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Group photo of youth cohort speakers.
DAA Bama Athreya (bottom, second on the right) stands with fellow participants at the Summit for Democracy Youth Participation Cohort Launch in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo Credit: European Partnership for Democracy)
Sep 30, 2022

Bama Athreya serves as the Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Hub and the Inclusive Development Hub in USAID’s Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation.

On Thursday, September 15, 2022, DDI/Inclusive Development Hub DAA Bama Athreya represented USAID at the European Commission’s launch of the Summit for Democracy Youth Participation Cohort and spoke to youth activists from around the world about meaningful partnerships with their organizations.

We keep hearing about data showing that across the globe, youth satisfaction with democratic government is declining. But my experience at this September’s International Day of Democracy event in Brussels, Belgium, provided many reasons to be optimistic. Satisfaction with governance systems may be on the decline; however, youth participation is poised to rise.

Let’s be honest: people of all ages are less than satisfied with the state of our governance systems. We are witnessing increasing socioeconomic inequality and elite capture within democracies. In short, our systems don’t provide enough widespread opportunities. Young people are also facing longstanding challenges and barriers to their participation in political processes. These include restrictions on voting, holding office, and on free expression and assembly, as well as young people’s lack of access to relevant skills training, networks, or career pipelines. All these challenges particularly affect youth from marginalized communities.

Youth activists who convened in Brussels in September are taking on all of these challenges, and more. This is why I believe the potential solutions require us to address democratic threats not for younger generations, but with them. The European Commission (EC) is creating an opportunity to make sure we do this with youth organizations around the world. On September 15–International Day of Democracy, the EC, in partnership with the Governments of Nepal and Ghana, and the organizations European Partnership for Democracy, Africtivistes, and the European Democracy Youth Network, launched a Youth Political and Civic Engagement Cohort. I had the privilege of joining colleagues from the USAID Inclusive Development Hub in a public event for the launch and a series of workshops with youth leaders from around the world, and just had to share a few examples of what they are doing! 

Shantosh Thapa (left) and Pradip Khatiwada (right) of VSO Nepal.
(Photo Credit: Naria Willis/USAID)

What are these youth activists doing? 

In Nepal, Shantosh Thapa and Pratip Khatiwada of Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) Nepal are part of a powerful national network organizing at community levels to ensure that local youth activists and local governments are regularly hearing from one another. Young people are directly contributing to a stronger government response by tapping into their own skills, talents, and ideas to create tools local governments can use.

Aisha Dabo of Senegal is a leader in Africtivistes, which harnesses the power of digital engagement for civic activism. During a panel discussion between Youth Participation Cohort members at the EC’s launch event, she spoke about the game-changing Not Too Young to Run campaign in Nigeria, which led to an upsurge in the number of youth candidates.

Additionally, I had an illuminating conversation with Valeriu Dragalin of Moldova, a leader within the USAID-supported European Democracy Youth Network–a community of young activists who span political parties, ethnicities, nationalities, and other divisions, not only within countries but across the region who are fostering the kind of social cohesion that is necessary for stable, peaceful governance. 

Pictured from right to left: Valeriu Dragalin, President of the European Democracy Youth Network; Chairperson Kathleen Addy of the Ghana National Commission for Civic Education; Aisha Dabo, Co-Founder and Coordinator of AfricTivistes; and Ken Godfrey,  Executive Director of the European Partnership for Democracy
(Photo Credit: Naria Willis/USAID)

In the Czech Republic, their voter engagement campaign increased youth election participation across the political spectrum. In North Macedonia, the “no-hate” pre-election commitment was endorsed by all relevant parties’ youth wings. Valeriu and I discussed the strong connection between investing in meaningful, equitable economic opportunities for youth, and countering social divisions. What young people want, he said, are policies that give them the opportunity to find good jobs, migrate if they choose, or start their own businesses if they choose. 

This conversation brought us full circle to the subject of disillusionment. When the interests of the elite dominate policy-making, people will lose confidence in democratic systems. But when policies deliver opportunities for young people, and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, their motivation to participate in civic and political life will be strengthened.

What can governments learn from youth?

All the activists we met are ensuring that dissatisfaction does NOT equal disillusionment.  Instead of giving up on governance systems, they are working hard to make democratic governance work for all of us. And one of the most powerful outcomes of last week’s meeting is that, for the first time, they had a chance to meet each other and connect the work they are all doing in their regions. As they strengthen alliances among movements globally, we can’t wait to see what happens.

In the meanwhile, there are practical things our partners and we can do to invest in youth movements. Here are a few final suggestions from those we met: Consider directing funding to youth-led organizations and encourage them to build consortia of youth organizations (and make sure to include capacity-building support). Fund civic engagement and non-partisan activity in ways that work with but not within political parties. And finally, connect with like-minded organizations and explore what innovative work others are doing; if you aren’t sure where to look, the WorkwithUSAID.org Partner Directory and tools in the Resource Library can get you started.