The Changing Trends of Youth Participation in Democratic Governance: Going Local? | 4democraticgovernance on WordPress.com

By Gerardo Berthin, Ph.D

Last month the World Youth Congress took place in Honolulu, Hawaii. Over the years, more than 10,000 young people used this platform to advocate their needs to leaders and to support the development of youth-led solutions to overcome challenges in many areas, including democratic governance. One of the key and timely questions the Congress explored was, how can young leaders better engage with, and influence, local, national and global decision-makers? Since 1999, when the United Nations declared August 12, as the International Youth Day, there is growing recognition that youth everywhere can be agents of change, and be critical actors in the promotion, maintenance, renewal, and sustainability of democratic governance. That is why, each August 12 the United Nations has focused on a policy issue to highlight youth roles and contributions. This year for example, International Youth Day 2017 will be dedicated to celebrating young people’s contributions to conflict prevention and transformation as well as inclusion, social justice, and sustainable peace.

All of us have experienced, as young or adults, the energy and hope, when we engage with young people in projects, training and other activities. Youth have a transformational outlook on the world, uniquely entrenched in the belief that they can make a meaningful change in society. They long to be social and political entrepreneurs, and take roles in businesses, government, and civil society organizations. We saw this first hand when we organized and implemented more than a dozen Social Audit Workshops for Young Leaders and Entrepreneurs. The workshops became a platform for discussion and debate around a variety of public policy issues, many related to the youth, and others related to the general democratic governance context. When interacting with youth, clearly everybody learns from each other and is an opportunity to see the world through young leadership, offering a sense of optimism and hope.

However, as we interact there is also the reminding of the challenges facing youth participation in democratic governance. In many parts of the world, youth make up large portions of the population, and yet seem under represented politically. Globally, there are more young people in the world than ever before, creating unprecedented potential for economic and social progress. There are about 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24 — the largest youth population ever. Many of them are concentrated in developing countries. In fact, in the world’s 48 least developed countries, children and adolescents make up a majority of the population. Nonetheless, numbers do not necessarily translate automatically in more participation.

Although vibrant youth have much to offer to humanity in terms of innovation, labor and enthusiasm, too many of these young people see their potential hindered by extreme poverty, exclusion, discrimination or lack of information. This is further exacerbated by the lack of job opportunities that target youth, insufficient practical training programs that meet labor market demands and poor access to services that would help youth create their own opportunities. The Arab Human Development Report in 2016, which focused entirely on youth, highlighted not only barriers and challenges for youth participation, but makes a strong case for empowering youth to rebuild Arab societies.

Youth aspirations are common to all, young and adults. For example, in 2015, the World We Want global survey among citizens, including youth, was conducted to identify the main issues that would make the most difference in the lives of respondents and to establish priorities. When the data is filtered by the 16–30 age cohort group, the top 5 issues were education, healthcare, job opportunities, an honest and responsive government and affordable food.

Despite these aspirations, youth are not necessarily participating in electoral processes to bring change and influence. Youth voter abstention is a primary source of concern in many countries. The findings of the World Value Survey research conducted between 2010 and 2014 show significant differences in voter turnout between people aged 25 or under and those aged 26 or over (Figure 1 below). The research covered 59 countries representing all the regions of the world.

This is a challenge for older and younger democracies. For example, in the last US Presidential election, among the so called “millennials” (youth between the ages of 18–29) only 50% of eligible voters turned out to vote, in what was hailed as a transformational election. Two-thirds of Swiss millennials stayed at home on Election Day in 2015, and it was estimated that only 36% of people in the 18–24 year old category voted in the United Kingdom’s EU Brexit referendum. Voting in Brazil is mandatory from the age of 18 and optional from 16. Nonetheless, the number of young voters continues to decline. In South Africa, studies show that a high percentage of young people do not vote and distrust formal politics. In Colombia, a recent study by the Observatory of Democracy shows that only 20% of youth surveyed, trusted the elections in 2016, as compared to nearly 40% of the adult populations.

But beyond elections, when considering the broader participation of youth in democratic governance today, one encounters a certain paradox. In theory, the spaces for youth involvement in democratic governance seem more numerous than ever. More tools, more technology, more freedoms, and generally more choices, than previous youth generations. Nonetheless, available evidence suggests they are not participating fully in democratic governance. Yes, one can see young people in the streets in Venezuela, Russia, France, Mexico, South Africa, and the Philippines protesting and contesting the status quo and policies. However, the street protest, a form of participation is not necessarily translating to more institutional participation. What we might be seeing is a decreasing trend in more traditional forms of youth democratic governance participation (voting in elections, political parties, running for elected office, engaging with representatives), and an increasing trend in more informal participatory activities (protests, social media, signing petitions, data jams).

Young people, like adults, seem to be disenchanted with the current state of national democracy, and indifference to, and disengagement from, democratic governance seems to be on the rise. Local governance has offered an alternative and additional opportunities for young people to participate and get involved. Yet, even in the local space, where government is closer to the constituencies, and where issues are more “every day,” youth participation is still limited and increasingly divorced from the more formal institutional democratic governance structures.

