Guest contributor Harriet Riley takes a humorous look at youth on the world stage, and what the eight MDG challenges can offer a generation struggling for direction and identity.
Most people have been told by a parent or teacher that facing down a difficult task ‘builds character’. The challenge is a ‘learning experience’; you undergo ‘personal growth’ and so forth. Back in the old days, people were a bit more frank. They knew hard work forced you to work harder, so they actively flung young people into brutal situations, like wars for example, or Latin grammar, and were not sympathetic if they failed. Oddly enough, I have quite a lot of affection for this old fashioned notion. Let me try to explain why.
Almost everyone my age has been fronted by an elder complaining that Generation Y is ungrateful, lazy and arrogant. Of course, it’s easy to ignore them when you have your iPod on, but I take issue with the ones that say we are apathetic. In my books, apathetic is shorthand for cowardly. If anything, our generation has an excuse to turn its back on the world and complain that it’s all too hard. By the time we reach our parent’s age, climate change, peak oil and the attended chaos of war, food shortages and extreme weather will be threatening a new Dark Age. Most 20-somethings I know have ruled out ever having children due to the empty future they see for them. Everyone older than that is acting like the news is new, as if we didn’t know about climate change, malaria, and famines back in ‘88 when I was born. Well we did, and the delegates who attended the United Nations Youth Assembly at the UN headquarters this August, have grown up with that knowledge, wondering why nothing was being done to preserve their future.
The theme of the 7th Annual Youth Assembly was the Millennium Development Goals, bringing together nearly 600 diplomats and social entrepreneurs between the ages of 16 and 24 for plenary sessions, workshops and round table discussions on how they too get some world-saving action.
I noticed a few grown-up delegates smirking at the delegates, and giving them that sarcastic ‘yeah, you really care’ look. It makes me kinda mad. I’m angry not because we’re getting the blame for something we didn’t do–after all, who knew during the industrial revolution that fossil fuels would upset the atmosphere? Could James Watt even spell atmosphere?–but at the willingness of people to ignore these big, exciting problems when they come steaming down the line of history. Creating an unreal feud between the generations is, as the proverb goes, ‘rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic’. Constantly our society, just like the individual mind with its almost infinite capacity for cognitive dissonance, changes the topic of conversation to avoid having to talk about the big, sweaty elephant in the room.
But dealing with the MDGs is not a question of whose responsibility; it’s about the notion of responsibility itself. Problems like maternal health and gender equality are going to take all of us working together, no matter where we are from or how old we are. Taken together, the MDGs are the Gordian knot of the 21st century, binding up all the conflicts, crises and injustices our current economic and social system has spawned. It may seem ridiculous, given the number of lives lost each year to disease and hunger (goals 1 through 6), and the cataclysmically destructive changes that climate change will bring (goal number 7 asks us to ensure environmental suitability for future generations), but people are still searching for an excuse not to act. We are like that, we humans; we don’t want to deal with a problem until it is right on top of us, like an assignment for college that is due tomorrow.
Many a far-sighted person has spent sleepless nights trying to devise a way of produce the missing ingredient in our fight against extreme poverty and ecosystem collapse: Willpower. These wise and anxious actors are done coming up with technological and political solutions; those already exist, and are ready to implement when the order is given. All that remains is the courage–from leaders some say, from the community as a whole suggest others–to give it. These changes are extensive, indeed they are revolutionary, and will utterly transform the lives of billions in both the developed and developing world. Still, nobody seems willing to step up and take responsibility for their introduction.
We are all teenagers, in this sense, recklessly irresponsible with our environment. Like a dirty bedroom with one too many soggy pizza boxes festering under the futon, we have trashed our world, and now try to conceal the holes in the walls with posters of rock stars. The thing is, taking responsibility for the cleanup might be a lot more fun than we thought.
Every generation gets handed a challenge, each more daunting than the last. Our grandparents had to fight the World Wars. Our parents had to fight the notion of war as an acceptable idea. The character of a generation, and its place in history, is defined by how well it meets the task, just as the individual is moulded by their personal challenges. That is why I like the old fashioned notion of a test, and why I love the MDGs. Problems this big will forge characters so remarkable that future generations of restless youth will wish they had lived now, in the grip of these crises, just to see how well they would have coped.
Through organizations like the youth council, 23-year-old Firdaus gets to share her experience as a community health worker fighting water bourn diseases in the aftermath of the Pakistan earthquakes, while Maia, 18, tells other how she set up the Friends of the Seven Lakes Foundation to protect a threatened ecosystem in the Philippines. Every single delegate had a success story about their activism, and a business-like approach to getting things done that reminds you more of Richard Branson than it does Martin Luther King. But these kids are a handful of workaholic over-achievers, right? No, they are pretty normal, and most have great fashion sense too. Gen Y is, after all, anyone born after 1985, the year of Live Aid. Activism on the grand scale (and better taste in music) has been soaking into their media-saturated personalities from birth, and exists to be tapped just below that apathetic, hipster veneer.
The problems that the MDGs aim to solve are nobody’s fault, but they are everybody’s responsibility. There is no enemy in this crisis, no country or sect to point the guns at. That’s what makes it such a complex and beautiful problem; it is only ourselves–our trait inertia–that we have to overcome. If we do it, we’ll be the noblest, most heroic generation in history. If we fail, through lack of communal will, were only letting ourselves down. The MDGs have the potential to heal entire continents, securing us a future without perpetual conflict and economic instability.
When you understand the dauntingly comprehensive task before us, to achieve all this in the next five years, you will know what kind of a person you are. Is it all too hard, kid, or is it a chance to build your character?