This article was first published on Pambazuka by Eyob Balcha
This piece is inspired by the undying spirit of passion for youth activism that the writer shares with many African youth activists. It is an attempt to question youth activists themselves, the bureaucrats, the ‘experts’ and everyone who is engaged in any endeavor related to young people and youth in Africa. It is also an attempt to link what the literature argues about young people, youth and a generation, with the practical efforts of youth activists and the discourse of bureaucrats, experts, as well as the policy frameworks that inform their programs and decisions.
One can mention a number of policies, programs, high-level decisions, recommendations and declarations either at global level, continental or national level addressing the issues of youth and young people, or influencing, facilitating or informing their lifestyle, participation and involvement in their society. On the other hand, there are also a number of youth initiatives; organisations, networks or associations at different levels, mainly aimed at ensuring ‘youth participation’ at various levels through their actions and missions.
The bizarre thing is, in spite of all these efforts at different levels with many ‘concerned’ actors, the issue of youth and mainly ‘youth participation’ is yet to be realised at the optimum level by any of the actors or their programmes. Rather, what is witnessed is the duplication of policies and programs, decisions and recommendations by actors affirming the need to ensure meaningful youth participation. Hence, it is imperative to ask why we have not yet reached at a certain level where we can at least say we are halfway to what we envisioned. Why do we have all these actors and the different programs and policies with very strong decisions and recommendations by high-level bureaucrats, but we are not able to see the practical impact or results? This short piece will try to shed light on the above mentioned questions.
YOUNG PEOPLE AND YOUTH: INTERCHANGEABLE?!
The way we understand and conceptualise issues of young people and youth has a significant impact on the nature and kinds of actions we take. Indeed, it is taken for granted that whatever we may say, age and the related challenges or opportunities, are the main framework of analysis.
Perhaps it may not be a problem to consider this in understanding and conceptualising young people and youth. The problem becomes apparent when we take age as the only element to be considered. It is simply because the role, experience, opportunities, challenges, exposure and aspiration of people differ significantly regardless of their age similarity. It is unfolding this simultaneous reality of differences and similarities that has been the main challenge and somehow ignored and forgotten.
As the dominant discourse asserts, young people constitute the majority of the population in Africa. In addition to interpreting them in terms of their numerical value to the society, it extends their impact and belongingness in the society into the future. In this case, understanding young peoples’ life in terms of a developmental stage as well as a rite of passage which needs further attention from society informs the way they are treated. The role of some societal institutions like schools, family as well as religion is paramount in ensuring the smooth and harmonious journey of young people through this stage of life. The extensive and multi-level programs and actions that target the sexual and reproductive health issues of young people by many international institutions and national governments is also one of the manifestations of this understanding. Such an understanding upholds the role of age above any other possible factors or as a prime perspective in informing the knowledge towards young people and youth.
Indeed the concept ‘young people’ is mainly an age-based category which implies that it is also a developmental stage. The assertion that they are in the growing process or yet-to-be ‘adults’ implicitly suggests that the future belongs to the young people and they are ‘tomorrow’s leaders.’ It is not uncommon to hear this rhetoric at different levels. But, the academic literature with regard to youth argues that; though there is some degree of fact that age plays a role in peoples’ lives, it is an analytical limitation to take it as the only lens of analysis.
In order to go beyond age as a defining feature, there needs to be a framework which accommodates other associated elements that cannot be taken for granted and vary across different situations. These social, contextual, historical and generational elements can give us a better methodical perspective to maneuver so that other basic issues beyond the age based category are not overlooked or undermined. Here comes the concept ‘youth’ with its unique feature from the other, arguably, interchangeable concept ‘young people’. Youth is more of a social position within the mindset of a given society where the perception towards youth varies according to the context they are found in, hence contextual position as well.
This contextual social position is best illustrated in the attributes that society identifies with its youth and the words associated with them. Energetic, naïve, immature, strong, devoted, ‘childish’, visionary, inexperienced, independent, dependent, hopeful are few of the connotations that most youth are associated with. These attributes have their own role in determining how the youth and their issues are taken in the societal agenda. There are certain social circumstances where youth become an influential social category, a marginal group or an obsolete social status.
