In 2015, world leaders attending the United Nations General Assembly agreed to 17 goals for a better world. Known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the aim is to meet these objectives by the year 2030 in a bid to end poverty, achieve gender equality, ensure access to quality education, promote economic growth and do much more.
Today, there are 1.2 billion people aged 15 to 24 years, making up 16% of the world population. So, to achieve the SDGs, countries around the world probably need the support of young people. The youth can build on their creativity, dynamism and talents to make the world a better place to live and to tackle the challenges faced by the international community.
Young people would benefit from the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, as the SDGs are officially known as. However, they are also active contributors in the development of the goals. The engagement of young people in sustainable development efforts is pivotal to achieving inclusive and stable societies.
Africa’s Mixed Record on Keeping Up With UN Goals
In September 2016, the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth introduced the first class of the Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals. Their mission is to advocate for the UN SDGs, promote creative ways of engaging youth in fulfilling the goals and working with different UN departments toward accomplishing the 2030 Agenda.
Kristeena Monteith, a young Jamaican, was one of the UN’s Young Leaders of the Sustainable Development Goals for 2018. She is also the creative producer of the Talk Up Radio show run by young people and broadcast nationally in Jamaica.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Monteith about the role of young people in the realization of the SDGs, the challenges ahead of democratic institutions and the media portrayal of youths.
The transcript has been edited for clarity. This interview took place in 2019 at the 3rd International Youth Forum on Creativity and Heritage along the Silk Roads in Changsha, China.
Kourosh Ziabari: What skills and abilities do you think young people need in order to be able to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals?
Kristeena Monteith: We need to develop a sort of social awareness of the issues affecting the world. I feel like sometimes we are, even in our own societies, unaware of what is affecting the people, but then on a global level, we’re even less aware of the different issues.
So, first of all, develop an appreciation for the fact that people deserve dignity, people deserve a level of quality of life right across the board — regardless of whether they are or they’re not like you — and then from there, you can start to really invest in understanding what exactly these people need. So, one thing that the Sustainable Development Goals give you is a framework within which to understand what quality of life could mean to people right across the board — whether it’s access to health services, access to quality education, or whether it’s on a bigger policy level being able to support themselves and their families and having financial stability in their countries.
All of these things matter because we’re trying to build a world where people feel comfortable, [and] feel like they can live to their best ability. So, once you pass the cultural understanding, then you need to be able to leverage your own skills, whether that is your writing or your talent as a business person. It’s about turning the things that interest you and the things that you are innately passionate about into putting them at the service of the world on a larger scale.
So, whatever skills it is, it doesn’t matter what exactly your skills are. It’s about framing a way to turn that into helping to build a more equal society and a world where everybody has the potential to live fully.
Ziabari: What organizations or entities do you think are responsible for giving young people these skills and capabilities in order to be able to work for the SDGs?
Monteith: That’s actually a very important question because you [need] to have support for developing this sort of mindset at every single level. So, every major institution in a young person’s life — whether it’s their family, school, church or religious institution — as you go along each and every one of these institutions, must have a sort of mindset of what we’re doing. [That is] building a better, more equal world for everyone. And so each and every one of them will put their power into different people from the standpoint of trying to embrace them and trying to help them to understand what skills they need to develop to contribute.
So, if it’s a multi-sectoral, multi-angle interest in creating that sort of sustainable future, then that’s where you’ll get the sustainability from because all of us are working towards a joint goal. So, at every single level, every stakeholder, every business, every church, every mosque, every synagogue, each and every one of us has to achieve if not all of the goals, [then] at least one you feel passionately about. Understanding how they interrelate with the other ones is all people really need to support young people along that journey.
Ziabari: Do you think that governments, especially in developing countries, are properly listening to young people and addressing their concerns on employment, education, social justice, health and wellbeing, equality and other similar concerns?
