As the world begins the slow process of rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic, societies must work harder than ever to safeguard democratic governance and overcome sustainable development challenges rooted in systemic inequality and exclusion. Because young people are disproportionately impacted and have the most to lose, their political participation and inclusion are pivotal. There are over 1 billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24 worldwide - half of whom are young women - with diverse lived experiences and political interests. Today’s generation of youth is struggling to reach social and economic markers for adulthood, such as completing school and becoming financially independent. They are also contending with complex global problems, such as the climate crisis and increased political polarization. The barriers for young people transitioning to adulthood are greater than ever before, yet young people are taking action and finding new ways to challenge the status quo and make accountability demands. This is animated, in part, by a growing dissatisfaction and distrust in government, including democratic institutions that are failing to deliver. If young people are expected to demand and defend democracy as adults, they need meaningful opportunities to participate now.
What can be done to nurture and secure the right to meaningful youth political participation and inclusion? NDI’s experience suggests the need to challenge existing assistance approaches and meet a much broader group of young people where they are, in terms of their political interests and aspirations. Instead of focusing disproportionately on building young people’s capacity and funneling elite groups of young people toward formal politics, we also need to help young people build power and influence through: prioritizing inclusion and targeting the spectrum of young people, including young women and young people with diverse identities; supporting organized youth participation across development sectors; fostering intergenerational collaboration to shift attitudes and behaviors that sideline young people; working with young people of all genders to support gender equality through changing patriarchal norms; understanding and embracing new ways of making democracy work; and encouraging a more active role for youth allies. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and efforts to “build back better,” it is imperative that we repair and rebuild relationships between young people and political institutions, and create new norms and spaces for political engagement.
Young people around the world are at a critical juncture as they inherit an array of complex challenges, including environmental degradation, growing inequality and insecurity. At the same time, their socio-economic opportunities are increasingly limited and they must contend with entrenched political power holders who are often inaccessible, unresponsive and corrupt. These barriers are compounded for young people, specifically young women, who experience marginalization due to intersecting forms of oppression and inequality. Despite their optimism toward the future, today’s young people are being left behind; they are the most unemployed and underemployed segment of the global population. They are also increasingly disaffected and looking for ways to create change that does not rely on formal political institutions and processes.
Although perceived to be apathetic and incapable by most adults, youth political participation in many countries is on the rise, with young people expressing optimism about their capacity to achieve positive social change and their ability to play a role in how their countries are governed. A diversity of young people are fueling the most significant protests in the twenty-first century and demands for a more just, equitable and sustainable future. These include protests against long-standing economic inequality in Chile, corruption in Lebanon, police brutality in Nigeria, gender inequality and restrictions on reproductive freedom in Poland and limited economic opportunities in Tunisia. And despite barriers to participation and entrenched gender stereotypes, young women activists assumed critical leadership roles during these protests and other movements. In Belarus, thousands of women protested against the president and government and in turn, challenged norms around women’s political participation. Young people are ready to act and to lead, but they are less inclined to engage in politics through traditional avenues of participation or with decision-makers who are unwilling to acknowledge their contributions.
Young people’s disaffection is also shaping new forms of civic activism worldwide; categorized as more informal, localized and bypassing traditional political institutions and civil society organizations. Formal participation refers to engagement in established processes or with institutions and working within a fixed system of rules. Informal participation refers to people organizing to achieve political, social or economic aims outside the realm of party politics and formal representative institutions. Young people are contributing to movements that are intentionally more inclusive and rely on horizontal decision-making and distributive leadership, as opposed to top-down approaches. Their demands for inclusion also signal a desire for participation that goes beyond relying on small groups of elected representatives. Through individual and collective action, young people of diverse backgrounds are assuming critical leadership roles, yet their efforts are publicly invalidated and they continue to be denied direct influence in informal institutions and processes.
Despite record levels of political activism, the space for young people’s participation in mainstream decision-making remains limited, and this is especially true for specific groups, such as young women and young people with disabilities. At the same time, political institutions continue to matter. Political parties are still the primary vehicle to peacefully contest elections and parliaments are central to policy-making. These institutions, however, need to be more accessible and inclusive of young people. Unfortunately, young people are vastly underrepresented in national parliaments with only 2.6 percent of parliamentarians under the age of 30 and less than 1 percent being young women. According to CEPPS research on pro-youth policies, less than 10 percent of young people globally would consider joining a political party, which includes those that view membership as a means to secure a public-sector job. If young people only employ civil disobedience and the enabling environment remains unmoved, they will inevitably be left out of many political decisions.
