“Adults miss the point. When is a child considered skilful enough to contribute actively? If you do not give them the opportunity to participate, they will not acquire the skills. Give us the chance early and see how we fly.” - 17 year old from Malaysia (youth delegate from the UN special session on children)
In 2004, the issues faced by society will include significant threats to democracy, global crime and terror, poverty and hunger on an unprecedented scale, as well as the explosion of pandemic health problems such as HIV/Aids. We see these as "our problems", problems conditioned by adult thought, and solutions restricted by adult capacities to think innovatively.
This expert view explores these issues from a young person’s(1) perspective. As shown from the quote above, young people often want to contribute and be heard, but face barriers. We examine the challenges faced by young people in participating in the development of solutions to their own problems. We also explore some of the reasons behind what makes them feel the way they do about the issues faced by the world.
The State of our world
In 2002, the value of the world’s GDP was a staggering $32.2 trillion dollars(2). Of this GDP however, over three quarters is controlled by 14% of the world’s population (22 countries). As George Orwell once famously wrote: “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”(3) a stark parallel to the state of our world at the end of 2003. Let’s look at some of the facts which reinforce this…
There is enough food in the world for everyone to be able to live and lead healthy, productive lives yet 800 million people go to bed hungry every night(4).
0.6% of the world’s water is fresh, drinkable and plentiful enough to fulfil the world’s water demands. However, 1.2billion people do not have access to clean water. A further 2.4 billion people lack access to proper sanitation(5).
In some areas of the world, only 1 in 3 have access to medical facilities, and even then, the drugs are too expensive to administer, or there are not enough health officials to treat everyone in need of healthcare.
2 million people die of TB every year, 3 million die of malaria and 3 million die of AIDS. By 2020, 70 million people will have died of AIDS(6).
In 2003, 1 billion adults were illiterate and 104 million children were not enrolled in school(7).
In the 20th century, 72 million people lost their lives due to conflict, with an additional 52 million lives lost through genocides(8).
“Not all those living in the wealthier countries of the world fulfil the stereotype of the rich, privileged consumer. Some have been left behind, living in a parallel financial universe, often budgeting on a weekly cash basis, with no bank account, few local shops, and constantly juggling bills and debts.” - The Oxfam UK Poverty Programme
It is very easy for those in the developed world, who have access to water, healthcare, education and food, to ignore the realities that exist on their door step. Indeed, the problems cited above are not just restricted to developing countries.
Around 1 in 4 people in the UK (13 million people) live in poverty(9). Whilst it would be wrong to suggest that a comparison can be drawn between this poverty and the problems faced by the developing countries, it is still evident that there are people in the UK who suffer the same types of access problems (albeit due to very different reasons), as do those in developing countries. It would appear that deprivation and inequalities are around us no matter where we live in the world.
The innocent victims
“Who else can describe all the world’s harm if not children?” - 16 year old from Slovakia, Voice of Youth (website)
It is widely recognised by the UN and national governments that one of the most vulnerable citizen groups of our society are children and young people. In most cases they are helpless victims of the problems created by a minority and faced by the world.
UNICEF, the international authority on young people’s rights and suffering comments on the impact of poverty on the young as a case in point:
“Most of the people living in poverty are children. Poverty denies children their rights. It weakens a child's protective environment, as much abuse and exploitation of children is linked to widespread and deeply entrenched poverty. It blights their lives with ill health, malnutrition, and impaired physical and mental development. It saps their energy and undermines their confidence in the future.”(10)
The evidence is disturbing. But what role do adults play in alleviating the problems faced by the young?
The young, democracy and participation
“No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts itself off from youth severs its lifeline.” Kofi Annan
Over the past decade, youth has emerged as a key global development focus, due in part to the increased challenges faced by those in developing countries. This recognition has brought about a plethora of UN initiatives aimed directly at tackling the issues faced by young people(11).
These global developments are having an impact on the participation of young people across the world: “in every region of the world there are now initiatives, projects and programmes in which young people are participating in decision making”(12). Young people are beginning to shape the world around them, influencing politicians, media and professionals with their own unique perspective on the world.
The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child made it clear that participation is a substantive right of all young people. The demand for recognition of the right of young people to be heard and have an active role in promoting their best interests is far from universally respected however. Such a demand for recognition represents a significant challenge of the traditional attitudes towards young people in many societies throughout the world, which often assumes adults are superior decision makers, who can represent the best interests of the young.
The logic of participation and it’s affect on democracy is however, relatively simple. If young people are restricted from questioning and expressing their views, their skills in this area will not be developed. As a result, reduced opportunities for meaningful participation reduce the ability of the young to articulate and express themselves, resulting in lower self esteem, disempowerment and a loss of confidence in participatory situations. This will eventually undermine the democratic fabric of a society.
