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International Youth Day – Too soon to celebrate?

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Another year, another International Youth Day, with the theme: “Youth Building Peace”. According to the UN, this global day – 12 August – serves to recognize the efforts young people make in enhancing global society, while promoting their participation in shaping global agenda.

Now, more than ever, youth have recognized their power, as much as governments have increasingly recognized the benefit of working with the youth – engaging them through official representation and in policy dialogues. But how far are we from a finish line, and what exactly is there to celebrate? Can this awareness day – and its heart of the matter, “youth”– go beyond mere symbolism?

The UN first proclaimed 1985 International Youth Year, recognizing the importance of the youth’s direct participation in all sectors of society “in shaping the future of mankind”. The word ‘youth’ was repeated 45 times in the historic two-page UN Resolution and 32 years later, youth have become as important as ever—or have they?

A decade after, youth participation in decision-making was made a priority through the adoption of the World Programme of Action for Youth, but it did not specify how this was supposed to be done. Another decade later – on the cusp of the social media and mobile technology boom – young people steadily moved away from engagement in formal structures (e.g. political parties) to form cause-oriented, self-organized activism. Offline or online, the participation of youth in civic and political space became more visible with increased connectivity and agility.

We are essentially at a juncture where the youth are thought to be as equal partners as their adult counterparts; with more attention and recognition given to their engagement, whether in business, development, human rights and – in rarer cases – politics. Despite significant improvement after three decades, youth participation hasn’t progressed at the speed it should have. If only there was a global indicator to determine how successful youth inclusion has been, because it’s the lack of one that indicates its failure.

In the face of progress, the world continues to grapple a silver bullet to the global youth’s problems. As Ban Ki-moon stated at the last General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Youth: “Still, I do not think we have gone nearly far enough.” Making sense of how to go about it could just be as important as answering what needs to be done – from here and now.

So why is it that we are not there yet?

There are two types of problems when it comes to youth. First, are the ‘problems of youth’, which point to problems like access to basic education, healthcare and gainful employment; ultimately policy and decision-making they face while being young. The other, much-bigger ‘youth problem’, where social perception and treatment towards young people is the by-product of the first problem. Until these two problems are tackled hand-in-hand, we may never get far.

‘Youth’ has become a theory of everyday reality that results in how they have been perceived and treated. Youth participation is often conditioned on their political, socio-economic and cultural environment. These norms are often the direct result of multiple forms of discrimination experience by young people in many parts of the world.

Young people have also been stereotyped by both government opinions and the media, framing what they should be (or rather fail to be) and what should be done with them. For instance, today’s popular rhetoric towards millennials in relation to politics has excessively been painted in harmful ways. Blanket assumptions about millennials’ political interests, voting behaviours, or lifestyle choices are too often made in the west and east. These could further distance young people (especially the younger millennials) in the midst of increased generational polarization.

Young people under the age of 25 make up 42% of the world population; in the Sub-Saharan Africa alone, over 70% of the population is under 30. However, according to IPU Report 2016, only 1.9% of 45,000 parliamentarians globally are aged below 30. While the average of MPs around the world is aged 53, rarely those under 35 make the cut. In most countries, politicians are still considered to be “young” if they are below 40 (14.2% total). Political representation of young women is even more worrying as many women face a double layer of inequality, owing to their young age and because they of their gender—let alone people with disabilities and those with disadvantaged and marginalized backgrounds.

While young people are often perceived as lacking professional experience, if the past decades have ever taught us anything, it is that diverse pools of young people have proven to be effective and competent. Many successful leaders notably in corporate sector, including in start-ups, are under 30.

Perhaps it is the rigid structure and traditional adult-centric approach to global politics that inhibits the world to accept and allow young people to fully participate. Perhaps this has become today’s unfortunate Catch-22, where young people have the proclivity to distance themselves from the inflexible structures, which in turn perpetuate the status-quo. Take the recent US election’s millennial voter turnout as a wild example.

Politics aside, there are other palpable reasons to why we are not yet there.

