I was invited during early October by the UN Population Fund to share my experiences at the General Assembly Meeting of the East and Southern African branch of the African Youth and Adolescents Network on Population and Development (AfriYAN) in Johannesburg, South Africa. Below is an excerpt from the reflections I shared during a leadership workshop session at the meeting.
Youth participation is seen as being part of the transition from one life stage to the next. It is so named – youth participation, because it is tied to a particular life stage. This implies that regardless of the chronological definition of youth that is adopted (UN- 15-24, Commonwealth- 15-29, African Union – 15 – 35), the maximum age at which an individual can legitimately engage with policy decision-making processes at regional level as a youth is 35 years. It is important that young leaders are reminded and aware of this fact, as its import may be lost and they could consequently fail to make necessary preparations for future life stages. This means that while engaging with the development processes, young leaders also need to develop other aspects of their lives by investing in their own education, especially higher education, and draw on transferable skills that could be useful for future careers.
Furthermore, participation (in terms of playing an active role in development decision-making processes such as international negotiations and formulating national policies and programmes) is an opportunity to learn and develop new skills. Learning in these situations takes place through social engagement. Albert Bandura, former Stanford Professor and psychologist, argues that this type of learning occurs in social contexts where individuals learn by observing, and I add, by doing. Thus, through participating in decision-making processes, young people learn a range of transferable skills which they can apply in other life stages and other endeavours of their lives. Some of the skills developed in the course of youth engagement with development processes include: advocacy and negotiation skills, research and analysis skills, grant writing, fiscal management, project management and strategic planning, among many others. These skills are valuable for national development planning and programme development and implementation. By affording young people the opportunity of gaining these skills outside of formal education we develop the next generation of development programme experts.
Why invest in youth participation?
Drawing from the above, I believe that an understanding of the wider perspectives of youth participation in decision-making processes offers development agencies a basis for justifying programmes and offers young people a basis for advocacy. A number of relevant points are made here. Africa has been touted as having the potential of reaping a demographic dividend based on the changing population structure which will result in a youth bulge in many countries. It is widely understood that in order to reap the gains of such bulging youth population, countries need to invest in human capital development, especially health and education. In relation to education, and skills development, while the focus has mainly been on formal education including technical and vocational education and training (TVET), skills development can be extended to include other areas outside of formal education.
By investing in youth participation, agencies are indirectly preparing young people, and by extension, countries, towards achieving the demographic dividend by affording young people the opportunity to gain transferable skills that are valuable to critical sectors of national life. This is because the aforementioned skills that young people gain through their involvement in development decision-making could prepare them for roles in Foreign Service, national Civil Service, civil society and international development organisations. In all of these areas, countries often require skills, therefore by affording young people the opportunity to attend and contribute to negotiations on development frameworks and supporting youth networks, agencies prepare the next generation of experts in these areas. The experiences gained from these processes are invaluable and enable young people to build buoyant CVs that could fetch them the opportunities in these sectors.
Further to the above, investing in youth participation helps raise young people’s aspirations and contributes to their agency. The capacity to act independently and aspire to greater possibilities in life has been a critical area of debate in research on subjective assessments of poverty and wellbeing. I argue that by investing in youth participation, agencies enable young people to develop cultural and social capital which help, in many cases, to broaden their horizons to see possibilities beyond their immediate realities. It also enables them to understand that their role in community level work is beyond themselves and their immediate environment and is part of something much bigger and global in scope, thus helping to assist them in seeing their career potential as possibly global rather than local.
Youth participation in decision-making processes is an invaluable opportunity which young people cannot (and I believe many do not) take for granted. However, the young people need to be reminded that these opportunities have a time limit and thus they need to prepare for future phases of their lives by taking advantage of the processes to learn new skills, draw on as much knowledge as they can from the experts and also invest in their own education. Development agencies on the other hand need to continue supporting young people in these processes, keeping in mind that these investments help young people to prepare for the future and afford them the opportunity to gain skills that could prepare them for future work.