Our Perspective


World Youth Report Edition – ‘All You(th) Need Is Now’

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The World Youth Report on Civic Engagement, launched today (15th of July 2016) is a fascinating compilation of information on youth political, economic and community engagement. This article comments upon the highlights of this report in conjunction with UNDP Sri Lanka’s National Human Development Report (NHDR 2014) on Youth and Development.

While you read this article, ask yourself: how prominent is the participation of young people in the civic affairs of this country? Is this due to a lack of interest or a lack of opportunity?

 

Youth and Political Engagement

One of the biggest criticisms of the infamous Brexit vote last month was the fact that a significant proportion of those who voted ‘Leave’ were above the age of 60; thus the elderly population brought about an outcome that would have a bigger impact on the younger generation.

This point highlights the importance of youth civic engagement. Essentially, political participation of the youth has to be encouraged as early as possible. Constitutional decisions, arguably, have the potential to impact young people more than any other age group in a nation’s electorate.  

The NHDR 2014 indicates that although young people in Sri Lanka are inclined to vote in the elections, ‘very few youths take part in political decision-making or voice their opinions at community, district or national levels’.  

Both the NHDR and the World Youth Report(WYR) highlight the fact that turnout of youth voters is significantly less than turnout of adult voters, and so young people have a limited say in who governs their country. However, there is a strong tendency for the youth to take part in protests and demonstrations to show their objection to and disapproval of, various national policies. It is interesting to note that young people don’t take the opportunity to have their say, yet protest when their governments take unsatisfactory decisions.

Further, the World Youth Report draws attention to the fact that social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter play an important part in bolstering young people’s activism and participation; they provide a platform for them to voice their opinion and concerns. These claims are true for Sri Lankan youth as well, as confirmed by the NHDR, where the focus group discussion affirmed the importance of social media for student political movements. This indicates that young people WANT to communicate their thoughts, and they do have a lot to say on the governance of their country.

But social media activism is similar to a protest. Indeed, online ‘hashtag’ campaigns in response to events that occur, are virtual demonstrations of sorts. Young people participate in communicating their outrage towards the government, but their civic engagement rarely goes beyond that. The NHDR states that according to the National Youth Survey 2013, ‘only 5% of the respondents appeared to be involved in direct political activism’.

Why is this?

Why are young people invested in the idea of change, keen on conveying their dissatisfaction through various mechanisms, yet reluctant to actively take direct action that may actually make a difference? Who is to blame for this generation’s passive-aggressive response to unacceptable events that occur? It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when young people decided that 100 characters or changing their Facebook profile pictures was adequate to condemn the occurrence of unfortunate events. Yes, social media is a genius method of providing youngsters with a platform on which they can relay their thoughts. But when it’s comes to the actual implementation of change, has it made us too complacent?

 

Youth and Economic Engagement

The World Youth Report highlights the problem of youth unemployment, stating that most (if not all) Member States are dealing with this challenge and in fact, combatting youth unemployment rates ‘constitute a central element of Member States’ national youth policies’.

Sri Lanka grapples with issue as well, but it is more challenging because, as the NHDR highlights, unemployment is especially high in the areas that were affected during the civil war. While in developed countries, the problem is mostly the requirement of years of experience, the problem in Sri Lanka is the lack of job opportunities itself as well as the lack of information on the job market.

The minimum legal age for working in Sri Lanka is 16, but part-time employment opportunities for youngsters are extremely rare while they are still in school. As a result, young people finish school and embark upon high studies straightaway, without having worked at all, and then struggle to find jobs once they have graduated due to lack of work experience.

The World Youth Report comments upon the fact that a number of young people are employed as interns in order to gain work experience. Increasingly, such internships have also gained popularity in Sri Lanka providing young people with a taste of a practical working environment. However, as the World Youth Report also highlights, most internships are unpaid. This means that a significant proportion of the youth, that is those without sufficient financial capabilities to work unpaid, will not be able to apply for these internships. Thus, these internships are only available to the upper middle-class youth. Furthermore, most organizations in Sri Lanka that take up interns do not have a specific internship program. The informality of the internship arrangement results in very little practical knowledge being transferred to the individual, due to a lack of predetermined responsibilities or tasks.

 

Youth and Community Engagement

The World Youth Report recommends youth community engagement through ‘volunteerism, peacebuilding efforts and sporting activities’. In Sri Lanka, the primary problem with regards to these activities is the lack of information. There are young people willing to put time into such endeavors; this is evinced by the number of youth related programs that take place for students in the nation – Model United Nations, Toastmasters, Interact Clubs, etc. There is also definitely a demand for youth volunteers. However, there is no mechanism to connect the volunteer to an organization that he/she is most suited to, especially outside of Colombo where the lack of information is evident. Sri Lanka is a top spot for foreign volunteer students to build schools and teach English in rural communities, but local students are not engaged in such rewarding adventures.

 

Conclusion

The Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 and built upon the initiative to ‘leave no one behind’. Sri Lanka’s democratic framework will be significantly flawed if young people and their interests are not adequately 0represented in state institutions. This can be alleviated by tackling the problem of lack of interest by encouraging civic participation at an early stage through education, and tackling lack of opportunity by making a conscious effort to giving young people the chance to put forward their ideas and opinions. As the NHDR states ‘an apathetic, cynical and passive generation is as detrimental to development as one that is violent and destructive; youth need to have self-belief and hope’.

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