Citizen Participation in the Global Youth Wellbeing Index

Citizen participation is critical to fostering social cohesion, inclusive development outcomes, and to ensuring transparency and accountability. Many of us know from personal experience, that the opportunities that we had for meaningful and positive participation in our youth, encouraged leadership and “soft” skills development, and set us up for lifelong engagement in civic and political processes.

With strength in numbers, youth today represent a powerful and innovative force to constructively advocate for, and create solutions to community issues through volunteering, advisory councils, social media and communications, voting, and collaboration.

Yet global surveys reveal youth often feel excluded from society and political processes, and believe their voices remain unheard in larger political dialogues. Such exclusion perpetuates apathy and frustration; can fuel disruptive or at times violent behavior and contributes to economic and social instability.

The recently-released Global Youth Wellbeing Index from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and International Youth Foundation (IYF) recognized the centrality of citizen participation to youth development and wellbeing. The Index considers the state of youth in 30 countries around the world, which hold nearly 70% of the world’s youth population. Of the forty indicators that comprise the Index, six make up the citizen participation domain:

  • the Economist Democracy Index,
  • existence of youth policy,
  • volunteer frequency,
  • candidacy age for national legislative office,
  • youths’ perception of value in society,
  • youths’ feeling served by government.

This post examines some interesting trends and findings in youth citizen participation.

Top trends and findings

Interestingly, of the six domains, countries’ performance in citizen participation is the most inconsistent with their overall ranking in the Index. Nations that perform best in civic participation are largely those that rank towards the bottom of the overall rankings of youth wellbeing. Colombia, South Africa, India, Tanzania, Indonesia, Ghana, Uganda, Thailand, Australia, and the United Kingdom are the top performers in citizen participation, and of these countries, only three (Australia, United Kingdom, and Thailand) rank in the top ten of the composite Index.

Although many upper and middle income countries score well in measurements of the general democratic environment, their performance in civic participation is adversely affected by outdated or altogether lacking youth policies, higher candidacy age for parliamentary office, and negative youth perception, with youth indicating they feel less valued by their societies and underserved by their governments. Simultaneously, many sub-Saharan African and Asian countries fare better in youth volunteering, youth policies, and youth outlook. Overall, countries’ performance in civic participation is more influenced by youth perception, institutions and systems, and less by indicators related to infrastructure or access to resources, as a result wealthier countries may not naturally score well in this domain.

For example, Japan, ranks 7th overall but 23rd in the citizen participation domain. While Japan fares well in measurements of the general democratic environment, and youth indicate they feel valued in society, weaker youth volunteering rates, a higher candidacy age, an incomplete youth policy, and youths’ negative perception on feeling served by the government, lower the country’s score significantly. China, which ranks 14th overall, ranks 28th in the citizen participation domain for its low Economist Democracy Index score, lack of youth policy, lower levels of youth volunteering, and more pessimistic youth outlook toward the government. Similarly, the United States, which ranks 6th overall but 20th in citizen participation, has a higher candidacy age, lack of federal youth policy, and negative youth perception. Sweden ranks 12th in citizen participation, 10 places lower than its overall country ranking, and is experiencing low levels of youth volunteering and youth indicate they feel underserved by the government.

At the same time, most low and lower-middle income countries fare significantly better in this domain than in overall youth wellbeing. For example, Tanzania, which ranks 28th overall, ranks 4th in citizen participation, and is the highest ranking Sub-Saharan African country. It performs well for its lower candidacy age, higher levels of youth volunteering, having a youth policy, and due to more positive youth perception about the government. Uganda, too, scores better at 7th in this domain, compared with its 29th place overall ranking, and fares well in candidacy age, youth volunteering, and for its youth policy. However, Ugandan youth still indicate they feel less valued in society, and underserved by government. Indonesia places 5th in the domain, 14 places higher than its 19th place composite Index ranking, as a result of a lower candidacy age, its relatively robust Economist Democracy Index score, and positive youth perception on their value in society and their reports of feeling served by the government.


First, we should be paying closer attention to how youth think and feel about their situation, especially with regard to their opportunities for political and civic expression and participation. In many upper and upper middle-income countries, youth indicate lower levels of satisfaction with their government and society. This may be closely related to higher barriers to political candidacy and a lack of national youth policies, which may contribute to youths’ feeling even more underrepresented at the local and national level. Tellingly, several countries that have experienced civil unrest and protests over the past several years, such as Egypt, which ranks 29th, Turkey, which ranks 27th, and Brazil, which ranks 14th in the domain, have lower levels of youth satisfaction. Additionally, in countries facing significant constraints to youth employment, such as Spain, youth also report feeling underserved by the government.

Secondly, data is a challenge. The Index emphasizes youth perception in the civic participation domain in an effort to better understand the drivers of civil unrest. Yet consistent, comparable survey-based insights from youth at a truly global scale are lacking; many surveys are done at community, country, or limited multi-country levels. Better, more uniform data is also needed to examine where and how youth are engaging in civil and political society, and the strengths and weaknesses of how the general enabling environment, institutions, and systems allow for youth inclusion. Furthermore, anecdotal experience and data indicates that rural or female youth may be more disenfranchised, but more local or disaggregated data would help identify who may be particularly excluded or where youth have shared and specific challenges in youth volunteering, voting, and political expression. This would better inform possible points for intervention and partnerships among relevant stakeholders exist to promote leadership and skills development, civic educational opportunities, and collaboration and information sharing. These are critical considerations as the world seeks to achieve more inclusive governance, engaged societies, and representation in the post-2015 era.

You can read the first 4 blogs in the 6-part series, explore the Index data and download the reports at

If you are in London, please join us for a European release event November 25th – More details forthcoming on the website and on Twitter #youthwellbeingindex.

Written by Dr. Nicole Goldin – Director of the Youth Wellbeing Index project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the International Youth Foundation (IYF). Follow her on Twitter @nicolegoldin.

Professionalising the youth sector: charting murky waters

In October 2013, a youth sector conference hosted in Estonia[1] interrogated the current state of play regarding the training and development for youth sector professionals. The conference took a thematic focus on youth work and a geographic focus on Europe, with occasional glimpses at other youth sector professions as well as other countries.

A lack of consolidated data

Youth worker qualification and status overview in Europe from 2008

Youth worker qualification and status overview

Quite astonishingly, no internationally comparative overview of youth worker education and training schemes exists.

The 2008 study on the socio-economic scope of youth work in Europe (see our library entry or download the pdf version the study), conducted by a research consortium led by the Institute for Social Work and Social Education for the Youth Partnership, largely came up with a blank when trying to collate information about youth worker training (see the image).

In 7 of the 10 surveyed countries, no data was available on the education, training and qualification of youth workers, and in two of the remaining three, 80 per cent of the respondents opted not to answer questions related to their qualification.

Failing to prepare youth workers for reality

The mixed picture presented in this study was reflected in the reality of the participants in Tallinn: Many cited a complete absence of locally available and formally recognised qualification pathways for youth workers in their national context.

During the conference Jennifer Brooker – the Youth Work Coordinator at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia – presented a comparison of curriculums for youth worker training in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, showcasing that where youth worker training does exist, it often fails to prepare youth workers for the needs and realities of the sector.[2]

Bob is disillusioned and despondent.

Given this situation, it’s no wonder then that our fictional youth worker Bob, invented to illustrate the context of the seminar in October 2013, is disillusioned and despondent.

So, is there any hope for Bob, any hope for the average youth worker out there?

Repeated policy commitments in Europe and beyond

At the very least, the youth sector is certainly not shy of initiatives to shape, reform and professionalise youth worker education.

A number of political resolutions at EU level have underlined the importance of providing education and training to youth sector professionals, inviting stakeholders to:

  • promote different kinds of sustainable support for youth work, e.g. sufficient funding, resources or infrastructure. This also implies removing barriers to engaging in youth work and where appropriate create strategies on youth work;
  • enhance the quality of youth work, the capacity building and competence development of youth workers;
  • support the development of new strategies or enhance existing ones for the capacity building of youth workers;
  • promote the employability of youth workers […] and their mobility through better knowledge of their qualifications.