Monteith: I think there are some governments that are trying. I know for a fact that the government of Jamaica is trying. They’re trying to listen, they’re trying to balance this really politically diverse and complicated world that we live in and the region that we are in — with the global superpower, the USA — and the fact that we need money from China to build and to improve infrastructure. So, there’s a lot of tension going on.
Then, you have to balance that with being a sovereign nation, having to put your citizens just at the forefront of what you do. And so, you have very complex geopolitical issues that are playing out, and within that, you have a growing world population of young people who don’t necessarily know how they fit in the process of how much our issues should be prioritized — how much the things that we want and we need in order to live fully and to participate should be prioritized.
And I think a lot of times, governments don’t recognize the power of the youth voice. If you’re building sustainability, the people who are going to be here [the] longest are the youth. So, you have to find ways to incorporate them into what you’re doing and to also facilitate them in developing a voice that, first of all, they can support you and your agenda. Because if you want sustainability, if you want longevity, if you want to produce policy that outlasts your administration, you have to invest in young people. That’s the only way to do that.
Ziabari: Right, that’s interesting. You are a  young leader for the Sustainable Development Goals and have worked closely with different international organizations. Do you think the United Nations specifically as well as other international bodies are doing enough to make sure that the voices of the young people are heard? Can you give us examples?
Monteith: Well, I think with the UN at the moment, from what I’m seeing from my perspective, there’s a lot of capacity-building happening. So, they’re creating pathways for meaningful interaction. You have the SDG Young Leaders, you have Generation Unlimited, and they’re creating these pathways where empowered young people who are creative and passionate can have that sort of platform from which they can launch projects and they can call upon other young people in their societies.
But on the other hand, I feel like they have a very massive platform, and there are some ways in which it could be utilized even to a greater extent, whether it’s beyond just the SDGs or the UN youth strategy. I think we need to send a greater message to governments [and] to businesses of the power of the youth voice.
And we have a youth envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, whose platform is very important, She is in direct touch with the UN secretary-general, and I know she uses her platform very well. But I would love to see more than one UN youth envoy. I mean, she has a very much a global perspective [and] she has a whole team behind her informing her, but this is still one young person out of the population.
Then you look at the head of the UN and the heads of the UN [agencies]. They are always, without fail, very old people, and right across the board it’s always the case. And I know with age comes experience and they’ve built long careers of long service and very good service, but I feel like as we go along the lines, we have to be pulling young people up with us and helping them to develop capacity.
So, you need to see more visibility of young people at the decision-making levels at the top of some of these UN boards. I think it would send a greater message if we saw more young people there.
Ziabari: Please tell us more about your work on Talk Up Radio. I know you offer opportunities to young people to have conversations with governments, leaders and authorities and ask them questions. How have been the reactions on both sides? Have these conversations generated concrete results, including changes in government policies?
Monteith: What we’re trying to do is to bring government leaders and young people together in more tangible ways, beyond just voting. We need to create more avenues so young people can make their voice heard and also to access accurate, youth-friendly political information. Because as [I said] throughout the  International Youth Forum on Creativity and Heritage along the Silk Roads in China, a lot of the times, communication that [comes] from the government is hugely in legal and political speak, and we don’t speak like that and don’t understand that language.
So, we’ve been trying to bridge that sort of gap, but also, we’ve been trying to get politicians to use social media more often to be more accessible on a one-to-one basis. So, even on Talk Up Radio, when we bring the ministers of government into the studio to talk to young people, it’s not just the four or five young people in the room. Usually, for the two weeks leading up to that event, we’ll be putting up calls on social media for young people to send in questions via WhatsApp, via Facebook, etc. So that we have a body of questions that have come from all over the island, and then we pose those questions in the room to the minister.
Change at the political level is often a very long process. It’s never just, OK, this is a very good solution and let’s get it into parliament right now. Oftentimes, it has to be vetted and investigated and there needs to be some academic backing to it. But what we’ve seen is that, especially in the case of one minister in particular — i.e., the minister of health in Jamaica — he has changed his language in some sense in how he approaches issues. So since we spoke to him about issues like period poverty, we’ve seen period poverty enter the political landscape as a term.