For many young people, political engagement cannot be separated from the digital media landscape, and the suggestion of separate “online” and “offline” spaces does not accurately reflect young people’s realities; they often blend online and offline actions. Young people participating in digital spaces are demonstrating forms of agency that they are not afforded in traditional political spaces. Social media tools, for instance, help young people express their priorities and connect with other like-minded activists, even when political space may be closed or closing. However, barriers to digital civic participation include inaccessibility; a lack of trust regarding the internet and specific digital platforms; and bullying, harassment and trolling against young activists. Online violence is especially harmful to young women who are disproportionately targeted if they are politically outspoken, which, according to NDI research, has a chilling effect on young women’s participation in online spaces. A 2020 report, Free to be Online? found that more than half of the girls surveyed suffered harassment and abuse online. While social media may be providing a new outlet for some young people, online political participation is driven, in part, by opportunities to cultivate an interest in politics during childhood and adolescence. Although young people are engaging in online spaces at an earlier age, their access to online spaces must be matched by 1) concerted efforts to assure their safety and 2) opportunities to learn about civic engagement while taking part in decision-making regarding their welfare.
Governments, international donors and youth stakeholders continue to advocate for legal and structured participatory mechanisms to encourage youth engagement and respond to young people’s political marginalization. CEPPS analyzed four legal and political mechanisms in the report Raising their Voices: national youth policy strategies, reducing minimum ages for voting and candidacy, youth quotas and political party youth wings. According to the research:
- There was no evidence that national youth policy strategies improved long-term youth civic and political engagement beyond an initial cooperative development process.
- Evidence suggests, however, that lowering the minimum age of candidacy results in more youth holding office, and lowering the minimum age of voting tends to increase youth voter turnout.
- Additionally, youth quotas can increase the quantity of youth in elected bodies, but the quota must be accompanied by a holistic strategy to support meaningful youth influence within those institutions.
- Finally, youth wings can increase the number of active political party youth members, but their relative power depends heavily on the relationship with the parent party.
The findings point to a necessary shift away from high-level policies and mechanisms that consider young people in principle but lack the teeth needed to overcome political inertia, public attitudes, and resource constraints.
Young people’s exclusion is also leading them to question whether democracy can address their basic needs and allow them to develop their full potential. A significant driver of political discontent among youth is unemployment and economic exclusion, which has only increased as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent Cambridge University study concluded that younger generations -- both as a cohort and relative to older generations at comparable stages of life -- have steadily become more dissatisfied with how democracies perform. In developing democracies, older generations were more likely to experience democratic transitions and tend to have more positive relationships with institutions, whereas younger generations have grown up experiencing the shortcomings of democracy. Additionally, a rise in political participation does not mean young people are categorically pro-democracy. The Cambridge report also found that several countries with elected illiberal populist leaders have seen a short-term improvement in youth satisfaction with their governments. Youth disillusionment is fueling a search for alternatives, which could contribute to a rise in illiberal governance options.
Nonetheless, there has been a slow global rise in emancipative values, which prioritize universal human freedoms, individual choice and an emphasis on equality of opportunity. According to an article in the 2021 Journal of Democracy, emancipative values are slowly replacing authoritarian values in every region of the world. If these values are established early, it should lead to younger generations who have a stronger commitment to democratic principles. However, these values alone do not guarantee the openness, responsiveness and effectiveness of liberal democracy in the short term. For these values to take root, economic and political factors must be addressed in the short term. If trends in youth disaffection persist and young people remain excluded and sidelined by decision-makers, what are the long-term impacts on democratic governance around the world?
Shortcomings of youth political participation programs
Increasing youth participation has been a longstanding area of democracy and governance support, with programs focusing heavily on increased participation in formal processes and institutions, for instance by joining a political party, voting in an election, interning in parliament, or organizing community improvement projects. Although these forms of participation remain important, more and more young people are looking at alternatives where they can exercise greater power and influence. Likewise, efforts to usher youth toward formal political entry points are also more likely to attract those who are predisposed to engage in formal politics, including young people who may view politics as a possible vocation. These efforts can trend toward an older, male cohort of young people from majority populations. It is necessary to recognize that young people’s political motives and preferred methods of participation are outpacing traditional governing institutions and processes. Development programs that meet these young people where they are will necessarily appeal to a much larger and more diverse segment of the youth demographic.