As a colleague and I argued in a paper about Youth Policy Participation through Social Audit Processes, in part there is a lot of high expectations of youth agency in resolving current economic and socio-political challenges, and often, youth participation is misused as a panacea. While the vibrant energy and fresh perspective from youth are valuable inputs for democratic governance, its impact is not automatic. These high expectations are tempered by youth vulnerability to poverty, crime, violence and exclusion. Concerns have also been raised about the extent to which young people have the necessary capacity or knowledge to navigate in the complex waters of participation in democratic governance today. Finally, the insufficient enabling democratic environment to support their social and political entrepreneurship, could also be a factor curtailing youth participation, particularly at the local level.

For example, a study I conducted in 2014 in four local governments in Latin America, shed some light into the challenges and issues surrounding the promotion of youth participation in local democracy. Three major lessons emerged from this study that could be relevant to understand the dynamics of youth participation in local governance.

1.Need to decode the dynamics of youth political participation at the local level

  • The perception persists that the main policy responses related to youth public policies still originates mainly at the national rather than local level.
  • The promotion of youth participation is framed more in terms of youth rights and risks prevention rather than in terms of inter-generational partnerships.
  • Social and economic exclusion, as well as lack of interest, time, and/or perception of low return and/or effectiveness of participation were mentioned by youth as barriers.

2.Diverse motivations to organize and participate

  • Local organizations were not necessarily reactions to macro-scale policy issues facing youth, but rather existed as a response and/or recognition by youth of a more micro-scale problems (lack of soccer fields, lack of artistic spaces, lack of transparency in the municipal budget, contamination of the local ecosystem) and a degree of openness or willingness on the part of local governments to recognize the problems and try to do something about them.
  • There was a strong component in youth social organizations that makes youth feel part of a collectivity that shares perceptions of the present and aspirations for the future. The youth social organization was a form of collective identity to confront exclusion and insecurity to potential threats (violence, drugs, economic exclusion).
  • The belonging to a group or forming part of a youth initiative was part of a process which built on actions and tangible results and which evolved over time. Young people mentioned that they became involved in youth organizations first and foremost to get to know and meet other young people.
  • Young people participated where they perceived they were being taken into account, and in those spaces, they did not see as “politicized.”

3.Different strategies and capacity to influence political and public policy processes

  • In general, young people recognized the inability of local political systems to represent their ideas and solve larger problems (employment, instability, opportunities) but they were also open to the possibility of interacting with local political actors on immediate interest and local relevant issues.
  • Young people saw themselves on the one hand as subjects of rights and public policies, but were also prepared to be the protagonists of citizen action, particularly on topics which respond to their concrete demands.
  • Most young people favored a greater role for local government in the public policy cycle. At the same time, they showed a high level of mistrust towards the management of public funds on the part of the government in general (both nationally and locally).

Studies and research about local governance and youth are few, and most lack comparative analysis across contexts. While the exiting literature on youth participation in local governance provides useful insights into challenges and opportunities, it is also limited in answering broader questions about how young people participate in local governments and the impact of that participation. There are many different forms of youth participation — ranging from the giving feedback on services, through to the involvement of young people as councils, mayors and members of governance structures. These various forms are on a continuum from individual and unstructured opportunities for participation, through to more formal collective participation structures.

Today, social media is also another platform for young people to participate. Young people in Facebook, twitter, and YouTube to mention a few social media platforms, can engage in debates with friends or users, share information and news, post opinions, and even post misinformation. Technology allows those interested in politics and policy to gain specialized knowledge and engage in a variety of discussions, like reinforcing their views with like-minded friends on social media or debating differ points of view. They join communities, and are in constant communication. While this type of participation is valuable as a tool to mobilize, organize and deliberate, it also diminishes the value of being together in a political space and having physical conversations and dialogue to bring change and or influence policies. Also, given the complexity of political systems today, engaging young people face-to-face, through broader citizen-based approaches, rather than through virtual and narrow youth-based approaches, can help bridge the divide between traditional and new spheres of participation.

The downward expansion of democratic governance, from national to local levels, provides both a challenge and an opportunity for youth participation. A main challenge of youth participation is not one of apathy or abstention, but one of capacity — including knowledge of specific approaches that can be applied to policy participation at different levels of the policy cycle and at different levels of governance. Innovative initiatives, such as the 50/50 Youth dialogue initiative, engagement and seeking their opinion, dedication and investment in more comparative research about youth policy issues have to be expanded and supported.

There is no doubt that young people can be engines of change and innovation as well as change agents in democratic governance. However, for these transformations to occur, the enabling environment must offer incentives, means and opportunities for them to influence the public policy cycle. Important to continue working in at least two dimensions: 1) strengthening democratic governance spaces, in particular the local space to increase opportunities for young people to be engaged in decision-making processes; and 2) investing in improved capacities, to enhance young people’s capabilities, to effectively navigate the complex waters of democratic governance.

This two-prong strategy will help focus youth participation beyond elections, and to help youth strive to bring innovative solutions to structural problems within their communities, and to make these solutions more sustainable. Youth have to be able to participate in public policy debate and dialogue. A key premise is the search and acquisition of knowledge, and learning by doing. So, let’s bring democratic governance closer to youth.


Originally published at 4democraticgovernance.com on July 29, 2017.