Enabling Environment

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Approaches to developing an enabling environment for youth political participation must recognize and address structural inequities that may limit the ability of youth to occupy and expand different political spaces based on gender, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity or other individual or group characteristics. Fostering an enabling environment also requires identifying or creating space for youth to interact and build relationships with power holders, as well as working with youth and power holders to establish the value of youth participation. These interactions can lead to opportunities to strengthen intergenerational collaboration.

Recognize and address structural inequities

Structural inequities can affect how different young people take advantage of assistance programs, publically express their views and interests, or access political processes, because of their identity (gender, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and other characteristics), location and other circumstances. Cultural perceptions of young women and LGBTI youth, for example, may prevent them from occupying the same political spaces as others, and there may be a risk of backlash or harm if they raise their profiles and visibilities in a way that is seen as inappropriate in the local context.

The following recommendations can help ensure more inclusive programs that account for youth diversity and model an enabling environment:  

The following questions can help inform approaches to building a supportive environment that accounts for youth diversity:

  • How are youth perceived differently based on gender, age, disability, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or other personal characteristics? How does this change for young people who face a “double discrimination” (being both young and identifying as a woman or with another marginalized community)?
  • What is the current level of political leadership and representation for the youth you intend to work with? How do these youth organize around issues that affect them?
  • Taking into account the perceptions of and barriers facing the youth you intend to work with, could they risk becoming a target for violence or other backlash if they heighten their visibility and challenge existing power structures? How does this differ for youth from other marginalized communities?
  • In the target context, is it acceptable for young women and men you are supporting to speak to or challenge an elder or elected official?
  • What, if any, efforts are government and power holders making to better include young women and men in political decisionmaking? What about youth from other marginalized communities?
  • What national policies, laws or constitutional provisions exist that affect youth leadership and political participation?
  • Has the target country committed to any of the following international treaties or agreements?
    • UNSC 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security (2015)
    • Inter-Parliamentary Union Resolution on Youth Participation in the Democratic Process (2010)
  • If it is not possible to create ample political space for the youth you intend to work with to participate in politics, is there a risk of perpetuating frustration and disengagement? Consider how the program can be designed to mitigate these risks.
  • Consider sociocultural and institutional barriers: Think about whether it is culturally sensitive for different young people to engage with power holders in the local context, and plan accordingly. For example, if it would be seen as culturally offensive or inappropriate for young women, a mixed gender group, or other marginalized youth to engage with a particular power holder or in a specific public space, consider how a more culturally sensitive arrangement can be made. Although political action and contact with other people is a fundamental way to break down sociocultural barriers to the participation of marginalized youth, it is important to act with caution to avoid overly negative experiences or risk traumatic backlash that could cause harm or discourage further youth participation.
  • Set up youth for success: Related to the above point, a lack of responsiveness from power holders can cause youth to become frustrated and disengage from politics. Although this is not in the direct control of a program implementer, it is important to mitigate these risks by seeking to support youth engagement through an avenue that exhibits a greater chance of responsiveness and accountability.  This is particularly important for youth who have less experience in politics, and those from marginalized communities. This risk can also be mitigated by intentional discussions with youth to manage their expectations, describing the long-term nature of political change and highlighting success stories from local and international contexts.
  • Identify commitments for youth inclusion: Work with youth to explore any current efforts or commitments to reach out to youth or include them in political processes. This could include national policies or laws governing youth participation in politics and public life, or commitments to international agreements such as United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 on youth, peace and security. These commitments may provide entry points for youth to take action or advocate for government accountability in following through with these promises. Similar commitments regarding the empowerment of women or other marginalized groups may serve as an entry point for youth from those demographics.

Create space for youth to interact with power holders and build relationships

A critical step toward building an enabling environment for youth participation is to help young women and men build relationships with power holders. In order for youth to develop these relationships, it is often necessary to create spaces for youth to come into contact with power holders through such activities as one-on-one meetings or public events. It is important to understand power dynamics and inequities that will affect the ability of diverse youth to occupy these spaces. For example, when working in patriarchal contexts where public leaders are overwhelmingly male, it is necessary to consider whether it is acceptable for young women to approach or challenge a male figure. NDI identified the following recommendations for how to create and structure these interactions:

  • Place youth in front: In spaces with power holders, it is important for youth to take an active leadership role to avoid being overshadowed by elders in the room. This is an important first step for youth to demonstrate their competence. For example, if NDI assists youth in organizing a meeting with power holders as part of a campaign, NDI should prepare youth to lead the meeting by introducing the goals of their campaign, discussing the issue at hand, and making an ask, where appropriate.

Roundtables with Youth and Power Holders in Kosovo

To support the efforts of youth-led advocacy campaigns in Kosovo, NDI has often organized roundtable events for youth to discuss issues with local and national level political and government leaders. These events have provided a space for young people to constructively voice their concerns regarding a particular issue, and propose policy solutions. This has enabled youth to establish initial contact and relationships with power holders, which have often paved the way to future interactions and collaboration. It is important to note that NDI has been able to create this space due to its strong relationships with political leaders in Kosovo.

