The theme of this year’s International Day of Democracy – Engaging Young People on Democracy – is an opportunity to reflect on our Agency’s efforts to protect, support and empower young people across the globe, especially as they engage in democratic processes. Youth play a critical role in humanitarian assistance and reconstruction efforts, and are often at the forefront of people’s movements, such as the “Arab Spring.”

Despite being the majority of the population of many of the countries in which USAID operates, youth are frequently excluded from the political process, due to members of older generations who expect subservience and offer no respect to youth voices. Studies have shown that not effectively engaging disaffected youth can result in instability in communities and nations in the long term, and foment unrest that may ultimately hinder – not assist – the advancement of peace and democracy. If not engaged in efforts to advance positive change, youth can easily lose faith in the democratic process, become disillusioned or apathetic, vulnerable to extremist groups or gangs, and, in the worst case,  become perpetrators of violence.

Alumni of the 4th edition of the Certificate in Leadership and Political Management course, Matagalpa, Nicaragua. / Corina Fuentes

Alumni of the 4th edition of the Certificate in Leadership and Political Management course, Matagalpa, Nicaragua. / Corina Fuentes

However, strengthening youth capacity will enhance their resilience and their communities. Investing in young people will also pay sustainable returns; youth may indeed be the primary hope for a reform-minded leadership. This was noted by President Barack Obama, who launched the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in 2010 to support young African leaders as they work to spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across the continent.

USAID is working to incorporate youth through strengthening youth programming, participation and partnership in support of Agency development objectives, as well as integrating youth issues and engaging young people across Agency initiatives and operations.

 Opening ceremony of the District youth Forum in Oecusse in Timor Leste on April 23, 2013. A total of 40 youth representatives from across the country participated.  / SFCG Timor Leste

Opening ceremony of the District youth Forum in Oecusse in Timor Leste on April 23, 2013. A total of 40 youth representatives from across the country participated.  / SFCG Timor Leste

In Nicaragua, USAID’s Young Civic and Political Leaders Initiative, implemented by National Democracy Institute (NDI), supports a Certificate on Leadership and Political Management program which equips young Nicaraguans with skills and knowledge to govern effectively and become community leaders.  The program specifically aims to create a space where youth representing different political ideologies and from different backgrounds can come together to learn about democratic leadership.

In East Timor, USAID’s Youth Radio for Peace Building (YR4PB) project, implemented by Search for Common Ground, is aiming to transform the way in which youth engage with government and community leaders  to promote peace and reconciliation, and prevent election-related violence through civic education, leadership training and media programming.

In Kenya, USAID’s Inter-Party Youth Forum, implemented by NDI, is promoting inter-party youth leadership and engagement through working with political parties, and nominated party youth to establish the Inter-Party Youth Forum (IPYF).  The Youth Forum focuses on clean elections, implementation of youth provisions in the constitution, and campaigning against negative ethnicity.

To date, the IPYF has expanded to the country level, engaged more than 1,500 youth through outreach sessions, held a national youth peace conference attended by 950 young people, and conducted a peace campaign around the 2013 election.

In Egypt, USAID’s LEAD-Women and Youth Program, implemented by Creative Associates, is a $1.3 million project with the objective to encourage and support the active participation of women and youth in political dialogue and debate. This includes during key transitional democratic processes through voter education, civic outreach and the establishment and expansion of civil society advocacy networks.

As USAID continues to adapt our democracy, human rights and governance programs to the changing global context, we remain committed to continuing to empower and support young people to become active, engaged and passionate leaders and democracy supporters.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jessica Benton Cooney is the Communications Specialist for the USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance in the Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance.