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December 3, 2010

youth civic engagement and economic development in the Global South

I will be talking later today about this topic. Since I am far from an expert on the subject, I intend to facilitate a conversation rather than lecture. I will put some points on the table for discussion:

1. According to the World Bank (2007), "Today, 1.5 billion people are ages 12–24 worldwide, 1.3 billion of them in developing countries, the most ever in history." Incorporating that enormous population into political and civic life represents a challenge and an opportunity. ("Civic and political life" means voting, activism, service, belonging to groups, deliberation, careers in the public and nonprofit sectors, production of media and culture--and I would not exclude revolution or war under extreme circumstances.)

2. Among those 1.3 billion young people are many millions who have been involved in criminal gangs or conscripted as child soldiers. The challenges and opportunities are particularly dramatic in those cases.

3. In countries where the age distribution is skewed toward the young, investing adequately in children and teenagers is very difficult. The older generations lack sufficient cash, and even time, to provide for youth when the youth/adult ratio is too high. This is a vast and probably insoluble problem, but it's important to look for high-impact strategies.

4. From evaluations of youth development programs, we know that when "at risk" young people are given opportunities to deliberate, serve, and act politically, they learn, develop healthy personal behaviors, and integrate successfully into society. A moving example from the United States: On entering YouthBuild, the participants--young American adults without high school diplomas--estimate their own life expectancies at 40, on average. Upon completing the program, they have raised the average estimate to 72: evidence that they have gained a sense of opportunity, optimism, and purpose by working together, building houses and studying and discussing social issues.

5. Older people make political decisions that are far from optimal for youth. They pour public money into retirement benefits and health care at the end of life while under-investing in education and preventive health care. Also, entrenched elites (who are, by definition, older) tend to make corrupt decisions. Many countries are experimenting with "social accountability" as a tool for more equitable and less corrupt policy. That means giving the power to make decisions to citizens, organized in deliberative forums. In some places, youth are specifically included in social accountability. For instance, in Fortaleza, Brazil, 50 young people helped shape the municipal budget (PDF, p. 53). Hampton, VA has created a whole pyramid of engagement for its young people, capped by empowered youth councils. Although I don't think we yet have evidence that youth participation produces dramatically better social outcomes, that is highly plausible given (1) the persuasive evidence for social accountability, plus (2) examples in which young people have participated effectively in public processes.

6. Other policies that affect youth civic engagement, for better or worse, include: the extent and content of primary and secondary education; conscription and national service (which sometimes includes civilian alternatives); the criminal justice system and how it treats juvenile offenders; and the rules of the electoral system (including when the voting age is set). These policies can be deeply harmful: for example, when young Americans are permanently stripped of the right to vote because of felony convictions. Or they can be helpful--as when universal schooling supports civic learning.

7. There is nothing intrinsically good about youth civic engagement. Fascism was basically a youth movement. But some societies create a healthy dynamic in which young people introduce new energies, interests, and ideas, while older people maintain institutions and transmit values and experience. Other societies discourage constructive engagement, and the consequences are almost always harmful.

December 3, 2010 8:27 AM | category: advocating civic education , democratic reform overseas | Comments



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