Source: Council of the European Union (2010). Resolution of the Council on youth work (pdf).

Similar calls for recognised standards, college level programmes and skills based certification were heard at the 2013 edition of the Commonwealth Conference on Education and Training of Youth Workers.

A myriad of opportunities

Professionalising the youth sector: charting murky waters 1

Turning from resolution to the realities of youth work training and qualifications, at first sight it can hardly be argued that there is an absence of opportunities. At regional level across the globe, substantial efforts have been made to establish training structured programmes, from the Commonwealth Diploma in Youth Development Work delivered in 45 countries and the (currently stalled) Masters in European Youth Studies to the BSc in Youth Development Work offered in the Caribbean and the series of trainings for Asian Youth Workers.

Alongside these opportunities a range of online and distance learning opportunities, including the introductory Youth Work Matters course offered by the University of Minnesota and the Open University’s BA Honours in Youth Work, provide anyone with enough time, financial resources technical equipment and reliable internet access the opportunity for professional development in the field, wherever they happen to be located.

Moreover, there are extensive non-formal opportunities that aim to develop youth workers’ competencies such as the range of trainings offered through the SALTO-YOUTH programmes and by the Youth Partnership. Increasingly, programmes are being built that reflect and respond to specific regional needs, from the Caucasus to the Mediterranean. Globally, symposia and conferences provide opportunities for networking and exchanging practice, and for the curious self-initiators there are a number of open access journals, online resource centres, and libraries.

So with the support of policy makers and the apparent availability of opportunities, why do many in the sector perceive there to be a failing in the quality and provision of youth work training?

Many small opportunities mask the bigger problem

Three main reasons emerged from the discussions at the Tallinn conference:

  1. First, in too many countries there simply aren’t structured pathways or a qualification framework for youth workers to develop professionally and obtain recognised status – too much is left to chance. In many places regional training programmes mask the dearth of opportunities available at a national level.
  2. Second, the continued absence of a comparative international overview of the situation of youth work education means that there is an incomplete picture of the failings and shortcomings. Such a picture would be a useful starting point for the initiation of a more strategic approach to youth sector training.
  3. Third, the myriad of international non-formal trainings, whilst frequently valuable and relevant, fail to add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. A collection of disparate training activities, workshops and seminars is certainly no substitute for a comprehensive qualification pathway that could be used to leverage and confer much needed status to the profession.

A bias that neglects the prototypical youth worker

At the Tallinn conference, Yael Ohana guided the way through the maze that the various initiatives have created over the past years (presentation, mindmap, video).[3] By dissecting the competence profiles for youth work professionals and the studies produced to that end, Yael illustrated that the focus has largely been on European-level youth trainers, and the—arguably prototypical—neighbourhood youth worker has only received marginal interest so far.

Initiatives for the recognition of youth work, which are summarised well on the website of the Youth Partnership (here and here), complement the surge of competence profiles with resolutions as well as portfolios and passbooks. The focus of most of these initiatives has been on youth trainers and youth work volunteers, again with a bias towards internationally active youth sector professionals. There is a worrying gap between international youth work training and those working in local communities around the world.

Where to from here?

Professionalising the youth sector: charting murky waters 4

The number of gaps—that can be turned to opportunities for intervention and change—in relation to the education and training of youth workers are plenty. One idea that has gained traction among the attendees of the Tallinn conference is to shift some of the attention to local level initiatives. Several ideas emerged for training and exchange programmes between municipalities within and beyond Europe, which may well become one of the outcomes of the conference that will become tangible most quickly.

The European youth work mapping remains as relevant and overdue as when it was requested by the Council of the European Union in 2010; with the push from various directions including the Tallinn conference it will hopefully be commissioned in 2014 and become available in 2015.
The larger shift that is needed in the sector, however, is to focus less on those who—currently—have the strongest voice, namely European and international trainers, and to focus more on those who have—as of yet—no own organisations, no own networks, and no own voices at European and international level, but who arguably do the bulk of the work: local youth workers.

While pushing for that shift, however, we should respect and embrace the diversity of youth work practice from the very start. We don’t need more possibilities for youth workers, misunderstood as one homogenous group. Much rather, we need more offers, options and possibilities for those who work with young people in youth clubs, and on the streets, and in prisons, and in schools – to name just four of the many profiles that have evolved in the youth sector over time.

At the start of a new generation of European programmes, this shift is possible – and in our hands. But will it happen?


Team credits:

Image credits:

Pomp or Participation?: The 9th Commonwealth Youth Forum

The 9th Commonwealth Youth Forum (CYF) aimed to provide a forum for youth leaders to exchange ideas, discuss and draft policy priorities, and elect their newly inaugurated Commonwealth Youth Council (CYC) – the largest youth representative body in the world, covering 53 states and 1.2 billion young people.

Watch our film on the Commonwealth Youth Council here.

The Youth Forum was held as a side event to the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which has been marked by international controversy. While the headline allegations of human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government during and after the 30-year civil war are known, many abuses are alleged to be continuing, even during the CHOGM summit in the presence of fifty world leaders and The Commonwealth Secretariat.

A silencing of protest

Protest throughout Colombo was prevented during the CHOGM Summit through a court order obtained by police on November 14th. This comes days after university students in Colombo took to the streets to protest against the government’s decision to close their universities for the period of the summit, which the government had claimed was at the students’ request. Students were also asked to leave their dormitories for “repairs”.

Is this the value set the international youth movement wishes to be part of?

The University Students’ Federation believed that “[t]he government fears that student protests may erupt against this useless summit” and the Federation of University Teachers’ Association argued that:

“…this arbitrary decision was taken due to insecurity and fear of those in authority generated by their sustained failure to address the needs of university students in this country. This is part of the general programme of deception that has been launched by this regime to use the CHOGM to whitewash its sins at considerable cost and inconvenience of its citizens.”

With the country in the limelight, the Commonwealth Summit was seen as an opportunity for Sri Lanka to showcase its post-war revival and attempt to amend its reputation. The 9th Commonwealth Youth Forum was no exception to this.

9th Commonwealth Youth Forum

CYF OpeningThe Sri Lankan government went to considerable lengths and expense to welcome the Commonwealth youth delegates with elaborate open and closing ceremonies, a brand new convention centre, glossy pamphlets and generous gift bags – all in the name of investing in youth, and encouraging participation.

15 Heads of Government attended the closing ceremony at the newly opened Magam Ruhunupura International Convention Centre, which cost $15.3 million USD. The new convention centre is complimented by a new airport and port, in an area historically linked to radical student protests and now an area of controversial regeneration following destruction after the Asian Tsunami of 2004.

This year’s Forum was unique as it inaugurated the first-ever Commonwealth Youth Council (CYC) – an elected youth decision-making body that will represent and advocate for youth within the Commonwealth. You can watch our short film on the CYC here.

Following the unanimous passing of the CYC Constitution (after a 24 hour delay), delegates moved to the creation, debate and voting of the Forum Declaration (pdf) which outlines the policies of the CYC. The declaration was presented to Heads of Government at the special Youth Dialogue event on Friday 15th November which resulted in the Pakistan government offering $100,000 to the Council. Previous communiqués are also available here.

This year’s theme was “Inclusive Development: Stronger Together”. Young delegates developed policy positions in the following areas: Youth in the Post-2015 Agenda, Generating Quality Youth Employment, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Education, Well-being and Growth, Reconciliation and Social Cohesion, Gender Equality, and Professionalising Youth Work.

Policy process?

Post-2015 panel discussionEach of the eight topics had expert-led panel discussions intended to give a background to the topic, which were then followed by a working group session, where delegates would discuss and draft the policy statements.

