“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.
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?”