It is a strange feeling, the sense of being present, yet absent. Watching, only listening, from afar. Being there, but not being involved.
On most levels, it is also understandable. Youth wrestle with passion and a gradual awareness of the complexity of international politics. When we reach a certain intellectual maturity, we become, in many ways, shocked. The stark realities of which we were so blissfully unaware of until only recently unveil themselves.
We start by following the news, watching documentaries, reading The End of Poverty - and it hits us: the gross injustices, the hunger, the conflict, climate change. And then we ask why.
I see youth's response to these issues as a resounding testament of our innate goodness as a species. Confronted with these issues for the first time, and with no previous experience, we respond with passion. We fight, protest, and make our voices heard. We read more, discuss more, and learn more. Funds are raised, local rallies are organized, and our governments are petitioned. We become part of a wider movement. Inspiration follows. A lucky few make it to high-level dialogues and United Nations events.
Loaded with awareness and the best of intentions, we march into these events ready to fire our energy into and kick-start the process.
'Disappointment' isn't the right word to describe what happens next. It's more nuanced, nudging closer to Schadenfreude. First, the sheer eminence of the surroundings hits us. Grand buildings, and grander celebrities still - for our list of celebrities has now grown to include Prime Ministers, Nobel Laureates, and advocates. Make way, Miley Cyrus - hello, Malala! Our excitement builds. This is the United Nations. This is the General Assembly. That is the Pope speaking, putting all that we believe in into brilliant words. This has been the kingdom of international and political giants for the past 70 years.
Slowly, cracks begin to emerge in the walls surrounding the kingdom. The legal and political complexity becomes clear. National and vested interests loudly make themselves heard. People aren't as receptive to listen to us. The realization that change requires more than just good intentions looms over us.
Many call this process 'growing up'. It was Winston Churchill, after all, who quipped that everyone starts off as a socialist, but ends as a capitalist. But I think the picture I have painted is defeatist. The emphasis on where youth can be involved needs to be different.
Youth will not have an equal role in negotiating the next climate agreement or the next SDGs. Like a new medical student would never be in charge of a surgery, youth will never be responsible for making international law.
This does not mean youth should be exiled to the back seat. Instead, the focus should be on how we can empower youth and take advantage of their unique skills.
Take the recently-adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as an example. The point is not to give youth equal negotiating rights over the 169 technical indicators. The point should be to develop ways of supporting youth to achieve them.
This is where the international system can take meaningful steps forward. Giving Malala two minutes to address the General Assembly is not involving youth in the post-2015 agenda. Creating a global funding tool for local youth initiatives on the SDGs is.
This might be a harsh assessment of the situation. There are many UN or national youth initiatives. There are agencies and offices devoted to youth. They do great work. To me, the problem lies in them being disparate pieces. If you are young and have an enterprise idea promoting an SDG, where do you go? A global tool linking new projects with existing ones, and connecting bright ideas with funding possibilities, wouldn't be hard to do. A Facebook or Wikipedia of SDG youth initiatives of sorts.
Building and financing such a community is exactly what a global institution like the UN is poised to do. It's only one example. The ceremonies and proceedings are memorable for those of us lucky to experience them. But we shouldn't convince ourselves that this is a genuine step towards integrating youth in the post-2015 era. Let's find ways to harness youth's unique creativity and energy to achieve the SDGs.
Tim Dobermann is the Project Lead for Research. All opinions expressed on the blog are that of the author and not of SDSN Youth.