Participants that we spoke to said that they felt like they were being lectured to in the panel discussions, with very little interaction or opportunity for participation. For a bulk of the work – which would be done in working group sessions – delegates were only given four hours (2 hours per topic) throughout the entire five-day Forum.

Even when participants were in workshops, little attention was given to the representativeness of sessions. Out of the nine people who drafted the post-2015 policy statements and the six who drafted the professionalisation of youth work motions, only one was an official youth delegate in each session. The others were observers, workshop facilitators, volunteers or international guests.

CYC General Assembly

While the theme of the forum was participation, the overarching purpose seemed more about showcasing the cultural and touristic aspects of the host country. It felt that two distinct events were taking place: The Commonwealth Youth Forum and a group tour of Sri Lanka’s south coast.

Emblematic of this was a crisis at the Youth Council’s General Assembly. When the passing of policy motions by delegates began to encroach on the time devoted to cultural activities organised by the Sri Lankan government, the President of the General Assembly announced that all non-passed motions would go to the Executive Board, by-passing all national delegations. Understandably, delegates were in an uproar with Ben, delegate from the UK exclaiming:

“Mr. President, it is absolutely ludicrous that you want to take our democratic right away from us!”

Indeed many delegates lined up to remind the Sri Lankan General Assembly President of their main reasons for being at the Forum. It was remarkable that such a reminder was required given that this is the 9th Forum held under the Commonwealth banner.

The General Assembly resolved to resume voting after a shortened tourism trip and cultural performance, extending the voting until 2:30 am and then completing the remaining votes the following morning.

The role of young people

The organising volunteers and the Youth-led Task Force should feel proud of their contribution – not only about resisting cultural programme elements to overpower political programme components, but also in asserting (if only modest) influence over the content of the agenda. Despite the claim of the event being ‘youth-led’, it would be unfair to lay critiques at their door given the little control of events we believe they have had.

Similarly, Youth Delegates at this event attempted to represent the young people of their country and their commitment to process and debate was evident.

No formal evaluation was conducted by the organisers at the end of the event, though some delegates (who were often funded by their national governments to attend) mentioned to us on the condition of anonymity that they felt unable to speak out and criticise the event or its hosts.

Cultural spectacle vs youth concerns?

The constant doubt whether the Forum had been organised for the spectacle or for the many pressing issues young people in the Commonwealth face wasn’t helped by continuous referrals to the mysterious ‘Sri Lankans’ as those in charge.

Indeed, responsibility for the Forum programme continues to be unclear: the Commonwealth Youth Programme and Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council supported the International Youth-led Task Force, which then worked alongside the Sri Lankan National Youth Services Council and government representatives. The absence of clear responsibilities has resulted in an absence of accountability.

Sri Lanka’s claim of the youth space

Presidential AddressThe Sri Lankan Government has claimed a space within the international youth sector. As hosts of the Commonwealth Youth Council this 2013, it prepares to host yet another international youth summit – the World Youth Conference in May 2014. It also made a $30,000 donation to The Office of the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth in 2012 and has offered to host the secretariat of the newly inaugurated Commonwealth Youth Council.

While the international community routinely chooses to accept offers by governments with poor human rights records and allegedly disputable intentions (one of the most recent, and blatant, examples being the Internet Governance Forum that was hosted by Azerbaijan in 2012), both with the hope of increasing peer pressure and strengthening opposition movements, it is uncommon for one government to host the two biggest thematic events in any given policy domain subsequently.

Given the alleged historic and current human rights abuses and the treatment of youth and students currently, the international youth sector must carefully consider the financial incentives of this supposedly youth-supporting government.

If the motivation of Sri Lanka’s government were truly the participation of young people, would they have suppressed protest and removed students?

Is this the right place to host the next World Youth Conference?

Is this the value set the international youth movement wishes to be part of?

Does the climate movement need a leader? Founder, Bill McKibben. Source. Founder, Bill McKibben. Source.

Author and spokesperson Bill Mckibben recently wrote an article in which he proclaims the idea of a Leaderless climate movement (McKibben distinguishes between small ‘l’ and capital ‘L’ leaders) in which there is no one central figure. In doing so, he suggests that he will be taking a step back from Leading 350, and by extension, scaling back his role as a figurehead of the climate movement more widely.

Predictably the message has won widespread acclaim from activists since it reinforces their deeply held beliefs in radical democracy, grass-roots organisation and consensus. But I’d argue that McKibben is wrong.  The environmental movement shouldn’t avoid having a Leader or leadership, because it desperately needs one in order to regain what we are in dire of; a vision that the movement can mobilise behind, and momentum in the right direction.

A Vision to Move Towards

Organisation, long-term plans and a grand strategy are the foundation for any effective political force.   This comes from the coherent vision and dedication of either a leader or an organisational core of leadership (I refer to this as an organisation core from now on).   More often than not it is both – a Leader supported by a committed group behind the scenes – but either way it is often the more fundamental attributes of leadership (vision, dedication, a willingness to make difficult decisions etc.) that are indispensable.

What is more, the best Leaders don’t simply take the podium to make speeches – they empower others around them.  A Leader or organisational core (or both) can provide the resources, coordination and a common narrative to unite and direct the multitude of leaders on the ground, while drawing in others from far and wide.  They are not commanders, but the conductors of a movement.

As such, I can support McKibben’s call for a “Leader-full” movement (a movement full of smaller leaders at more local levels).  We need empowered individuals at all levels that are willing to make the tough choices and provide inspiration.

Young climate campaigners at COP18 in Doha.

Young climate campaigners at COP18 in Doha. Source.

The problem of attempting to be Leader-full in a totally decentralised way is that there is little to reconcile disparate agendas and priorities.   A decentralised movement can easily fall into infighting and power struggles.

Ironically, movements tend to fall into more instinctive social hierarchies in the absence of structure or leadership.  The loudest and most assertive become the leaders, although they are often not the best suited to the task.  Leaderlessness and a lack of structure, despite its intentions, ultimately ends with disempowerment and disintegration.   The fate of Occupy, what McKibben calls the “ultimate in Leaderlessness”, should be a constant reminder of this.

As one recent article about the ‘Leaderless’ movement in Turkey put it, movements need

“… a visionary with the gravitas and charisma to represent their purpose and to see it to its end. Whatever their unified ideal may be, without someone to guide and represent them, to be their general-at-arms as much in government discussions as in street battles, they are marchers without a movement.

Gaining a Future

Rejecting a Leader or core to become Leader-full is simply tall poppy syndrome under the guise of egalitarianism.  Optimally we want the entire holy trinity of leadership; a Leader supporting by an organisational core which works to empower leaders from all walks of life at every level.   350 itself is a good example of this, having Bill McKibben as its head, an organised, well-resourced core and many leaders springing up at regional and local levels.  It’s one of the reasons it has been one of the most successful organisations in inspiring and catalysing a movement.

The closest that we have had to a common vision has been the “Divestment” campaign that was initiated and directed by 350.  The idea of divestment has spread across the world and seen real successes such as both the World Bank and European Investment Bank decided to move investments away from fossil fuels.   When our movement even has the hint of a leader and a unifying vision we are capable of incredible achievements.  Yet Divestment is only one goal, it does not provide the larger narrative we need.  We are still waiting for the voice and the vision that can provide a common thread for the current fragmented tapestry that is the climate movement.

Leadership is not made by actions or qualities; it is a matter of results. Movements by nature are tumultuous beasts: prone to anger and difficult to direct. But there is a reason that countries have a figurehead, corporations have a CEO, religions have deities and divine beings, and successful movements have Leaders.   Being Leaderful may allow for resistance, but we need something more if we are to go beyond opposition to achieving political victory.   We need to stop fearing hierarchy and confusing it for bureaucracy.  We need to heighten our aspirations and embrace the necessary leadership no matter what face it may take.

- Luke Kemp

Luke is currently writing a series on the ways forward for the international climate movement starting next week, so make sure to check back!

