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 www.youthindex.org.
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.