Falling short: Youth representation in development decisions

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By Ditebogo Lebea
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The demand and urgency for active youth participation in decision-making processes is increasingly expressed throughout the African continent. The Generation 2030 2.0 report by UNICEF states that Africa’s child population will reach 1 billion by 2055, making the continent the youngest and most populous continent in the world. This stresses the need to harness the African youth dividend through youth and child investment. For years, this demand has been coupled with the call to allow African youth a seat at the table.

“The single most important factor for continental growth is the energy and passion of young Africans who have a palpable sense of positive energy and optimism,” stated Mr. Kuseni Dlamini, who was named ‘Young Global Leader’ in 2008 by the World Economic Forum. Young people are the link between our present and our future. They live with decisions made before their time, and they are the ones who shape the world of tomorrow. They are entrepreneurs, innovators, activists, and trendsetters, constantly influencing and shaping behaviours in society.

Climate change encapsulates this absolute urgency of ensuring that youth is fully involved in deciding on our development pathway. Citizens under 30 are inheriting a hotter, more unpredictable climate that has enormous implications for the future. Change comes from the fresh, unpolluted minds – not from the old. In the face of challenges like climate change and the social and economic injustices that are exacerbated by it, the capacity to imagine alternative futures is what we need.

Africa needs more young people taking up seats in politics such as Proscovia Oromaits, the world’s youngest Member of Parliament elected in the Ugandan Parliament at the age of 20, or Youth Policy Committees that seek to ensure that more young voices are heard in policy making spaces. Achieving meaningful youth involvement, beyond token participation, is not easy. Young citizens often need to find creative ways, “invent” spaces where they can be heard and speak directly to the decision-makers – and ultimately, decide upon their destinies themselves.

During the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference (COP24), the People’s Seat allowed for the first time citizens from around the world to add their voice to the most important discussion of our times. #TakeYourSeat is an example of how we can harness technology to mobilise a vast constituency of concerned citizens, and ensure that their concerns and ideas feed directly in the discussion.
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Increasingly, more and more young people are engaging in global politics. YOUNGO, a youth constituency under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has, since 2009, created a platform for young people from all corners of the globe to have a formal voice to the UNFCCC processes.

One of YOUNGO’s achievements was the first ever Action for Climate Empowerment (ACE) Youth Forum. This initiative was strongly driven by young negotiators from the Global South, and gave them a platform to influence key policy on climate empowerment and the advancement of education, training, and public awareness about climate change, as provided in Article 6 of the Convention.

In South Africa, youth participation in governance is a mixed bag, especially when it comes to our elected representatives in Parliament. Under the current Legislature, only 6% of our MPs (23 out of 400) are under 35. The numbers are not known for the nine Provincial Legislatures. However, by the look of it, the youth seems grossly underrepresented in this sphere of government as well.

Some of these institutions try to bring young voices to the fore by organising Youth Sector Parliaments every year around Youth Day. These programmes aim to encourage the youth to participate in the Legislatures’ work and enable them to influence legislation relevant to their needs. While commendable, these programmes fall short of their objectives, partly because they treat youth participation as something external rather than embedded in the make-up of the Legislative sector. Furthermore, public knowledge of these opportunities for the youth to engage is limited. Thus, there is a risk that some youth voices are not represented.

The appetite for participation and having a say in the country’s affairs is there – and it is growing, as witnessed by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA)’s Youth Programmes. This is why, to complement the Legislature’s Youth Sector Parliament, Action 24 Model Legislatures were held for the first time in 2018 in Limpopo, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Western Cape.
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The aim of the Model Legislature programme is to introduce high school learners and university students to the Provincial Legislatures and the process of public participation in the passing of laws and oversight over government interventions. These were set up to simulate the process of policy making in Provincial Legislatures. Delegates who participated in the Model Legislatures held their own commissions on human settlement, tourism, and environmental affairs. Guided by the challenges faced in their community, and their province at large, they formulated actionable propositions that were compiled into Youth Submissions presented to the Provincial Legislatures in November 2018. This was a unique opportunity for the learners to actively make decisions on their future.

By hosting such dialogues in the unique, interactive, and fun format of a provincial legislature, the youth delegates were exposed to and informed on how to address provincial problems through a law-making and oversight process, and the relevant procedures thereof. Moreover, it presented an opportunity for delegates to learn about existing legislation and policies and their role in their implementation.

Events such as the aforementioned are a central tenet in the advancement of young people in South Africa and throughout the world. We have a young population and what better time than now to advance their skills and empower them to make informed decisions on their future.
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