Our Perspective

Opening Lines of Communication for Youth in a Sustainable Development Era

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Photo Credits: Freya Morales/UNDP

The NHDR 2014 was published at an opportune moment; Sri Lanka had reached a point of transition in its economy, with high aspirations that depended in part on the energy and productivity of youth. Only a few years past the end of a civil war, it faced new opportunities to engage youth in reconciliation. For this, it was important to ensure that youth would no longer feel excluded from development, or cut away from their hopes for the future. Two years into its publication, the Sri Lanka National Human Development Report 2014 (NHDR 2014) on Youth and Development: Towards an Inclusive Future continues to reach young people and the public at large and more recently, UNDP Sri Lanka was one of the four awardees alongside UNDP Chile, Montenegro and Uganda, to receive the 2016 Awards for Excellence in Human Development Reporting for national and regional reports.

As 2016 draws to an end, Sri Lanka is now working towards establishing a National Policy and Strategy on Sustainable Development targeting the completion of the 17 Global Goals by 2030. The process of localising targets and implementing strategies to ensure sustainable development is currently underway and involving youth in this process is essential.


The report reveals that youth are often distrustful of state institutions and that many are apathetic towards political participation. Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) revealed that this often stems from their disillusionment with political parties, as well as a lack of understanding of governance systems. FGDs that informed the NHDR 2014 also indicated that despite the perceived apathy and disinterest on the part of youth, many were aware of the lack of social integration. They also questioned how youth friendly existing political systems are, stating that while some remain apathetic, others who would like to have a say are often not granted the opportunity to do so. This can, in part, be attributed to long standing biases and to systemic and social segregation along the lines of language, ethnicity, religion, and class (the 2013 National Youth Survey indicated that youth had a strong awareness of ethnic identity and identified ethnic politics as one of the most divisive factors in society).

Discussions also revealed that youth felt strongly that open and sustained lines of communication between different groups was imperative to the both the development and reconciliation processes and that while they were keen to bridge these differences, they often found this difficult to do.

Opening lines of communication

The national Youth Survey 2013 and FGDs identified two channels through which to engage youth – educational institutions and the family. They identified that often families and social institutions discouraged integration and that rather that instilling in youth the importance of mutual respect, tolerance and an acceptance of diversity, they only encouraged youth to pursue individual success and material well-being.

 A majority of schools see students segregated by language, with the School Census conducted in 2008 indicating that only 5% of schools offered mixed medium instruction, thereby limiting interaction with peers. While participants in the National Youth Survey indicated that interaction between ethnic groups had increased, with 77% of youth with friends from other ethnic groups indicating that there was increased interaction, segregating students on the lines of language only helps to draw distinctions between groups, which is hardly conducive to instilling mutual respect for one another, tolerance and respect for diversity.  There is also a dire need to revisit our education policies and school curricula to shift priorities away from exams and employability towards ‘broader, more humanistic education’. Thereby, ensuring that everyone has equal access to quality education and that the school system is equipped to allow each child to reach their full potential and pursue their area of interest, while placing importance on soft skills and vocational training.

Increasing youth participation

Given access to quality education, the right opportunities and the freedom to voice their opinion and be heard, participants in FGDs stated that they had a strong will to participate in politics and work towards effecting positive change. However, many felt that often as a result of either a lack of connections, money or a lack of familial or institutional support they felt that they had little to no say in decision making processes. In a culture that places great importance on respecting your elders, youth indicated that they often felt that their voice, opinions and ideas were ignored. They are expected to defer to or consult with adults who have more experience often at the cost of receiving a fresh perspective or innovative solution to an existing problem.

As Sri Lanka moves ahead with the 2030 development agenda, we need to ensure that youth have a say in the policies being implemented. Social institutions related to education, health care, governance and law enforcement need to be more open to engaging with youth. They need to create platforms to engage with youth so that they are informed and able to consult on processes and decisions that will impact their lives.

If a sustainable future is to be secured, then we need to ensure that the generations to come are invested in it and that they are given the opportunity to shape the future that they want.

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