Youth is still largely seen as a socially-constructed process. Youth is commonly understood as a transition from childhood to adulthood often characterized by greater economic independence. They are believed to represent certain images, identities and opinions. In reality, youth are hardly ever homogenous. Different groups of young people have inherently different characteristics and represent diverse backgrounds, intersectional challenges and aspirations.

Age categorization is another clear demarcation between youth and adult. The definition of ‘youth’ as those between the ages of 15 and 24 – consistently applied across the United Nations and other global organizations – becomes indiscriminate as it does not account for those defined in different regions. In practice, how do we reconcile those aged 0-24 defined as youth in the Netherlands with those aged 15-34 under the same definition in Mozambique? Putting youth in an age bracket (and with national variance) effectively means imposing certain formal qualifications and prerogatives and embedding the exclusion of young people from formal processes within legislation and thus inhibiting an active participation.

This brings us to explore the nebulous concept of youth lies in their legal recognition – or rather lack thereof. Despite the global application of the age standard, “youth rights” have never been codified in international instruments with established universal standards. Achieving this could lead to young people’s agency being taken more seriously and with increased political legitimacy. These mechanisms could also pave the way for better recognition and protection of many rights engendered by shared and specific situations.

This raises the point that the de facto age categorization is problematic not only for the reason of exclusion, but also for the guarantee of rights and legal protection. The consideration for expanding the age bracket to account for regional characterizations and all their differences could be a vital step towards enhancing representation and increasing inclusion. Ultimately, this would create more space for young people to participate in governance, leadership and decision making, where diverse identities, socioeconomic, political, cultural and psychological realities of young people are accounted for and respected.

The global ‘problem of youth’ will first require global attention; youth participation should not be only about youth.

Existing global mechanisms for youth participation at the global level – the UN Youth Delegation Programme, UN Envoy on Youth, Major Group for Children and Youth, to name a few – are important stepping stones. Youth must be seen as equal contributors for change, both for themselves and the society at large. Youth advocacy must therefore go beyond tackling only youth-related issues but endeavour to create space where they can freely and actively engage left, right and centre.

Participation is a fundamental right. While active participation of young people in addressing issues affecting them is recognized, real inclusion can only be achieved when the roles young people play in response to the needs of billions of young people worldwide beyond a single age bracket are clearly articulated in a global policy framing and implementation, with necessary access and resources. With irony, this can only be realized when young people are involved in all areas of participation – especially in the processes that govern their own.

International Youth Day should be celebrated when policy and decision-makers have exploited young people’s skills and abilities –instead of placing them in the socially-constricted Millennial box.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not represent or reflect the views of Amnesty International)

Aanas Ali is rights-based development advocate currently consulting for International Labour Organization. He’s focused on labour rights, mixed migration, and youth advocacy through policy advocacy and public campaigning

New Social Compact

Remote Learning during the pandemic: Lessons from today, principles for tomorrow 

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Education systems around the world reacted to COVID-19 by closing schools and rolling out remote learning options for their students as an emergency response.  New World Bank analysis of early evidence reveals that while remote learning has not been equally effective everywhere, hybrid learning is here to stay.

Going forward, for remote learning to deliver on its potential, the analysis shows the need to ensure strong alignment between three complementary components: effective teaching, suitable technology, and engaged learners.

“Hybrid learning – which combines in-person and remote learning – is here to stay. The challenge will be the art of combining technology and the human factor to make hybrid learning a tool to expand access to quality education for all,” emphasized Jaime Saavedra, World Bank Global Director for Education.  “Information technology is only a complement, not a substitute, for the conventional teaching process – particularly among preschool and elementary school students. The importance of teachers, and the recognition of education as essentially a human interaction endeavor, is now even clearer.”

The twin reports, Remote Learning During the Global School Lockdown: Multi-Country Lessons and Remote Learning During COVID-19: Lessons from Today, Principles for Tomorrow, stress that three components are critical for remote learning to be effective:

  • Prioritizing effective teachers: a teacher with high subject content knowledge, skills to use technology, and appropriate pedagogical tools and support is more likely to be effective at remote instruction.
  • Adopting suitable technology: availability of technology is a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective remote learning.
  • Ensuring learners are engaged: for students to be engaged, contextual factors such as the home environment, family support, and motivation for learning must be well aligned.

