How I feel after years of youth organizing and advocacy work: are youth really empowered in decision-making processes? Do policies really reflect their needs and realities? Working with young people and representing young people in global conferences can often feel individually rewarding but ultimately ineffective.
Hence the reason why I decided to participate in an innovative research-advocacy project called The Case For Space. This research project is a joint partnership between Restless Development, Youth Business International, War Child, and implemented by Youth Policy Labs. Besides the incredible partners who have all worked for youth empowerment and youth-led change for years, what caught my attention was the design and scope of the project: there would be 20 young researchers from around the world who would investigate the real conditions that youth need in order to grow and succeed - the "enabling" conditions - focusing on child protection, youth employment, and civil participation.
Still, I was unclear about how this would look like and really play out. After being accepted and discussing my previous and current research experience with Youth Policy, I got on a plane to Berlin to meet the other researchers and the organizing partners.
For the next three days, Youth Policy Labs facilitated an informal, fun, and effective conference that explored our research project's themes, and inspired us to think across perspectives, disciplines, and regions. Here are some of my highlights from each day.
Day One of the Lab: Youth Policy introduced themselves and their goals for the lab. Mark from Restless Development and Laura from Youth Business International also introduced themselves briefly. Mark truly set the tone for the days ahead. We all knew that this project is an exercise in ambitious, and even wishful, thinking. But we wanted some real impact. "The hope is low, and the rhetoric is high. This year could be the largest exercise in tokenism for young people ever," he said. We all know that the Sustainable Development Goals will be decided upon this year, and with many young people working in national committees and UN working groups, it is still unsure that they will have much agency or impact on the final goals outlined, as well as the implementation of those goals. What our project is trying to do is to represent real young people on the ground, and their interests. When you have young researchers focusing on young people, perhaps the data and perspectives that they can collect will be different, and those realities need to be reflected in international development agendas.
In the afternoon, we looked at different indexes for measuring civil society organizations, and learned about CIVICUS's model, which is called the Enabling Environment Index. This index, which has different categories for Socio-economic, Socio-cultural, and Governance indices, looks at what conditions are "enabling" for civil society organizations - or, in which environment they can best and most efficiently function. We learned that we would apply this Index to youth in our respective regions.
The way that I best understood this was the following: we can have the most beautiful youth policies that exist. There can be a National Youth Policy, a Youth Committee in the government, and a nice budget for youth empowerment through education, employment, cultural development and etc. But if the larger environment for youth is not "enabling", then the impact of these policies is limited. Take for example, if the government is corrupt and it has a weak rule of law, meaning that government officials arbitrarily or rarely enforce laws. Or if youth are not able to freely assemble and manifest their political beliefs and desires. Using the Enabling Environment Index to consider the "space" that youth need is taking a deeper look at the real conditions necessary for youth development, in a way that goes beyond simply analyzing public policy.
We then split into our regional groups and worked on applying the EEI to the conditions for youth in our own countries, and then our region as a whole. In Latin America and the Caribbean, we have researchers from Mexico, Colombia, the Bahamas, and Brazil (myself). It was surprisingly easy to come up with the two most important convergences in worst conditions for youth: corruption and equality. Our two largest divergences were policy dialogue (openness of the government to outside input regarding policy) and media freedom. A sub-domain that we wished were included in the EEI was safety and security, because there is a high rate of criminalization of young people in our region, and young people also suffer disproportionately from violence, especially state-sponsored violence.
The first day of the GYRL was intense, but very productive and engaging. I think many of us felt that we had hoped for the project and team to be serious and dedicated, but we also all felt challenged to think in a new way using the EEI. We knew there was much more to do and waiting for us in the days ahead. And happily, we all decompressed at the local beer garden afterwards.