And then you’ve heard from business leaders and people in society saying that they’re going to develop solutions to this — even from across the other parliamentary body, the PNP [People’s National Party], that’s the other party. They’ve actually different ministers and different opposition leaders that have come up with ideas as well. So, it’s that kind of change that we’re noticing where once an idea gets to the mainstream, then more people start to engage with it.
And I feel even that is a level of success. Obviously, we would love to see more tangible results, but we have to admit that political change is a very long process. And we’re hoping that as we go along and a new budget is stabled and new discussions are being held, these things would also come up and from this forum [in 2019]. I’m hoping to go back and have a conversation of that kind with the minister of culture, trying to get her into the studio to actually talk to young people about issues that were raised, like cultural preservation, incorporating young people and their energies and their creativity into cultural practice in a more tangible way. So, we would push the issue beyond, whether or not they bring it up.
Ziabari: Let’s get back to the SDGs. You may admit that the Sustainable Development Goals are not a priority for some or many governments, especially those with less-democratic and more repressive regimes. How do you think these countries should be involved in efforts to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals and make it a priority for the benefit of their own people?
Monteith: Well, you know, it’s a very complex, political situation because even as we [go] along, we recognize that nations are sovereign — they have all rights over what they do within their borders. Even if what they do will have negative repercussions for the globe, we still cannot impose our will on them. So, the best thing to do is really to sensitize the people of that country to what the SDGs are and why they’re important, and [then] hope that you can spark behavioral change. There is a level of respect and diplomacy that has to be maintained as we go along because we have to recognize state powers [as] that’s what they are. They were elected by the people — [though] sometimes not. But within those borders, we don’t really have jurisdiction over how the government behaves.
So, with people, you can reach out heart to heart, mind to mind and change them or sensitize them, give them the information in order to put pressure on their own government, and in that sense, you do empower them politically to advocate for the things that they want. Because if they see that the SDGs are important and their government doesn’t, it’s upon them now to rise upon perhaps and elect another government or to reach out to the world for help in more tangible ways.
There are structures in place, for example, when coups are happening or when countries are calling for liberation or that kind of thing. There are policies in place across the UN, across different bodies in order to support such movements. But especially in regimes that are less democratic, I feel like the real change will have to come from the people. They will have to be the ones that will lead it because we literally cannot impose any sort of power on them. So, it will have to come from the people.
Ziabari: What do you think, as a young leader, can be done to help young people affected by war and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa to regain their confidence, reassert their identity and become proactive, involved members of their societies, especially if they are suffering from trauma and distress?
Monteith: I have two ideas about this. First of all, I come from a small country in the Caribbean, and I see that we do not have any clue — especially the young people — about many things, including what’s happening in these regions because we’re so far removed and it’s so different from our reality that it almost doesn’t make sense to us. So, the first thing I think we need to do is to ensure that information is flowing from these areas and is accessible to youth.
Young people in Jamaica need to understand what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Lebanon, what’s happening in Egypt, what’s happening in Libya. We need to be aware of that because we’re global citizens. No longer [do] our people [live] in one area for their entire lives, and [no longer do] issues that are happening elsewhere [not] affect them. Increased migration to Europe comes with restrictions for who else can go there.
So, these issues will affect us, as these governments in Europe have to spend more on accommodating people from these areas, and they’ll have less in terms of international aid to send to our country. We need to understand the connections in terms of what’s happening and that issues happening in one place are not necessarily divorced from what we will experience in our place.
Let’s be honest: Anybody can enter war at any time. Conflict does not take much to kick off — it really is something that’s fragile. Peace is fragile. Peace has to be worked on constantly and being able to understand the issues that lead to the rise of certain instabilities in certain areas can only help us to make our own democracy safer and stronger.