Youth political participation programs, ranging from training courses on civics to political leadership academies, often target an elite segment of youth, can be gender-blind, and in many cases do not consider the needs and diverse starting points for socially, economically and politically marginalized young people. This leads to further exclusion and underrepresentation in political spaces for specific groups of young people. Youth programs also fall short when they fail to consider the broader dynamics influencing politics, such as power and sociocultural norms, including patriarchy and masculinity. Given the structure of standard youth political participation programs, young people who are the easiest to reach and accommodate are more likely to be included, which can inadvertently leave other young people behind. Programs need to intentionally address power imbalances and target social norms contributing to the exclusion of young people who are the most marginalized, by centering the needs of diverse groups and creating spaces for more inclusive participation.
When offered, young people will continue to join political training programs. Skills training, with a focus on interpersonal skills, lays an important foundation for leadership and political engagement. However, skill-building alone does little to challenge systemic factors that exclude youth. Skillbuilding must be delivered in combination with other interventions and tailored specifically to the needs of the participants and political context. Meaningful engagement of young people must also consider power -- understanding power, exercising power and requiring action from those in positions of power. This is particularly important for addressing barriers excluding young women and young people who are gender diverse as power is often associated with men and masculinity. Programs that strengthen youth agency, without considering changes in young people’s environments, can have an adverse effect on youth motivation and damage prospects for building sustained power.
Empowering new voices to tip the scales
The positive impacts of supporting youth political participation are far-reaching and can accelerate development across sectors if diverse youth are recognized as constructive agents of change and have influence over decisions about issues like education, health, employment and climate change. There is an opportunity to increase the power of young people globally through:
- Meeting young people where they are while centering the needs and priorities of young women and young people with diverse identities and backgrounds;
- Promoting young people’s vision for democratic participation, starting with their chosen priorities and legitimizing informal avenues;
- Helping young people connect informal and formal avenues of organized participation to achieve public-policy decisions; and
- Supporting young people’s exercise of emancipative values to build their sustained commitment to democracy.
To help new voices tip the scales, NDI has launched a campaign to champion the political aspirations of young people across sectors. With the theme, “Speak Youth to Power,” the campaign emphasizes the need for young people to translate their power into influence over formal political decision-making today, if they are expected to demand and defend democracy in the future. The campaign will directly support young people to organize and take action on issues that are important to them and foster conversations leading to practical solutions to the complex challenges young people are facing.
Under this campaign, NDI is working to ensure youth programming is more inclusive, gender-aware, and focused on addressing barriers that exclude young women and young people with diverse identities. NDI is taking steps to work with a more representative segment of the youth population and will also support and advocate for spaces for political participation that are inclusive, accessible and safe. This includes fostering intergenerational political collaboration, based on more balanced relationships between youth and adult decision-makers. NDI recognizes that adolescent girls and young women also need opportunities to participate at an earlier age to reach their full potential in civic and political life. For example, NDI is launching the DISRUPTHER program, which focuses on bolstering civic education and political leadership opportunities for adolescent girls and young women. It is also essential for young men to understand the inequality their disproportionate power and privilege perpetuate and the impact it has on women’s inclusion in politics. Men should be provided the opportunity to examine their privilege and become advocates for gender equality, which NDI offers through its Men, Power and Politics approach. Do no harm principles and gender-transformative, trauma-informed approaches will be integrated across programs, and shape the efforts to cultivate young people’s participation.
NDI’s campaign will work alongside other global initiatives that seek to increase young people’s political participation and leadership. For instance, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the Office of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth released a call to action, “Young Women Demanding a Seat at the Table,” identifying three priority areas for increasing young women’s representation in politics: nurturing young women’s political aspirations; supporting young women candidates for political office; and empowering young women in office and investing in their leadership. Additionally, in April 2021 IPU launched, “I Say Yes to Youth in Parliament!” underscoring six pathways to make national parliaments younger. There is a renewed call for action across sectors to attract young people to politics and reduce barriers that inhibit young people’s leadership, particularly those who have faced a long history of political exclusion.
Democratic leaders and institutions should invest in mechanisms that prioritize direct forms of decision-making, particularly around issues that motivate young people to take action. Under this campaign, NDI’s collaboration with institutions will include support for reform efforts and the establishment and maintenance of new, inclusive and gender-aware spaces, in which young people can exercise their leadership. For example, deliberative mechanisms and community-based governance, like participatory budgeting, citizens assemblies, or youth councils help to build trust among young people and elected leaders, even in challenging or polarizing contexts. NDI has supported youth councils in a variety of contexts, including Morocco and Kosovo. NDI is also exploring other methods of closing the gap between citizens and governments, such as feedback loops, which promote dialogue and the incorporation of citizen's voices around public policies.