There is an increasing body of evidence which points towards significant benefits of youth participation, including better decisions and outcomes. It is often the case that young people have a unique perspective on a situation, derived from first hand experience: “We the children are youth experts on being 8, 12 or 17 years old in the societies of today...to consult us would make your work more effective and give better results for children. My proposal is that you make us part of your team” - 17 year old Norwegian (at the UN Special Session on Children).
The UNICEF State of the World’s Children Report 2003 comments on these benefits: “promoting meaningful and quality participation of children and adolescents is essential to ensuring their growth and development. A child whose active engagement with the world has been encouraged from the outset will be a child with the competencies to develop through early childhood, respond to educational opportunities and move into adolescents with confidence, assertiveness and the capacities to contribute to democratic dialogue and practices within the home, school community and country.”
It is not if young people participate but how they participate
“Sometimes I feel the world wants me to grow up faster. I feel like people don’t respect the things I say or what I have to give just because of my age” - 15 year old Canadian (from the UN special report on Children)
UNICEF suggests that young people’s participation is manifested in five spheres, starting first with the family and ending with society. Article 13 has added the business community as a fifth sphere, moving society to the outside sphere. This is based on our belief that businesses can valuably engage with the young people of society, by giving them opportunities to participate in decision making:
Figure 1: Article 13 Spheres of Youth Participation (the adapted and revised model from Nimi’s 5 Spheres of Child Participation, published in 2003)
It is the complex interplay of adults and young people within the context of participation and how these engagements take place which is of fundamental concern to the development of young people’s voice in all arenas.
Models of Participation
Models such as Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation are commonly used tool to illustrate how organisations participate with their stakeholders. Article 13's original research has used Arnstein's model to map corporate stakeholder engagement against levels of participation.(13)
At one end of the participation ladder is information giving, whilst at the other end is true participation putting the participant at the centre of decision making. In a child/youth context, this would be described as a move away from adult centric participation, to authentic youth participation which: “starts from children and young people themselves, on their own terms, within their own realities and in pursuit of their own visions, dreams, hopes and concerns.”(14)
Article 13's research also found that society was moving from a "trust me" to a "show me" to an "involve me" culture. This is also certainly true of the way youth participation is developing, where young people want more and more to be involved in the decisions that impact upon them.
So how does one engage with young people? What are the necessary ingredients of effective participation? Article 13 have further conceptualised Arnstein’s Ladder into a model depicting the continuum of youth participation in five areas, namely the interplay of adults and young people in the initiation of a project, agenda setting, information holding, decision making and implementation. We believe that this model of participation serves as a useful tool for planning youth involvement in projects.
The literature on young people’s participation has however, overlooked the ability of young people to act as social entrepreneurs in their own right, sometimes with the help of adults, or at the extreme driven purely by young people. We have accounted for this in our ladder of participation. Our case studies also illustrate different types of young people’s participation, from adult led to youth led.
Youth led participation
Many organisations pay lip service to young people’s participation, and adult thinking often prevents the true widespread and democratic involvement of them in decision making.
Young people are however standing up to their elders, challenging traditional adult centric approaches to problem solving, typified by the increasing trend of youth led organisations aiming to create positive change in society. These organisations are charting new territory in the field of youth development, acting as catalysts for change through the creation of young leaders of the future with the drive, desire, passion, values and the skills to make that change.
A case in point is the highly active youth development organisation, AIESEC, officially recognised as the world’s largest entirely student run organisation(15). AIESEC has been creating “leaders of the future” since its creation in 1948 by 7 students from 7 countries. Today, AIESEC engages young people from its 86 country, 750 university network through a global exchange programme where students both manage and participate in international work placements with multinationals, NGOs, and SMEs, enabling AIESEC to promote cultural understanding amongst a large number of young people. They are also beginning to engage in the CSR debate, recognising the need to develop leaders with not just cultural tolerance but sensitivity to the social and environmental responsibilities of corporations. AIESEC’s vision is simple: “peace and fulfilment of human-kind’s potential”, and it aims to achieve this through creating entrepreneurial, culturally sensitive, socially responsible, proactive agents of change.
AIESEC is not alone in this field, as there are numerous other youth organisations which all have one over-arching aim, as Changemakers(16) nicely summarises: “Youth development organisations’ animating purpose is to enable youth to be independent thinkers and entrepreneurial actors in whichever areas they enter.”