Moreover this, the historical process that a particular society passes through has also a vital impact in creating a certain kind of knowledge towards its youth. Historical incidents inform how the youth needs to be either included or excluded, within the ‘societal imagination’ and thereby determining the kind of role they will assume and the extent of agency they exercise. In this case, some people argue that youth is a ‘historically constructed social category’. This argument can be also expanded into the other sphere of understanding youth in terms of generations.
In understanding what a generation constitutes, one needs to give a critical look to how history and its unique socio-historical and political features impact the way that a certain social group thinks, functions and participates. In our case, people of the same age category, young people, may pass through an exceptional historical process which may become a point of reference in informing their worldview and attitude. And this shared world view and attitude will become a crucial element in making them significant segment of their society, not only in terms of their numerical/demographic value but through their ‘youthful’ thinking framework and character. One can mention the generation that has played a significant role during the anti-colonisation period where the shared conviction and attitude has had an extended impact beyond that specific period of time.
Conceptualising youth in terms of generations has also a central role in understanding another vital issue i.e. the relationship between generations, or ‘inter-generational dialogue’; as most people would love to call it. In this case, we need to understand that a generation, either young or old, is mainly defined in terms of its shared outlook which is a result of the common socio-historical process its members have passed through. In its extreme case, a ‘generational unit’ constitutes people that are of the same age category and have build up a strong sense of belongingness amongst themselves mainly through the decisions and the actions they took to play their role in that specific societal process.
Hence, when we talk about two generations and their interaction, we need to be aware of the fact that we are talking about not only people of different ages, but also the associated thinking framework, the shared mentality and character among members and the like. Moreover, the fact that the younger generation builds its ‘generational consciousness’ within the societal system and structure constructed by the older generation is also an important factor to consider. Taking the different role they assume and exercise as well as the associated expectations into consideration is a crucial juncture where we find power and power relations as another point of entry to critically analyse the relationship between generations.
In general, the core argument of this section is to go beyond the mainstream understanding of youth and to give a critical perspective from different, but not mutually exclusive, angles. It is only when we go beyond age based understanding and categorisation of youth that we will be able to consider the complexities within it as well as its intersectionality i.e. gender, socio-economic status, rural/urban differences, ethnicity, race etc. In the following section, an attempt will be made to critically reflect on the conceptualisation and understanding of youth in the African Youth Charter.
THE AFRICAN YOUTH CHARTER IN PERSPECTIVE
There might be various entry points to analyse the situation of African youth in the last two to three decades, and among this, one can mention the impact of the mainstream political and economic framework (the neoliberal oriented structural adjustment programs) and the demise of the welfare state with a direct influence on the basic services of society. This worsening situation at the societal level has a direct impact in the lifestyle and role of youth within their society as well as the impact of society on its young population. Some people argue that the situation has ‘compromised the role of society to positively impact the lives of its youngster’.
Moreover, the protracted civil wars, the coup d’états, the political instabilities and the like gave rise to different theoretical explanations with regard to youth, either taking them as an advantage in terms of a demographic bonus or as a threat through the youth bulge theory. The civil conflicts associated with high rate of unemployment and particularly the rapid rate of urbanisation in the continent mainly in the post-independence period was seen as one of the manifestations of the danger that the youth bulge has in Africa. On the other hand, the current dominant discourse of achieving sustainable growth and development is also highly linked with the role that young people would play; ‘ … young people perceived as the central actors with their creativity, energy, flexibility, adaptability to the changing features of the ‘globalised’ world’.
This general overview of the changing socio-economic and political situation with in the continent gives a crucial viewpoint to understand the changing perception and understanding of youth and young people across the time span. The understanding oscillates from being victims of societal failure to the extent of being a threat and danger for societal peace and stability as well as to be taken as vital players for growth and development in a different context. Within this changing perspective of society towards youth and young people, it is also important to give the necessary attention to the agency of youth in positioning and repositioning themselves and the negotiated role they assume in the changing societal structure, political and economic systems.
Coming to the African Youth Charter (AYC), it was formulated through two continental youth consultation forums (January and May, 2006) and supposedly national consultations in-between the two continental consultation, it was adopted at the Banjul Summit, in the Gambia in July 2006. It was officially launched during the fifth African Development Forum of the same year in November. Despite the relentless effort of popularisation and lobbying by various youth initiatives and other concerned actors, it took three years for the Charter to come into force on 8 August, 2009. The AYC is expected to be a binding legal document informing policies and programs across the continent concerning youth. Indeed, it can be also taken as an effort for the institutionalisation of youth issues in the continental governance system as well as achieving the vision of the African Union ; ‘… to accelerate socio-economic integration of the continent, to build a united and strong Africa by promoting partnerships between governments and civil society including women, youth and the private sector.’
Within the context of the arguments forwarded in the previous section, analysing the AYC would give multiple points of reflection. To start with, the conceptualisation of ‘youth’ and ‘young people’ in the Charter; there is an effort to have an exhaustive coverage of issues related to the understanding of youth. Particularly the preamble of the Charter gives the range of contextual situations that are considered in formulating the document; historical, political and social realities that had and still have a significant impact in the roles, expectations and responsibilities of youth in Africa.
In general, there is a three-fold discourse of youth in the conceptualisation and understanding of youth in the preamble of the Charter. The first one is a Discourse of Protection; where youth are seen as victims and people who need protection from the society. This assertion is promoted by associating a segment of youth with ‘minors’ mainly in the context of the African Charter for the Rights and Welfare of Children (ACRWC) where the age group between 15-17 overlaps with the definition of children in Africa. This discourse of protection intends to address the marginalisation of youth in terms of inequalities of income, wealth, power as well as un(der)employment, and on the other hand the victimhood of youth from HIV/AIDS, poverty, hunger, illiteracy, violence (gender and armed) and discrimination. This discourse has an implicit assumption that the failure to protect the youth from being victims of various socio-economic and politically malicious situations can result in a cycle of challenges and problems.
The Charter tackles this challenge in its Discourse of Responsibility. This discourse mainly aims at addressing the converse of the discourse of protection. It recognises and calls for the role of States and civil societies in supporting, advancing and ensuring the fulfillment of the various needs of youth (economic, social, educational, cultural and spiritual). The rhetoric of youth empowerment and development also falls within this discourse of responsibility that there are actors and duty bearers identified with the associated legal and policy frameworks.
The other major discursive element that one may find within the preamble of the Charter about the conceptualisation of youth is the Discourse of Being and Becoming. This discourse has an indispensable contribution in demystifying the concept of youth. Youth are taken as a ‘resource for the future’, as ‘partners, assets and prerequisite for sustainable development, peace, prosperity, and promotion of democratic processes, cultural development’ of the present and the future. Such conceptualisation recognises both the actual and potential role of youth. It is only when we recognise the fact that youth constitutes a social and relational position of not only the future but also of the present that we will be able to consider the rights and agency of youth. The efforts of youth initiatives in Africa in empowering themselves and exercising their agency to effect change and realise their vision is also addressed within this discourse.
The Charter has the above briefly discussed strengths that can be used as guiding frameworks for the enhancement of youth participation across the continent if appropriate policies and implementation strategies are formulated or reviewed accordingly. Indeed, the Charter is not without limitations. One of the major limitations identified by the writer is the failure to have a generational point of view to address the issues of youth across the continent. In our African context, youth members and leaders of the most influential and successful generation that participated during the anti-colonisation period are now members of the government establishments, business and religious institutions, and constitute the political and economic elite group that determines the dominant discourses of the continent.
This says a lot in identifying and analysing the power relation that exists between generations and thereby setting the parameters for the ideal ‘intergenerational dialogue’. The broad conceptualisation of youth as identified in the above mentioned discourses would have a better insight in addressing the existing unbalanced power relation between the young and the older generations if it had included a generational perspective.
In addition to this, the attempt to define youth mainly based on age (between 15-35) and conflating ‘youth’ and ‘young people’ in the ‘Definitions’ section of the Charter is also another major limitation. To whatever extent the preamble section of the Charter attempts to illuminate on the complexities of being youth in African context, it is the definition given in this section that informs and governs most policy level decisions and actions. Hence, the Charter needs to redefine youth in such a way that can accommodate the identified multiple realities about youth in African context. Otherwise, all the strong elements of the Charter will remain on paper without being operationalised at the practical level. Unless there is a link between the discursive level commitment and the actual work on the ground there will always be a half achieved success in passing decisions without making them effective in the real context.
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