Erasmus+ and the role of European Youth for Sustainable Development 

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More than half of the world’s population is aged under 30. Yet, young people are often absent from the decision-making processes that determine their future. During the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly, which took place on the 22nd of September 2021, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, emphasized that “young people must also be at the table – as designers of their own future”. Numerous stakeholders came together at the General Assembly to advocate for the achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, with the Korean boyband BTS as special presidential envoy for future generations and culture stating that: “rather than calling this COVID generation a ‘lost generation,’ the term ‘welcome generation’ is more suitable. We are a generation that walks forward rather than being feared by changes.” Indeed, the role of young people in the realization of the 2030 Agenda is essential, as the ones most affected by the lack of opportunities, increasing socio-economic inequalities, while also being the ones to suffer the consequences of today’s environmental challenges in the future.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were established by the United Nations in 2015 in the Sustainable Development Agenda, acting as a blueprint, so as to shift the world onto a resilient path for the achievement of the sustainable and inclusive societies of the future. The 2030 Agenda is a universal call to action to guarantee that by 2030 all people will enjoy peace and prosperity, vouching to leave no one behind. As the 17 goals are integrated, sustainable development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability, while the mobilization of all resources, stakeholders, available technology as well as innovation is necessary, in order to combat environmental degradation, but also tackle poverty and inequalities, achieving inclusive and sustainable societies.

In this article, we will take a look at the European Commission’s Erasmus+ as an effort to align its priorities with the 2030 Agenda and the emerging role of youth in contributing to the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

 

Youth for Sustainable Development: challenges and opportunities

Sustainable development is an issue that affects everyone, but young people and youth organizations play a crucial role in the shift towards a more sustainable future, both as change makers, as well as rights-holders. It is true that young people are amongst those especially affected by issues related to the Sustainable Development Goals, as they are more prone to marginalization. They are also disproportionately affected by financial crises or prolonged poverty, with additional obstacles including difficult living conditions and barriers to job opportunities. As such, they have further reasons to worry about their future. In advance, youth unemployment rates in the European Union are more than double than unemployment rates for all ages, with the European youth being greatly affected by lack of opportunities, economic and political crises, and inequalities. Globally, the situation for young people is even worse, with the imminent threat of climate change and other environmental issues looming over their futures. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights validated in its 2018 report on youth and human rights, the obstacles and exclusion youth face when it comes to accessing their rights. Likewise, organizations that are operated by youth face a great number of institutional challenges, from lack of funding to lack of recognition.

However, while youth are deeply affected by the challenges of today, they have the potential and will to tackle these challenges. Both young people and youth organizations are essential in driving change and supporting the achievement of the SDGs, by advocating and acting for sustainable, peaceful and inclusive societies. On one hand, youth have the right to advocate for their own future and are more passionate and energetic to deliver changes, putting their creativity and motivation to work by challenging current unsustainable practices and offering new innovative solutions. As young people have proven that they can think outside the box, it comes as no surprise that they lead numerous movements for social change. Youth is also used to digital technologies and utilizes online environments to create social change, through online campaigns, apps and other digital means. 

On the other hand, youth organizations are vital in the work for sustainable development, funneling the efforts of young people, so as to add their share for a more sustainable future. In Europe and, especially, when it comes to the Erasmus+ program, youth work and non-formal, informal education have proven to be an effective tool to tackle global issues and achieve sustainable development. These forms of experiential education, mainly utilized in Erasmus+, are more inclusive and aim to empower all young people (youth from vulnerable groups, disadvantaged youth etc.) so they can first be included and then actively contribute to society. Youth organizations can also not only help unite the voices of youth, in order to bring forth a collective response to unsustainable practices at the local, national, regional and global level, but also hold governments and institutions accountable on their commitments.

 

The Erasmus+ Initiative and Sustainable Development Goals

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This is where the Erasmus+ program comes in, as it is the designated initiative from the European Union for education, training, youth and sport, through which youth organizations and young people can access funding to support life-changing international opportunities. Erasmus+ is also a strong tool for youth to reach out to and engage with a variety of actors in our society, from schools, universities, to sport organizations and NGOs. 

In March 2021, the European Commission, recognizing how much of a constructive tool the program is, almost doubled the budget of Erasmus+ 2021-2027 to €26.2 billion, when its predecessor had a €14.7 billion for 2014-2020. This showcases not only the tremendous power of Erasmus+ but also how the European Commission’s focal point has moved to the younger generation and their role as change makers. Indeed, the benefits of Erasmus+ on individuals were outstanding, empowering youth, by helping them develop their cognitive and non-cognitive skills, gain knowledge and experience necessary to enter the competitive labor market and by promoting intercultural understanding. Erasmus+ is especially beneficial for disadvantaged and vulnerable young people, who might otherwise miss out on opportunities for international experience. 

However, the impact surpasses the individual, extending to local, national, regional and international levels. Due to its innovative and inclusive approach, perhaps the most important aspect of Erasmus+ is that young people have the opportunity to interact and debate with decision-makers, advocating about issues they’re passionate about and pressure for impact directly. Moreover, for youth organizations, Erasmus+ helps to develop capacity building, initiate international partnerships, and offer new opportunities to young people. 

