In December 2009, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that proclaimed the 12th of August 2010 to 12th of August 2011 as the ‘International Year of Youth’ (IYY). Themed ‘Dialogue and Mutual Understanding’, it coincided with the 25th anniversary of the first IYY, ‘Participation, Development, and Peace’.
With half the world’s population under the age of 25, governments, Civil Society Organisations, and other development-focused agencies have seized upon adolescents and youth (defined by the UN as those between 15-24) as ‘target groups’. Funders have all emphasised youth programmes and youth empowerment activities, allocating a large amount of their budgets to the same.
It’s interesting then, that 25 years after the first IYY on participation, young people are still struggling to be included at decision-making tables across movements and issues. That youth programmes are more often than not designed and created by someone not-youth with little to no perspective on youth issues, culture and attitudes. It’s interesting that we’re talking about ‘dialogue and mutual understanding’ when a lot of young people are still struggling with the participation part of it all.
It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot, with organisations justifying ‘participation’ to funders and themselves as an appropriate number of attendees of X target group. This often ends up tokenising groups and prevents them, and others, from truly participating. The issue here is that youth are primarily viewed as a ‘target group’. Jargon notwithstanding, it relates to them as passive receivers of programmes and projects instead of actively engaging with them. Alternately, youth are approached from a ‘protectionist’ framework, contending that they must be ‘saved’ from harm, rendering them passive but also further disempowered. It prefers to work for youth, unacknowledging of the number of strong, mobilised, self-empowered youth that actively engage in issues that impact them. It, however unconsciously, chooses not to meaningfully work with young people.
So, what does it mean to work meaningfully with youth? For one, it engages youth at every level. From inception to implementation to monitoring and evaluation, along with every other step in between. It means ensuring that their opinions, beliefs, concerns, and issues are at the centre of the programme; not someone’s assumptions of what those are. Young people face many barriers towards accessing resources, exercising their rights, or realising opportunities. This can make them a vulnerable group, with high rates of human rights violations, increased societal pressure and an inability to make decisions in their lives.
Consequently, projects must ensure that they aren’t just meaningfully involving youth but that they are youth-friendly. This means creating safe spaces for young people. I’ve seen programmes that have been executed during school exams or school hours, or have provided services (say, condoms) that required young people to access them very publicly, neither of which take into account the unique challenges of working with young people and their particular realities.
Although I have highlighted how young people have been left out of the decision-making processes, there have been many recent successes for youth engagement and activism. Our television screens and twitter feeds have been ablaze with reports of young, exasperated, disenfranchised people at the forefront of revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Greece, Spain… a list of countries that grows longer by the day. While the catalysing reasons, priorities, and outcomes may differ, they all share a distinctive feature – the willingness of young people to mobilise, to act, and determination to exercise their rights.
That these have been ‘young’ revolutions has been commented on countless times, but what that actually means in terms of youth engagement, decision-making, and subsequent leadership is something that remains unclear. With the recent UK riots displaying the shocking lengths a frustrated, angry, and seemingly disenfranchised population can go to, it’s imperative to look at how young people can consistently be engaged in all aspects of governance. There has been a lot of youth-generated activity this year; to learn lessons from, and build on for a more youth-centered approach. Lessons, not just for those in positions of power, but for youth activists, advocates, and leaders themselves.
However, the youth movement must also self-reflect. Now that there is youth representation of sorts, what is being said? Are the people at the tables representative of the issues being tackled? Are they empowered to speak? Are the youth movements running the risk of homogenising the spectrum of youth issues? It’s essential to the validity of the movements to question who is speaking at these tables. Are the youth movements cognisant of the many disparities within their own spaces? And are those voices speaking for themselves, and are they heard? Are the movements looking at setting up sustainable structures?
I think it’s important to pose these questions for social movements, so it guards against internally marginalising, encourages leadership and empowerment within its own movements, ensures sustainability, and meets its objectives. It needs to ask itself these questions so that it remains relevant, continues to push for youth involvement in decisions that directly impact youth, and ensures its own purpose. It’s a similar set of thoughts for creating youth-specific programming and projects or even a consensus-based entity like the currently discussed UN Youth (along the lines of UN Women). These programmes and institutions should both reflect the strong central idea that underscores the youth movement – ‘Nothing about us, without us’. An ‘us’ that is inclusive, empowering, representative, and sustainable.