From its earliest days in the 1980s NDI recognized that throughout the world young people were driving forces in democracy movements. From the Philippines’ People Power Revolution to Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, from South Africa’s struggle to end apartheid to student protests against Panama's dictator nullifying elections, young people played key roles in autocracy yielding to democracy. NDI also recognized that young people were not politically monolithic nor necessarily politically active and that significant barriers excluded them, even within democratic structures. Consequently, young people in every country often remained disconnected from traditional political institutions and processes and sought other means of political expression.
At the same time, it was apparent that young people were diverse and represented within all identity groups (except, of course, older people), including historically marginalized populations, and – when supported in their leadership – they could contribute to the shifting of power, more inclusive governance and broader citizen participation. It became clear, as this area of work expanded, that NDI’s programming must be responsive to the diverse and intersecting identities of young people, including gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, religion, and socioeconomic status - factors that cause varying degrees and experiences of marginalization and exclusion. Helping them to effectively engage with unique, diverse voices in promoting responsive governance is essential to democratic success.
With this understanding, NDI developed two streams of youth political participation and leadership activities. One includes programs that help prepare young people to recognize entry points into democratic engagement, whether at national, provincial, or grassroots levels. Another includes working with institutions, such as political parties, universities, civic organizations, and governmental bodies, to advance the inclusion and leadership of young people in all their diversity as part of pursuing democratic norms. NDI also identified the need to work with young people through both targeted initiatives, which address barriers specific to young people, and mainstream initiatives, which integrate young people into political activities alongside other groups. Program aims include:
Meeting young people where they are, recognizing that diversity determines different starting points and needs
Equipping young people with political leadership skills, including knowledge about politics and civic engagement, democratic concepts and political entry points; technical skills, as well as an emphasis on interpersonal skills development;
Fostering youth-led collective action, including issue-based mobilization and advocacy;
Strengthening young people’s networks and access to political leaders of all ages;
Strengthening their intergenerational relationships through increased opportunities for collaboration; and
Creating safe spaces for young people to interact with power holders and build healthy relationships.
Building on a history of youth-centered programming, NDI is currently partnering with young people in more than 50 countries to support their work on election monitoring, issue advocacy campaigns, youth caucuses and parliamentary networks, parliamentary internships, local councils, political party youth mechanisms, such as youth wings, debate clubs, civic and voter education, and youth-oriented get out the vote (GOTV) campaigns, among others. Building bridges among youth-led and youth-serving civil society organizations also became an early feature of NDI’s approach.
Such programs highlight the intergenerational benefits of more vibrant and responsive institutions and processes when young people’s contributions are honored. They take on different forms and substantive issues depending on country circumstances, even as disinformation and political alienation morph over time. The following are a few examples of programs over NDI’s four decades to bolster the political participation and leadership of young people.
Youth Leadership in Election Monitoring and Community Engagement
As democracy’s “third wave” advanced in the late 1980s and 1990s, elections became decisive in moving away from the Iron Curtain’s autocracy and military and one-party rule in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Citizen mobilization to ensure electoral integrity emerged as an important vehicle for public engagement, a bulwark against potential fraud, and a means of creating public confidence that was lacking in government. While elections were an entry point for NDI in many countries, the Institute looked to them as an avenue to promote citizen participation and inclusive, responsible democratic governance.
Citizen election monitoring and related advocacy spread, with NDI’s help, from the Philippines to Chile to Bulgaria and Zambia between 1986 and 1991, and from each of those countries throughout their regions, producing regional associations and a global network of over 250 organizations in 89 countries and territories - with young people constantly in the forefront.
In places like Bulgaria, Georgia, and Romania, student groups led in the creation of national election monitoring networks and expanded activities to broader citizen engagement with local and national governments. Young people were key in the formation of such efforts in Cambodia, Croatia, Lebanon, Liberia, Nicaragua, and numerous other countries. In countries, like the Philippines, Panama, Malawi, and Kenya, young people joined election monitoring through church related organizations. In Haiti, an informal youth network that formed in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps after the devastating 2010 earthquake stepped up to monitor the presidential election in and around the camps.