  • Promote constructive approaches: NDI has seen that it is important for youth to take a constructive approach when engaging political leaders, by seeking their partnership in achieving a mutually beneficial goal. When leaders feel as if youth are accusing them of not adequately fulfilling their responsibilities or being ignorant of public problems, they are less likely to respond positively and take the requested action. When youth have taken a constructive, solutions-oriented approach where they express a desire to partner with power holders to address a public issue, leadership has been more supportive. It can also be beneficial for youth to describe how a particular issue is important to the welfare of their broader community, beyond issues often associated with youth, such as education or recreational issues.

Establish the value of youth participation

As youth develop their agency and repeatedly interact with power holders, they can demonstrate their competence and establish value among power holders for youth participation. Value for youth participation is typically established when power holders see that young people have positive intentions, are capable of understanding complex political issues and processes, and have particular assets or ideas that can make a positive contribution to society or to a particular political organization. Establishing and building this value among power holders is critical for practices of youth participation and inclusion to change. Achieving this change takes time, and can be difficult depending on the political and cultural context. It also depends on which youth are involved, as leaders may be more or less receptive to young women or other marginalized youth.

NDI’s study identified the following recommendations for approaches to building value for youth participation:

Kosovar Youth Establish Value for their Participation

With support from NDI, youth-led advocacy campaigns in Kosovo have achieved favorable outcomes for single mothers, environmental causes, preservation of historical sites, and others. In many cases, political party and elected leaders have taken notice of the efforts of these youth and opened space for them to take on more meaningful positions within parties and government. In addition, many participants in NDI’s New Media School have been given ownership of communication responsibilities within their parties and during election campaigns due to their unique skills in social media communications.

  • Prioritize youth-led interactions: The most impactful way to build value among power holders for youth participation is to provide opportunities for youth to interact with them and demonstrate their competence, as described above. This should be seen as the center of any program approach to improving how youth are perceived as activists and leaders in politics and public life.

Making the Case for Youth Inclusion in Kosovo

NDI often shares public opinion research with Kosovar political party leaders showing how young people perceive their party and the issues they prioritize. In many cases, this has encouraged parties to create more prominent roles for young people and adopt policy positions to address their interests.

  • Where appropriate, make the case for youth participation: In contexts where a program implementer has relationships of trust with power holders, it can be helpful and appropriate to supplement youth-led work with separate efforts to demonstrate to power holders why youth participation is beneficial and provide assistance for how to better include young people. For example, in many places, NDI shares public opinion research with political party leaders demonstrating young people’s policy interests and perceptions of political parties. This can encourage leaders to better reach out to youth and work with them to shape more responsive policy positions, particularly in contexts where youth make up a significant proportion of the voting population. It is important for political leaders to understand that meaningful youth inclusion does not mean only using youth to do ground work during election periods, such as going door to door to gain votes, but also requires providing young people with meaningful input into party policy.

Strengthen intergenerational collaboration

Building on established intergenerational relationships and some level of value for youth participation, continued collaboration can provide more opportunities for youth to contribute to policy discussions and share decision making power. This collaboration also strengthens relationships by establishing mutual understanding, trust and respect. Over time, this can contribute to developing norms of greater openness and inclusion of young people.

NDI’s study revealed the following lessons about leveraging and strengthening intergenerational relationships and collaboration:

Intergenerational Collaboration through Usharek+

Through NDI’s Usharek+ program in Jordan, issues of common interest between youth and parliamentarians have provided a means for intergenerational collaboration. For example, a group of MPs have become supporters for a youth-led campaign to improve youth representation in parliament and led discussions on this issue in parliament. In addition, as a result of efforts by a group of students at a polytechnic university to improve reporting of domestic violence incidents, parliamentary committees have been cooperating with campaign participants to find a legislative solution.

  • Support collaboration toward common interests: A shared issue of interest between youth and power holders can serve as an opportunity for collaboration. Identifying issues of common interest between youth and power holders can therefore be a key element of program strategies for youth programs.

Leveraging Youth Relationships in Kosovo’s Political Institutions

Many youth involved in NDI’s Kosovo programs have advanced to local- and national- level leadership positions. In many cases, these leaders’ have helped provide avenues for other young people to take part in political processes. They also serve as mentors and positive inspiration for youth to continue their political activism. This has been particularly important for Serbs and ethnic minority youth in Northern Kosovo, most of whom are more marginalized and disadvantaged than other communities.

  • Seek and engage mentors for youth: In addition to providing openings for meaningful youth political influence, power holders who value youth participation can serve as mentors for young activists and aspiring leaders. These mentors can help advise youth on political strategies, and provide inspiration and encouragement for youth to continue their involvement in politics. Mentors can be particularly impactful if they are young themselves or otherwise reflect the identities of the youth in the program. For example, young women may feel more confident about their work if they see and engage with women leaders.
  • Engage the next generation: It is important to recognize that youth is a temporary stage in life. In order for norms and practices of youth political participation to change in the long term, today’s young adults must be succeeded by a new politically active and engaged youth generation. To support the participation of the next generation, it can be valuable for programs to encourage youth to engage younger members of their communities in their activism. Further, if youth in a program advance within their organizations and parties or to elected leadership positions, it is useful to continue to involve them in programs as supporters of future youth-led activism and leadership.