Luke Kemp_Profile


Luke is a PhD Candidate at the Australian National University and Research Fellow with the Earth System Governance Project. His current research focuses upon institutional reform of international environmental governance.When not criticizing consensus or writing his thesis he enjoys meditation and plotting world domination.

Youth rights – more than a timely slogan?

Youth rights – more than a timely slogan?

This article first appeared in The Commonwealth Yearbook 2013, published for the Commonwealth Secretariat by Nexus Strategic Partnerships): Robertson A. and Jones-Parry R. (eds) (2013) The Commonwealth Yearbook 2013. Cambridge: Nexus/Commonwealth Secretariat. This version is slightly updated and adjusted for context.

The stark discrepancy between the age of criminal responsibility—which is age 10 or lower in 70 countries around the world including the United Kingdom—on the one hand, and the driving age, drinking age and age of consent, on the other hand, has led to a renewed interest in the rights of young people in recent years, headlined by the campaign to lower the voting age.

“What kind of twisted message do we send when we tell youth they are judged mature, responsible adults when they commit murder, but silly, brainless kids when they want to vote?”

The current situation, captured by the quote[1] above, is often portrayed as a double standard that loads the responsibilities of adults onto the shoulders of young people while only granting them the rights of minors.

Double standards load the responsibilities of adults onto the shoulders of young people while only granting them the rights of minors.

The global youth sector, within and beyond the realm of the Commonwealth, is meanwhile largely self-absorbed in the search for new structures. While discussing “an architecture for youth engagement” in the United Nations, dubbed “Youth 21”[2], the overall coordination of youth policy and youth work across nation states lacks consistency and rigour to an extent that here at we described the situation as a ‘cacophony of inconsistent action’ – something that with the appointment of a Youth Envoy[3] will hopefully change, albeit slowly. Even basic data, such as the state of national youth policies, was not available until very recently – in stark contrast to the rhetoric touting, and demanding, evidense-based youth policies.[4]

Youth rights, however, have a history that is longer than commonly known and goes beyond the current inconsistencies of the sector, with Ivan Illich, Paulo Freire and John Dewey the most widely acknowledged intellectual heroes of the movement. The first youth rights declaration was presented by the American Youth Congress as the “Declaration of the Rights of American Youth” in July 1936 before a joint session of the U.S. Congress.[5] Occasionally, youth rights swirled to the surface at global level as well, most notably with the 1992 Report on Human Rights and Youth[6] by Dumitru Mazilu, who was the UN Special Rapporteur on Youth and Human Rights between 1985 and 1992.

Youth rights have a history longer than commonly known.

Despite the rare global appearance, the youth rights movement has, since 1936 and until recently and with many sector-typical fluctuations, been largely dominated by US-based alliances and initiatives. In 1989, the National Child Rights Alliance adopted a “Youth Bill of Rights,”[7] and in 2010, Robert Epstein wrote the “Young Person’s Bill of Rights”[8] for the first Youth Rights Day. Organisations such as the National Youth Rights Association (NYRA)[9] and the Freechild Project[10] and projects such as Youth Rights Media[11] and the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project[12] have shaped and advanced the youth rights discourse.

But the US-American youth rights movement seems somewhat stalled: In 2012, Alex Koroknay-Palicz stepped down from his position as the Executive Director of the NYRA after 12 years, and the organisation is struggling with the transition;[13] the website of the Youth Rights Network, initiated as the free encyclopaedia for youth rights, hasn’t been updated since 2010;[14] and the 2010 National Youth Rights Day,[15] which was meant to be the first in a series of annual youth right days, has so far remained the only one.

The youth rights movement in the US is stalled; it’s on the rise in Europe.

Meanwhile, a few European initiatives have started to address youth rights. The UK-based National Association for Youth Justice[16] promotes the rights of and justice for children and young people in trouble with the law, a topic the Guardian has closely followed[17] as well. The Foundation for the Rights of Future Generations, the Germany-based publisher of the Handbook of Intergenerational Justice, strives to enforce ethics that will preserve the opportunities and potential of future generations.[18] And the European Youth Forum published a report on the state of youth rights in Europe alongside a study entitled “The young and the rightless? The protection of youth rights in Europe.”[19]

The Youth Forum study, authored by Mourad Mahidi as his thesis for a European Master’s Degree in Human Rights and Democratisation at the Finnish Åbo Akademi, observes that young persons, in their transition from childhood to adulthood, face specific challenges and argues that these challenges should be the objects of youth rights. The publication sets out with an analysis of youth as a legal category, looking at various ways in which a young person is defined across various legal systems and showing that, while young persons indeed form a legal category, a comprehensive definition spanning across contexts remains absent.

With the African Youth Charter (AYC) and the Iberoamerican Convention on the Rights of Youth (ICRY), the study looks at two examples from other continents, aiming to highlight how challenges to youth rights are tackled through youth rights instruments. Taking a comparative perspective, the publication outlines the mixture of adopted human rights and newly introduced specific youth rights in the African Charter and the Iberoamerican Convention, observing that “the impact an international treaty has usually depends directly on the power of their supervision and monitoring mechanisms” and noting that both the AFC and the ICRY “lack real international monitoring mechanisms.”

There is a great margin for improving the protection of youth rights.

The study goes on to analyse the challenges that young Europeans currently face and in how far the rights of young persons are protected by existing instruments, concluding that there still is a great margin for improving the protection of youth rights in Europe. Largely owed to a lack of evidence, the author determines that there is no obvious response to the question of how youth rights should best be protected and promoted. The publication’s final chapter nonetheless observes that a European Convention on Youth Rights with a strong supervision and monitoring mechanism would likely protect youth rights well and develop the European human rights system adequately further.

Following the study, the British Council and the Open Society Foundations co-convened a youth policy symposium in 2011 in co-operation with the European Youth Forum. The event, entitled “Defending Youth Rights – Hard Law vs Soft Law,” attempted to highlight current challenges for young people in accessing their rights, to review existing frameworks for ensuring the rights of young people, to critically engage with recent debates on the need to increase young people’s access to their rights and to explore the rationale of binding and non-binding instruments to ensure that young people can adequately access their rights.[20]

While the symposium could obviously not replace the largely absent body of research and evidence on youth rights as asserted, a body which remains to be built over the coming years and for which the Commonwealth could and should initiate and contribute research, it provided a valuable starting point to raise and respond to the pros and cons of a convention on youth rights, and to discuss how to best champion—to research, address and advocate for—the rights and needs of young people in Europe and beyond.

A distinctive dilemma explored during the symposium is the absence of a clearly defined legal definition of young people. While young people do exist as a legal category, that category is not clearly defined and young people continue to be widely perceived as a socio-political concept with fuzzy borders and inconsistent interpretations, whereas children are progressively treated and understood as a codified concept with a clear legal status.

It is no surprise then that the symposium turned to the Convention on the Rights of the Child—a treaty recognising the human rights of children—as an example for an instrument that is similar to the advocated Youth Rights Convention.

Of particular interest proved the monitoring mechanism of the Children’s Rights Convention, mainly implemented through the Committee on the Rights of the Child, a body of experts scrutinising the convention’s implementation. The committee publishes comments on the content of human rights provisions including its own interpretation, last on “The right of the child to be heard” (2009) and “The right of the child to freedom from all forms of violence” (2011).

Could a Youth Rights Convention revert the tendency of disenfranchisement?

Following the Youth Rights Symposium, the question of a youth rights convention remains at the centre of the debate at least within Europe. The political will to initiate a Youth Rights Convention, driven forward most notably by the European Youth Forum, is viewed with enthusiasm by some stakeholders and, in light of the unanswered questions above, with scepticism by others.

Arguments easily support either side’s position – while a convention would likely champion a rights-based approach to youth policy development and practice, youth might be marginalised as a group with a subset, and not the full panoply, of human rights; while two regional youth rights conventions have already been developed and introduced, they lack monitoring mechanisms and are not constructed around an evidence-base of violated rights but the perceived needs of young people; and so forth.

