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“Empowering African Youth”: Reflections from a Change Mercenary
“No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy.
Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime.
Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts itself off from its youth severs its lifeline; it is condemned to bleed to death.” —Kofi Annan, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations”
Empowerment means to give official authority or legal power; to enable or to promote self-actualization or influence. Effective youth empowerment is a systematic process of strengthening the capacity of young people to create and take advantage of opportunities to influence, shape, design, and contribute to policy processes and socio-economic development. These opportunities are often created through a range of formal and informal mechanisms that stimulate youth participation through advisory groups, focus groups, and youth-led projects.
According to a World Bank Report: “Youth in Africa's Labour Market”, Sub-Saharan Africa is the most “youthful” place in the World, with over 28% of its population categorized as “youth”. Yet, about 20% of Africa’s young people are unemployed. On the one hand, they are a potential resource for sustainable economic growth and social development. However, they have also proven to be a source of social tension and conflict when left disengaged from the conditions necessary for their development as productive citizens.
The cumulative impact of the challenges facing West Africa’s youth sector is that young people are socially, politically and economically marginalised in society.
Youths are largely absent from decision making processes that will affect their lives in the long-term and their ability to contribute to policy making processes is often underestimated and underutilized.
Over the years, prominent international donors and development agencies including the World Bank have been involved in designing and promoting programmes and policies that have affected youth empowerment and development. For instance, in Ghana the educational reforms of 1980s increased access to basic education, but still excludes many from high school education.
A significant number of junior high school graduates do not have adequate skills to make a decent living, nor do they have the ability and opportunity to continue towards higher education. These young people continue to be excluded from active socio-economic life without a profession or capital to establish a means to ensure a qualitative life. Consequently, they mostly find themselves on the fringes of survival in the informal sector engaging in street hawking, prostitution, or occasional part-time work as house-helps (maids) and laundry women, which gives them just enough money for daily subsistence.
How can the potential inherent in young people be better developed for national development, in the midst of these challenges? What kind of practical solutions must be designed and implemented in order to increase youth participation in decision-making and governance processes?
How can we manage cultural values that may inhibit youth participation in decision-making processes in this contemporary, market-driven and competitive global village, whilst still ensuring that productive traditional values are maintained and strengthened?
Youth Empowerment: What and Why?
It is imperative development practitioners and policy makers identify the hurdles and hindrances blocking youth-centred initiatives instead of merely suggesting, “youth employment opportunities must be broadened,” and “their capacities to act must be enhanced” in the style of many global development reports which are often very technical instead of engaging and relevant.
Initiatives geared towards empowering youth must start from addressing certain very basic questions on the traditional understanding of youth in the African context. In various African nations, the elderly are the most respected and cherished members of communities. The youth are often perceived as inferior and full of misdirected exuberance. Many of us believe that the elderly members of the community possess the most “authentic” form of knowledge and skills that can benefit the community. Therefore, they have the authority to “speak up” and serve in leadership positions.
Statements such as “young people do not respect anymore,” “they talk and dress inappropriately,” “they are destroying our culture,” “they are lazy” are very common in contemporary Africa. However, it is important the structural factors contributing to these behaviours are interrogated. We owe it to ourselves to strongly interrogate the foundations on which these tenets are built.
Young people in rapidly urbanizing Africa have access to images and cultural products such as western films, global news media and fiction and non-fictional literature where they see young people in authoritative and leadership positions. These images propel youth in Africa to challenge the status quo as they seek to be part of decision-making processes.
This “energy” is often wrongly interpreted as misdirected bordering on disrespect, when in most instances, young Africans are just taking a stand which reflects their innate desire to contribute to the development of the continent.
In the past, speaking up was not an option. Young Africans were advised to keep mute to avoid asking “irrelevant questions.” However, in these contemporary times, young people are breaking this barrier by making their voices heard through innovative channels like social media platforms, which are fast becoming the most potent channels for promoting youth engagement in governance processes.
Youth Empowerment: How?
Interrogate the level of youth engagement in governance processes in Africa: It is important to determine how active young people want to be. What are their most central desires and aspirations? We should not assume per se that young people are enthusiastic about participating in governance processes. There are “active” youth and “passive” youth from different socio economic backgrounds. Arguably, most African youth are actively searching for opportunities to influence because of the absence of mainstreamed youth-sensitive programmes in different sectors of society. This process will enable stakeholders to determine the appropriate channels of participation and partnership.
Promote and advocate for the development and operationalization of national youth policies: We need to encourage our governments to develop and operationalize national youth policies. We need to make sure that youth are involved in the formulation stages and their voices are heard. In that way we can ensure that our policies are tailored to address their real life challenges.
Youth organisations should collaborate with governments to organize engagement initiatives for young people: A useful example is the organisation of study visits to the various arms of government. These types of initiatives are being organized in various countries, and they are generally viewed favourably. Further examples of other initiatives are Youth Parliaments – Mano River Union Youth Parliament; African Youth Parliament; SADC Youth Parliament, Youth Councils – Nigerian Youth Council; South African Youth Council; Youth Networks – the African Regional Youth Initiative; West African Youth Network, SADC Youth Movement. These initiatives establish a mechanism for engagement between the government and youth representatives. These initiatives facilitate joint discussions and problem solving on issues that both parties are interested in.
Youth organisations and development practitioners should advocate for the development and operationalization of training and mentorship initiatives in all sectors of the society: Civil society, public and private sectors should provide training and mentorship opportunities for young people to engage in decision-making, lobbying and other leadership activities essential for strengthening participation in governance processes. For instance, WACSI instituted a “Next Generation Internship” programme as part of its core initiatives targeted at building the competencies of youth in leadership and decision making. These opportunities sharpen and build the youth’s professional and leadership skills set.
Youth organisations, community-based organisations and interested stakeholders should promote the organization of communal meetings with, opinion leaders, village/town elders and chiefs: This will help explore the common ground for understanding, and how to promote youth interests in communities. These problem solving platforms will help educate local governance decision-makers exactly on challenges and problems in youth participation, a platform to “market” youth potential, and stimulate debate on these matters. The media should be leveraged by youth activists and governments to consistently put youth-centred initiatives on the agenda.
Yes They Can!
Young people are not “idle resources”. They are human beings with dreams, ambitions and passions. Development in Africa will continue to falter unless this resource is recognised and empowered. If young people are not given the opportunity to engage in governance processes, their “minds” will continue to be “colonized” by foreign interests.
The youth have a “genuine and capable” capacity to redefine Africa's position and developmental course in this increasingly interconnected and fast-paced world. The challenge is to institutionalize opportunities for youth involvement at all levels – families, communities, national and regional levels.
* The Author, Charles Kojo Vandyck is WACSI’s Capacity Building Officer
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