But on another level, I think we need to be able to support people from these regions in telling their own stories. They need to be the ones that are leading how these stories are told, and we need to hear their authentic voices at the UN. At every level, we need to make space for them.
In our organizations, we have SDG young leaders who are from the Middle East. We need to ensure that we have that voice there so that we’re not getting an outside interpretation of the issue — so we’re getting the actual, accurate depiction from within. And I think that’s how you bridge the gap [and] that’s how you create the change that can be lasting.
Ziabari: Do you think the media are doing a good job when it comes to relaying information from the Middle East, North Africa, this part of world to the other parts of the planet and are making people aware of the realities of the region? Or do you think the coverage is distorted and is not helpful for young people across the world to understand what’s happening in conflict zones?
Monteith: In general, I think Western media are not paying enough attention to what I said before, which is to give people opportunities to tell their own stories. So, I think we have one understanding of how politics flows and we don’t necessarily give these people the opportunity to speak for themselves. So, even on Talk Up Radio, we’ve interviewed young people from Egypt, from Lebanon and what we did was just give them the opportunity to speak and tell their own stories and to interpret the conflicts and what’s happening from their own perspective.
So, in Western media, I don’t think we do a good enough job of doing that, and I don’t think we understand the importance of doing that. I remember being at a journalism conference in 2015, and the issue raised with the heads of CNN and BBC was that the news from outside of the dominant north tends to be one-sided — we only get reported on when we’re in conflict. We only get reported on when there are massacres and people are dying and there are natural disasters. I never hear in the news that Jamaica is doing financially well or something good has happened. I imagine that the same thing happens to different areas around the world, whether it’s the Middle East or Africa, for example, especially sub-Saharan Africa.
The media has an opportunity to set an agenda in terms of how people understand issues. When you don’t see something in the media, you tend to not think it’s important. I’m not seeing enough coverage of the aftermath of the Arab Spring, [and] I’m not seeing enough coverage of what’s happening right now on the ground and how people are feeling. The only place to get that information is [to] form our independent media, and you have to seek those sources because they don’t ascend to the mainstream. So, if you’re not, for example, a journalist, you might not be really interested in going to look for that information. And I think with social media, we do have some opportunities to do that, but I know it doesn’t have the same power — it doesn’t have the same reach or the same legitimacy as mainstream media.
Mainstream journalists have to do a better job, whether it’s bringing people from these areas into the actual platforms that they own or even going there and giving [the people] the voice. We have to do better.
Ziabari: There are many stereotypes and cliches attached to different cultures and countries, and there are many people who buy into such narratives. What do you think young people can do to bridge the gaps between cultures and civilizations, debunk the myths and make sure that stereotypes do not prevail?
Monteith: Let’s speak from my Jamaican perspective. We know what the world has said about us. We know how we’re perceived in a lot of places. I mean, governments make it quite clear in whether or not they give us visa-free access or how we’re treated in airports or the ways in which the media and movies and music depict us. To be honest, we do have a generally positive perception of our own world as fun and creative people, but there are some political issues to do with violence in our country and biased ways we’re perceived, and we have to counteract that with our own knowledge of who we are and being confident in who we are as we go throughout the world.
And so you will find Jamaicans living in every single country you go to because we’re not afraid to venture beyond our borders and represent ourselves as a sovereign nation of power and history and legacy. But beyond that, we also have to advocate at every single level for the reassertion of our power as a country. It’s not enough for governments to simply be biased in how they deal with us or for media to be biased in how they treat us and for us to say nothing about it. No! Jamaicans will always be calling out when there’s been negative portrayals of us in media.
We have to actively fight that perception. So as young people in different regions, I think yes, you can use social media and put out a more nuanced, more accurate version of who you are as a people and your culture and your country. But when there has been negativity, when it’s been maligned by people, you have to call that out. You have to speak truth to power at every level. So do both: Try to reassert a positive image and be confident in who you are, but also when there’s negative and when there’s a slant, call it out, talk about it and really say to these media organizations that no, you’re doing a disservice to my culture when you do this.
