Authors: The participants of the 16 x 16 Initiative & Nöella Richard, Youth empowerment team lead (global) & Maria Stage, Programme Analyst, BPPS, GPN, United Nations Development Programme.

Young people are projected to experience disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. This trend aggravates the interlocked forms of discrimination they already face around the world.

The pandemic has however not stopped young people from leading for positive change. The 16 x 16 Initiative, by UNDP’s Youth Global Programme on Sustainable Development and Peace, partners with young leaders of organizations, movements and networks in 16 countries who are advancing Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16). Their first-hand expertise and experience as peacebuilders, development practitioners, human rights defenders and activists illustrate the creativity and agency of young people and their role in advancing peace, justice and inclusion.

This piece, written together with the 16 x 16 participants, shows how young people have had to adapt their diverse activities and juggle the impacts of the pandemic upon themselves and their societies. It provides examples of youth-led actions and is an invitation to all practitioners and decision-makers to invest more deliberately in young people as agents of change for COVID-19 recovery and a more equitable and inclusive future.

Wevyn co-initiated ‘Mutual Aid Kenya’, a network of 90 young volunteers, that has provided aid to 1600 vulnerable people and does crowd funding, raises awareness, and gives voice to the people. Credit: Modan Photography.

As the United Nations Secretary-General appeals for global ceasefire to collectively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, young people take action to promote peace and reduce violence in communities. When Lynrose heard reports of a COVID-19 related protest escalating into violence in Manila, Philippines, she activated her network, Young Women for Peace and Leadership Philippines, and worked together with partners on a statement advocating for peace, calling for fact-checking and responsibility. Sihem, as part of Young Leaders Entrepreneurs in Tunisia, organized a PEACEATHON, offering online youth dialogue spaces and solutions for women’s empowerment in peace and security, in the context of the She Builds Peace Campaign. In response to rising domestic and gender-based violence in the context of the pandemic, Rene and Helping Honduras, in collaboration with other entities, mobilized in leading awareness-raising campaigns on social media platforms.

The social media campaign by Young Women Leaders for Peace-Philippines express gratitude to frontliners through messages of hope. Credit: YWLP-P

For the COVID-19 response to be effective, the whole-of-society must participate. Open, transparent and accountable responses enable participation (UN April 2020), and young people often lead the way. Through the National Anticorruption Alliance and the Youth and Society organization in Malawi, Charles is pushing for accountability and transparency of resources directed towards COVID-19 response, tracking funds dispersed to local governments and promoting the requirements on public procurement through media and among development partners. Jagdish and the Association of Youth Organizations of Nepal mobilized young people in more than half of Nepal’s districts, supporting a public appeal for transparency in the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In situations of lockdown, and as young people often have to isolate, youth wellbeing and mental health is a real concern (UN March 2020). In response to that, many youth organizations use online tools for peer-to-peer support. For instance, Dalia and Youth United in Action Venezuela hosted a virtual awareness campaign and weekly sessions with young people on stress and anxiety management.

Young people particularly contribute to leaving no one behind, the central principle of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. They show the role that young women and men play in shaping inclusive responses in crisis situations. Wevyn, as part of the frontline response with Mutual Aid Kenya, brings voices of the most vulnerable communities to the government. She collects information when delivering relief and aid, and has submitted a Memorandum to the Senate, with recommendations, based on consultations with 200 people, on how to respond to people’s needs and aspirations. Alice analyzed the government’s COVID-19 response, in her capacity as rapporteur to the CSO Working Group on SDGs, and contributed to formulating proposals for leaving no one behind in Togo.

Elisha and Act It Network are working with the Ministry of Education in Fiji to implement an e-Tutor project through which young people volunteer to assist primary and high school students during school closures. Credit: Act It Network

An ‘infodemic’ poses a challenge to an effective COVID-19 response (WHO 2020). Youth organizations provide helpful access to information and fight disinformation/misinformation by communicating reliable facts in local languages and leading campaigns. For example, through Youth Advocates Ghana, Emmanuel has joined the COVID-19 Youth Action Network, raising awareness and sensitizing vulnerable groups and marginalized communities.

These are just some examples of the inspiring work initiated by young leaders. Their actions in the context of COVID-19, often with very little support and in complex contexts, are a testament to youth abilities and power across the world. Let’s work together to ensure recovery truly lead us towards a more sustainable, inclusive, peaceful and resilient future.




Guided by the 2030 Agenda, UNDP promotes youth empowerment in 100+ countries and supports 80+ initiatives with youth in the context of the COVID-19 response (including as part of the UN socio-economic response) and contributes to the implementation of the UN Youth Strategy and UN Security Council Resolutions 2250 (2015) and 2419 (2018) on youth, peace and security. Learn more about the 16 x 16 initiative; the 16 x 16 blog series; the ‘Rome Youth Call-To-Action on SDG 16’; and UNDP’s COVID-19 response.