Participation & Governance

Beyond growing pains: New executive takes over at the Commonwealth Youth Council

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In November 2013, the Commonwealth Youth Council (CYC) was launched at the Commonwealth Youth Forum in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, held alongside the controversial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The CYC is the largest youth representative body in the world, covering 53 member countries and 1.2 billion young people. Our coverage of the event was tough: “…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.” You can see our film, “A voice for the Commonwealth?” for more insight into the week.

Two years on, a new Executive Board is now in post. For the 9 executive positions, 102 candidates applied, with 46 countries taking part in the elections in Malta, the location for the 2015 Commonwealth Youth Forum. Although no female candidates applied for the Chair position, the executive is fairly balanced: 4 females and 5 males. The system of regional rotation ensured the chair came from Asia, with candidates from Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh vying for the top position.

Kishva Ambigapathy, a Malaysian currently completing an MSc Global Politics at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom as a Chevening Scholar, now replaces Ahmad Amadu as the Chair of the CYC. We spoke to Kishva about the CYC’s achievements to date, its future role and position, and his hopes for the Executive’s term ahead.

Growing pains

For the outgoing executive, the CYC General Assembly in Malta was a difficult week, with heavy criticisms of the financial reports from delegates and - at times - chaotic management of the proceedings. But for Kishva, it was a “hard toss” for Ahmad and his team, with these criticisms not reflecting the good work done by the inaugural executive:

“…they achieved a lot in the first three years, given that they were the founding years, especially what was done for the administration, mostly getting things in place, so that the Council can operate smoothly in years to come.”

In March, the incoming executive will meet in London to agree their strategic plan, building on the outcomes of the Commonwealth Youth Forum (see the Declaration here). For Kishva, there are some pressing priorities:

“The first priority will be empowering the youth councils to deliver the Commonwealth Youth Forum outcomes. In terms of economy, we’re looking at entrepreneurship; in terms of environment, climate change mitigation; in terms of politics, conflict prevention; and in terms of social, education and gender equality.

Secondly, how will we further enhance capacity and technical development… We have all these youth networks…now we’re going to look at how we can build their capacity. Because we see that one of the issues is that youth have been asking for platforms where they are recognised and engaged, but one of the concerns is how ready are the youth to be recognised, when they don’t have the right capacity?

The third is, within the administration of the CYC itself, how will we reinforce and re-empower the CYC, to ensure that the voice of youth are well represented in international platforms, like the UN.”

A shared problem: Achieving change

The Commonwealth Youth Council is structured like other representative bodies, with youth organisations permitted to join from the Commonwealth’s member states. But alongside national youth councils, there is a common challenge: how do you get things done? For the CYC, with 53 countries, huge geographic, economic, and political disparities in membership, and fierce competition for funding, influence and space within the international youth sector, this is even more complex. Kishva notes:

“Right now, people are still a bit weary of the concept of CYC: what is CYC’s role, what is CYC going to do, to what extent are we going to do activities, will they be at the micro-level.”

A decentralised approach is suggested, but even for the most developed and capable national youth councils, this seems like an overly optimistic process of advocacy and change:

“So for example, the creation of an ICT programme. How are we going to bring this up in, let’s say, Singapore? This is when we talk to the national youth council and say, ok - how does this ICT programme benefit the youth of Singapore? Then we identify stakeholders. For example, let’s say Microsoft Singapore is involved, or if Google Singapore is involved, or if the government is involved. Then the national youth council will set up a team called “the ICT programme for the CYC”, then get the person in touch with Google, Microsoft, the government, and CYC. Then the national youth council will coordinate necessary to put this ICT programme forward.”

But later in our conversation, there is a much clearer sense of direction for the CYC:

“…the role of the CYC needs to be clear: the CYC is not an organisation that is not going to do a lot of activities, but rather a voice of 1.2 billion youth. It’s an advocacy body, which represents youth in international organisations.”