Ziabari: Racism and racial discrimination are plagues that are affecting many modern societies currently. Can you think of practical ways to combat racism, and do you think there’s anything that young people can do in this fight?
Monteith: First of all, we have to understand racism. I think too often, racism is reduced to discrimination, it’s reduced to prejudice and it’s reduced to micro-aggressions. While those things are bad, they’re not necessarily racism. Racism is a system, it’s a structure, it’s an ideology. It’s a huge undertaking that is across societies, that is bigger than individual nations and it’s asserted in policy. It’s asserted in how we interrelate as countries. It’s asserted in this sort of hierarchy that we have with Europe at the top and Africa at the bottom. It’s asserted with white people, light-skinned people being portrayed in positive ways and then the darker you get, the worse off you are in every single society.
When I look at Myanmar and I look at the Rohingya people, they are darker-skinned a lot of the time. When I look across the world, wherever you go, you have dark-skinned people. They tend to be at the bottom of the totem pole. And I need for countries that may not necessarily have black people per se to understand how they are perpetuating racism when they create this class division between the lighter-skinned people, the fair-skinned people in their societies and the darker ones. The same thing happens in India — the same thing happens in a number of countries around the world. So, we have to understand the global flow of racism and the ways that we perpetuate it. To practically fight it, they are a number of ways.
One, you have to think about media representation of people of darker skin. Too often we are villains. Too often we are stupid. Too often we have no agency, no power. Too often our countries are portrayed in ways that do not give us any agency and so you perpetuate racism, you perpetuate human indignity when you do that. We have to make it very apparent that these things are very violent. You know, when you portray people this way, you’re not just hurting their feelings, you’re doing actual violence against them — you’re sanctioning their murder sometimes. You have to do better. We have to call it what it is. Because a lot of times, we’re not talking enough about it and we’re not doing enough about it. We are brushing it under the rug.
And we need to do that on a larger scale. So, when companies have poor advertising campaigns, the backlash has to go beyond social media opprobrium. It has to go into them actually losing money because we as people stand for something greater than commercialism. We’re not going to support your business if you’re portraying black people and people of color in a bad way. We’re not going to patronize you at all. We’re not going to do anything with you because that kind of value is completely against what we stand for. So, we have to make a great stand in what we do. Sometimes, we talk a big game but we don’t actually take proper actions. And as young people, we have to do that because we are one of the largest economic blocs. We pay for a lot of things, we buy a lot of things. So, we have power in commercialism in that sense.
Ziabari: And a final question: We live in the age of social media and super-quick connections online. How can young people use these platforms to promote peace, understanding and intercultural dialogue?
Monteith: Talk to each other, first of all. Forums of this nature [the International Youth Forum] are very unique in that we meet a lot of people from a lot of different countries and then we get to add each other on Facebook and on Instagram, and so we get to understand how each person perceives their own nation and the issues that are happening. So, we need to take up the mandate of investigating what’s happening in these countries and consuming media from these countries in more tangible ways.
Young people have the opportunity to even see, very literally, what’s happening in different countries right away. If you go on Instagram and if you search the hashtag for Kingston, you’ll see our culture, you’ll see our national heritage, you’ll see our natural environment, you’ll get a real perception of who we are. And that helps to break some of the barriers. That helps to break some of the stereotypes. So, we need to do that on a greater scale.
I feel like more of us need to understand the importance of international solidarity, of understanding what it means to be a global citizen, of understanding the fact that our countries are not far apart, they’re not so divorced from each other in terms of issues.
So, as we use social media to access that kind of content, we have to really internalize it as a way of living where we look at each other and we don’t see somebody from a foreign country who means nothing to me. We see people and we understand that the same wishes and wants, interests and passions that we have, those people have their own as well. Those people are experiencing a life in very similar ways sometimes. You know, they have similar passions, and as long as we can relate on a human-to-human level through social media, I think we’ll be slowly moving in the right direction.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.