Written by Isaac Olushola (Global Fund Project Manager) | isaac@youthrise.org

Young people are currently a demographic representing the largest generation in history—1.8 billion young people. There is an urgent need to include our voices in critical policy-shaping forums such as the United Nations Civil Society Conference. 

May 9-10, 2024 (Nairobi, Kenya) – last month, I had the incredible opportunity to attend the United Nations Civil Society Conference in support of the Summit of the Future at the UN Office in Nairobi. Representing Youth RISE, the Paradigma Coalition, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy International, I contributed to setting up an impactful exhibition on drug policy, participated in various sessions, and was involved with the Future of Drug Policy ImPACT Coalition.

The United Nations Civil Society Conference is an annual event that brings together civil society organizations, UN agencies, diplomats, and other stakeholders from around the world. This year’s conference welcomed over 2,158 participants from 115 nationalities, making it a diverse and dynamic platform for dialogue and advocacy. The conference focused on key issues such as sustainable development, peace and security, digital technology, youth engagement, and transforming global governance, emphasizing the importance of intergenerational cooperation and collective action.

One of the highlights of my participation was collaborating with the Paradigma Coalition and Youth RISE colleagues Ruby Lawlor and Rebeca Marques Rocha to present our exhibition titled “We Need to Talk About Drug Policy.” This exhibition showcased the stories of young people globally who face punitive measures due to drug use, highlighting the challenges and opportunities in drug policy reform. The positive feedback and meaningful conversations generated by our exhibition underlined the importance and the need to end the war on drugs.

A Call for Inclusive Drug Policy Reform at the United Nations Civil Society Conference

Additionally, I attended various sessions, including a UNODC session on organized crime. In this session, we discussed the need for collaborative measures to tackle organized crime and emphasized a public health approach to substance use. I was part of the Future of Drug Policy ImPACT Coalition session, organized by the Vienna NGO Committee on Drugs, discussing recommendations from the Global Civil Society report and strategies for engaging member states and other stakeholders. Being nominated as the rapporteur for my group, I documented key points and presented our recommendations, which was a rewarding experience. My recommendation emphasized the need for inclusivity and youth engagement. Which means including young people who use drugs in all stages of the policy cycle. This engagement must not be tokenistic, and youth should be adequately compensated and supported for their time and expertise during such processes, and the results of their engagement must be made explicitly clear to them.

A quote from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stood out to me during the event: “Civil society is an essential bridge between people and their representatives – part of the glue that holds democracies together.” This quote highlights the vital role of civil society in shaping inclusive and representative policies, reinforcing the importance of our work.

A Call for Inclusive Drug Policy Reform at the United Nations Civil Society Conference

Reflecting on the conference, the main takeaways included the importance of multi-sectoral collaboration, the need for a public health approach to substance use, and the value of meaningful youth engagement in policy-making processes. The innovative and inclusive approaches discussed at the conference are essential to addressing the complex challenges we face today. The Future of Drug Policy Impact Coalition aims to continue these efforts, prioritizing specific recommendations and policy actions.

In conclusion, attending the United Nations Civil Society Conference was a significant step forward in advocating for youth engagement, drug policy reform and harm reduction strategy as a public health response to the drug ‘problem’. I am grateful for the support from the Vienna Non-governmental Organization Committee who funded my trip, my colleagues at Youth RISE, and all the participants and partners who contributed to this event. This conference is part of a broader, growing movement to promote health, human rights, and social justice for all.