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An Appeal for More Support for Youth Civic Engagement

Posted August 13th, 2015 at 1:04 pm (UTC-4)
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Posted by  on August 12, 2015

The program carries a simple name, but a powerful purpose.

Since 2012, Ana Usharek — which means “I Participate” in Arabic — has brought together more than 11,000 young people across Jordan to take a leading role in promoting civic participation and engaging with government. This is noteworthy in a country where young people have limited opportunities to engage in public policy processes — despite representing about 70 percent of the population.

Through local advocacy initiatives and peer-led discussions on democracy and human rights, university and high school students are raising their voices on important issues at a critical period in their country’s history.

They’ve challenged the views of decision makers and members of parliament in roundtables and town hall meetings. They’ve visited local organizations, discussing such issues as the 2013 parliamentary elections, decentralization and political party laws.

Youth involved in Usharek+, the advanced student participation program, have led dozens of local advocacy initiatives addressing issues such as changing the university grading system as well as amending the Press and Publications Law.

It’s clear: Young changemakers, particularly when given opportunities and support, have the vision, imagination, energy, ability and persistence to help bring lasting, positive social change.

On International Youth Day, we are reminded that the international development community must build stronger partnerships with youth so they can not only meaningfully participate in development programs but also in important decision-making processes within their communities, nations, and at the global level.

Too often, youth participation efforts are narrowly focused on “youth” issues which frequently exclude broader societal concerns, as many older people think the young aren’t interested in “abstract” issues such as democracy.

But in-depth country studies, conducted by Restless Development, revealed that governance was the most important issue overall for the young people surveyed. And “an honest and responsive government” was listed among the top four concerns in the United Nation’s MyWorld2015 survey, whose respondents were overwhelmingly under 30.

But a few key impediments need to be addressed. For example, we need to create more meaningful opportunities to engage youth in civic issues, since adults frequently dominate existing channels for participation. In addition, we need to focus on educating youth about public policy issues and help them develop skills in critical thinking, public speaking and advocacy.

Most importantly, to counter apathy, we must help instill in young people the belief that their participation will indeed make a difference in the future of their country.  One way of doing this is to provide youth the opportunity to engage in efforts in which they can make a difference, and achieve at least a small degree of success.

These challenges are even greater among marginalized youth, such as young women, adolescent girls, LGBTI, indigenous youth, and youth who are disabled or are from minority ethnic groups.

The Ana Usharek and Usharek+ programs, both supported by USAID and implemented by our partner the National Democratic Institute, are tackling these challenges in Jordan and have built up the capacity of youth to engage in constructive dialogues on important public policy issues.

Similarly, USAID is working to enhance youth participation in political processes and other critical issues, including countering violence, promoting peacebuilding, and supporting inclusive, transparent and accountable governance in places such as Kosovo, Kenya, Nicaragua and Guatemala, among others. President Obama’s youth leadership programs, such as YALI, also play a critical role as they help generate support for youth participation.

As we celebrate International Youth Day, let’s reflect on the various ways in which we can support more meaningful youth civic participation.

Maryanne Yerkes is a senior civil society and youth advisor in USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance.

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