This is an honest - and probably more realistic - assessment of where the CYC can play an important role. The CYC should have access to the 53 governments of the Commonwealth, giving it substantial leverage on the world’s stage. As Lloyd Russel-Moyle, former Vice-President of the European Youth Forum has suggested, the CYC could go further: what if the Commonwealth gave the CYC its observer seat the United Nations?

As an inter-governmental institution, the Commonwealth Secretariat - is taking an increasingly active role with member states when it comes to youth, led by the Youth Affairs division: the 2016 Youth Development Index will launch in the Spring, a new roster of experts has been selected to support governments on youth policy development, and the Conference on Youth Workin South Africa in March sees the Commonwealth champion youth services. This chimes with Kishva’s approach:

“I think its also high time we look at collaboration with governments who invest in youth, to meet development priorities, and how youth can be involved in the design, implementation and evaluation of policies.”

But, a divide and conquer approach to the youth sector isn’t in his sights:

“…there [are] a lot of youth organisations out there today, and everyone is fighting among themselves to champion the youth agenda. This has created a lot of divide as well. So in the CYC, in the next two and a half years at least, we are opening up to partnerships and collaborations. We’re not going to do this alone.”

A new Chair and a new Secretary-General

For Commonwealth enthusiasts, 2016 is an exciting year. Baroness Patricia Scotland is taking over as the organisation’s new Secretary-General - the first female to ever hold the post. She has immediately taken an assertive stance against one of the major elephants in the Commonwealth’s plush set of rooms: LGBT rights. In an interview with The Independent, she indicated that the first two years of her tenure will be to persuade all Commonwealth states to decriminalise homosexuality. Currently, 40 out of 53 countries ban homosexual acts. Kishva speaks on how the CYC might contribute to these efforts:

“I think the Secretary-General has expressed an area of concern for youth, with a growing group asking for LGBT rights…Legalisation is one thing, 40 out of 53 countries is a very big number - to achieve that within two and a half years is a very steep hill. But we shouldn’t just focus on legalising it, but rather providing the network of support, proper platform to recognise these individuals. We need a system that can assist them. This is where our youth networks would be there to support them.”

Yes to youth, without a “Youth Goal”

After a visible, but ultimately unsuccessful, campaign for a separate youth goal in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Kishva is clear about the need to move on from talking and start doing the difficult work - whatever the issue is:

“One of the main issues is that we only talk about what we already know for the last 10 years. We are talking about youth empowerment, but the process of empowering youth is not being addressed. I feel that right now what we actually need is to make sure that youth are well trained in terms of the goals, and not just go around saying we need to empower [youth], we need to advocate for these goals - and yet we don’t actually know how to put these goals in place.”

With the launch of the “From Rhetoric to Action” report, this captures the mood of the sector: the need to stop talking, and start taking action on youth. While The Commonwealth more broadly has taken a leading role in youth development, the Commonwealth Youth Council remains in its infancy. Going forward, the CYC must mature as a structure - particularly in the way in interacts with and utilises its members - and develop a feasible advocacy plan to achieve something meaningful.

With a fresh mandate and a host of big issues to tackle, the CYC is a welcomed body within The Commonwealth. But unless it can show it has the ability to impact the lives of those it claims to represent, it risks being lost in the already crowded space of youth representation structures. We want to see it become an important institution, and the next two years will be crucial in determining its long-term prospects.

Written and edited byCristina Bacalsoand Alex Farrow.A special thanks toKishva Ambigapathy for the interview.

Featured image from the Commonwealth Secretariat Flickr.Newly elected Commonwealth Youth Council Executive (L-R) Nikoli Jean-Paul Edwards (Trinidad and Tobago), Angelique Pouponneau (The Seychelles), Faith Manthi (Kenya), Kishva Ambigapathy (Malaysia), David Aoneaka (Papua New Guinea), Sharonice Davinnia Busch (Namibia),Pravin Nikam (India), and Christina Giwe (Papua New Guinea). Shared under theCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license.