Today’s youth are at a critical juncture. The current young generation - the largest in global history - is disproportionately affected by unemployment, insufficient access to education, violent conflict and a number of other challenges. Eager to play a role in changing their communities and nations for the better, many young people have become frustrated with political processes that seem out of reach, out of touch and ineffective, and have since turned to other ways to give back to their communities. To encourage youth to “opt-in” to the state, governments need to give them more than a seat at the table to address matters affecting their lives. Failure to do so may further widen the growing rift between youth and political institutions, and make youth more vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups.
NDI’s new unified theory of change for youth political participation describes what it takes for development programs to invest in youth and create meaningful opportunities for their political participation. The main message is that programs are more likely to work if they make intentional efforts to develop youth agency and foster an enabling environment for youth participation. This allows programs to build young people’s skills, experience and confidence, while also addressing environmental factors, such as deeply-rooted cultural norms that deem youth as undeserving or incapable of public leadership, or portray youth as a threat only interested in toppling those currently in power. Failure to address both of these factors can have adverse effects; if young people become more skilled and confident only to be re-immersed into a political environment that is unresponsive, they may lose faith in politics and disengage.
The theory reflects a positive youth development approach by recognizing youth as active participants in development rather than passive recipients of aid. Youth learn most effectively by leading organized, collective political action to address socioeconomic issues they care about, which is often their motivation for getting involved in politics in the first place. In this way, youth can help establish democratic behavioral norms while driving other types of development. For example, youth in Kosovo and Jordan have used political means to make a range of public improvements, from transportation and infrastructure to gender equality.
The process laid out in the unified theory is not easy. Creating an enabling environment for youth participation, in particular, can be arduous, unpredictable and nonlinear. However, NDI has seen that when young women and men have been able to build relationships of mutual trust, understanding and respect with political leaders, they have been able to secure more consistent opportunities to affect public decisions and play meaningful political roles. As youth leverage these relationships and strengthen intergenerational collaboration over time, they can incrementally erode sociocultural and institutional barriers that exclude them, and begin to establish youth participation as a norm. In other words, initial steps taken to develop youth agency and the enabling environment can create the momentum needed for longer term changes in political practices.
This is the final blog in a series of three leading up to the release of NDI’s new youth political participation programming guide, which will be launched online in the coming weeks. Read the first and second blogs at the provided links.