Beyond youth rhetoric: creating policies together with young people

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On the 22nd of February, the ETTG, in collaboration with ECDPM and the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, organized a Seminar on participation for sustainable, resilient and inclusive society, focusing in particular on youth engagement in Africa and Europe. This blog is a reflection by Giulia Maci on the seminar conversation and the challenge of youth participation in decision-making.

The Youth Agenda

“Youth” is everywhere right now. Over the last year, there have been the UNESCO Youth Forum, the European Youth Week, the Africa-Europe Youth Summit, the World Bank Youth Summit and the Global Youth Leaders Summit, just to name a few. The 2030 Agenda recognised children and youth as ‘critical agents of change’ in the SDG platform and for the ‘creation of a new world’, while the new EU Consensus declares young people as essential contributors to sustainable development. More recently, the final declaration of the AU-EU Summit attaches a high priority to empowering young people to their full potential.

The European Commission’s has recognised the need for a participation model that is more inclusive and supportive of youth organizations, but in many countries we are witnessing  a shrinking of democratic space for civil society and young people in particular.

Dissenting youth

Away from the formal gatherings and policy documents, young people have been leaders and supporters in protests on the streets. In 2011, the youth movement “Y’en a Marre”  (I have had enough) took to the streets of Dakar to prevent Senegalese leader Abdoulaye Wade from running for a third presidential term. In the same year, young Tunisians were at the vanguard of a wave of protests that led to the fall of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  Empowered by access to social media sites like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, protesters gathered together to speak out against oppression, inspiring similar activism in the region and more globally.

Over the last few years, youth protests have spread in Greece, Spain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Romania, Libya and Brazil, challenging the present institutional, political and economic establishments of respective governments. The proliferation of such events shows  young people’s criticism   of political, social and economic systems operating at multiple geographical scales.

The challenges facing youth

Relating to the diversity of people rallying around these events, it is necessary to acknowledge the multiplicity of reasons behind this discontent and the complexity of the relations that form around them. Some are politically driven; others have a social or economic justification; however, regardless, they show the wide extent range of discontent of the young generations with several aspects of the governance processes. For instance, in Africa, declining opportunities in rural areas lead young men and women to migrate to the cities, where their chances of finding decent employment are small. The resulting social-economic instability that youth faces has been an increasing source of the distrust of political parties and governments.

It is also too restrictive to interpret this social unrest as a manifestation of youth discontent alone. Young people’s willingness to protest also suggests they are still participating in the political process, albeit in a less conventional way. Youth is not politically indifferent; it simply has restricted means to affect or facilitate change. As a result, the young are often discouraged from engaging directly in political, social and economic affairs.

Mobilisation from the bottom up

As a response to this situation, young people are developing alternative sites for social and political intervention, beyond party politics and within civil society organisations. They engage in political actions through associations that do not require political affiliations. They use social media to express their opinions, participate in campaigns, and organize anti-corruption protests. Digital activism is emerging as an alternative mode for youth participation in civic affairs and “low politics”. New individuals, new creative groups, and new collaborative networks organise to “reconquer” public spaces – spatially, physically and politically. As mentioned in a recent ETTG paper, beyond street protests, young groups in many African countries have been experimenting with new creative ways of doing politics and reshaping public debates.

The typical “yes, we can” culture is showing great vitality and creativity in  times of unclear policies and economic instability, but still the potentials of this energy are not being fully used , partly because there is no  strong platform to showcase local knowledge and offer support in finding common ground with traditional institutions.

Actions for youth engagement in the AU-EU Partnership

How might it be possible to bridge these bottom-up initiatives with formal political structures? How can the younger generation contribute to the creation of a new political culture in their countries? There is a pressing need to come up with new means of participation that are inclusive of the young, and to rethink the channels of communication between public authorities and young people.

Here are four priorities for EU-AU joint action:

  • Create Youth representation bodies to strengthen youth voice in decision making: The partnership between Africa and Europe should support the creation of appropriate institutional channels  to strengthen youth participation in the development and implementation of national youth policy. The creation of such representative youth bodies could improve the effectiveness of youth-related programmes and the coordination between the national and local policy level.
  • Youth engagement begins in cities: EU-AU action towards youth needs to involve other levels of governance, in particular local authorities, because of their direct interaction with young people. Local governments could also better communicate good practice of co-creating projects with young people, integrating different policy areas that are relevant for young people’s development.
  • Scale up youth-led initiatives: Grant applications should be simplified to allow greater access from a broader spectrum of youth stakeholders. In addition, there should be clear incentives for establishing partnerships with local public authorities, charities, and foundations  to scale-up youth-led activities and ensure their sustainability.
  • Engage differently: The EU needs to set up new communication partnerships with regional and local authorities, directly to inform young people about opportunities, activities and issues that concern their daily lives. EU social media communication needs to target young people as a priority audience.


Photos courtesy of Andres Miguez, via flickr


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