Working with both political parties and young civic activists to identify opportunities to collaborate outside of traditional avenues for engagement can help bridge the growing divide. Bridging the divide requires strategies that recognize young people’s legitimate concerns about formal institutions and the different ways in which young people want to organize politically. It also requires political parties to reassess the opportunities currently being offered to young people, and how these opportunities might be exclusionary to young women and young people from diverse identities. Under the Bridging the Divide program, NDI is working with young civic actors and political parties to identify strategic entry points for meaningful collaboration between young people and parties.
Democracy and governance practitioners should look beyond traditional approaches to youth development that are often designed and implemented using narrowly defined objectives and outcomes. Improving youth development outcomes across sectors and addressing systemic inequality and exclusion requires working beyond development silos to understand and respond to increasingly complex democratic challenges. Informed by positive youth development (PYD) principles, there is a compelling need for cross-sectoral programs that better position young people as active and organized participants in development processes and the social fabric of their communities. For example, NDI is working with young women and men in Cote d’Ivoire to respond to intercommunal violence and build political capital through microcredit. Cross-sectoral youth development approaches better address the range of underlying causes to youth exclusion from decision-making and creates opportunities for young people to collaborate with stakeholders from different sectors to collectively address development challenges. Additionally, under CEPPS, NDI is working with partners IFES and IRI on a cross-sectoral initiative to better understand and develop approaches to supporting young practitioners across sectors.
Intergenerational Collaboration & Shifting Norms
As young people get older and gain political standing, they often perpetuate the same barriers that attempted to exclude them. To sustainably challenge norms of exclusion in politics, programs must target patriarchal norms and generational attitudes, thus creating a more enabling environment for diverse groups and the foundation for strong alliances between young people and adults. A number of actors exert influence over a young person’s life choices, such as parents, peers, coaches, civic leaders and teachers. With a better understanding of social and behavior norm change, we can also work with nonpolitical actors to create safe spaces that foster young people’s meaningful participation in public life. Additionally, norms around gender and masculinity, in particular, create disadvantages in the lives of young people of all genders. Transforming norms around gender and masculinity requires creating opportunities for young men in politics to become transformative agents of change for gender equality. For example, NDI implemented a pilot in Lebanon using the Men, Power and Politics approach to prepare young participants to identify, develop and advocate for priorities that were gender-sensitive and accountable to the women’s rights agenda.
Young women and young people with diverse identities also need opportunities to share power, organize and learn across generations. According to an article from the UN, we are experiencing a rise in intersectional feminism, which not only helps us better understand inequality, it also gives us a framework for centering the voices of people experiencing overlapping forms of oppression. Activists of all genders who take an intersectional, feminist approach can better understand linkages connecting global crises. They are well-positioned to share knowledge from decades of organizing, resulting in better-informed youth activists with deep relationships to women-led, feminist movements.
Connecting, Strengthening and Elevating Youth Voices
This generation of young people is better connected than ever before, with linkages to activists and movements around the world. However, youth-led organizations and networks need specific types of support to strengthen their advocacy. According to a 2020 report, Shifting the Power, “youth civil society organizations are fragile in their resourcing, not seen as core assets to development partners and are therefore often unable to operate effectively.” Additionally, youth-led organizations often strive to create internal structures that are markedly different from those of traditional organizations, however, without the appropriate resources, they are likely to perpetuate power structures that prioritize hierarchy, patriarchal norms, and top-down, exclusive decision-making. Youth organizations and networks would benefit from renewed approaches to funding and resource mobilization; leadership development; organizational strengthening, and opportunities to collaborate more effectively. Additionally, donors and practitioners should advocate for a shift in long-held beliefs regarding who is an expert or a leader. Changing democracy and governance support to better meet young people’s needs requires supporting youth civil society as they link their organizing efforts and come together to create a shared vision of democratic participation.
Today’s generation of young people need a new social contract - an improved relationship between citizens and government, guaranteed to be inclusive of diverse voices while taking clear steps to address sustainable development challenges. Young people, who stand to inherit and contend with these challenges, must be placed at the center of decision-making and participation today. In turn, political institutions must give young people credible reasons to trust that democratic governments can deliver, beyond meeting their basic needs. With emancipative values spreading around the world and youth political participation reaching new heights, we have an opportunity to learn from and follow young people’s efforts, as well as encourage political leaders and institutions to do the same. Speak Youth to Power is about centering diverse voices and creating opportunities for young people to choose democracy through equitable participation and leadership. But first, we need to recognize that democracy will fail if we do not choose youth.
Author: Rachel Mims, Youth Political Participation Senior Program Officer
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.