African youth in participatory politics
Across the world we can see experiments in ‘participatory governance’. People and organisations are grasping opportunities provided by decentralisation and other reform processes and demanding more of a say in the public policy and budget processes that affect them.
From participatory budgeting in Brazil to monitoring elections with mobile phones in Kenya, a growing range of citizen-led mobilisation, activism and demands are holding governments to account and giving a voice to the people not usually heard in formal policy and governance processes.
But exciting as these new approaches are, we need to look harder at them. Are they working for all or are some voices still left out? In particular, are they working for the young? In Africa, the debate on who is a ‘youth’ continues. Some countries use the UN definition of 15 to 24 years. We define youth as the time of transition from dependence (childhood) to independence (adulthood) — an age range that varies widely across contexts.
In March 2011, IIED, Plan UK and the Institute of Development Studies brought together a group of adults and young people involved in youth and governance initiatives across Africa at a ‘writeshop’ in Nairobi, Kenya. The idea behind the week-long meeting was to share learning and experiences, build writing skills, form new relationships, and develop a set of articles for a forthcoming special issue of IIED’s journal Participatory Learning and Action (PLA).
This week’s writeshop has really helped me to think about applying more detailed analysis to my work on youth and governance… The process has bridged the gap between learning and application.
Powerless to participate
During the writeshop, contributors acted out how young Africans commonly perceive governance processes and their scope for engaging in them. Their scenes included:
A tight circle of adults surrounding a girl, propelling her from one to the other, while she looked increasingly dizzy and confused. Her mouth was sealed with masking tape.
A girl and boy lounging against a wall, their faces and attitudes oozing boredom: nails being filed, gum chewed. In the background, an adult types madly at a desk while another strides around looking busy and efficient — neither ever looking at the youths.
An adult puppet-mistress pulling the strings of a girl puppet, walking her up a conference hall to the stage. There the puppet curtsies, handing over a rolled-up speech to an adult dignitary, who pats her on the head before she is puppeted away.
The scenes presented in Nairobi speak eloquently of tokenism, presence without influence, condescension, well-meaning but power-blind political correctness, frustrated potential and dissipated energy, and generational and gendered power hierarchies. It is these fractured patterns of engagement that the contributors to this issue of PLA are working to change.
What has really excited me is that issues about young people in governance are beginning to be placed on the table, and on the agenda for NGOs and governments; as well as learning how this is a common thread that runs across Africa.
Beyond youth stereotypes
Throughout the writeshop we heard practitioners from across Africa describe how youth — particularly boys — are seen, and see themselves, as a ‘lost generation’: disaffected and bored with life, and infinitely corruptible and corrupted.
But we also heard tales of how young Africans — who make up more than half the continent’s population — are challenging the norms and structures that exclude them by engaging with the state and demanding accountability.
Youth in Sierra Leone are using participatory video to get local government to address weaknesses in service provision. And in Sanaag, a disputed territory between Puntland and Somaliland, youth are leading a unique community survey called the Camel Caravan to engage with pastoralists.
The Nairobi writeshop uncovered the vibrancy, energy, persistence, passion and enthusiasm that youth bring to decision-making processes. It showed us that young people can drive change in creative and unexpected ways.
The forthcoming issue of PLA will highlight how young Africans are doing this — addressing the documentation gap that surrounds youth and governance in Africa and enabling other participatory practitioners, both young and old, to learn from their experience.
Text adapted from McGee, R. with J. Greenhalf (forthcoming 2011) ‘Seeing like a young citizen: Youth and participatory governance in Africa’ Participatory Learning and Action 64.
Photostory: PLA writeshop in Kenya