“Youth” is everywhere right now. With the massive growth in the number of structures, policies and focus on youth, alongside street protests in cities across the world, young people’s participation and activism is in the spotlight. But how is youth participation conceived, written about, debated and experienced by academics, institutions, practitioners and young people? Here are six reasons why traditional youth participation faces real challenges to its legitimacy, purpose, and approaches.

In the past two years alone, there has been the World Youth Conference, Commonwealth Youth Forum, the First Global Forum on Youth Policies, the ECOSOC Youth Forum, the UNESCO Youth Forum, and the World Bank’s Youth Summit. The Commonwealth Youth Council was created, the Envoy on Youth was appointed, the number of national youth policies jumped by 30%, two-thirds of all countries have a national youth council or association, 190 countries have a national authority responsible for young people, UNDP launched its youth strategy, and the UN Secretary General declared young people the “torchbearers” of the future development agenda.

Away from the formal mechanisms, young people have been leaders – and supporters – in protests on the streets. In the last 5 years, we have seen social uprisings and civil unrest in the Bahrain, Canada, Brazil, Egypt, Greece, Iceland, Iran, Israel, Libya, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine, United Kingdom and the United States. In Tunisia and Egypt regimes were overthrown, in Iceland the constitution was changed, and in the United States and Spain the issues of responsible capitalism, financial corruption and unemployment achieved cultural recognition, and in the United Kingdom and Sweden riots and civil conflicts took over capital cities, highlighting inequality of opportunities and life chances. Some social movements have produced prolonged civil conflicts, such as in Libya, Ukraine and Syria, while others were swiftly and brutally repressed.

As part of a separate piece of work, I recently had to write a literature review on youth participation for the global research project, Case for Space. This included reviewing the latest academic thinking, the newest books and publications from practitioners, and exploring the wealth of reviews and reports from youth organisations and institutions. The full review will be published soon, but here are some immediate reflections on where I think youth participation is at, and some of the challenges that might pose.

  1. The term of “participation” is possibly not that useful. Broadly speaking, participation is mostly focused on the inclusion of young people in decision-making processes, such as within government, organisations, public services, judicial proceedings, and a multiple levels of governance from the local to the global arenas. But when participation can mean the attendance at the World Bank’s Youth Summit, marching on the streets of Cairo, or deciding which parent to live with in a divorce case, can this really all be reconciled under one term? When young people are tweeting about a global issue, taking cheap flights to stand with activists on foreign streets, and still advocating for local sexual health services in their community, we need to better understand how young people are participating in the world.
  2. There is a huge disconnect in perspectives on participation between academics and practitioners. In the review, I found that most of the current academic literature to be critical of approaches to youth participation, weary of the underlying ideologies and assumptions, and questioning of the real benefits and outcomes for young people, organisations and public policy. This is in stark contrast to the popular, very positive way in which youth organisations, NGOs, and international agencies embrace participation – both as an idea and the mechanisms and activities in practice. Though divides between academics and practitioners is not new nor specific to youth, the divide will only weaken youth participation. Practitioners need to be a lot more reflective (and perhaps honest?) about their work, and academics need to broaden and deepen the currently small-scale and theory-driven literature.
  3. The debate is no longer about whether participation is a good or useful thing. It seems this battle has been won (that it is good!), and the huge rise in the number of structures, spaces and places of youth participation are testament to that. Where the debate lies now is on whether the quality of participation is any good, what it should be attempting to achieve, and whether it results in any change – crucially this is about outcomes for individuals’ vs changes in policy and decisions. Linking back to point two, academics tend to see participation as being notionally important but currently ineffective at achieving change, whereas practitioners view it as always positive and mostly impactful. Given the huge writing of this on youthpolicy.org, frequent readers will know where many of our contributors sit…but if you are in doubt, try reading this, this, this, this, this and this.
  4. There is now a focus on individual character benefits (youth leadership skills, public speaking, confidence, social media knowledge or a positive attitude/agency) rather than the institutional, societal or governance change. The authors of Youth Rising? note that this creates only “a façade of engagement with radical, oppositional, grassroots politics.” By making the desired outcome individual improvement, rather than social change, we make every form of participation a success story while achieving very little in terms of political, social or economic change. This is likely to be an empowering and beneficial process for individual young people, but of little meaning to the wider youth demographic or groups attempting to achieve policy or structural impact. Young people should – of course – learn skills, gain knowledge, and develop personally, but this should be alongside, not instead of, actual, tangible, social change.
  5. To achieve change, two things must be overcome: the power held by structures and institutions and the perception of power in the minds of individuals. In Why it is Still Kicking Off Everywhere, Paul Mason gives the example of the mass protests in Egypt in 2011, where protesters not only physically gathered in large numbers to occupy Tahrir Square in opposition to the long-standing Mubarak regime, but to do so had required the removal of fear in the minds of activists. Young people – and the many other groups that took part – are willing to brave and overcome the fear of tear gas, assault, torture, police brutality, sexual abuse and character assassination to overthrow regimes. They are active – on the streets and online – and willing to confront powerful regimes and institutions, and this can act as a catalyst for other movements in other countries.
  6. Formal youth participation structures are often about compromise: on demands, on process, on inclusion, on successes. But who wants this? When a young person can tweet the head of the global organisation from their bedroom, use a hashtag and start a trend, or share a vblog and spark a revolution, what role do formal NGOs or organisations have in channeling this? With its inherent political and establishment connections – such as funding, legal status, or even the right to exist – would a formal structure have had the ability to mobilise a mass youth action, had the legitimacy and moral authority to challenge the state, or even wanted to do such an action – one that risks lives, reputation, and organisational survival? When young people will risk their lives for change, what potency does a youth council offer? This reminds me of Liam Barrington-Bush’s fantastic imagined story about NGOs organising the Arab Spring.