This apparent emancipation of the young, is creating an intuitive belief amongst a growing number of young people that they are capable of coming up with their own ideas and solutions, as well as changing the world. They are having a fundamental impact on the way societies relate to young people, resulting in a slow and basic, but progressive shift in values and beliefs of adults about the governance relationship between adults and children.
A new perspective from youth led organisations – what can we learn?
Article 13 has explored the issue of youth led action further, by analysing a number of case studies of youth led organisations that have identified an issue relevant to them and taken action, mobilising a significant number of other young people in the process.
We sought to answer the key question, what are the common characteristics demonstrated by young people in these organisations? What are the practical lessons for organisations from these inspirational young people?
These organisations represent a relatively small number of youth led organisations promoting positive change in society. No information exists on the global total number of youth organisations. Many operate as movements of young people rather than NGOs or organisations, making measurement even harder. However, despite difficulties in quantifying their numbers, the cases we have studied represent the aspirational end of the participation scale.
Our main findings fall into three categories:
Of fundamental importance to the character of these young leaders is self belief. They have strong inner belief, about the need to be heard, and that the answers and solutions to the problems of the world relevant to them come from within. They see themselves as creators of the future rather than spectators, and they are not afraid to challenge cultural norms. Ultimately, it is their belief that there is an alternative, that things do not need to stay the way they are, which sets them apart from most. This spark of idealism drives their desire to affect positive change in their communities and in the wider world.
Our research identified that the youth leaders tended to be non partisan, with little or no political orientation. This devolution from politics is likely to result from the inner self-belief that these young people demonstrate. Further insights into attitude reveal that the young people in these organisations strive to act with dignity, modesty, integrity and courage. Finally, and also refreshingly, it would appear that fun and happiness lie at the heart of their work, i.e. they have turned child like qualities into a strength.
Article 13 identified a number of key competencies that these young leaders possessed, namely entrepreneurialism, communication skills (including listening and empathy), ability to interact with others, ability to build partnerships and creativity. They also showed themselves to be pragmatic and action orientated.
To summarise, it is the attitudes and beliefs that these inspirational young people hold which gives them a desire to change things as well as the drive and “can do” attitude. It is true that our analysis has focused on the minority of youth organisations which act largely independent from adult support, but it is important to note that youth centred participation (with adult support) can create socially responsible citizens as well.
The message is clear and simple and echoes the views of the young Malaysian quoted at the start of this expert opinion: “Give us the chance early and see how we fly.”
If you’ve ever doubted the impact of something so small, you’ve obviously never been in bed with a mosquito!
“The children’s presence transformed the atmosphere...they introduced their passions, questions, fears, challenges and optimisim. They brought us their ideas, hopes and dreams” Kofi Annan
In this month’s Article 13 expert view, we have examined the issue of young people’s participation, and the characteristics of inspirational youth leaders who have affected significant changes on their communities through their activities. It is sobering to review the current situation the world finds itself in. It is clear that action is required, at all levels of society, including individuals, local communities, local government, national government, companies (large and small) and international institutions.
However, by focusing on youth, this update has highlighted two key issues. The first is that there are some outstanding young people who with their innovation, drive, energy, beliefs and values can be an inspiration to us all. Secondly, this potential within young people remains largely untapped in the majority of cases, and perhaps it is our collective responsibility to find ways in which we can foster these qualities and unlock the richness and energy of youth by engaging them in debates relevant to both themselves and the world. After all, tomorrow they will be the driving force of change in our society. As Kofi Anan, Secretary General of the UN is quoted as saying:
“No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts itself off from youth severs its lifeline.”
Give young people the chance early and see how they fly. The future of our world depends on it.
The UN refers to youth as aged between 15 and 24. The UN Convention on the rights of a child defines children as under 18’s. For the purpose of this article, we shall encompass both definitions by referring to “young people” as anyone aged less than 24, encompassing children and youth.
Animal Farm, George Orwell, 1945
UN World Food Programme
UK Governments’ Department for Work and Pensions
UNICEF – “Why we do it”
These include the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the 1998 Braga Youth Action Plan at the UN Youth Forum, the 2000 UN Programme of Action for Youth, as well as the Millennium Declaration which put forward a number of targets and indicators to be measured that directly relate to youth including literacy, health and employment.
UN World Youth Report 2003
"Engaging stakeholders in corporate accountability programmes: A cross-sectoral analysis of UK and transnational experience" Jane Fiona Cumming, Business Ethics: A European Review, Vol 10, No 1, January 2001.
Youth – Strategic Direction for the World Bank 2003
For more information, visit AIESEC
is an international initiative of Ashoka, the international educational NGO developing social entrepreneur
Also in this feature:
© Article 13 – December 2003