In each case young people rose to leadership positions as well as swelled the ranks of volunteer observers. For example, Romania’s Pro-Democracy Association founded in 1990 by students from Bucharest’s technical university and a democracy dialogue group from Brasov, the country’s second largest city, monitored elections, took on local issues, established a parliamentary interns program, and among its programs today is a youth engagement project. As with other youth-focused NDI programs, many of these leaders advanced to become elected government and/or political party officials, or longer-term civil society leaders.
NDI’s “Civic Forum” programs, starting in 1994, take a long-term, building-block approach. Civic Forum uses moderated, small-group discussions and experiential learning on democratic values and political developments to lay the foundation for citizen-led collective action to address local problems and broader issues. Young people of diverse identities were early contributors and assumed important roles as moderators and participants, helping to bridge demographic divides and identify community interests that include the concerns of young people. Civic Forum programming necessarily modifies its form to country and local conditions and often is effective in early democratic transitions and/or where there is potential for conflict across demographic divides, such as in Haiti, Jordan, Macedonia, Moldova, and West Bank and Gaza. In several countries, Civic Forum was the foundation for other initiatives and programs, such as the Ana Usharek program.
In Jordan, the Ana Usharek (“I Participate”) Initiative, which began in 2011, has partnered with 28 universities and the Ministry of Education, working with more than 20,000 young people of diverse identities in semester-long educational discussions on democracy, human rights and citizenship. As a result, more than 4,000 program participants organized online and in-person issue-based campaigns, participated in national debate competitions, and held dialogues with politicians and local officials to address topics, such as accessibility for people with disabilities, improved transportation services, and greater freedom of expression. The original Ana Usharek initiative spawned related programs including Uskarek+, Ana Usharek Mujtama3i, Anna Usharek Inakhebni, and Ana Usharek People with Disabilities, which translated participatory lessons to other constituencies, each of which involved young activists.
In Morocco, the Association Jeunes pour Jeunes (AJJ, the Youth for Youth Association), founded in 2005 as an initiative composed of students, graduates and civil servants open to all young Moroccans, asked NDI for assistance to effectively monitor and participate in several steps of the 2011 reform process announced by King Mohamed VI. The initiative included regional dialogues, workshops, and a conference allowing hundreds of young people from civil society organizations to explore issues and frameworks for the nation’s new Consultative Council on Youth and Associative Action. The AJJ also conducted an issue survey among young people and began monitoring political processes, including inventorying political parties’ policies and campaign promises, and took up monitoring parliamentary activity on youth issues.
In Sri Lanka, Sarvodaya, a long-standing civil society organization, is conducting its Deshodaya (Next Generation) program with NDI assistance. It provides a platform for young leaders from across Sri Lanka’s diverse ethnic and religious communities to initiate issue-based and participatory projects aimed at finding practical solutions to complex issues facing their communities. The program engages one youth coordinator and two fellows in each of the country’s eleven districts to increase youth participation and engagement through local level campaigns focused on key local issues. Sarvodaya envisions the program as fostering a new generation that can develop a culture of democracy, good governance, reconciliation, and sustainable peace.
In Colombia, NDI is assisting Corporación Jóvenes Maicao (CJM, Maicao Youth Corporation), a youth-led organization that works to address social inequality by advocating for the rights of vulnerable populations in Maicao and La Guajira municipalities. CJM aims to involve young people in the policymaking process on issues that directly impact them. Through civic education workshops, CJM equips young leaders with leadership and communication tools for political participation. They also connect young people with community and political leaders, provide local community volunteer opportunities, and invite young people to join relevant social and political campaigns. To actively engage young people, CJM creates online spaces for debate, where they can share perspectives, submit proposals, and connect with others who are passionate about civic engagement. CJM organizes online contests and innovation challenges for young people to encourage creativity and engagement around political issues.
In Mauritius, NDI partner the Young Queer Alliance (YQA) seeks to empower individuals and organizations in promoting equality for LGBTQI+ people. Since 2014, the YQA has initiated various complaints with local authorities to contest the lack of equal rights for LGBTQI+ people and advocated in various United Nations forums concerning sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics. It produces LGBTQI-related research papers and studies pertaining to subjects, including socio-economic conditions, asylum seeking, challenges in family settings, and legal analysis of the criminalization of sexual relationships between same-sex consenting adults. The YQA also organizes communication and visibility actions and other activities, including street advocacy/awareness raising, social outings, and events for LGBTQI+ people.