The discourse is however underpinned by the unifying interest of all partners to champion—to research, address and advocate for—the rights and needs of young people. There is a worrying trend to exaggerate and sensationalise youth violence and to scapegoat young people by lowering the minimum age of criminal responsibility, as documented by John Lash of the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.[21]

Can a new Youth Rights Convention revert that tendency of disenfranchisement? Can a new Youth Rights Convention find a balance that the Convention on the Rights of the Child is often criticised to have failed: the balance between the protection of young persons, provisions for young persons and the participation of young persons?

Youth rights: a slogan in need of a definition

In 1973, Hillary Clinton, then an attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund and known as Hillary Rodham, argued that “the phrase ‘children’s rights’ is a slogan in need of a definition.”[22]

While celebrating its 40th anniversary[23] and enjoying the long overdue finalisation of the Youth Development Index (YDI)[24] in 2013, the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Youth Affairs Division (YAD) will soon need to answer the question whether and how it wants to engage in the youth rights discourse and how the Commonwealth Youth Programme (CYP) should be positioned within a rights-based framework. So will other youth and youth rights actors and activists across the globe.

Who will be part of defining the slogan?


Post-2015 perspectives: included, excluded or diluted?

The High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda appointed by Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, to advise him on the post 2015 agenda will hand over their report and recommendations on the 30th May 2013. The report (full report, executive summary, annex) will be publicly available on the 31st May and an event on the same day in New York will provide the first opportunity for UN agencies and stakeholder groups to interact with panelists on the substantive recommendations of the report.

Post-2015 perspectives: included, excluded or diluted?

At the outset the UN Secretary-General stated his desire to establish the post-2015 agenda through

“an inclusive, open and transparent process with multiple stakeholder participation”[1] … that sought to bring the “views from all corners of the world together”, using “… innovative new methods to reach out to the poorest and most marginalized people.”[2]

It was convincingly argued by others that if the post-2015 process did not get the participation of those most affected right, it would fail.[3]

The UN Secretary-General’s words were followed by a proliferation of online surveys, discussion forums, social media groups, Google hangouts, hashtags and more. A total of 11 thematic consultations and 83 national consultations provided an unprecedented opportunity to contribute to, and track, the development of the agenda. If volume is an indicator of success, then the process appears to have satisfied the UN Secretary-General’s demands – alone the High-Level Panel received more than 800 submissions.

Post-2015 perspectives: included, excluded or diluted?

Nearly 600,000 people from over 190 countries contributed to the UN’s Global Survey MyWorld, which invited people to identify six issues from a possible 16 that would make most difference to their lives. The consultation exercise appears to have reached out to the poorest: 78% of the responses were received from people living in countries categorised as low (48%) or medium (30%) on the Human Development Index (HDI) and 73% of the respondents were under the age of 35.[4]

So far so good? Well yes and no. Whilst the post-2015 agenda has been developed through the largest global consultation exercise undertaken to date, a survey (however global) can barely be described as innovative participatory methodology. Justifiably, some have criticised the bewildering array of outreach methods[5] and argued that instead of a searching global conversation the process resulted in an anaesthetised debate:

“Something is lacking in the efforts to design a new global development framework. The aim – to set goals for all mankind and the planet – ought to involve all the great questions of the age. Instead, the discussion feels small and technocratic. Despite great efforts, it has attracted derisory attention from beyond the professional development world.” [6]

A closer examination of the origins of proposals reveal the global imbalances and organisational dynamics that are likely to influence the final report and its recommendations.

The Overseas Development Institute has developed the most comprehensive, openly available database on the world’s proposals for future goals. Of the 220 proposals included in the database, less than 1% of the worlds’ post-2015 proposals originated from countries ranked in the lower quartile of the HDI, and 65% originated from countries ranked as having a very high HDI. 17% of the recommendations originated from UN organisations.[7]

So whilst the efforts to engage the poorest and most marginalised should be appreciated, lets not be under the illusion that the methodology was any more than a step in the right direction on what is a very long journey. This was not citizen-led participation, and there remains a huge disconnect between the modus operandi of global governance and the reality of the people they purportedly work for.

The measure of whether this is understood will be whether the report and recommendations of the High-Level Panel lead the global paradigm shift that is required to establish a future orientated, just, and people and environment centred global reality.

Specific to the youth sector, it will be important to truthfully examine whether, and to which extent, the High-Level Panel has taken the youth sector’s views seriously and included their recommendations in the final report. The engagement of the Beyond 2015 Children and Youth Working Group and the Major Group for Children and Youth with the High-Level Panel (HLP) and the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) has significantly raised the profile of youth in the debate leading up to the report. But will the report reflect that?

Post-2015 perspectives: included, excluded or diluted?

Will the more innovative and radical proposals that aim at the structural and systemic causes of global inequalities be sidelined by vested interests and the kind of ‘muddling through’ and compromise to power that so characterised the world’s response to the events of the triple food, financial and environmental crisis?

Will the calls for a focus on

  • inequality;
  • tackling the power of elites;
  • market regulation;
  • sustainable and equitable management of the world’s production and consumption patterns;
  • control of illicit financial flows;
  • intergenerational inequality;
  • the provision of social protection

be included, excluded or diluted?

Will the framework avoid the Western and donor-driven approach to development that became synonymous with the MDGs? Will it include a ‘Global Social Contract’ that is relevant to people in the North and South and that acknowledges the development needs of countries that would describe themselves as developed?

Now is the time to scrutinise. The data is there and enables us to identify the proposals that have been lost in the frenzy of consultation or diluted in bureaucratic deliberations.



Political slapstick: no money for youth

UN Youth Advisor: a big announcement with a small budget

Ban Ki-Moon announced the appointment of a new special advisor for youth back in January 2012 as part of his attempt to better “address the needs of the largest generation of young people the world has ever known.” But after the issue of a call for nominations in March 2012, nothing has happened for months. You want to know why? Because the money is missing. Read on for details about political slapstick by the UN at the expense of young people.

Ban Ki-Moon certainly stirred up the international youth scene when he announced, back in January 2012, to appoint a new special advisor for youth as part of his attempt to better “address the needs of the largest generation of young people the world has ever known.” (Source: the Secretary General’s five-year action plan).

The terms of reference describe the role of the special advisor, who will:

  1. serve as a global advocate for multi-stakeholder partnerships related to the United Nations system-wide action plan on youth and to youth volunteer initiatives;
  2. Promote the empowerment and foster the leadership of youth at the national, regional and global levels including through exploring mechanisms for young people’s participation in the work of the United Nations and in political and economic processes at the national, regional and global levels, with a special focus on the most marginalised and vulnerable youth;
  3. Collaborate with the Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development in developing and implementing the United Nations system-wide action plan on youth encouraging the deepening of the youth focus of existing United Nations programmes at all levels, guided by the World Programme of Action for Youth, with a focus on the priority areas identified by the Secretary General in his five-year action agenda: employment, entrepreneurship, political inclusion, citizenship and protection of rights, and education including on sexual and reproductive health;
  4. Develop a set of global principles and guidelines on how to create enabling environments for meaningful youth participation and youth leadership; and encourage governments to develop youth engagement strategies including through the development of structures and mechanisms for supporting young people’s engagement;
  5. Promote the engagement and involvement of young people and youth-led organisations in policy, development and peace-building processes, including in preparations and advocacy for the post-2015 UN development agenda and the United Nations system-wide action plan on youth;
  6. Engage both traditional and new media globally in addressing youth issues;
  7. Ensure the integration of gender perspective across all work areas;
  8. Represent the Secretary General as appropriate.

The excitement of the international youth sector was palpable—if not unanimously shared—but after the issue of a call for nominations in March 2012, nothing has happened for months.

