In early June, around 500 young people from more 100 countries descended on Kigali, Rwanda for the ITU’s first Generation Connect Global Youth Summit. I was lucky to represent NTIA and the United States as part of a delegation sponsored by USTTI.
The Summit sought to bring together “digital natives” – those of us who grew up in the age of the Internet – to interact directly with global business leaders, government officials, and policymakers. In his opening remarks, Rwandan Prime Minister Édouard Ngirente recognized young people as a major asset to the global community. At the same time, I—along with my fellow youth delegates—gained a new respect for our digital fluency and how it can bring about change.
The Summit was made up of intergenerational dialogues and small group sessions on core issues like the future of work, the gender digital divide, and digital solutions for climate action. I learned about other young people’s work to address policy challenges, like a group of young Nigerian entrepreneurs training children in digital literacy, a Ugandan engineer who aspires to become an astronaut, and an ICT analyst for the government of Trinidad and Tobago, among many others.
The Summit culminated in the 2022 Generation Connect Youth Call to Action titled, “My Digital Future.” The document outlines the vision and priorities of global youth, calling on governments, the private sector, academia, and international institutions like the ITU to respect and uplift the experience of young people in ongoing efforts to govern the digital sphere. This document was handed to world leaders at the ITU’s WTDC conference, which began in Kigali after the Youth Summit concluded.
Throughout my brief visit to Kigali, a number of themes emerged:
- Young people are engaged and insist on a seat at the table. Broad participation in the Youth Summit, both in person and with thousands more online, was a testament to the urgency that global youth feel to make their voice heard. There were calls to invite young people from diverse geographic backgrounds to participate in closed decision-making spaces.
- The stakes are high. As the Call to Action states, “Your actions today define my future education, employment and environment. Your inaction can arrest the power of the digital transformation and leave me behind.” Global stakeholders were called upon to recognize the central role digital policy plays in shaping our current and future lives.
- Digital inclusion is paramount. The transformative power of digital connectivity begins with granting young people access to the Internet, building digital literacy, and promoting digital hygiene. Without achieving these basic first steps globally, the resulting innovation, creativity, and community empowerment will not be borne out equitably.
- Human rights extend to online spaces. Governing online spaces requires nuanced and thoughtful approaches to sensitive problems, and young people are capable of participating in these evolving debates. Censorship, abuse, misinformation, and cyberthreats each represent real risks. Policy must balance creating a safe online environment with protecting human rights and basic freedoms, a fact that even the youngest participants I spoke to seemed to grasp.
Thank you to USTTI for sponsoring my participation in the 2022 Generation Connect Global Youth Summit and to NTIA for inviting me to share these thoughts.