What punch does youth engagement pack? Amidst the youth-focused 2024 Summit for Democracy Democracy for Future Generations, Alicja Lelwic-Ojeda and Lukmon Akintola highlight the crucial role of youth engagement in public affairs for achieving sustainable democracy. With the worldwide youth population sitting at 1.8 billion,  24% of the global population, there lies significant potential in these numbers that should not be underestimated. However, engaging youth in democratic politics remains an uphill battle.

Introduction

The participation of young people in democratic politics has historically been challenging. Many initiatives have been started around the world to address this and offer examples of good practice that could be adopted widely to help galvanise real and continued improvements in the role of youth in democracy.

Amidst the ongoing Summit for Democracy, with the theme “Democracy for Future Generations”, this commentary unpacks the significance of the engagement of young people in public affairs as a recipe for achieving sustainable democracy. This piece identifies challenges limiting the participation of young people in public affairs and presents strategies to advance meaningful youth engagement in democratic processes. Importantly, this commentary also provides relevant recommendations for member states and youth leaders at the Summit for Democracy, presenting nuanced ideas that can significantly improve youth political participation as well as advance national and global policy stability and developmental priorities.

Lukmon Akintola
Alicja Lelwic-Ojeda

The role of youth in a thriving sustainable democracy

With young people between the ages of 15–29 years old totalling 1.8 billion and accounting for 24% of the global population, this demographic presents unprecedented potential to drive transformative ideas at all levels. As we look towards the Summit for Democracy and nearly 50 elections scheduled around the world for this year, here are two key reasons why policymakers should integrate youth into public affairs:

Preserving and sustaining democratic processes and ideals: In a world where democracy is facing gradual decline, active youth participation in public affairs and existing democratic processes remains one of the potent ways to preserve and sustain democratic ideals globally. Young people across the world are using their skills and voices to hold their governments accountable, advocate for transparency in governance processes, promote human rights protection, advance civic engagement, speak against injustices, and promote social cohesion. Noting that while individual countries manage their own situational circumstances, young people globally need to be part of policy processes, including holding public offices, exercising their civil rights during elections, participating in public discourse, and advancing youth concerns. This is evidenced in Malta, where young people above the age of 16 can vote in national elections, European parliamentary elections, and referendums. This gives young people the opportunity to influence political processes and decisions at local, national, and regional levels. As in Malta, integrating young people into public affairs globally significantly preserves democracy, and provides youth with the necessary skills and grit to lead and promote democratic values for all.

Socio-economic development and political stability: Youth are at the heart of socio-economic growth and development and with the right skill set and education, young people can play a pivotal role in co-shaping and co-implementing national development priorities. Young people have advanced innovative ideas, implemented ground-breaking projects that directly impact people’s lives, and established start-ups addressing socio-economic challenges, including peace and political stability, in several countries.  This is evident in Nepal, where, after experiencing nearly ten years of civil war, an ambitious National Youth Policy to meaningfully integrate youth into political processes at both local and national levels was put in place. Nepal also decentralised their governance structure, giving young people the opportunity to actively participate in politics, particularly at the local level, helping Nepali youth to take ownership of the political stability of their country. In the Solomon Islands, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to investigate the causes of ethnic violence and findings emphasised the importance of enhancing youth participation in decision-making at both local and national policy levels to prevent conflicts in the future. There are also instances of youth-led social enterprises, such as BudgIT operating in Nigeria and Liberia, working to promote accountability and transparency in governance, through breaking down national budgets into ordinary language that the public can easily understand. Several youth-led start-ups and small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs), such as Co-Creation Hub and YIAGA Africa, are implementing innovative ideas to address national and regional challenges. These examples signal the significant roles of young people in championing socio-economic prosperity and promoting sustainable democracy across different regions.

Identifying the challenges affecting youth participation in democratic processes

Multiple systemic barriers limit the involvement of young people in public affairs, despite their vital role in democracy-building. Constitutional restrictions, political instability, lack of interest in youth development, poor civic education, vague youth-focused policies, limited leadership and/or technical skills, and human rights abuses are all systemic challenges significantly limiting many young people from engaging in democratic processes.

The value of youth contributions is frequently minimised at the institutional level. Young people are often expected to navigate systems created for and by adults and to provide contributions only when elders see it as needed or beneficial. The limited opportunities for youth engagement that exist are often not institutionalised or do not allow youth to shape decision-making processes. For instance, in many countries young people cannot run for political offices due to age restrictions. This is the case for Micronesia and Nigeria, where the minimum age of eligibility for national parliaments is 30 years old. Despite the aspirational goal of some governments to increase youth participation, their efforts often do not yield the expected results. Common issues surrounding youth policy implementation including insufficient resource allocation, limited technical capacity, and a lack of political incentives and ownership.

