The Need for Greater Youth Engagement in the Decision-Making Process

As student protests continue to engulf many universities across Australia, I can’t help but remember what Rakesh Rajani, founder of prominent Tanzanian NGO “Twaweza”, once said in an interview[1]:

“We are very clunky at involving young people. Our institutions are very adult-centric. For example, take a school. The vast majority of people in school are young people. They are there day-in, day-out. And yet when decisions are made about school governance and priorities and how we solve problems, young people are locked out.”

This quote makes me wonder if governments that pass major policies affecting youth – anywhere in the world – ever consider consulting youth at all. This issue was discussed at the recent Open Government Partnership Conference in Bali early last month, where I had seen Mr. Rajani for the first time. At the conference, which he co-chaired, he was a strong supporter of youth participation in the decision-making process – and it seems that many governments have realized the potential and the need for youth inclusion in decision-making processes after all.

The Open Government Partnership Conference was held on the 6-7 May 2014 and this year, it was hosted by Indonesia. Themed “Pushing the Boundaries in Open Governance”, the conference invited over 500 people from various different governments, NGOs, the private sector, and academia. I had the pleasure of attending the event with two other ANU students, Ellie Wallis and Khoirun Mumpuni, as youth delegates.

There was one special youth panel at the conference, which I had the honour of moderating. The panel focused on the role of youth as new agents in sustaining open governance. Our panel had, by far, the biggest audience – with over 80 attendees and most of them young people. One could easily sense the enthusiasm, excitement, and the impatience of the youth wanting to speak filling up the room.

While only a limited number of people were able to speak, the panel had everyone talking during the conference. The message was clear. Youth must be included in the decision-making process. The fact that youth are underrepresented in this process creates plenty of space for the formation of policies that harm the interests of young people.

A majority of the world’s population is under the age of 27 and in the Asia-Pacific alone, there is an estimated 750 million people between the ages of 15 and 24. These young people are students, labourers, professionals, and innovative change makers who contribute to the well-being of society. But despite playing an active role in society, youth around the globe are underrepresented in global affairs and in the pursuit of finding solutions for global and domestic challenges. This form of marginalisation could provide challenges to the sustainable progress of solutions for various problems, from climate change to youth unemployment.

Admittedly, there is space for youth to voice concerns, raise issues, and share ideas. In Australia, organizations like GetUp! and the Australia Youth Climate Coalition are not only popular forums for youth, but act as influential platforms for policy activism. But a space for young people to vent their anger, share ideas, and lobby for their preferred policies is simply not enough. Youth must also be given a role in the decision-making process itself.

Governments must consult and involve young people in the making of policies that affect both young people and the community at large, because at the end of the day, we must all realize that youth are ultimately the world’s biggest stakeholders. The decisions of policymakers in the present will not only impacts youth today, but our lives in the future.

Of course, the natural question to this argument is how can youth meaningfully participate in the decision-making process?

First and foremost, information on planned actions that impact youth must be widely disseminated and made more accessible. This is not as simple as putting up proposals or surveys on government websites. Governments must enlist youth to write up proposals that are easily relatable, understandable, and widely accessible. It is also important for the government to launch public debates that would allow youth to understand the different sides of any planned action. This way, youth will not only be educated on the topic, but they will be in a much greater position to voice their concerns and share their ideas with the government.

Of course, educating youth and consulting them about planned decisions is simply not enough. To ensure that youth forums do not end up as mere “talk shops”, youth participation in the decision-making process must be institutionalized. This can be done through a number of ways, such as through the formation of supportive government policies that require youth participation, allowing youth to vote on governmental boards, and the allocation of public budget for facilitating youth participation in governance.

Governments must also encourage, recognize, and support student-run initiatives and organizations. Strengthening these organizations and allowing them to partake in the decision-making process is not only a necessary step for a youth-inclusive decision-making process, but it also allows youth to contribute with fresh and creative ideas to addressing challenges.

These two methods provide young people with greater influences in any country’s decision-making process.

This makes me wonder if the recent proposal to deregulate university fees would have been somewhat received better if youth were included in the government’s decision-making process. Large protests are unavoidable by-products of decisions and policies that lacked the participation of major stakeholders. The protests we witnessed over considerations to deregulate university fees are understandable and unavoidable, as youth were not properly consulted and treated as a major stakeholder by the Australian government. This is a sensitive issue, and to leave youth out as a major stakeholder is a form of marginalization. This is not acceptable behaviour for a country that is a part of the Open Government Partnership.

The Open Government Partnership is an initiative that aims to provide ‘an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens’[2]. But the inclusion of youth in the decision-making process remains one that is unique, even amongst member-states. There is a real need for Australia, and every other country in the OGP, to step up its game and recognize youth as an important actor in the decision-making process. Otherwise, how can governments claim to be more open and responsive to its citizens?

 

Gatra Priyandita is doing a Bachelor of Asia-Pacific Security (Honours). He is the current president of the ANU Indonesian Students’ Association.

[1] http://www.opengovpartnership.org/blog/blog-editor/2014/05/07/taking-responsibility-and-co-shaping-life-cnn-interview-rakesh-rajani