The reports found that many countries struggled to ensure take-up and some even found themselves in a remote learning paradox: choosing a distance learning approach unsuited to the access and capabilities of a majority of their teachers and students.

“Emerging evidence on the effectiveness of remote learning during COVID-19 is mixed at best,” said Cristóbal Cobo, World Bank Senior Education and Technology Specialist, and co-author of the two reports. “Some countries provided online digital learning solutions, although a majority of students lacked digital devices or connectivity, thus resulting in uneven participation, which further exacerbated existing inequalities. Other factors leading to low student take-up are unconducive home environments; challenges in maintaining children’s engagement, especially that of younger children; and low digital literacy of students, teachers, and/or parents.”

“While pre-pandemic access to technology and capabilities to use it differed widely within and across countries, limited parental engagement and support for children from poor families has generally hindered their ability to benefit from remote learning,” stressed Saavedra.

Despite these challenges with remote learning, this can be an unprecedented opportunity to leverage its potential to reimagine learning and to build back more effective and equitable education systems. Hybrid learning is part of the solution for the future to make the education process more effective and resilient. 

The reports offer the following five principles to guide country efforts going forward:

Ensure remote learning is fit-for-purpose. Countries should choose modes of remote learning that are suitable to the access and utilization of technology among both teachers and students, including digital skills, and that teachers have opportunities to develop the technical and pedagogical competencies needed for effective remote teaching. 

Use technology to enhance the effectiveness of teachers. Teacher professional development should develop the skills and support needed to be an effective teacher in a remote setting.

Establish meaningful two-way interactions. Using the most appropriate technology for the local context, it is imperative to enable opportunities for students and teachers to interact with each other with suitable adaptations to the delivery of the curriculum.

Engage and support parents as partners in the teaching and learning process. It is imperative that parents (families) are engaged and supported to help students access remote learning and to ensure both continuity of learning and protect children’s socioemotional well-being.

Rally all actors to cooperate around learning. Cooperation across all levels of government; as well as partnerships between the public and private sector, and between groups of teachers and school principals; is vital to the effectiveness of remote learning and to ensure that the system continues to adapt, learn, and improve in an ever-changing remote learning landscape.

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New Social Compact

Youth embody ‘spirit’ of 21st century more than parents

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Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and other global challenges, children and youth are nearly 50 per cent more likely than older people to believe that the world is becoming a better place, according to the results of a landmark intergenerational poll published on Thursday. 

The international survey was conducted by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Gallup, the global analytics and advice firm, and has been released ahead of World Children’s Day on 20 November. 

The Changing Childhood Project is the first poll of its kind to ask multiple generations for their views on the world and what it is like to be a child today.  

Part of the solution 

Henrietta Fore, the UNICEF Executive Director, said that despite numerous reasons to be pessimistic, children and young people refuse to see the world through the bleak lens of adults. 

“Compared to older generations, the world’s young people remain hopeful, much more globally minded, and determined to make the world a better place,” she added.  

“Today’s young people have concerns for the future but see themselves as part of the solution”. 

More than 21,000 people in 21 countries participated in the survey, which was conducted across two age cohorts – 15-24 years old, and age 40 and up – and during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Hopeful, not naïve 

Nationally representative surveys were undertaken in countries across all regions – Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America – and income levels.  

 The findings revealed young people are also more likely to believe childhood has improved, and that healthcare, education and physical safety are better today when compared with their parents’ generation. 

However, despite their optimism, youth are far from naïve.  The poll showed they want to see action to address the climate emergency.  At the same time, they are skeptical about the information they consume on social media, and struggle with feelings of depression and anxiety.  

This generation is also more likely to see themselves as global citizens, and they are more willing to embrace international cooperation to combat threats such as the pandemic. 

Aware of risks 

The survey also found children and young people are generally more trusting of national governments, scientists and international news media as sources of accurate information.  

They are also aware of the problems the world is facing, with nearly 80 per cent seeing serious risks for children online, such as exposure to violent or sexually explicit content, or being bullied. 