In the Solomon Islands, NDI has supported 25 young civic leaders across the nation since 2022 as they respond to key environmental issues in their local communities through projects that assess legislation, public policy, and local practices in sectors related to climate change and natural resource management. Following a rigorous training course on political process monitoring and advocacy strategies led by NDI, these “Youth Advocates for Integrity,” representing nearly every province in the Solomon Islands, have worked individually or in teams to design their own initiatives to monitor policy implementation and raise awareness in their local communities for issues related to natural resource management and environmental protection. Using data collection and analysis skills learned through the program, the participants conducted qualitative assessments using community surveys, key informant interviews, group discussions, community dialogues, document reviews, and direct observation. Policy briefs developed by the activists as a result were published by NDI in Raising Community Voices for Environmental Sustainability and Governance.
Youth Activism to Mitigate Conflict and Promote Peace
Helping young people take action for peace and inclusion was also an early focus of NDI programming. For example, in Sudan, preceding the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government and the People’s Liberation Army/Movement, NDI helped bring together young people from different ethnic, tribal, religious and cultural groups to identify mutual objectives and develop action plans reaching across divides to promote peace and stability. The forums and workshops helped establish lines of communication and dialogue that contributed to later efforts to build sustainable peace as South Sudan approached independence. Among other outcomes of the initiatives, representatives of participating youth groups presented their views to the 2005 Civil Society Forum on Sudan held in Oslo, Norway.
In Kosovo, NDI’s youth-focused program empowered an inter-ethnic group of young Kosovars to lead community advocacy and activism campaigns addressing local challenges. Albanian and Serb participants engaged in activities addressing the concerns of young people, including university student life, consumer protection, and community clean-up efforts. Outstanding participants were engaged in further programs on leadership, using opinion surveys, grassroots organizing, and developing communications strategies for social and political change, including social media outreach. In Yemen, NDI helped develop the country’s first tribal youth councils by engaging in two governorates (provinces or administrative regions), Mareb and Shabwa. The initiative included youth representatives of all tribes and clans in the governorates and engaged local government and tribal leaders in ways to mitigate tribal disputes that often lead to violence.
In Nigeria, NDI has engaged with Youngstars Development Initiative in advancing its “Vote Not Fight: Election No Be War” campaigns over several election cycles, which employ free concerts, rallies, short videos, and peace pledges to engage young people to eschew engaging in electoral intimidation and violence. Among its first activities in 2011 was producing a short film with “Nollywood” actors and musicians which reached an estimated 50 million people through viewing parties at sporting events, entertainment spaces and schools. The campaign is championed by Vote Not Fight (VNF) Ambassador Innocent Ujah Idibia (aka 2Baba), one of Nigeria’s most influential musicians, who has led the campaign’s efforts on a pro bono basis since 2014. The campaign has been joined by a broad section of civil society groups, including the New Generation Girls and Development Initiative. Through the VNF, the youth are making a clear statement that their attitudes towards election-related violence are changing for the better, and have taken the campaign a step further by launching a Youth Policy Agenda, which provides them a platform to engage actively in governance and play a critical role in shaping policies that affect them.
In Ukraine, in 2021 the Dnipro-based NGO “Community of Active Youth” (CAY) – a group of young activists who strive for youth engagement and meaningful participation – implemented one of its largest regional projects – the Youth Political Leadership School – which equipped hundreds of young people of diverse identities and backgrounds with knowledge related to political engagement. The highlights of the program were individual mentoring sessions and the implementation of community-based projects. Program alumni established a youth center in one of the villages, a regional youth council to advocate for young people’s needs, and numerous events on networking among youth leaders. CAY initiated a social media project speaking to young people in simple language. It produced short videos on how to deal with current challenges, including media literacy, psychological resilience, tools for civic participation, and opportunities for youth amid war. CAY also created videos on how to: deal with legal aspects of the internally displaced status, receive necessary help, and adapt to life in new communities away from young people’s homes. CAY has released up to 100 short videos and has engaged over 1.5 million young people through social media.