In this context, the priorities of the Erasmus+ Program are in complete harmony with the sustainable development goals, as they promote social, economic and environmental sustainability in the EU and beyond. More specifically, inclusion and diversity are a priority, as the program seeks to promote equal opportunities and access, inclusion, diversity and fairness across all its actions. Erasmus+ is set on creating sustainable and inclusive communities in its core, aiming to help participants surpass barriers, such as disabilities, health problems, as well as cultural, social, economic, geographical or educational barriers that may lead to discrimination and hinder their participation. It aims to increase the participation of vulnerable groups, youth with fewer opportunities, early school leavers and NEETs (not in education, employment or training), ensuring their access to opportunities.

In addition, The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the surface the problem of digital illiteracy, which the EU is set on tackling through the promotion of digital education for the digital transformation that Europe needs. In particular, there is focus through the Erasmus+ program on the incorporation of digital technologies for teaching and learning, engaging learners, educators, youth workers, young people and organizations in the path to digital transformation. This in turn, enhances the digital skills of participants, skills that are necessary to get employed and participate fully in civil society and democracy.

Finally, environment and climate action are key priorities for the EU and Erasmus+ aims to be a key instrument for the building of knowledge, skills and attitudes on climate change and sustainable development both within the European Union and beyond. Moreover, Erasmus+, strives to achieve carbon-neutrality by promoting sustainable transport methods and a more responsible environmental attitude. It encourages the use of innovative practices, so as to establish youth, and consequently, youth workers as true change makers. It promotes a holistic sustainable lifestyle, from altering consumption habits to supporting the sustainable growth of our planet through development projects of rural areas, such as sustainable farming, management of natural resources and bio-agriculture amongst others.

 

European Youth and Erasmus+: agents of change 

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When conversing with a student or a youngster in Europe, one might often hear “Erasmus+ changed my life”. Certainly, it’s not a slogan, but a common truth that millions of young people share. Undoubtedly, Erasmus+ has proven to change the lives of young people for the better, from leading to better socio-economic opportunities and better academic performance to enhancing job prospects. By focusing on youth as individuals, Erasmus+ plants the small seed of change, by spreading awareness, which is only the first step to implement changes. Then, through “Youth Exchanges”, “Training Courses” or the “European Solidarity Corps” volunteering opportunities, young people are equipped with the necessary skills to actively become change makers. It’s often so that a young person will participate in a Youth Exchange and through the workshops, activities, field trips and so on, will be so inspired and motivated that he or she will start their own enterprise, turning waste into art and reusable items or helping refugees assimilate into local communities. In 2019 alone, approximately 940.000 people studied, trained or volunteered abroad thanks to Erasmus+, with a lot of them returning to their home countries with altered perceptions and passion for societal contribution.

Erasmus+ also benefits youth organizations, by equipping them with the tools to actively pursue change, by promoting exchange and cooperation with other organizations, so as to improve their capacity building and by providing them with the necessary funds to implement their projects, that otherwise wouldn’t take place due to lack of grants. The organizations that benefited from Erasmus+ in 2019 were estimated to be around 111.000, with more than 25.000 projects being implemented at a local, national or international level. One needs to simply take a look at the Erasmus+ Project Results Platform, in order to observe the results of all previous Erasmus+ projects and realize the impact of this Initiative. 

One very important factor to consider is that young people seem to be more aware of the 2030 Agenda than other age groups, while youth organizations often may be more familiar with the 2030 Agenda than many decision-makers or politicians. It is also important to note that youth organizations can be more flexible in their structure, approach and methodology when it comes to implementing their scope of activities, especially when being compared to Universities or businesses. Thus, the role of both youth and organizations can work more effectively and efficiently towards the SDGs.

Through the Erasmus+, youth can envision and create a more equal society, while youth organizations can fight inequality directly through their actions, through youth work and non-formal education. In advance, Erasmus+ projects and youth workers can focus on raising awareness on inequalities and excursion, advocating for the inclusive and sustainable societies of the 2030 Agenda. Through youth empowerment, young people facing inequalities and exclusion can become change makers in their neighborhoods, local communities and universities. In regards to environmental impact, youth organizations can promote sustainable production and consumption, circular economy models, as well as encourage people to follow a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, enjoy and embrace nature. Finally, as the Erasmus+ program cooperates with third countries, its impact can be even greater, influencing positively youth and societies in developing countries. Youth and youth organizations can cooperate on projects with global partners, with benefits for both sides, such as developing their capacity building and offering even more new opportunities.

The benefits of Erasmus+ are phenomenal and the opportunities endless. Not only can European citizens and youth benefit from the Erasmus+ program, but also Organizations, local communities and even countries or regions inside and outside the European Union. Such opportunities should be scaled up or replicated in other parts of the world, in order to effectively tackle global challenges. Most importantly, all stakeholders involved should take the role of younger generations more seriously, as they have proven that they can be change makers and contribute to the achievement of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. After all, 2030 is less than a decade away and as younger generations will be here long after, they want to implement changes more than anyone.

Foteini Giannopoulou
Foteini Giannopoulou
About Foteini Giannopoulou 3 Articles
Foteini is currently pursuing a MSc in "Global Economy and Strategy" at Yonsei University’s GSIS, as a 2020 GKS recipient from Greece. Being a “global citizen”, she has participated in various educational seminars, international conferences, and summer schools in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Foteini has previous professional experience in social entrepreneurship for inclusive and sustainable development in Greece and Europe, while she has completed her internships at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Greece and the Hellenic Parliament. Academically, she is interested in international cooperation and especially bilateral relations between Asia and Europe, focusing on social entrepreneurship and sustainable development issues.