"Youth service could make a great contribution through changing a culture of confrontation between social actors and the state and replacing it with a culture of participation in national development". Vicente Espinoza
As Africa continues to lag behind the Millenium Development Goals, it becomes critical that we re-examine the role that the youth on the continent have played in the last three decades or more, and acknowledge that their contribution has not been supported with strategic policies and interventions. As such, the young people are faced with a persistent dilemma as they have been manipulated and instrumentalised to be agents of extreme violence and conflicts. Arguably, their positive contribution to development could be augmented through national youth service programmes. It could help the youth on the African continent gain a greater sense of responsibility and power, and may address the increasing challenge of their long standing marginalisation in decision making, governance, peace and development.
After decades of the challenges relating to youth developmemt in sub-Saharan Africa, the tide has began to turn, with a growing recognition that youth can meaningfully contribute to national and regional development. At the global level, more than ten years have passed since the adoption of the World Programme of Action on the Youth, which emphasises that ‘every State should provide its young people with opportunities for obtaining education, for acquiring skills and for participating fully in all aspects of society, with a view, inter alia, of acquiring productive employment and leading to self-sufficient lives'. Much, however, remains to be done to translate this goal into reality.
On the African continent, 2008 was the Year of African Youth, yet the African Youth Charter, adopted by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union in July 2006, has still only been ratified by 13 countries - needing two more ratifications before it can enter into force. In January 2009, the Assembly declared the years 2009-2019 as the decade of youth development in Africa. Among the priority issues identified for action are: education, employment, safe spaces for recreation and leisure, participation in policy-making processes at national, regional and continental levels, and health issues.
Despite the existing enabling frameworks at continental and regional levels, and in as much as youth participation in decision-making is crucial to both policy making and youth development, national governments have not been very effective in honouring their commitments and obligations in helping the youth realise their full potential as actors in governance and development agendas. National development policies do not concern themselves much with youth, and policies that do exist for young people tend to be fragmented and isolated from core national eradication plans. Further, intense and acute povertypresents chronic challenges, and the second reason - our perception - remains one which has done more harm than good in attracting youth participation in the governance and development debate.
Our society's perception of youth development and empowerment is based on a somewhat tokenistic approach to addressing youth and their experiences, and refusing to recognise the intrinsic worth and value of young people. For too long, vision of youth development at national levels has been narrowly bounded by role differentiation established by adults, resulting in an adhoc engagement with the youth. In this regard, the opportunities that are available to enable young people develop skills and to use them productively, are not optimally utilised. In many instances, such opportunities that could be availed to the youth are squandered and sometimes hoarded by the adult leadership, whose affinity to clinging onto executive offices are well known on the continent. One does not have to look so far out to realise that succession debates at various levels of political, economic and socio-cultural interactions on the continent are not always publicly known, resulting in further marginalisation and disengagement of youth from the very system that is supposed to protect and nurture them.
Thus, there must be deliberate investment by African governments in some of the positive factors that the youth exhibit, as well as attempt to reduce the negative factors that deter youth partipation in decision making. One such approach is to engage youth in national service programmes which could animate new forms of citizenship and political participation, strengthen democratic values and practices, and provide pathways for the integration of youth in the development agenda. But can national service programmes overcome the political and economic challenges and provide the experience of collective work and collective productivity? They do, in the sense that this engagement goes beyond the level of manipulation and token as one spectrum of youth participation and instead advocates for desirable youth-designed and implemented programmatic responses.
It is therefore imperative that national governments target programmes that build social capital. While this may only be seen as an incremental approach to building confidence of the youth and sustaining their interest in engaging in national issues, its gradual positive effects of social capital will be seen in spheres such as neighborhood vitality and neighborhood safety, a high turn-out in elections and large numbers of nonprofit organisations that address rights of youth. Could this possibly lead to democracy, raise levels of economic development, heighten tolerance of difference and improve government performance? It certainly may not be a magic wand that one would expect but the gradual impact of such investment should be seized with determinism, with a view of addressing chronic challenges that relate to operationalising existing national youth programmes in a fragmented manner.
Such national youth services programmes, characterised by an ethos of repaying the state through service for a benefit provided by the state such as higher education, should be pursued because they are perhaps the most deliberate effort to stimulate development.
Arguably, there are three different ways in which youth can be involved in service, but each strategy has different consequences. First, service for the development of youth, for example through education, could delay the attainment of autonomy and does not necessarily contribute to the integration of young people into society. Secondly, military and similar forms of service could be ways of forming national capital and helping young people develop certain skills, but they always pose serious problems in reintegrating young people into civil society. Lastly, a more appropriate intervention is service through the participation of young people which helps to form human and social capital, encourages autonomy and self-esteem and supports the development of intergenerational relationships. It also helps build bridges between communities.
Beyond the foregoing policy reorientation, one may wonder whether national African governments will seize the opportunity to address the situational chronic apathy of youth engagement in national development agenda. It will involve going back to the basics, going back to the community to harness the social capital that exists in the youth. It is safe to assume that this approach can enhance the realisation and intent of the many regional and international declarations and instruments that promote the rights of youth. I would also call for the scaling down of expectations that have arisen from existing ambitious government programmes and instead propose for a deliberate focus on action plans of national youth service programmes that will help to achieve the broad objectives of national development.
Although the size of the youth population presents huge challenges for national African governments, the opportunity to reap a dividend from the sheer numbers cannot be overlooked. It calls for the African leadership to seize the opportunity to reorient their youth development programmes towards a more practical approach of national youth service, and provide a greater sense of responsibility and pride, which will arguably lead to effective and sustained engagement of youth in the development agenda of the continent.
By: Sandra Oder, Training for Peace Programme, ISS Pretoria