In July, it became clear why. In the Youth Flash Newsletter it states:

UN Youth Advisor: a big announcement with a small budget

UN Youth Advisor: a big announcement with a small budget

“Numerous nominations have been received for both the role of the Special Advisor and her/his Advisory Group. The terms of reference for the role of Special Advisor indicate an exciting time ahead for youth issues within the UN system. However, for the role to be appointed funding contributions from Member States to support the office of the Special Advisor and his/her team for the medium term must first be secured. We hope to have more information on this process in the coming months.”

It’s difficult to decide what is more outrageous: that the special advisor for youth was announced without having the budgetary provisions in place, or that there is apparent trouble raising sufficient funds from UN member states to put such provisions in place.

How can this be real? How can something be announced and presented as ultimate fact, when there is no money to make it happen? How can it be so difficult to raise the money necessary to equip the advisor with meaningful resources?

This is political slapstick of the worst kind. Those responsible for this farce should be ashamed.

UN Youth Advisor: a big announcement with a small budget

UN Youth Advisor: a big announcement with a small budget

Redefining governance … slowly

At the world assembly of civil society, currently ongoing in Montreal, Canada, the analysis about deficits of global governance is honest and sharp:

“We operate in a flawed system of bankrupted moral standing, vested interested, weak politicians and bureaucratic processes.”

“Many governments have failed to deliver on rights, to provide adequate security to citizens and to meet their expectations. Others have allowed non-state actors untrammelled power to steamroll rights and legitimate aspirations of the people that inhabit our planet.”

“Our leaders are severely conflicted; they rationally know that things are serious, but are impaired by myopic thinking and corporate dollars.”

The analysis about the soberingly ineffective role played by civil society is equally acid and crushing:

“If we honestly, brutally question our efficiency as a movement, we have to realise that we have had very little meaningful impact.”

“We have, for years, mistaken access to power with influence over power. We get so orgasmic about sitting at the table – but only lend credibility to decisions of others.”

“We have been compromised by the polluting effect of money. We are in a trap of thinking we need more money than we do.”

These are some of the main questions that are being discussed in response to this analysis:

“Civil society is at a critical juncture: will we be able to adjust? Do we make try to make the best of citizen engagement within a broken system, or do we give up on multilateralism & find something new?”

“A crisis that’s severe enough will help to overcome social and political inertia. – The key question is then: is the global governance crisis severe enough for civil society to successfully redefine it?”

“How do we include movements that do not fit the model of traditional civil society?”

Redefining global governance… very slowly

But there is also a growing uneasiness about the abundance of scathing analysis and the lack of progress in finding a meaningful response:

“The challenges of citizen participation are well known. We must now focus on the solutions. The talking needs to end.”

“The challenge for this world assembly of civil society is not just to talk about redefining the social contract, but to *actually* redefine it – not merely complain.”

“Civil society has to propose, not just oppose.”

Will civil society live up to the challenge – and to their own slogan and claim of “defining a new social contract – making the future together”?


Time to act before England burns again

A year on from the England riots, we wanted to investigate what life was like for children and young people in England and what – if any – impact the riots have had on policy makers and policy making.

Photo: Christine Overal

Over two weeks in July 2012, we visited young people and youth projects in London and Nottingham and met leading figures from the Riot Panel and Lambeth Council. Our film, England Riots: A year on, shows the lives behind the riots and the constraints on policy makers and the limitations of change in the current economic climate.

“Residents in communities where riots took place last summer want rioters – any of whom had long criminal records – appropriately punished. However, they also believe that action is needed to ensure that in future, these individuals and those displaying worrying signs of similar behaviour can play a positive role in their areas.”

– Riot Panel

In The 5 days when England burned, we set out causes and effects of last summer’s violence and in this second article we take the Riot Communities and Victim panel’s (Riot panel) recommendations[1] and explore what’s changed in terms of youth unemployment, police relationships and community participation and give our own thoughts on what needs to happen next.

“My life is hell.”

A 16-year-old boy, who has just finished school, described how he now faced nothing. He’d tried to get a job and had been laughed at and has regular interaction with the police. Despite trying to set up a community-recording studio with a group of friends, his future, he feels, is bleak.

The story of Bookie from Nottingham is not uncommon and without some form of positive intervention in his life, his future remains uncertain and is likely to spiral downwards. In addition to his anger for the system and hatred of the government and police, he wasn’t expecting life to get better.

Youth Unemployment

“Many young people the Panel met following the riots spoke of a lack of hopes and dreams for the future – particularly because they feel there was no clear path to work in an age of record youth unemployment.”

– The Riot Panel

Figures released in July show that despite a fall of 10.000 young people out of work, still over one million are not in education, employment or training in the UK – a fifth of the UK’s youth.[2]

On youth unemployment, the Government’s independent Riot Communities and Victims panel recommended that:

  • Government and local public services fund a ‘Youth Job Promise’ to get as many young people as possible a job, where they have been unemployed for a year.
  • Government provide a job guarantee for all young people who have been out of work for two years or more.
  • Local areas, particularly those with high levels of youth unemployment, establish neighbourhood ‘NEET Hubs’ to join up data and resources.

When Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister launched the Youth Contract, worth £1billion, it was hoped that the new initiative would create 410.000 work opportunities for young people over 3 years.[3] But the scheme doesn’t actually provide jobs in itself. The scheme is a wage incentive for businesses and although makes it cheaper for businesses to hire young people, it relies on businesses being in a position to hire staff at all.

A ‘youth job promise’ for young people unemployed for a year – which has gone up 264%[4] in the past year – and a ‘job guarantee’ for young people out of work for two years or more are needed and positive steps. But given the scale of the issue, local authorities and the government must do more for young people.

A ‘NEET hub’ could provide the level of intensive, multi-agency working needed to tackle the many problems in the cycle of unemployment and poverty that prevents people accessing employment. More net jobs are required, but jobs alone won’t solve the cycle of poverty and despair as many would lack qualifications needed, the stability to make work sustainable and the trust and confidence in authority.

As local authorities face large cuts from government funding, the reality is that little spare money means these kind of solutions are unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future.

But when they have got spending power, they must use it to maximum benefit.

“The successful contractor benefits the local community, for example by publishing details of: the number of local jobs and apprenticeships created, work experience offered and links to schools, colleges and wider youth provision.”

– The Riot Panel

Local authorities spend £88 billion – roughly £185 million in each local council – per year on procuring services from the private sector.[5] Contracts should work for the communities they serve and must include a fixed number of jobs for local young people, work experience placements for those without the necessary qualifications and apprenticeships for a vocation to be learnt.


At a time when only 56% of the public think the police do a good job in their area,[6] the concept of policing is changing and needs to respond to the community expectations of their role and relationship.

On policing, some of the key recommendations from the Riot Panel were:

  • Improved success rates and transparency in the use of Stop and Search
  • Police services proactively engage directly with their communities to debunk myths on issues that affect the perception of their integrity,
  • Police services should identify all ‘trust hotspots’ and immediately put in place a programme to improve confidence in these areas.
  • Police services continue integrating community policing values into wider teams.

“Many communities, but particularly those in London, do not feel that stop and search is conducted fairly.”

– The Riot Panel

In 2009/10, 1.3 million people were stopped and searched.[7] Out of these only 9% were arrested[8] and around 0.5% led to a conviction for carrying a dangerous weapon.[9] In our film, many young people said they felt harassed by the police.

A member of the public can be stopped under two powers. Section 1 of Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE)[10] which can be made by any officer and requires an officer to have “reasonable grounds for suspecting” a crime has been committed. Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994[11] is different and needs to have the authorisation of a more senior officer who designates an area or zone in which the power can be used. Section 60 does not require any suspicion that by searching an individual, an officer will find something illegal.

