Monday, April 24, 2017

Youth participation beyond tokenism

Youth Empowerment and Youth Development have joined the family of buzz phrases that are constantly being used by governments, non-governmental organisations and the private sector in various ways. Like girls and women empowerment, everyone wants to take part in this new hype, and use it to position their organisations or products. Corporate Social Responsibility(CSR) initiatives are also been aligned to the youth development agenda, which is a good.

But to what extent is youth participation seen in the initiatives developed by the government, non-governmental organisations and private sector?

Malawi has seen its fair share of youth development events, where the youth come as an afterthought. That is, the youth are invited to the event after everything else has been set already. Then, we realise that we are missing a major component, the youth themselves. Of course, this is compensated by the phrases ‘youth at heart’ and ‘youthful.’ Just a reminder, the national youth policy defines a young person as someone who is between the ages of 10 and 35. It is estimated that over 60 percent of the Malawi population is below 35 years. In an ideal situation, you would expect this segment of the population to get a lion’s share in decision making or participation on issues that directly affect them.

Recently, Standard Bank in partnership with UNICEF and the Ministry of Labour, Youth and Man Power Development organised a Malawi Socio-Economic Forum that focused on Youth Entrepreneurship. This programme was supposed to be by the youth and for the youth. Just by taking a glance at the programme, you realise that the youth are missing in this program. Of the 9 speakers that were lined up to present, only 1 person was in the category of youth. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that the contributions of this one young people will be overshadowed.

The rest of the youth that were privileged to walk into this invited space, did not event get a chance to participate in the discussions that took place. Was this event for the youth? or was this event organised for another purpose and the youth just happened to be invited or co-opted? This is just one example of ‘youth events’ that does not really involve the youth.

Events that are organised to speak to the youth, and not let the youth speak and the rest of us listen.

Equally, there are many initiatives that young people are organising to empower fellow youths and contribute to the economic development. Efforts are made to seek support from the government, non-governmental organisations and the private sector which is hard to come by. Without their support, endorsement or recognition of their efforts, the outcome of these initiatives is neither regarded nor considered in their decision making.

To move away from youth participation as tokenism, the government, non-governmental organisations and the private sector, need to involve the youth right from inception level. The agenda of a youth meeting/forums must be set for, and by the youth. This way, you will have a relevant discussion with the youth. Even if you want to financially invest in the youth, you will invest in areas that the youth are interest in. The youth might be inexperienced and not as wise, but they know what they want, and where they are going.

Selection of speakers also needs to go through the same young people. You will be surprised that the panel that you might form and the one that the youth will form will be totally different. You will be even surprised with the list of mentors or people who motivate them that they might share. Without having the youth, you will have a list of speakers that the youth will not relate with, which is a waste of time and resources for the youth and the organisers.

Most of all, the stakeholders need to move beyond funding youth forums, they need to start funding the implementation of the resolutions made. You have stakeholders who are willing to spend over 10 Million Kwacha to have a youth forum but run away from supporting an initiative that will cost less than 1 million. Again, this goes back to the mismatch between the youth priorities and those of the stakeholders.

This post was written by Chimwemwe John Paul Manyozo a Chevening Alumni and Associate Fellow of the Royal Commonwealth Society

and Vincent Kumwenda the CEO of mHub. Vincent is writing in his personal capacity. The post was also published on