Engaging Young People in UK Foreign Policy

In our increasingly globalised and diverse society, young people’s voices across the UK often go unheard in foreign policy spaces, even as the challenges we face increasingly require new and innovative solutions.

Across the world, our allies and rivals alike are recognising the power, energy and creativity young people bring to spaces which so desperately need it. Indeed, the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates, European Union, Canada and more all now have structured mechanisms to allow young people to meaningfully engage with their Ministry of Foreign Affairs on international challenges. The UK, however, sits at the opposite side of this spectrum. Our UN Youth Delegate Programme was silently cut in 2016, and young people with an interest in the future of Britain have little-to-no means to have their voices heard outside of those available to the public. This has been compounded by the closing of the British Youth Council which provided a vital means of input for UK youth to international dialogues. And while some efforts have been made, recent Government strategies, such as the UK Government’s International Development White Paper, do not go far enough in providing for the meaningful engagement of young people in policy solutions to global development challenges.[1]

As domestic and foreign policy become more intertwined, national action has a growing impact on the UK’s position in the world. Whether it be on climate change or championing the rights of women and girls – young people are doing the grassroots work to uplift and empower communities who need it most. Through localised efforts and action, young people across the UK are implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a key cornerstone of the UK’s international development objectives. For example, Youth Stop AIDS, a UK based youth-led movement is empowering young is spreading awareness and successfully campaigning to end AIDS by 2030, in line with SDG 3, by de-stigmatising AIDS in communities up and down the country. Likewise, the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC) is empowering young people to achieve global climate justice through capacity building and policy formulation. In an age where the distinction between borders is becoming even more blurred, and information can reach anyone around the world within seconds, there is more need (and value) than ever in harnessing young people’s energy in meeting our international ambitions.

Young people across the UK have shown time and time again that they’re willing to act on the issues that matter to them and affect us all. Young people have increasingly recognised the disconnect between what our government professes on the world stage and what it does at home – such as the Safety of Rwanda Act 2024, which the UNHCR says breaches the Refugee Convention (to which the UK is a signatory). This has been true for decades, and on both sides of the political divide. But it’s clear that on issues such as climate change and development, young people want the UK to authentically be able to lead on the world stage. But significant gaps remain between interest and engagement – indeed, while 73% of 18-25-year-olds are interested in foreign policy, only 44% feel informed. Closing this gap between decision-makers and British youth should be a priority for the government to build a more sustainable and future-focused foreign policy.

Crucially, engagement does not just mean opinion sharing or giving an ad hoc platform to a young person on certain issues. Youth councils and consultations exist but suffer from tokenism and are rarely properly considered in the decision-making process. Therefore, structured mechanisms need to be established to allow for people from the UK, and across the world, to substantively contribute to policy discussions and formulation. The re-establishment of the UK’s UN Youth Delegate programme would be a welcome first step in this direction. At the same time, we should place a renewed emphasis on global citizenship and political education, to bridge the gap between young people and the world. Without proper education opportunities and exposure, young voices are less equipped to equally engage in discussion or advocate for informed policy decisions. Increasing the amount of political education in our domestic education system is, consequently, a must.

Ultimately, putting young people at the forefront of foreign policy decision-making gives the UK a fighting chance to navigate global challenges more adeptly and ensure that policies which are made in their name are truly reflective of their needs and aspirations.

[1] Meaningful engagement means the provision of capacity building, inclusive and open consultation in policymaking, and formal mechanisms for youth participation in policy discussions (i.e., a UN Youth Delegate Programme)

Aryan Sanghrajka

Aryan Sanghrajka is an Associate Fellow at BFPG