Young people want faster progress in the fight against discrimination, more cooperation among countries, and for decision-makers to listen to them. 

Nearly three-quarters of those surveyed who are aware of climate change believe Governments should take significant action to address it.  The share rises to 83 per cent in low- and lower-middle countries, where climate impacts are set to be greatest. 

21st century citizens 

In practically every country, large majorities of youth said their countries would be safer from COVID-19 and other threats if Governments would work together, rather than on their own. 

They have also demonstrated stronger support for LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) rights, with young women at the forefront for equality. 

The survey also revealed a strong alignment between the two generations, including on the issues of climate, education, global collaboration, though some of the deepest divides occurred around optimism, global mindedness and recognition of historical progress.   

“While this research paints a nuanced view of the generational divide, a clear picture emerges: Children and young people embody the spirit of the 21st century far more readily than their parents,” said Ms. Fore.  

“As UNICEF prepares to mark its 75th anniversary next month, and ahead of World Children’s Day, it is critical we listen to young people directly about their well-being and how their lives are changing”.

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New Social Compact

Seva, a book that is here to heal the world

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It was early in February this year that I visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Walking outside the beautiful golden studded Gurudwara, I couldn’t help but feel awe at the langar that was being served. Prepared for lakhs of devotees everyday. Imagine a kitchen that is equipped to feed around one lakh people everyday, what goes on in the minds of people working at the Golden Temple tirelessly to feed one lakh devotees? There is really only one value behind their actions – Seva. Seva literally translates to helping others and seems simple at the outset. But to understand it deeply, you need to read Jasreen Mayal Khanna’s Seva published earlier this year.

Seva – Sikh secrets on how to be good in the real world by Jasreen Mayal Khanna is a book that is here to heal the world. It is a much needed book during the current times and promotes the values of helping others while outlining basic things that we often forget to do – say thank you daily, embrace joy, work harder than you pray, practice equality at home, help someone everyday, be brave, learn to laugh at yourself and live in Chardi Kala. While other points might seem easy and direct, the last one, Chardi Kala might not be obviously understandable to many outside the Sikh Community. What is Chardi Kala? It is the mental state of eternal optimism and joy. The Sikh Community is popularly known across the world for helping others and Jasreen Mayal Khanna explains more about the Sikh practice of Seva, serving others.

For a few, doing Seva comes naturally because it has been taught to them since childhood. This is especially valid for people from the Sikh Community who, as Khanna tells us in her book, are taught to contribute towards community service from a very young age. For some, they need to ingrain Seva in their life to lead a more balanced and happy life. We often forget that the individual and the community are woven into a beautifully intricate fabric that relies on each other. We are only reminded of how interconnected we are to each other during times of crisis. The COVID 19 pandemic has been a great reminder about how we need each other to survive. Friends, family and complete strangers helping out each other during times of the pandemic has been revolutionarily eye opening. The truth is that we should not need a pandemic to make us realise how interconnected we are. Books like Seva are an ode to that fabric of interconnectedness that is often forgotten in the world today. With ancient Sikh secrets and promoted values of happiness, the book heals readers in ways more than one. You quite literally need to read this book to lead a more balanced life.

While many Indians have been reading books like Ikigai talking about Japanese secrets to life, books like Seva hit far closer to home for Indians. Reading the book is also a testament to secularism since you can understand more about a community that you possibly interact with daily. Moreover, the book also gives you the opportunity to understand more about the values of the community that you can easily pick things from. Seva is not just a read for Indians, but deserves to be popularised across the world. The book will hit the UK market in May 2022.

“I had my first baby in the first wave of Covid. Through the pandemic, I kept seeing examples of Sikhs who were risking their own lives to help absolute strangers. And while I was very proud, I was not overly surprised because doing seva is second nature to Sikhs. I knew that this is a story that the world needs to hear, that my son Azad needs to hear. I wrote Seva because it is, in a way, the solution to the problems of modern life. Read it to believe it. “, Khanna says rightly. She is quite right about this, you need to read it to believe it.

I hope you can enjoy the book with some traditional Sikh Panjiri, the most delicious sweet made from wheat flour and dried nuts.

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