Young people in many countries need additional skills to participate in policy processes and public affairs actively and effectively. This gap is primarily due to insufficient funding in the education system and inadequate opportunities for young people to gain practical skills and socio-political experience. With 73 million youth unemployed globally as of 2022, many young people prioritise economic survival and charting a career path for themselves.

The barriers to youth participation can also be related to the national political context. Young people disproportionately struggle with the financial constraints that are associated with public affairs, especially the substantial financial burden of running a campaign. In some contexts, authorities may tokenise and promote young citizens involved in politics to create an illusion of openness and progress. Under authoritarian regimes, the restrictive nature of the political environment limits the meaningful exchange of ideas and limits the scope for youth to influence policy and governance. Some countries, including Uganda, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have previously banned the use of social media platforms for political reasons, while others have denied the right of young people to peacefully protest. These repressive actions drive the apathy of young people towards public affairs and further limit their engagement and likelihood of involvement.

Exploring potent strategies for youth integration and participation in sustainable democracy

To realise and utilise their right to participation, young people need a conducive environment for facilitating their engagement with opportunities, means, space, and adequate support. Only after these conditions are met can young people use the available platforms to amplify their priorities and promote their vision for democracy. Nurturing and supporting youth-led action and empowering underrepresented groups are key to fully unlocking the potential of youth participation in democracy-building as many young people strive for the role of active change-maker rather than passive observers or ad-hoc contributors. To establish and maintain sustainable strategies, youth participation must be driven by young people themselves, with adult counterparts playing a supportive role in co-shaping the democratic processes and recognising the agency and autonomy of the youth.

Based on an upcoming in-depth scoping study assessing the implementation of national youth policies in ten countries at a global scale, this piece offers a preview of some key strategies that proved to be significant in improving the participation of young people in democratic practices. Directly addressing the common barriers to youth participation, the strategies are the result of a comparative analysis of successful government-led efforts to incorporate youth voices in their respective governance frameworks. To understand how youth policies can support youth leadership, each strategy is featured with examples of youth-led initiatives developed upon their implementation.

Youth ecosystem strategy

Rather than relying solely on isolated youth initiatives, developing a collaborative and interconnected youth ecosystem proved to be a potent strategy for youth integration and participation in democratic affairs. Several governments recognised that addressing the challenges faced by young people requires an integrated approach involving various stakeholder groups working harmoniously towards a shared goal. This approach involves strengthening partnerships among government structures and levels, youth groups, civil society organisations, educational institutions, and businesses. When different actors frequently communicate and cooperate on youth issues, it becomes easier to align policies across sectors. Consequently, policies and solutions related to complex youth needs – connected to political and civic life, education, employment, healthcare, and social services – are not contradictory but rather complement and reinforce each other, creating a supportive environment for young people.

Examples of successful implementation of this strategy can be observed in countries such as Costa Rica and Australia, where well-structured ‘youth ecosystems’ have been established. These ecosystems are designed to ensure that various youth bodies are not only independent and autonomous but also interconnected in their efforts.

In Costa Rica, youth sector actors have been combining their efforts to facilitate the participation of a greater number of diverse young people in public affairs. This participative approach facilitates the successful implementation of the youth policy. The National Youth System is present at all levels of governance, with all levels and bodies being institutionally connected with each other and externally with diverse stakeholders. Specifically, local-level youth bodies elect their national representatives who then elect youth representatives to the operational arm of the Vice-Ministry of Youth, the National Youth Council. By creating channels for continuous communication and cooperation, this model not only enhances the effectiveness of youth initiatives but also promotes accountability and transparency within the system. Youth groups are leveraging the local-level structures to propose and implement youth activities. In 2021, 81 youth-led projects were approved by the National Youth Council.

Australia presents another example of a thriving youth ecosystem. The Australian Youth Affairs Coalition (AYAC) is an ecosystem that brings together youth and youth-led organisations to form a powerful movement advocating for all young people and advancing transformational change in the country. As a powerful voice of Australian youth, the AYAC proposes youth-focused policy reforms and supports the activities of the government-led Youth Advisory Groups (YAGs). The Australian government is leveraging the transformative power of the youth ecosystem to meaningfully integrate young people into the policy processes, through the YAG initiative. Through the AYAC, young people in Australia are able to influence policies, particularly on issues that directly affect them.

