Why youth participation in government affairs and processes is important.
As per their nature and throughout history, youth have always proved to be a source of innovation. They have often been able to have an impact on political decisions and economic opportunities, thanks to their dynamic creativity, problem-solving thinking, and unstoppable enthusiasm. This, despite the challenges they face in their daily life, including discrimination, obstacles in education, and barriers to economic opportunities and employment.
For political systems and democracies to be representative, they must include all parts of the society in all levels of governance, understand the need of every single group, listen to their demands, and provide them with proper and meaningful answers. Without youth’s participation in political processes and affairs, policymakers’ decisions undermine inclusivity and the spirit of leaving no one behind. In essence, with the youth excluded from the political debate, a substantial part of the population has little or no voice in the community’s life.
Participation is a democratic process and a fundamental right, the guiding principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, through which each citizen is empowered to have an impact on their social and economic environment, civic space, and development.
It is widely acknowledged that young people are the most suitable to take up decisions that can have an impact on the present, to create a better future — not surprisingly defining “sustainable development”. As the UN Brundtland Commission stated back in 1987: “Sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
On the same wavelength, the UN has long advocated for youth participation in decision-making processes, terming it as key to the development of our societies. In the UN General Assembly Resolution 58/133, which emphasized the “importance of the full and effective participation of youth and youth organizations at the local, national, and international levels in promoting and implementing the World Programme of Action and in evaluating the progress achieved and the obstacles encountered in its implementation”, the organization has reaffirmed this principle.
While everyone can observe and understand our economies and societies, predicting future scenarios and action plans to realise them, youth are truly the ones capable of making a difference in the long run, thanks to their unexplored ideas and advanced tools to translate them into practice. To make this happen, formal political processes and governmental affairs cannot take place without the engagement of the youth. Despite their lack of professional (and sometimes personal) experience, they are still the engine for a better tomorrow.
Considering how inclusive political participation is a pillar within democracies, key in contributing to just and peaceful societies, young people have the right and the duty to be equally represented in our countries’ decision-making. Particularly during election times, when people are called on to express a preference for political systems, leaders and representatives, the youth need to have the opportunity to be part of the process and influence it accordingly at all levels, leveraging on their knowledge and inventiveness.
If this is not guaranteed, the youth will most likely be discouraged, frustrated, hopeless and disempowered, which will result in them not feeling comfortable raising their voices and in leaders not having the privilege to listen to their words. Their exclusion from the formal political process can lead to the destabilisation of democracies and democratisation, as well as the increase and acceleration of conflict dynamics.
To make sure young people play a key role in governmental affairs, it is important to understand the interconnected nature of the challenges to participation they encounter.
In Kenya, youth aged 18–35 represent three-quarters of the entire population and constitute a potential source of social and economic energy for the entire country. Yet, the cultural belief that considers older citizens as wiser and more experienced can be true and can act as a golden opportunity for the youth themselves to learn and grow. Since young people in Kenya represent the largest political constituency and demographic group, their participation in political processes is critical to democratic developments in the country. Although some of best practices implemented nationally, designed through bodies and policies, have contributed to enable the youth to reach their potential, evidence shows how they still remain marginalized from electoral structures.
Kenya’s Constitution of 2010, with the creation of 47 local governments and the establishment of devolution, represents the attempt and the will of the Government to be more careful and responsive to young people’s needs. Although governmental reforms have led to community-focused and community-led projects with Kenyans as the main beneficiaries, the link between young people’s aspirations and the available resources to express and materialize them is yet to be strengthened. Governmental transparency and accountability must walk hand in hand with civic education, access to funding and youth’s participation in decision-making processes.
About the author
Giulia Lizzi is a Fellow — Strategic Partnerships and Communications at UNDP Kenya.