Our Sustainable Development Goals, Not Your Multiple-Choice Questions

This blog post is based on the author's remarks at the 2016 Winter Youth Assembly at the United Nations held in New York on February 18, 2016.


Photo credit: Ionut Vacar

As I look back on my somewhat non-linear professional trajectory up to this point, I think two factors have most decisively informed my understanding of conflict resolution and peace-building in our current global context. The first factor is my having been on both sides of the arena - namely academia and the policy field. I don't think I would have the same grasp of what it means to build peace without the theoretical training from school, the direct exposure to policy deliberation processes and of course, the knowledge of what happens on the ground. The second factor that has been a huge asset to my career is my having studied and worked in five countries on four continents. More specifically, I have pushed myself to develop this ability to examine one issue simultaneously from two, three, if not more, social, cultural and political perspectives.

The reason why I mention these two factors here today is because the interconnectedness of these seventeen Sustainable Development Goals means that any one goal cannot be fulfilled in isolation. Peace and human rights are not an exception. We in our respective fields, sectors and countries have to genuinely recognize and respect the value of what each other is doing, so that multilateral collaboration and multi-stakeholder partnership will not degenerate into constant, renewed battles over who's right and who's wrong.

There is at least one thing special about Goal 16: Conflict resolution, peace-building and human rights are issue areas where non-state actors can potentially pose the most direct challenge to the state actors' monopoly of the legitimate use of force - which is what helps define a sovereign state in the first place, for now. But from a grander historical perspective, what we are experiencing right now is really part of a transition from an exclusive focus on state security to greater emphasis on human security. As both a cause and an effect of this, political decision-making in our generation's time will become less centralized and hierarchical, and more distributed and networked. Then the question is: Are we ready to assume this collective agency, or as the UNESCO General Assembly Resolution 37 C/57 Article 11(b) urges us, "to act as change agents" in this highly challenging aspect of sustainable development?

Regrettably, the current approach to peace-building still resembles solving an out-of-date multiple-choice question consisting of such options as A) an inefficient focus group, B) a counterproductive task force, and C) doing nothing. These options have been recycled from our parents', if not our grandparents' generation based on a set of rationales that may no longer hold. But what about options that have never been formally put on the table, such as D) a crowdsourcing platform for people from around the world to collectively help resolve conflicts on a real-time basis, E) an app that directly connects victims with peace-builders on the ground, and so forth? More importantly, with the expanded menu of options from A) to Z) we should check all that apply so as to create synergy between these options. This is a task that I believe our generation is particularly equipped for.

Today, almost every instance of inconvenience can trigger instant innovation. There's a perfectly legitimate reason for a new app for almost anything. But somehow the cost of being innovative in solving massive-scale political problems that impact the lives of millions seems so prohibitively high that issues such as conflict resolution and peace-building have become this impenetrable innovation black-hole. As a generation otherwise so tooled-up, up-to-date and ready to make changes, we somehow cringe a little before all things political. When it comes to the meaning of peace-building and what can be done, we seem a little too well-trained working within the system to be thinking about working on it. It's not that we're too cool for this; it's just that we're not quite yet prepared. As if to justify our apathy and ultimately, our fear, we go and make jokes about "world peace." Cynicism does not make us wiser or more capable. The same people scoffing at the idea of making changes at this very moment will likely curse about how those changes never happened decades from now. Don't let them get the best of us.

This post is a part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in partnership with the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation leading up to the 2016 Youth Assembly at the United Nations, a unique platform created to foster dialogue and generate partnerships between youth, private sector, civil society and the United Nations. The winter session will focus on the role of youth in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. To see all posts in the series, click here.