In Niger, in 2023, NDI brought together young people from diverse ethnic, cultural, religious, and tribal backgrounds for training, skills development and dialogue activities to analyze vulnerabilities to violent extremism and identify youth-focused priorities and action plans for preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE). The program also includes tailored outreach and engagement of young women, who are less likely to be engaged in P/CVE initiatives. In dialogues with community stakeholders - including political party representatives, traditional and religious leaders, and local municipal authorities - young people demonstrated their expertise and negotiated community P/CVE-focused priorities and strategies that were inclusive of diverse youth perspectives. The dialogue activities and strategies helped begin to break down barriers between key community actors, including youth and political parties, to strengthen pluralistic, community-based P/CVE responses and advance the implementation of Niger’s national P/CVE strategy.
Increasing Young People's Representation and Inclusion through Parties and Parliaments
NDI supports networking efforts among youth organizations of the political party international associations, in addition to regional and country-specific programs. Under its Political Party Network Collaboration program, NDI has strengthened relationships with international party youth organizations, including creating a space for them to build closer relationships and develop their own cross-network initiatives. The initiative aims to tackle challenges preventing youth political participation and party collaboration while encouraging representatives from the largest youth party internationals to identify areas for potential collaboration and develop plans for joint action.
In 1999, NDI launched a Latin America youth political leadership program in response to requests from senior political party leaders in the region. The program focused on strengthening the leadership skills and the ability of emerging political leaders to promote modernization and renewal of their political parties. Up to 40 young activists from parties in three to four countries each year participated in the program, with an intentional focus on the inclusion of young women. It included national academies for young political party leaders in participating countries, a regional seminar, and the implementation of internal party-strengthening projects that received NDI technical assistance. The program fostered reform efforts with 60 major political parties and movements across the ideological spectrum, representing both governing and opposition parties in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. Graduates of the program have become mayors, municipal councilors, legislators, party presidents and indigenous political activists, among other leadership roles.
Within specific countries, the Institute often combines approaches. For example, in Armenia, NDI encouraged political parties and their respective youth wings to increase opportunities for young people to advance within party structures and second, by supporting political parties to prioritize issues championed by young people. The Institute also worked with an informal coalition of reform-minded young leaders from civil society, political parties, the private sector, and academia focused on regional community improvement projects. With reforms following the 2018 largely youth-driven “Armenian Velvet Revolution”, NDI supported parliamentary interns and fellows in a program that resulted in more than 40 members of parliament and 10 committees to take young people to work on legislative development, constituent services, and social media engagement, among other public-facing government responsibilities. NDI also introduced “Debatathon”, a youth debate program, throughout the country’s 10 regions, aimed at youth who are not affiliated with political parties. Debatathon allows young people to advocate around political issues and reach out to others through in-person, online, and live-streamed social media programs.
In North Macedonia, NDI worked with the Youth Educational Forum (YEF/МОФ), founded in 1999, to mobilize a diverse group of young people to engage with parliament in a campaign to democratize student organizing in state universities, which are often coopted by external actors. YEF built a coalition of 18 student and youth organizations across the country to conduct field research and raise awareness in order to engage political parties and parliamentarians on issues that young people care about. The program contributed to building trusting relationships between members of parliament and young people, which has led to young people providing testimony and consultations on legislative development in the country.
In Morocco, in addition to working with AJJ, NDI collaborated with the National Institute for Youth and Democracy (NIYD) to equip young party activists with communication and negotiation skills. The program led to several participants receiving promotions within party roles. Parallel to the political party youth leadership initiative, NDI sponsored 30 young people to work directly with members of parliament as interns in constituent relations and legislative development. The political parties subsequently transferred many of the interns to positions on their electoral campaigns. Others were offered positions at various governmental institutions.
In Southern and East Africa, NDI’s Political Party Leadership Institute (PPLI) serves as a regional youth peer learning program. It aims to create an enabling environment for building youth participation and leadership in party processes by increasing the visibility, voice and influence of young activists within their parties. Since its first iteration in 2020, the program has trained more than 60 young party members from 25 political parties in Botswana, Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia. Over the course of four weeks, participants go through training and facilitated group discussions on branding, fundraising, budgeting, public speaking, and networking. As a follow-up, cohorts receive mentorship from PPLI faculty and party leaders to refine their presentation skills and strategies.
Developing Norms for Inclusion and Leadership of Young People in all their Diversity
Over four decades NDI has contributed to the development of international norms and standards concerning youth political participation and leadership by engaging with other international actors and publishing a wide array of technical assistance materials, a few of which are noted below.
