Item 62: Social development, including questions relating to the world social situation and to youth, ageing, disabled persons and the family
9 October 2007
Statement by Mr Ben Groom, Youth Representative to the
Australia delegation to the United Nations
As Australia’s Youth Representative, I feel privileged to address you today on behalf of three million young Australians.
Since April, I have devoted all my energy to a “listening tour” of Australian youth. This was a 33,000 kilometer journey of consultation. It began in my island home of Tasmania and involved criss-crossing every state and territory, visiting 34 cities and towns, and speaking with over 4,000 young people.
Climate change is one of the greatest concerns of young people all over Australia and around the world. And we are already feeling its destructive effects. I met students in the farming town of Benalla who had not seen a drop of rain in a year. I met youth in Tropical North Queensland who live with the painful memory of personally having to shoot their family’s livestock after Cyclone Larry devastated their land and livelihood.
The political momentum of this issue is growing, as evidenced by the Secretary-General’s recent High-Level Event. But more needs to be done, especially at the Bali negotiations in December.
Young people are the most effective agents of change. The world can harness this energy by strengthening the role of education and training in global climate change solutions.
Australian youth have already proven we can change behaviour for the better. We have embraced the need to reduce water usage, as a result of our widespread drought. We are having shorter showers, we are recycling household water to use in our gardens and we are fixing leaking taps. Best of all, we are pressuring our parents and grandparents to do the same. This shift is the result of widespread water education in our schools.
Household energy efficiency requires a similar but more drastic response. We can adapt. And the process begins by incorporating climate change education into school curricula around the world.
When visiting an isolated indigenous community, I met a 10 year old boy. He told me a powerful story of two trees. The first tree stands in the backyard of his home and has no branches. Tragically, these branches were removed after his sibling used the tree in an attempt to take his own life. Yet this boy’s focus was on a second tree. One that stands at his school, full of life, with healthy branches. He described this tree as “happy”, as he beamed with one of the brightest smiles imaginable.
These two trees provide a powerful metaphor to describe young people in Australia. We are like the branches of a tree which, through a combination of education and engagement, are empowered to flourish like those at this boy’s school.
Almost all young Australians are blessed with this empowerment; we are creating our own opportunities to grow and connect. Here are just a few of the many examples I witnessed this year:
- A youth worker in Tennant Creek, the town with the highest proportion of young people in Australia, is connecting traditional skills with future employment through stockman’s training designed for at risk indigenous youth;
- Young people in Adelaide have established a club to assist young newly-arrived migrants with their school homework – benefiting both parties with cultural understanding far better than any textbook could provide; and
- The United Nations Youth Association of Australia, a network made up entirely of young volunteers, is teaching over 40,000 young Australians each year to stand up and speak out, preparing the leaders of the future.
But youth are not only the leaders of tomorrow, we also lead today. No where is this more obvious than in the Australian Make Poverty History movement, which has been mobilised largely by young people. This movement is reaching up to the highest branches of our society in the struggle to eliminate global poverty.
However, there are still too many marginalised young people who feel isolated from society because they lack meaningful opportunities. Often this is the result of a family breakdown and, too often, leads to substance abuse, gang activities and crime. These youth are like the branches of the first tree who, without greater support, risk snapping away from active involvement in their communities. This challenge is not unique to Australia but confronts youth all over the world.
These young people need our full attention, especially here at the United Nations. Let us, together, bring youth issues to the fore. This process must include adopting, in full, the Supplement to the World Program on Action for Youth and creating measurable, youth-specific goals and targets, as suggested by the Secretary-General’s Report.
One of the best ways to educate and engage young people is to allow us to explore the world we live in. Thankfully in Australia there are many pathways to increase our cultural understanding, including through international volunteering. The Australian Government’s Youth Ambassadors for Development Programme (AYAD) has allowed over 2,100 young Australians since 1998 to make positive contributions to development through short term assignments throughout Asia and the Pacific. Such opportunities not only benefit the individuals involved. The stories brought back by participants can also positively influence the attitudes of their friends.
A belief within young people that the UN is listening to us – acting on our behalf – is crucial to this forum’s long term sustainability. The youth delegate programme is a small, but important, step towards ensuring this. It is a process that involves many young people, not just the delegates. Our aim is to remove the links in the chain between listening to the thoughts of young people – about the UN and where we are heading as a global society – and those thoughts actually being presented here in New York. As part of this process, I collated a journal of almost 100 pages of comments, poetry and drawings from youth all over Australia. I hope to present this to the Secretary-General in the coming weeks. But there are many more voices out there still waiting to be heard. I urge all member states to consider including a youth representative in their delegations to the United Nations.
Unwavering optimism, like that of the young indigenous boy, is a powerful characteristic of being young. We are using this spirit and energy to put our stamp on the world. From our active volunteerism, to our responsible consumerism, our unprecedented environmental awareness, to our sense of community, we are making our opinions count. We feel a sense of urgency and we want to be empowered to take action ourselves. Help us to ensure the branches of youth flourish and we will help you create a brighter and more united world.