Shifting the power strategy

Governments should treat young people as partners rather than beneficiaries of government-led initiatives, acknowledging the potential and significant role of youth in driving change. Trusting proposed solutions and providing the necessary resources for young people to succeed is a powerful strategy to foster youth participation. Establishing transparent, institutionally mandated, well-resourced, self-organised, inclusive, and contextually relevant representative youth structures is also imperative to shifting power to youth. Governments can tap into the innovative ideas and diverse perspectives of young people only by entrusting them with responsibilities and opportunities to take charge. This includes acknowledging the capabilities of young people and genuinely inviting them to decision-making tables by granting them mandates, specific duties, and budgets for the implementation of initiatives that are beyond the interests of the political party currently in power. Political dependency can lead to disengagement among young people, as they may perceive the available means of participation as unreliable and temporary.

This strategy of power shifting has been successfully implemented in the Philippines. The Sangguniang Kabataan (SK) are local youth councils, a governing body voted into office by the youth constituency, and present in each of 42,000 government units in the Philippines. It is a platform for shaping policies and decision-making at the local level. By granting young people levels of power and authority similar to elected officials at the local, municipal, or provincial levels, the SK structure promotes active youth involvement in community decision-making by addressing youth-related matters and providing youth perspectives on diverse local issues. In 2015, intense youth advocacy led to a comprehensive reform of the SK, which demonstrates the interest of young people in taking action and reclaiming the space. The SKs were revitalised by introducing anti-political dynasty initiatives, financial independence, and mandatory continued training of SK officials.

Liberia also presents examples of this shifting power strategy. With 14 years of civil war in the country, the Liberian government is now investing in the Federation for Liberian Youth (FLY) , a youth ecosystem that advances the voices and concerns of the Liberian youth. FLY has been a viable platform for influencing policy processes, demanding accountability and transparency in governance, and constructively engaging the government on behalf of Liberian young people. FLY promotes peace and stability through capacity building and advocacy campaigns, such as facilitating the Buutuo Declaration, signed by youth leaders across political divides ahead of the Liberian national election in 2023. Beyond promoting the interests of young people in governance processes, FLY represents a potent strategy to advance socio-political stability in Liberia. FLY is reshaping the role of young people in nation-building, serving as a platform to meaningfully engage in policy processes. With these, youth-led initiatives are receiving financial and non-financial support from the government and other relevant stakeholders.

Conclusion

Democracies for future generations are built with and by the current generations of young people. Ahead of the third Summit for Democracy, participants should commit to addressing the barriers that young people face when engaging in political life. This will unlock the potential of youth to drive contributions to sustainable development at the local, national, and international levels. Member states can focus on implementing evidence-based strategies and approaches to meaningfully include youth voices in their development agendas, and the above strategies and the Menu of Possible Commitments, developed by the Youth Democracy Cohort, can be drawn on to launch or strengthen meaningful youth political participation. It is essential to note that a single perfect solution or fixed path guaranteeing improved youth participation does not exist, and actions must be tailored to local circumstances. Youth leaders should continue to leverage the available platforms and spaces to advocate for the implementation of solutions and strategies that they believe would be the most effective in their context. Youth collectivisation, through the consolidation of shared priorities and concerns, proves to be an efficient strategy for achieving policy change. To better youth political participation, participants should focus on building multi-stakeholder and intergenerational partnerships during the Summit and beyond. Only by increasing inclusive cooperation can democracy-building efforts leverage the diverse resources, skills, and expertise each partner brings. All actors have unique insights and capacities that, when combined, can lead to more comprehensive and sustainable solutions to shared challenges.

Authors

Lukmon Akintola is a researcher and a policy advisor working at the intersection of climate change, human security, migration, and inclusive governance. He holds a master’s degree in Politics and International Relations from Peking University, Beijing. He currently serves as a Knowledge Advisor at the Global Center for Climate Mobility, where he is supporting the Africa Climate Mobility Initiative (ACMI) Deep Dive project in West Africa. He is also serving as the climate mobility lead for the African Non State Actors of the GFMD/GCM. Lukmon previously worked as the program lead at the Migration Youth and Children Platform (MYCP) and has consulted for several international organisations, including UNICEF, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, European Partnership for Democracy, Save the Children, among others.

Alicja Lelwic-Ojeda is a policy advisor specialising in participatory policy-making and rights-based approaches to development. Her areas of expertise include youth participation, socioeconomic inclusion of marginalised groups, and migration governance. On behalf of organisations such as the European Partnership for Democracy, European Commission, and the British Government, Alicja analysed youth participation strategies of national governments, researched the implementation of mobility and skills partnerships, and helped shape youth employment strategies in South Africa. Alicja currently serves as Co-Director within the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth, where she facilitates the inclusion of youth priorities and voices in migration policy processes. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Sciences Po Paris and an MSc in Public Administration from Erasmus University Rotterdam.