In 2017, NDI developed the Youth Political Participation Programming Guide which is designed to help democracy and governance practitioners deliver more effective civic and political participation initiatives. The guide draws on the needs and perspectives expressed by young political leaders and activists from four global regions, lessons learned from NDI programs involving youth, and the work of other democracy and governance assistance organizations.
In 2020, NDI launched the Speak Youth to Power (SYP) campaign to help new voices tip the scales, through: increasing the visibility and impact of young people’s contributions to politics and bolstering youth participation and influence in decision-making spaces; collaborating with young people who are traditionally underrepresented, especially young women and young people with diverse identities, to increase their faith in democratic institutions and pathways to power; and educating and collaborating with current gatekeepers to power so that they understand the benefits of true power sharing with young people and put it into practice. The SYP campaign emphasizes the need for young people to translate their power into sustained influence over political decision-making today if they are expected to demand and defend democracy in the future.
Under this campaign, NDI launched the Solidarity Across Generations Initiative, which promotes intergenerational political collaboration as a key component of creating an inclusive, enabling environment for youth political participation. NDI also launched the Youth-In-Focus roundtable series which gathers young activists and youth development practitioners to share strategies for helping young people gain power and influence around critical topics, such as the inclusion of young people with disabilities, climate activism and economic inclusion. Under this initiative, NDI also developed a suite of resources to engender better collaboration between young people and political parties entitled Bridging the Divide.
NDI also fosters opportunities for cross-border, peer-to-peer collaboration among youth activists. With support from NDI and the International Republican Institute, the European Democracy Youth Network (EDYN) launched in 2019 and grew to become a coalition of hundreds of political leaders and civic society activists, ages 18 to 32, representing 23 countries and a broad range of backgrounds and ideologies. EDYN offers expert-led training and educational opportunities, resources and networking opportunities to equip members with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the political and civic spheres. Additionally, the Institute strengthens young people’s ability to participate in and collectively act on accountability and transparency issues through its Anti-Corruption & Transparency Initiatives Engaging Youth in the Indo-Pacific (ACTIVE Youth) program with 12 partner organizations across four target countries: Indonesia; Philippines; Sri Lanka; and Papua New Guinea.
Among the numerous materials developed by NDI is Promoting Youth Voices in Local Decision-Making, a global guidebook on youth consultative mechanisms at the local level. Created in partnership with the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) and Restless Development, this guidebook was developed for youth, youth development practitioners, and elected officials around the world who are seeking to counter trends of youth political disengagement by forming local youth councils: citizen advisory bodies composed of young people who engage with local political leaders in government decision-making processes.
Youth Leading Debate (YLD) is a global dialogue and debate program for young people, age 18-24, who are interested in learning the art of policy debate, developing political leadership skills, debating pressing community issues and increasing their capacity to contribute to policy reform on the local and national level. The YLD program and Instruction manuals, developed in partnership with the Washington Urban Debate League, are designed to help democracy and governance practitioners integrate policy debate into youth programs.
DISRUPTHER is an inclusive civic and political leadership module, developed in partnership with Women Win, that supports an action-oriented focus on the political engagement of adolescent girls and young women, reframing who leads and enabling power shifts that support their voice and agency. Building the political skills, networks, and aspirations of girls at a young age is key to ensuring that the pipeline of women political leaders who are ready to be equal and active participants in political processes is constantly replenished by new generations.
Following the first Summit for Democracy in 2021, NDI was a key partner in establishing the Global Alliance for Youth Political Action, an informal network of organizations throughout the world focused on supporting and promoting youth civic and political engagement. The primary goals of the Alliance are to coordinate our collective efforts to advocate for increased resources and support to young people leading political change efforts around the world. The Alliance developed and published a series of Recommendations to Prioritize Youth Political Engagement. The Alliance currently comprises Accountability Lab, Community of Democracies, Democracy Moves, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the International Republican Institute, People Powered, and Restless Development.
Sharing experiences and solidarity through building international networks benefits young people’s national efforts as well as reinforces democratic norms. Peer-to-peer exchanges about effective practices and ways to counter authoritarian learning are valuable means of identifying and meeting emerging and sustained challenges for democracy.
Authors: Pat Merloe, Strategic Advisor to NDI; Sara Hoenes, NDI Program Officer for Citizen Participation and Inclusion (CPI); Sasha Rose, NDI Program Associate for CPI; and Rachel Mims, NDI Program Director for CPI.
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.