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A Game of Musical Chairs: On Youth Participation

Abraham Lincoln’s famous words, Government of the people, for the people, by the people, are often quoted as a definition of democracy. And though it has been excessively challenged and demanded over the years, democracy is characterized with implementing the will of the people.

The people in that case, are everyone; men and women, young and old alike. Democratic nations or not, young people have been particularly missing from the field of decision-making; Their voices storming muted streets, thoughts lost amongst a digital sea of 140-characters, and actions ridiculed purely based on a scale comparing age to credibility, age to wisdom, age to freedom. That doesn’t mean that the challenges youth have faced in the past year went in vain, on the contrary, youth have strived to create solutions to these challenges. They didn’t give up, they committed to make the world a better place.

Yet in major governments around the world, based on a 2013 UNDP report, the average age of parliamentarians globally is 53, and 1.65% of parliamentarians around the world are in their 20s. In accordance, 73% of countries restrict young people from running for office. It’s almost like a game of musical chairs where youth are left standing, losing an opportunity at the round-table to represent. And though some countries have done a significant effort to spare open seats as the UK with their Youth Parliament or Mongolia’s efforts to empower youth through Civic Education, many youths are still at a disadvantage and various programs are not made easy to access.

Last November, I attended the Launch of the 2016 Arab Human Development Report on ‘Youth and the Prospects for Human Development in a Changing Reality.’ What really struck me wasn’t whether there was controversy discussing identity or participation but rather that amongst the panelists there was only one young representative and that the back-and-forth discussion happened with an audience that lacked a strong numerical presence of youth. The real problem isn’t that there’s no dialogue on the matter of youth participation, engagement and empowerment, but rather that no one is speaking  to youths about youths. I could be told various things against this statement, that perhaps youth don’t care, or are not particularly interested in panel discussion between the walls of an Auditorium. To me, that’s an excuse; a pardon for not reaching out, blaming social trends and laziness for incompetent effort to ask, invite, or converse.

Don’t you think it’s time that young people are not side-lined as a second priority, but are seen as a strategic priority in enabling a more prosperous society? As a youth leadership movement striving towards peace and fulfillment of humankind’s potential, and in the words of the former President of AIESEC International, Ana Saldarriaga, we relentlessly work on engaging and developing every single young person in the world; we partner with numerous business, civil society, government and media leaders to ensure collaboration and investment in young people becoming key players today and top leaders tomorrow.

We are youths who speak to youths about youths. And last year, we spoke to over 160,000 young people about what they care about and how would they like to participate in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and issues that matter to them for a better future.

The insights from the YouthSpeak Global Report can be found here.

The idea behind youth participation is for youth to have seats ready for decision-making and platforms ready to hear them out. The UN’s Not Too Young to Run campaign is based on the fact that if you’re old enough to vote, you’re old enough to run for office.

Grab a seat and speak, it’s no longer a game.

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