The (Lack of) Formal Youth Involvement in the Informal-Informals

By Anna Odell

Even after spending a term studying sustainable development, the United Nations process, and the Rio+20 conference in depth, when people asked me what exactly I was doing in New York at the informal-informals, I responded with the truth: I had no idea. I could say that I was going to the United Nations negotiations and that I was going to be working with youth from across the world, but when it got down to the nitty-gritty details, I was still a little lost. Although even though I didn’t entirely know how I would be spending my days, I never doubted that my presence at these meetings would mean something. Even before arriving I didn’t place a huge amount of faith in the formal negotiating space, but I had a feeling that I couldn’t quite put words on; something important was going to happen and I was going to be a part of it. It was not until I arrived to the UN headquarters this morning in New York City’s upper east side that I realized just how bureaucratic and complex this system is.

After the the morning session we met up with the Major Group of Children and Youth, and discussed the youth’s official role in the informal-informals: nonexistant. We learned that civil society and major groups are not permitted to make interventions during these meetings. With no opportunities for intervention and no actions, we are essentially sitting here as they negotiate. MGCY will have the opportunity for an intervention during the intersessionals next week, however there is no official opportunity for youth to express opinions or make suggestions during this week of negotiations. As I sat in the chair for the Youth in Children with a microphone in front of me, I realized how many chances my voice would not be heard, and even if it was, would it be considered? Is my voice louder shouting from outside the building than speaking into a microphone inside this room?

After lunch, the tides began to shift. Julian, working his mingling magic, landed us an interview with a French filmmaker Before I knew it, I was being tapped on the shoulder and informed that we were going to speak with Mr. Brice Lalonde, one of the two coordinators of the Rio+20 conference. Mariana, Julian, Bogdan and I huddled for a minute to collect our wits, and then found ourselves being hurried out to have a discussion on our thoughts of the negotiations, the conference, and the role of youth in the decision making process. ‘Finally!’  I thought, ‘a chance for us to share our views and get our opinions out there!’ The chance to talk to Mr. Lalonde was an incredible opportunity, and I truly appreciate being able to have a conversation about our thoughts and hear his views. We discussed the necessity of youth involvement in the decision making process, and he agreed that youth must have a role in the crafting of our future. However, he somewhat slyly spoke of our responsibility to make a movement outside of the United Nations system. Mentioning social media, letter writing, and putting pressure on individual nations, he spoke of the political will of nations stemming from the youth movement. I couldn’t help but feeling that he is operating within a system that does not fully acknowledge us. We are sitting here as representatives negotiate away our future, and we are told that it is our “responsibility” to put pressure on the heads of state so that they do their job.

One thing Mr. Lalonde said resonated deeply: “you are more powerful than you know.” I think he’s right. We are far more powerful than we realize, however still I consider our power to be greater than acknowledged by the United Nations. We will continue this movement, seeking environmental justice and a sustainable future, however we must be met with an opportunity to be seriously involved in the negotiating process and the willingness to work together. We will continue to put pressure on our heads of state and international governance, but I also call on the United Nations to meet us with the political will to move past the inaction make and the important, difficult, and forward thinking decisions that will stop the destruction of our future.

The United States’ Unique Situations with Education, Loans, and Rio +20

By Bogdan Zymka

In the United States, there seems to be some hope of economic recovery looming as unemployment slowly falls and the election cycle brings about at least some sort of national discussion about critical issues. However, Rio is still far from making headlines in mainstream media in the United States and by the time it makes it there, it might be too late to discuss the elephant the U.S have been dragging around with them for too long: Student loan debt.

Since 1999, student debt in the United States has risen by 511 percent. Now out-grossing credit card debt, which totals $793 billion of which 12.2 percent is overdue, the Department of Education estimates that there is $1 trillion in outstanding student debt, 11.2 percent of which is 90+ days passed due. 610 billion of this is in low-interest government loans while the other 490 billion come from the private sector, full of fluctuating interest rates and sections of fine print that would rival Moby Dick. It doesn’t get any more promising. While the average student debt graduating from college was $24,000 in 2010, only 56 percent of graduates in that same year could hope to find jobs after they finished their education, resulting in a 14.6 percent unemployment rate for graduates between the age of 20 and 24 while the current national unemployment rate sits at 8.3 percent.

The U.S is going to have to seriously start looking at its education system, how it is financed and how it is valued, and this might mean taking cues from the international community.  The government manages a majority of student loans in the U.S, making the issue particularly important because student loans can’t be absolved through bankruptcy; they are there forever, slowly picking away at borrower’s wages. Students are getting more and more skeptical of pouring thousands of dollars into their education only to step out into a market that isn’t accommodating. The education system in the U.S needs to change, and fast. There are two critical areas that need to change:

One: The U.S Education system needs to change the way it looks at students. Largely conceived during the turn of the century, during which the United States became an industrial powerhouse filled with factories constantly needing workers who could adapt to the times, the system is obsolete. Kids are seen as empty slates with no inherent qualities that can be built upon and are taught in batches, all filled with the same generic field of knowledge and then thrown out into a world where they have to pay obscene amounts of money to receive a specialization. By the time they are out on the job market, they are diluted and disillusioned. This needs to change. The education system must build on the inherent qualities of a child so that growth is not stunted and we eventually end up with a highly specialized workforce that actually wants to do the job they are hired for.

Two: The U.S needs to change the way education is valued and paid for. Student loan debt keeps rising as more and more kids are convinced that a college degree is the ticket to job security. While average national unemployment slowly begins to decline, youth unemployment keeps rising. This is creating a climate that feeds into the over-stimulated generational malaise that college-bound youth thrive off of to voice their frustrations. If more and more jobless college grads pile into the political sphere, student debt volatility coupled with political frustrations are going to incite some Greek style revolutionary action – Greece’s youth unemployment rate was 51.5 percent before the economic meltdown.

The U.S is going to have to address this issue somehow and it’s surprising that they haven’t proposed any stronger language in the sections on Education in the Rio draft documents. Education is where the United States really has the potential to falter as their global position of power starts to decline to make room for the emerging economies of China and India.

So far, the Informal-Informal negotiations aren’t anywhere near starting to negotiate the bodies of texts dealing with the thematic groups of education and finance but it is worrying to only see any real progressive hope of educational reform coming from G77 while the United States makes its usual effort to dilute the document into a muddled pinky-promise, which is a problem. The United States is going to have to learn to keep its students happy, or else movements like Occupy will have more leverage than ever to upturn the status quo and topple the Boomer implemented educational disaster. Without college kids going to work, who’s going to pay for their pension checks when they retire?