BY OLADOTUN FADEYIYE
From fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone to responding to the earthquakes in Nepal, children and young people were at the heart of some of 2015’s most difficult crises. Not, as you might imagine, as the victims, but as the protagonists. Often away from the headlines, young people are driving positive change in the face of momentous and tragic events.
The sustainable development goals (SDGs) came into force on 1 January 2016, giving us the biggest opportunity yet to improve living conditions for the next generation. But if we don’t harness the incredible power and agency of young people now, we risk missing these targets.
The events of 2015 teach us that to achieve these goals, there needs to be a clear space for child and youth development – supporting young people and their organisations and enabling them to play an active role in their communities. New research – From Rhetoric to Action – released by our three organisations (Restless Development, War Child UK and Youth Business International) has found that this space is worryingly small and too often restricted.
Over the past year, we worked with Youth Policy Labs to support a group of young researchers from around the world to examine the conditions for youth development in their own countries. Of the 18 research projects conducted, 16 reported serious challenges faced by young people as they sought to complete their education, participate in society and prepare themselves for work.
We found that young women in India have alarmingly fewer personal freedoms and work opportunities, former child soldiers in Colombia face incredible social stigma as they try to forge a livelihood, and in Mexico, youth activists regularly face harassment and attacks, by both government institutions and the police.
As part of the research, a global survey of more than 800 youth organisations and movements found that reduced funding is causing severe and systematic problems: half of those surveyed will be forced to close over the next year if their level of funding does not improve.
Perhaps the most alarming finding that none of us can ignore is the rising restrictions faced by young people and their organisations as part of a wider trend of shrinking civil society space. There has been a lot of discussion around the importance of involving young people in achieving the global goals. Ban Ki Moon, for example, coined the term “torch bearers” to describe the role they should play, while politicians have lined up to declare their commitment.
But at precisely the point where the world needs the most leadership and energy from young people, we’re doing the least to help them unlock it. In some places, it’s being actively restricted.
Amid the challenges, though, the young researchers also found inspiring examples of young people overcoming barriers to lead change and development. In the wake of a clampdown on public debate in Egypt, young people have embraced social entrepreneurship as an alternative path to social change. 25-year-old Aya Magdi, for example, co-founded the social enterprise Ihyaa Academy, which trains young leaders in Cairo. In the absence of effective rule of law in Syria, young people are stepping up to participate in humanitarian assistance and justice.
The research published this week finds that we won’t be able to make progress on the global goals without stronger policies that open up spaces for children and young people. Policies that encourage employability or business skills – often outside the formal education curriculum – can make the difference for a young person getting a job or starting up a business.
Particularly in fragile or conflict-affected states, there must be more investment in youth-led networks, which can play a key role in community-led child protection systems, and can help hold states to account when they fail to uphold the rights of children and youth. The youth sector and civil society itself will need to do more. The research also concludes that it’s time for a total rethink on the way we invest in the next generation of civil society and youth organisations, so that they’re fit to drive the success of the next era of development.
This will be difficult and take time. It won’t always play well to the gallery, where rhetoric and token moments around the role of young people are often easier than action. But in the first year of the sustainable development goals – the world’s promise to the next generation – it’s time to show that we’re serious about enabling young people to lead.