a perfectionist, and—like most things in this world—the goals are not perfect! It is good that young people are extensively mentioned across the declaration and the goals, and in such a way that they can be reflected in the indicators that are still being developed. However, these references could have been stronger if they had been more coherently grouped and presented. One major missed opportunity is that comprehensive sexuality education is not explicitly incorporated into the goals.

R: You will be an active and prominent participant in the 2016 International Family Planning Conference. What would you like to see in terms of the conference’s role in achieving the new SDGs? In terms of the demographic dividend as a policy framework to accelerate development?

O: As you know, a demographic dividend is a boost in economic growth that occurs when there is a larger number of working-age people than dependents. We know that it is not an automatic process for countries to arrive at a situation where mortality levels are low and fertility levels are falling, or for countries to reap the dividend once they have achieved these essential preconditions. Both critically depend on the education, employment and empowerment of young people. Realizing the demographic dividend requires multiple intersecting investments, which will build the capabilities of people and ensure their right to achieve their potential.

Evidence to date show that returns on investments in family planning and in adolescents are enormous. In order to open the window of opportunity for the dividend, leaders must focus on policies that improve women’s and adolescent girls’ well-being and, in turn, promote demographic and economic transformations.

Voluntary family planning is a cost-effective and sustainable investment everywhere, even where resources are limited. When women and couples are empowered to plan when and how often to have children, women are better able to complete their education, their autonomy within their households increases and their earning power improves. This strengthens their economic security and well-being and that of their families, and this contributes to poverty reduction and development.

I hope the conference, because of its scale and the variety of participants representing governments, civil society, community leaders, and young people, will serve as a platform to convey this message and discuss concretely what the next steps are.

R: How about in terms of the issues of young people and adolescents?

O: Young people must be empowered to claim their rights and to pursue their dreams and aspirations for their countries and for humanity. In many places, child marriage, early and unintended pregnancies, poor access to health care, including sexual and reproductive health services, and gender discrimination still undermine the development of millions of girls and women. Young people must also benefit from favorable economic conditions and employment opportunities to contribute to economic development.

Many family planning and reproductive health programs fail to reach vulnerable populations. The review of progress since the [1994 International Conference on Population and Development in] Cairo shows that, while some progress has been made, many of the programs and projects to improve access to sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents are often small in scale or ineffective. We know that opportunities exist, particularly with new technologies, to expand services targeting adolescents, but we need to move quickly to close the gap in information and services among adolescents if we are to meet our commitments over the next 15 years.

I hope the conference conveys a strong message that it is vital to tackle sexual and reproductive health issues affecting adolescents and youth. Young people must be at the heart of development. Investing in them and adopting and implementing policies that promote and protect their rights must be a priority. There simply is no inclusive development without development for adolescents and youth.

The Millennium Development Goals mainly focused on young children and on adults, but they were relatively silent on young people aged 10 to 24. They ignored the human rights and development needs of these 1.8 billion young people, a population group that could rise to 2.3 billion by 2040. The 2030 agenda does convey a better focus on their rights and needs, and I feel this should be celebrated, at the conference and beyond. Afterwards, we need to roll up our sleeves and deliver.

ICFP is co-hosted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the National Population and Family Planning Board of Indonesia (BKKBN).