Stop and searches in England and Wales

Section 1 of PACE is the most commonly used power and in 2010/2011, 1.205.495 people were stopped and in April 2011, stop and search under Section 1 was at its highest since 2001.[12]

The Metropolitan Police have committed to halving the number of of Section 60 stop and searches[13] but this is a side track seeing as these only account for 4.7%[14] of all stop and searches. It is Section 1 were such a commitment is needed and has so far not been made.

The Riot panel called for improved rates of success rates and increased transparency in the use of stop and search powers and in Haringey, the London borough which includes Tottenham, change seems to be happening.

In Haringey, stop and search was used 534 times in June, as opposed to the power being used 1.261 times in June 2011.[15] More so, 14.4% led to an arrest versus 8.6% last year.[16] In addition, no approvals for the use of Section 60 powers have been made since February.[17] Training on stop and search is now part of the induction for new PC recruits.[18]

Borough Commander, Sandra Looby said,[19]

“We recognise that stop and search is a key area of frustration among some members of the community and we are changing the way we use the power to make it more targeted and effective.

This is a positive move and more boroughs and police forced need to follow suit in making powers effective and targeted, leading to less stops and more arrests.

“Police services proactively engage directly with their communities to debunk myths on issues that affect the perception of their integrity.”

– The Riot Panel

Our perspective is defined by our reality. If police only see young people committing crime or engaging in violence, they will naturally be suspicious, guarded and defensive. Likewise, if young people’s only experience of the police is stop and search, they will feel harassed and disrespected. We need to stop the only interaction of both sides being a negatively prejudiced situation and change the experience for both sides.

“Communities want better engagement and better quality contact with all levels of police, not just community police officers. There should be a common set of values across the entire police force.”

– The Riot Panel

Simon Marcus, a member of the Riots Panel, as well as Just for Kids Law told us that a Stop & Talk[20] rather than Stop and Search approach was needed. Young people felt that the police were not there to protect them and this needs to be challenged in the actions, not just words, of the police force.

Police talking to young people would help build confidence and although it would take time to establish a trusting relationship, it’s a step we must take to create respect and understanding between communities and those charged with protecting us. While this is needed from both sides, it is the police who are the professionals not the public and it is their actions that can make a positive change in the community.

“Protecting – although not preserving – the front line.”

– HM Inspector of Constabulary

Between 2010 and 2015 the police need to make £2.4 billion worth of cuts after the police force budget was cut by 20%.[21] This will result in 28.400 members of the police force losing their jobs.[22] The reorganization, which by 2015 will see between 81% & 95% of police officers on the front line,[23] needs to be accompanied with a change in training to ensure those at the forefront of policing are qualified and able to engage positively with the community – particularly young people.

Community involvement

“Everyone’s aiming for the government today. Everyone’s voices needs to get heard. And that’s what it was.”

– Reading the Riots

13 out of the 63 recommendations by the Riots, Communities & Victims panel reference local authorities and as town halls are the most common interaction that the public have with the government they play a crucial role in the lives of citizens through local services delivery.

In Lambeth, Councillor Steve Reed is overseeing a £76 million cut in the Council’s budget over the next three years with £20 million expected to hit Children and Young people’s services.[24] Figures released last month showed long term youth unemployed rising by 243%[25] in the borough with 30 people chasing every 1 job.[26]

Whether spurred on from the riots or the dramatic cuts Councils are having to manage, Lambeth Council – a self proclaimed Cooperative Council – is reimagining the way services are delivered.

In Lambeth, including young people in the way things are run could help to bring people into the heart of community decision making. From next year, a new cooperative organisation, with young people as its members, will take control of a multi-million pound budget and be legally responsible for the commissioning and delivery of children and youth services in the borough.

We don’t know whether this will work, but what we have seen is that throwing money at a problem, hasn’t always given us the outcomes we’d expected and Local Authorities must explore new ways of running services rather than simply cutting the cord from town halls to neighbourhoods. Time will tell whether this new entity has the ability to deliver services on a shoestring and take young people seriously. Few people want to see multi-million pound cuts in services, but that is the reality we’re faced with.


While many of the cuts and withdrawal of services may have been contributing factors to the riots, what is most noticeable is the negative culture and feeling of worth as a generation that this perpetuated. The atmosphere of anger, hopelessness and insecurity about the future is palpable for the youth generation as they struggle to carve out an identity and self worth that is not defined by the length of the benefits line.

But to do that young people need help.

“Having a mentor can help young people … feel more positive about their future.”

– The Riot Panel

When we met Bookie and heard his story in Nottingham, it was clear he needed someone to guide and support him. The Riots panel championed mentoring for young people leaving prison to tackle reoffending, but it is also needed for the many people not passing through the youth justice system. Having a role model, someone you can relate to, connect with and who understands your experience can make the difference between a life of uncertainty and fear and a life of worth and self-fulfillment.

Many parents, families and friends play this role but for those who don’t have a stable home life need a mentor figure to act as the voice of direction, support and guidance. This urgently needs acting upon by schools, local authorities and central government. Following the success of Team GB at London 2012, there are no shortage of positive role models and a nationwide mentorship programme could transform the attitudes and outlook of despondent and hopeless youth.

Moving forward

In the short term, we’ll need to find ways of tackling these problems with much less public money than there was before. Changing the way the police approach young people on the street doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Stopping and Talking costs no more than Stopping and Searching and building relationships can be done for free.

But increased spending alone has often failed to tackle social problems and now is a time for new approaches to the way services, councils, police and communities run and interact. Throughout history, the hardest of times have sparked the most innovative of solutions – think of the NHS, women’s empowerment, medical and technology advances. In Lambeth, the experiment of delivering youth services in a cooperative model is one example of the kind of thinking needed.

There is also something more fundamental at work. Economic approaches, regeneration, growth and jobs all play a role in the solution in tackling our underlying social problems, but they miss a crucial aspect of the anger and frustration that people feel. For many, the issue is about justice, fairness and equality. Justice in terms of government, police and press corruption, fairness in cuts equality in lowering the gap between rich and poor.

Life, for those we met, is little different now than last year and without action we risk a repeat of the riots. Throughout the past year, much time has been spent reflect and analyzing the causes of the riots and the recommendations give a clear pathway for action. But little has been done.

The debate on causes and effect was needed, but must end here. The time of navel-gazing at society is over and we must now deliver change before further failing a generation.


The 5 days when England burned

The 5 days when England burned

“The fires that began in Tottenham would burn through English towns and cities for four nights. The summer disturbances left five people dead, hundreds injured and more than 4.000 arrested. It was the most serious bout of civil unrest in a generation, with as many as 15.000 people taking to the streets.”

– Paul Lewis, Reading the Riots, The Guardian

What happened?

On the 7th of August 2011, a peaceful protest outside a small police station in Tottenham, North London became the ignition of four nights of riots and looting that engulfed London boroughs and cities across England, including Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, and Bristol.

The four days of mass rioting amounted to £200 million worth of damage and over £300 million claimed on insurance as large companies, corner shops, community buildings and cars bore the brunt of the unrest as thousands took to the streets.

Understanding why

Over 3.000[1] people have appeared in court over the past year with almost 2.000[2] receiving prison sentences. Of those charged, 89% were male[3] and a majority—53%—were under 18 years of age.[4]

Over the past year, much time and energy has been spent seeking to explain what happened and why and what is needed to deal with the social and cultural issues that lay underneath the violence and disorder.

The Guardian and London School of Economics’ study Reading the Riots has excellently captured some of the reasons as to why the riots happened, and the Government’s independent Riot Communities and Victims Panel concluded with 63 recommendations for the police, local authorities, schools, corporations and public services.

Other reports include those for The Metropolitan Police, Home Office, Youth Justice Board, National Council for Voluntary Organisations and the Riot’s panel’s initial report 5 days in August.

