Youth and Participation

DSC_0086The world’s current youth population is the largest in history where over 3 billion people are under the age of 25. And these current times as well pose in front of us an ever existing challenge for development, and it remains crucial to bear in mind through all our actions of advancement, be it political, economic or social, the essential active engagement of youth as a main pillar to guide and to ensure its continuity.

In 2002 at the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain, the executive director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Peter Piot stated: “We are working with young people, rather than for young people.” This actually implies a shifting in the paradigm from treating young people as problems to be dealt with, to viewing youth as capable resources, assets and foundations for a competent society. But why is it important for youth to participate in the decision making for their societies to become beneficiaries rather than a target group?

To start with, youth constitute 50% of the developing world, creating what is known as the “youth bulge”, whereby young people compose a peaking proportion of many populations. The duration of this youth bulge must be seen as an essential opportunity, ripe and ready to be transformed into a productive workforce to participate effectively in its own social and economic development. This is not the end result however, but rather this remains a mean for people to prosper and pursue their personal excellence that asserts their dignity at every stage. Youth’s participation at its very first essential nature reinforces the concept: that each individual has value, and this value entails on him/her a right to participate, verbalize his/her thoughts, and expresses the change that he/she wishes to see in this world.

Going from this stage, participation needs to be ensured for all, and at an equal level. And this is where the right policies and the right implementation become essential. And what is meant by “right” here is movement from the problem-based approach to one of a “three lenses” approach in viewing participation. The first views youth as beneficiaries and a well informed target group, the second sees youth as partners where there is mutual collaboration and responsibility, the third and the most important is supporting youth as leaders. This enables youth-initiated and led interventions as well as the creation of a space for youth decision-making within the existing structure. What this primarily creates is the ownership over and sustainability of interventions, the buildup of trust, and social and individual capital.

It is worthy to note that UNICEF has adopted the rights-based approach to youth, viewing participation as a right and an end by itself. But here a question arises; does participation matter for its own sake only, regardless of measurable and demonstrated benefits for the various groups and people? Or will participation remain a mean, vital like all others, to support the end which is only human dignity, and human dignity alone? Yes granting the right of participation for all youth is a critical step to be taken, but ensuring that youth’s voices and actions do give results oriented to their needs and desires needs also to be ensured. Or else we end up with a right, granted in theory, vain in practice, and works to increase youth’s frustration, leading eventually to society’s instability.

In conclusion, the World Bank’s notion of participation might encompass imperative concepts to guide youth’s integration or better, youth partnership, “… a process through which stakeholders influence and share control over development initiatives and the decisions and resources which affect them.” (1994).

Diala AlMasri is a regional intern at the World Youth Alliance Middle East.