Finding Their Voice: Young People Being Heard Through Governance

By Natalie Hill, Technical Specialist for Governance at Global Communities  |  This post originally appeared in Medium.

Honduras Youth Local Council
While Honduras has made some progress in stemming the humanitarian crisis that has gripped the countries in the Northern Triangle due to high levels of violence, the homicide rate in 2015 was still an alarming 60 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Young people, have been disproportionately affected, with the rate almost four times as high at 230 per 100,000 young men between the ages of 20 and 29.

The struggles faced by young people in Honduras mirrors that faced by youth across the developing world, where the so called “youth bulge” threatens to put a strain on already limited resources. The result of this demographic shift are already being felt: young people often lack economic opportunity, with high rates of unemployment, are threatened by higher levels of violence, and are frustrated by endemic corruption that keeps them from having a say in their communities. This sense of a lack of control and options to voice their concerns leads to protests, other more disruptive forms of political activity, and in some cases crime or violence.

It’s time to include those young people in the conversation, and channel the efforts and interests of youth into building a stronger, more stable, and safer community. Global Communities has developed a unique model for how to constructively channel youth attention and passion into the civic and political space: the Youth Local Council (YLC). This model is being tested in countries in the Middle East, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, attempting to strengthen participatory government as a democratic norm in regions where obstacles persist to creating strong democratic institutions.

Palestine Youth Local Council

As part of a local governance program financed by USAID in the West Bank, Global Communities created so-called Youth Local Councils (YLCs). Bringing together youth from a variety of backgrounds, the YLCs encourage active participation in local development, government, and civil society organizations. The YLCs mirror the size and formation of local institutions, and are formed through a transparent election process, with representatives chosen from a general assembly of youth in each community. The YLC then channels the voice of that plenary of youth upward to the local government.

Now in Honduras, Global Communities is taking the lessons learned from our YLCs in the West Bank, and has launched a similar program in the north of the country. In the municipalities of Tela and La Ceiba, 13 council members were elected by their peers in February, and then went about setting themselves up, creating a work plan for youth engagement activities in the coming year. Notably, the YLC members were sworn in by each municipality’s mayor, as a recognized partner to the local government, and one member was selected to sit on the Executive Committee of the mayor. This, and the support and guidance of the local election authorities, not only lent legitimacy to the electoral process undertaken by the YLC, but also energized the youth in the broader community. This led to more excitement among youth in other municipalities who also wanted to have this type of opportunity — and Global Communities is responding by initiating YLCs in San Jose and San Pedro de Tutule.

No matter where in the world these YLCs operate, they fulfill a similar function, helping both young people and the local government better understand their respective roles. For the local authorities, the YLCs present an opportunity for them to learn firsthand about the issues that are important to youth, but are also a chance for youth to hold them accountable for their promises. For youth, the councils don’t just let them have their voices heard, but they also gain a better understanding of the realities, and limitations, placed on local governments. Gaining exposure through the YLC to how the government actually works, and what constraints it faces day to day. It also presents them with the possibilities about what they, as citizens of that government, can impact. Gaining this perspective, coupled with an outlet for their concerns, helps create an alternative to protest, crime, or organized violence.

Conversely, the YLCs in the West Bank offer youth exposure to democratic institutions and norms that they otherwise don’t get — like elections. When elections are postponed time and again in Palestine, a generation of youth grow up without ever knowing what it is to vote — and to have that vote mean something for their community. Youth in Palestinian YLCs speak about how important it is to them to be part of a body following democratic values, and to be able to assert a voice through voting.

In Ukraine, youth are used to voting often, but do not always have faith that the government elected will actually represent their interests. Disillusionment with corruption in past administrations, and current frustrations with the slow pace of reform, has led to Ukrainians to see their lives and well-being as getting worse, rather than better. Global Communities is seeking to apply its YLC model with youth in 75 new communities around the country, to provide those youth with an avenue to assert a voice in the development of their own communities.

There are risks associated with councils like these, and development practitioners must have a deep understanding and commitment to the communities they are working in to avoid them. The councils function most effectively when formally integrated with government to lend them the legitimacy they need to function properly, but they should run parallel to the local government, not be co-opted by it. If youth do not view the councils as a free and open place to discuss their concerns, they will not want to join, and the long term efficacy of the councils will be threatened. The YLCs must also prevent being subsumed by other local interest groups, like political parties, universities, or local power structures. In Honduras, Global Communities required all candidate lists for the YLC election to include diverse candidates — disallowing any lists comprised of youth from only one political party, university, or community organization. This prevented the politicization of the YLC election, and also prevented them from becoming a tool to propagate the policies of one group.

The same is true if the opposite happens, and local leaders simply ignore the councils. Having adequate feedback mechanisms built into local institutions plays a vital role in ensuring the councils are not used for photo-ops and ignored when it comes to local policies. The example in Honduras of gaining an official seat on the Mayor’s executive council is one way to ensure the YLC’s voice is heard. Maintaining transparency on what youth concerns have been addressed is also important — to close the feedback loop and ensure youth know what is being done for them. These ways to protect the integrity of the YLC mirror solutions to preventing co-option in a more broadly democratic institution.

The YLC model could be used for other groups that are traditionally marginalized and do not have experience with democratic norms. Women, disabled individuals, indigenous groups, migrant workers, or others could all benefit from such an outlet for their voices to be heard. It must though, be one that actively fosters genuine participation in official structures, rather than simply acting as a way to placate and silence a group. The YLC model has also shown itself to be sustainable. Even as direct funding was phased out, municipalities across the West Bank have shown their commitment and enthusiasm for the model by continuing to support and recognize their youth local councils. That is why the YLC model is so exciting. It shows that by strengthening participation and democratic norms, governance programs can do more than build institutions — they can have a long term impact that helps support broader development goals.