Students hold placards during a rally calling for action on climate change in front of the Liberal Party headquarters in Sydney on November 29, 2019. Photo: AFP / Saeed Khan

There are few places to travel to without hurdles during the Covid-19 pandemic. At work, you find yourself sitting in front of a screen “Zooming” with colleagues, and sometimes with strangers. It can be a cold, vapid, and often boring experience. But recently, that lifeless screen brought many of us at UNDP’s Youth Team to tears. 

We were listening to a young woman in Southeast Asia tell her story, about fighting for what she believed in. In a forum that was closed, as the speakers feared for their lives, she spoke of torture and sexual harassment because she stood against the illegal logging of the forests that her community depends on. As she recounted her story, we sat riveted.

In another case, a young women’s climate actions led to her arrest, on charges of sedition and conspiracy. She was showing her support for protesting farmers, and her arrest had a chilling effect on youth activists. 

There were others who talked about being hunted down and beaten because they spoke against forces destroying the environment.

They were the lucky ones. So far this year, across the world, more than 331 people engaged in environmental causes have lost their lives, and 54 of those deaths were in Asia and the Pacific. As many as 205 cases were recorded against defenders of land, environmental, and indigenous people’s rights in the region. Most of them were students or other young people. 

These are the stories that wake me up every morning and make me go to work. But these are stories that are also easy to forget, unless you take the time to seek them out, and listen. Stories of people, especially youth, who are striving to do the right thing: scrambling for jobs, struggling to be heard, urging people to work toward a more sustainable future. 

Their stories encapsulate the vision of what we do at the UN Development Program’s Youth Team through our Youth Co:Lab. That program aims to empower and develop young entrepreneurs and leaders, so that they can bring out the best in their communities and help achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

We’ve come far, but not far enough. It isn’t easy to admit that we are a long way from helping the youth whose stories brought so many of us to tears. And we know we can’t do it alone. The task is immense, the resources small, the political will still in the making, and youth are still an afterthought. 

For instance, only 40% of the countries at extremely high climate risk mention children or youth in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – a country’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions. 

The road ahead is clear. Hundreds of millions of young people in the Asia-Pacific region, and across the world, live in a state of insecurity and deprivation. Tens of millions are educated but struggle to find decent work, tens of millions more yearn for an education, and many millions go hungry. 

Despite the challenges, many of them are spirited and passionate on a multitude of issues, brimming with ideas; but without acknowledgement and support, the spirit can only last so long.

If we do not engage their ideas, if we do not pay heed to their stories, the potential that we lose is unimaginable. Across the Asia-Pacific region, undeterred by barriers, young people are powering our communities and economies, with innovations, energy and enterprise. They are responsible for creating jobs, reinvigorating the labor market, and supporting sustainable development that is key to our survival. 

At Youth Co:Lab, an initiative co-led with Citi Foundation, we want to help them realize that potential, to propel them to new opportunities, because they in turn will create even more. 

As we look ahead, we want to go beyond empowerment. While we advance leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship, we must also strengthen security and protection of youth, especially indigenous people, migrants, LGBTIQ, and those with disabilities who often work in remote and challenging environments.

Many of them are on the front lines of sustainable development, protecting forests, water sources, traditional knowledge, and the biodiversity that sustains us. 

As I write this, I am reminded of my parents, young, full of ideas and energy, in an Eritrea rich with promise and potential. But in a land riven with conflict, and a lack of opportunities, their choices were curtailed. 

Like so many young people today, they had to move, and reimagine their lives. While they did not achieve all their dreams, they gave me and my siblings the chance to achieve our dreams.

In Eritrea there is a well-worn proverb that says: The camel keeps on marching, while the dogs keep on barking. What it means is that the march toward development will always be met by forces looking to halt that good progress. 

At UNDP’s Youth Team, we follow that motto of marching on, to develop latent potential, to protect and expand the space for new ideas, and to bring opportunity to those in need.

Beniam Gebrezghi

Beniam Gebrezghi is program specialist, Civil Society and Youth, for UNDP in Asia and the Pacific, at its Bangkok Regional Hub.