Life in the UK

The UK is currently in its second bout of recession since the financial crash in 2008 and figures from the IMF recently showed the UK would have the smallest growth in 2011 of any developed country. Since 2010, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition have attempted to deal with UK’s budget deficit and in 2010, they announced a spending cut of £81billion[5] over 4 years, with departmental cuts of 19%[6] and Local Authorities forced to cut local services by around a quarter.[7]

For young people, this period has seen record youth unemployment, the tripling university tuition fees, withdrawal of housing benefit for under 25s and the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance – a benefit designed to support low earning families to afford 16-18 education.

The 5 days when England burned

In August 2011, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister said the riots were, “criminality, pure and simple.” But many – including those taking part – disagree with him and put the Government’s actions centre stage in the debate on causes.

“Police don’t think we’re rioting for a reason. They believe we’re rioting because Mark Duggan died and we have no other reason. Like, we’re rioting cos they’re not giving us nothing to do, they’re taking away EMA (Educational Maintenance Allowance), taking away free travel, taking away certain allowances that teenagers have and they’re not replacing it with anything good.”

– Andrew, Reading the Riots participant.

Through Reading the Riots, complemented by grassroots work in Croydon with 300 young people, two issues characterize youth involvement in the riots and give us a starting point for exploring what impact the riots have had on local and national policy and what has changed in the lives of young people in the past year.

Youth unemployment, opportunities and hopelessness

Youth unemployment hit a peak in 2011 with one million 16-24 years old not in education, employment or training[8]. Though youth unemployment has been rising steadily for many years, the financial crash has exacerbated the problem and many young people involved in last summer’s riots described the lack of opportunities – be that employment, education or things to do – as a key driver for involvement. In the UK a fifth of young people are unemployed and half of all young black men are without work or in education.[9]

This was often coupled with a feeling of unfairness at a time of MPs expenses scandal, corruption in business, and the fallout with high bonuses continued to be paid from bailed out banks. One analyst from The Guardian said,

“Whether their focus was police conduct, government policy, or difference in income and wealth – each of which was a recurring theme – the one term that kept cropping up was ‘justice.'”

Though the Government has often been criticized for a slow and inadequate response to rising youth unemployment, in April, the Deputy Prime Minister announced a £1bn fund through the Youth Contract that will provide incentives to businesses to recruit young people under 25. The Coalition expect this to create 410,000 new jobs over the next 3 years – though 250,000 will be work experience placements rather than full time employment.[10] Nick Clegg, the DPM said,

“Youth unemployment isn’t just an unforgivable economic waste – it’s a human tragedy too. The struggles of these young men and women, their fears, their hardship, the dreams they put to one side. We cannot accept that.”

The problem of youth unemployment is systemic with the deficit of jobs growing since before the financial crash. Inequality – the gap between rich and poor – was widening during the Labour government and while everyone got richer during that time, the rich got richer and inequality grew.[11]

While the ending of one government benefit, that only a minority of those involved in the riots would have received, the repeated mention of EMA was indicative of wider anger, frustration and injustice that those already the lowest earners and most marginalized in society are being hit hardest by government austerity and public sector cuts.[12]

The perception of low opportunities for young people is high and felt by young people of all different ages. The increasing of university tuition fees has seen a drop in high education applications while younger people are seeing their youth clubs close and activities stopped as Local Authorities frontload large cuts in central government funding. During our work in Croydon last year, young people hadn’t even been informed that the youth club we were working in was due to close the following week.

The police

The 5 days when England burned

During the Reading the Riots interviews, when asked what they thought the leading cause of the riots were, 68% of the public said the police.[13]

For those who did not experience the riots first hand, it is hard to imagine the lawlessness of England’s streets during those nights. The police were, at times outnumbered, unprepared to deal with the violence and unable to keep track with the rapid plans made through Blackberry Messenger. By the final night 16.000 police officers were on the streets and this marked—although is not necessarily the definitive cause—the end of the worst civil unrest in a generation. The threat of water canons and rubber bullets deterred some, while the rain and a sense of ‘mission complete’ kept others at home.

But it isn’t just the policing that was criticized. The police themselves have been placed in the frame.

While many people come into little contact with the police, for some in society it can be an almost daily occurrence with relationships between communities—particularly young, black men—and the police rapidly deteriorating in recent years.

“I hate the police. I hate the fact that one time I’ve been stopped and searched on the street and this man’s thought I had a weapon just because of the way I had a certain fucking scarf. They talk as if they are above you.”

– Reading the Riots participant.

If you are a black male, you are 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched – stop and search being the controversial law enabling police to search individuals without any suspicion of an offense – than the rest of the population.[14] In 2009, it was only 10 times more likely.[14] At the same time, only 0.5% of those stopped and searched were subsequently arrested for carrying a dangerous weapon.[14]

“I think it was having a go at the police – you know, after years of abuse. Because the police do abuse people, they do, like, take liberties. I know people who get harassed by the police on a regular basis, and it will always go on – and I can’t see it ever stopping.”

The Metropolitan police’s riot report concluded that ‘a level of tension existed among sections of the community.’ What is most surprising, is that this was a surprise to the Met police and despite the introduction of community police officers over the past few years, the tension went ignored and unrecognized until the riots.

In response, Bernard Hogan-Howe, appointed as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police just 3 weeks before the riots in London, has pledged to half the number of people stopped and searched in a swift change of policy attempting to rebuild relationships with the black community. However, this hasn’t been reflected in recent data released by the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Open Society Justice Initiative and neither in Hogan-Howe’s past having overseeing the number of stop and search uses from 1.389 to a staggering 23.138.[15]

The police are facing large restructuring in response to government cuts and insecurity about their own jobs undoubtedly takes priority over locally based community engagement work. The police have faced years of criticism with tactics and relationships brought into question and corruption exposed during the phone hacking scandal makes it little wonder that only 7% of rioters, and only 56% of the public, think the police do a good job in their community.[16]

In the ‘police and public’ section of the Riot Panel’s report into the cause and effects on the England Riots, the first recommendation highlights the need to the police to be perceived to act with integrity at all time. Other recommendations focus on ‘integrity,’ ‘engagement,’ ‘trust,’ ‘confidence,’ and ‘transparency’ and urge the police to make relationship building and engagement a central part of their post-riots strategy. Meaningful engagement and dialogue, which we see time and time again in civil conflicts, is a much more effective tactic that heavy handed confrontation and aggression.

What’s changed?

People’s opinions on the riots have often come down to their politics. The left have cried out in horror at society’s failures, inequality, public cuts and marginalization of the poor. The right retaliates with community and family breakdown, weak deterrents, political correctness and the nanny, mollycoddling welfare state. But what both sides should be able to agree on is that something has gone profoundly wrong in Britain. Whatever the belief held, the riots were proof of the failing; the only question is where to lay the blame.

Whether the England riots were an outbreak of civil mutiny or an outcry of the struggles facing the masses, change is needed.

The 5 days when England burned

We cannot ignore, both from the police statistics and verbatim evidence from Reading the Riots, that some young people and adults committed large scale, serious crimes. Families and friends will never forget the five individuals who died and the damage, theft, arson and assault cannot simply be apologized for by social ills, political deficits, economic meltdowns and cultural alienation. Violent disorder happened on the streets of England and those responsible must be held to account.

But while the individuals involved must take responsibility for their actions, so must policy makers. Local authorities, the police, national government, schools and youth services must accept policies have failed and are inadequate to provide young people with the confidence, skills, opportunities and ambition to lead fulfilling lives.

The Riot Communities and Victims Panel, along with many of the other reports, have given a sense of the scale of action needed and given a framework for avoiding subsequent scenes again.

In asking that what’s changed, we believe the story to be unfinished. As we—the team—head back into riot affected communities, meet decision makers, Riot panel members, young people and communities NGOs, we’ll be exploring whether change is happening and whether the riots have had a lasting impact in terms of local and national policy or whether it has been swept under an Olympic shaped rug and forgotten.

The riots don’t need to happen again, though 81% of people think they will.[17] No one wants to see a repeat, but our chance of survival is limited if we forever analyze the symptoms and never take the medication.