This explosion of structures, policies and processes may give rise to the notion that participation is a new phenomenon. Let’s be clear: it isn’t. The Greeks were philosophising on the citizen interaction with state, and even within the shorter time frame of the 20th century, “participation” has adopted many forms, ideologies, and actions, with different instigators, benefactors and desired outcomes. But what is clear is that in 2015, is that formal structures – which are just one type of participation mechanisms – need to meet young people’s aspirations and organising ability, not neutralise their agency and impact.

Representational politics is about delegating responsibility for decisions to someone else, but young people – as seen in the spontaneous eruption of mass actions seen across the world – don’t need this from youth councils or youth parliaments. To the potential threat of youth structures and the current approaches to participation, young people have the skill, ability and mindset to take action, be heard and realise change in a way that wasn’t possible before, that doesn’t require organisations, and that bypasses the distrusted formal institutions.

These are just some initial thoughts and “hunches” from a much longer literature review, with much more context, explanation, justification and – of course – opposition. But, at the beginning of 2015, these are some of the main challenges I see governments, institutions and established youth organisations facings. Against the context of a massive “proliferation” of structures, policies, and emphasis on the social category of youth, we must continue to be self-reflective, critical and honest. We all want young people to be able to properly participate in the decision-making processes that affect their lives, the area of debate is about how this is done, who is included, who is in charge, for what purpose and in what form.


Credit: Feature photo by Sean Comiskey / Eyes on Rights, 17/08/2014. Original image here.

Written by Alex Farrow and edited by Emilia Griffin.

This article has been translated into Spanish by Ollin“Participar en 2015: ¿Explosión positiva de juventud o simple lucha por seguir siendo relevantes?”

Written by Alex Farrow

Alex Farrow

Alex is a frequent traveller, iMessage fiend, twitter aficionado, and coffee addict. For excitement and employment, he explores the intersection of youth policy, journalism and research, attempting to improve the lives of young people through knowledge, training and expression. At Youth Policy Labs, Alex leads on consultancy projects, supporting national governments and UN agencies to design, implement and evaluate national youth policies, through research, training and events. He is a contributing writer and editor for the site, as well as researcher into youth and public policies. Alex uses his well-honed, but now less-used, acting skills and techniques in front of the camera, and in training and facilitation on youth campaigns, youth policy and participation globally. Alex received his MSc in Organizational Behaviour from Birkbeck College, Uni. Of London, with a research project that explores the career expectations and narratives of the millennial generation in today’s workforce.