Youth RISE’s summary of the WHO-Civil Society Dialogue on youth participation in planning and decision making processes.

On Friday 2nd October, our Executive Director Ailish Brennan attended the civil society dialogue with World Health Organization Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on the theme “Promoting the health and wellbeing of young people during the COVID-19 pandemic: Leveraging youth engagement in participatory governance”. This dialogue was organized by NCD Child, as part of a series of dialogues between the WHO Director General and Civil Society. These sessions are selected by civil society organisations (CSOs) on a variety of topics of interest for civil society in relation to the COVID-19 response. 

The session was designed to focus on the importance of youth participation in the global COVID-19 response, and highlight opportunities for youth to engage in planning and decision making processes to result in stronger health systems. The session consisted of the range of speakers giving two minute explanations of their work and a Q&A segment at the end. The questions tool that was used required attendees to submit questions in writing, with questions then being selected from the submissions by the Chairperson. This system, while efficient, meant it was easy to avoid difficult questions and making it impossible to ensure your question was being adequately answered, as was the case with questions about the finer details of the new Youth Council the Director General mentioned throughout. To summarise, there was very little tangible discussion about how youth engagement will be improved, and mostly a discussion stating great things that young people are already doing. It was agreed by all speakers that young people should be involved and respected in decision making processes more, but little mention of what is actually being done to make this change happen, and not just actions that make the WHO look good.

The session opened with a speech from the Chairperson of NCD Child, Dr. Marie Hauerslev, in which she stated that young people are being blamed for the spread of COVID-19, and that they are not being consulted or involved in the decision making processes, laying the groundwork for the discussion to come on this topic. The Director General of WHO spoke next, detailing how the many long term effects of the pandemic will be experienced by young people. He recognized that marginalized communities are already being hit the hardest by this pandemic, something that we have noted in previous blogs, about COVID-19’s impact on young people who use drugs. He noted that WHO is working to strengthen links between its local offices and youth representatives to tackle this issue, and that it has created a Youth Council in order to address this. He also stated that WHO is working with youth organizations to increase access to information through social media. Dr. Marie recognized that youth participation is important not only for combating COVID-19, but also for achieving Universal Health Coverage and ‘Leaving no one behind’ as the Sustainable Development Goals promise. 

When it came time for CSOs to engage in the dialogue, issues that are being experienced in regards to and that affect youth were raised, with Apoorva Gomber, a youth leader in the International Diabetes Federation noting that economic setbacks because of the pandemic are forcing families into dangerous situations. Dr. Marian Sedlak, a Junior Doctor, noted how important it is for youth volunteers and early career professionals to uphold the crumbling health systems, but that they are being exploited and underpaid. Omnia El Omrani, a Liason for Public Health in Egypt, pointed out that we need to enable youth to share best practices for youth engagement and relay the needs of the communities they work with. Important facts were pointed out by Chantelle Booysen (representative from Global Mental Health Peer Network) and Julius Kramer, that young people are essential to addressing issues worldwide as they are very responsive to changes, and that we need to lose the narrative that young people are reckless.

The sessions focus then turned back to what the WHO is doing to ‘improve’ youth engagement, with the Director General proudly stating that they started paying their interns as of a year ago, something that is already expected of a multinational organization based in Geneva and not really an action that demonstrates WHOs attempts to ‘improve’ youth engagement. He also tried to push the narrative that fighting and blaming each other takes the focus away from fighting the virus, a narrative that seems like an attempt to hush the voices that challenge the status quo of youth engagement.  Another point of frustration was during the Q&A section, when the Director General said that countries themselves need to choose to put young people on their national delegations, diverting the responsibility to the countries and not making it a requirement for nations participation, as a requirement from the higher level and power that is the WHO. This issue of placing responsibility on the national governments was raised later by a panelist, and it was noted that young people shouldn’t just be put at the table, but instead we need to redefine the table, and move away from conservative and old structures of governance and decision making processes. 

Youth RISE demands that the WHO and other multinational organizations fully take on the responsibility of ensuring adequate and accessible youth engagement in decision making processes. We also demand the WHO match the efforts that youth put in to improving the lives of people in their communities through funding and support. While dialogues like this are good and should not be undervalued, there is much more to be done than just hosting dialogues, and we need to see the issues raised being addressed and youth being fully involved in shaping their future.