Authors: Blair Glencorse, Meryl Miner and Julie Murray*
Democracy took a hit over the last year and youth are suffering the consequences. As freedom declined globally, so too did young peoples’ satisfaction with democracy, increasingly believing their voices are not being heard by decision makers. Youth are not only victims of the democratic recession, they are also a key part of the solution to reversing it. If the Summit for Democracy (S4D) wants to contribute to this broader aim, it must harness the ideas and energy of young people. This week’s celebration of International Democracy Day should be a call to action for Summit organizers and policymakers to hone plans for engaging youth in this important process.
The Summit for Democracy (S4D) – while not perfect – provides an important process through which young people can mobilize to renew democracy around the world. The Youth Cohort – one of many emerging groups engaging in the lead up to the second S4D – is a collection of government and civil society organizations (CSOs) that support the participation of young people in the “Year of Action.”
It will be impossible for world leaders to achieve the Summit’s goals – fighting corruption, countering authoritarianism, and promoting human rights – without drawing on the energy, creativity and positivity of younger generations who are not just the future, but the present – and are key voices for change. However, young people need adequate space and accessible platforms to do so.
The Strategic Imperative of Engaging Youth
There has never been a larger cohort of young people in the world than today. Despite 65 percent of the global population being under the age 35, this age group represents only six percent of elected representatives – little wonder that young people often are not viewed as policy advocates or influencers.
When young people have accessible platforms matched with resources to voice their diverse perspectives and participate in public policymaking, they can transform societies. For example, in Malaysia in 2019, the youth movement Undi18 successfully advocated for a historic Constitutional Amendment to lower the voting age. Similarly in Nigeria, youth-led advocacy as part of the “Not Too Young To Run” campaign resulted in a bill that reduced the age limits across political offices.
Young people also identify needs in their communities, and push for more inclusive, participatory approaches. In South Sudan, adolescent girls are the quickest to identify when their peers are susceptible to leaving school due to early and forced marriages or pregnancy. Building on research from Niger and Sierra Leone, adolesent activists at the 2021 African Union Girls Summit called for sufficient budgets to hold governments accountable to commitments to end child marriage.
Young people cannot be ignored as part of the process of democratic renewal. The question is: how best to channel youth energy within and to reform existing, sometimes exclusionary systems to make those systems more democratic. The S4D has the platform and, if intentionally elevated as a priority amongst its planners and participating governments, can have the momentum to ensure young voices are elevated as a strategic imperative for democracies around the world.
New Ways to Elevate Young Voices
At the first S4D event last December, the Youth Assembly, the youth-focused Day Zero event, and the Youth Town Hall were powerful reminders of the importance of youth action. But even then, engagement of young people in the S4D has been sporadic, slow, and generally limited.
Recent research from the Accountability Lab in the S4D participating countries of Nigeria, Nepal and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) indicated that young people are far less engaged than they could be around the S4D process. Reasons for this include a disillusionment with politics, more urgent economic priorities and a lack of awareness of the S4D process.
In the lead up to the second S4D, the U.S. government should work with youth-led and supporting organizations and networks to meaningfully engage young people in the planning of the agenda. The U.S. and allies should create an advisory committee for and by young people that feeds information directly to the S4D planners. This new body would enable young people to share what matters to them and how they want their peers to be engaged in the Summit. This is key to advancing diverse, locally-led partnerships and development initiatives.
The Youth Cohort is another way democratic governments can achieve their goals around the second S4D and the broader democratic renewal agenda. With the backing of governments, CSOs, and youth leaders, the Cohort can and should use its platform to hold countries accountable for meeting youth-focused commitments made during the Summit. It also can push countries that have yet to make youth-focused commitments to mainstream young people’s voices into the implementation of the Year of Action.
Crowding in Children and Adolescents
These efforts cannot leave out youth in early adolescence (those aged 10 to 14), as defined by the recent USAID Youth in Development Policy. As children enter adolescence, the brain is primed to learn new skills, making it a critical time to lay the foundation for democratic values and build positive civic behaviors. Efforts leading up to, during, and following the second S4D, as well as in the current Year of Action, therefore need to consider ways to meaningfully listen to, engage, and amplify the voices of youth in this age group.
Children can speak to their unique realities and should be given ample space, accurate information on the processes, and appropriate resources to be heard and exercise their agency. This also means ensuring that groups with intersecting identities, for example, adolescent girls and children with disabilities, are proactively included to address power imbalances between children and adults.
In their planning for the next S4D, we hope to see the United States and all participating governments rethink how they engage diverse young people in their commitments to democracy. Youth participation is necessary to ensure that the S4D process is right-sized for a contemporary look at democratic renewal and an inclusive, holistic approach that crowds in the voices that are most often excluded from geopolitics, yet most vital for strengthening democratic governance.
*Blair Glencorse, Executive Director, the Accountability Lab
Meryl Miner, Senior Youth and Inclusion Specialist, the International Republican Institute
Julie Murray, Lead Advocate for Democracy, Rights and Governance, Save the Children