THE BLOG

Making Room For Youth Voices On The Policy Stage

29/09/2017 15:00 BST | Updated 29/09/2017 15:01 BST

"Well, it hasn't been done before. So obviously, it won't work."

When I was fifteen, I contacted an eminent scientist to ask for his opinion on a project two classmates and I were working on, to adapt the natural microbiological process by which pea plants take in nitrogen from the air and enhance growth. Having learnt about the famine gripping the Horn of Africa, the question we had was: could this work for cereal crops to help tackle food insecurity?

Apparently not, according to the scientist who sent me the blunt one-line response above. But he was wrong - and our journey to proving this took us from a spare bedroom in Kinsale, Ireland, all the way to Silicon Valley, where we won the Google Science Fair and were named to TIME's list of the most influential teens. Since then I've been appointed as a UN Global Youth Leader on the topic of ending hunger, participated in the UNLEASH global conference on innovating for a better world, and am one of 100 young food security advocates headed to the Youth Agricultural Summit in October.

If I'd listened to that scientist who wouldn't take me seriously, none of this would have been possible. And this got me thinking: how many great ideas and innovations are we missing out on because we don't value young people's contributions?

When it comes to policymaking, young voices are often dismissed. Ideas aren't judged on their merit; they're judged on who they come from. And if you happen to be younger, your contributions are often assumed to be of little to no value. Yet there are particular topics where we all have a vested interest in the kind of creative, out-there, and often seemingly crazy ideas that young people can have; the kind that might just work.

Take food security, for instance. For those of us living in developed countries, this might seem like an abstract concept. I remember once trying to explain my project to a student the same age as me, and being met with a blank face: "what food crisis?" But food security affects us all, wherever we are. The global population is set to hit almost 10 billion by 2050, yet natural resources and crop yields are shrinking. We must act now to prevent future hunger.

My generation has a lot to contribute in this regard. In today's world, activism starts at a young age - and it often starts online. From snapping an Instagram selfie celebrating the UN SDGs, to striking up a Twitter conversation with an international policymaker, technology has become a means for young people to engage directly with issues that matter to them, often at a highly-visible level.

Yet it's important that efforts to include young people in policy conversations are genuine, and more than just a token gesture. There's nothing worse than attending a conference ostensibly about 'youth', only to find that all the young people are in the audience being lectured at by far older panel speakers. Youth-focused spaces and discussions are a training ground for future policy engagement, allowing us to then move onwards and upwards.

That blunt email response sparked my accidental activism on this topic. But I'd love for a day to come when it's no longer necessary; when policymakers taking decisions which will impact the next generation ask for our input by default, and take our contributions seriously. So many of us are raring for the chance to see our ideas translated into real, tangible policies. Give us a seat at the table, and we'll show you what we're made of.