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This is a guest post by Daniella Ben-Attar (@dbenattar) who consults for international development agencies, NGOs and corporations on areas relating to youth participation, governance, municipal capacity building, ICT4D and peace building.

by Daniella Ben-Attar

Youth in Mali with local authorities.

Youth in Mali with local authorities.

ICTs are increasingly being looked to as holding great promise for improving participatory governance and citizen engagement. Mobile phones have been a game-changer in this sphere, with nearly seven billion mobile-cellular subscriptions worldwide, including 89% penetration in the developing world. Youth are at the center of these developments, both as drivers and consumers of technological innovation.  This is particularly true in developing countries where the young generation is leading the way in the usage of technology to overcome social, political and economic exclusion to begin driving positive change in their communities. The largest cohort in history, youth aged 15-24 number more than 1.2 billion worldwide, with an estimated 87% living in developing countries.  They are almost twice as networked as the global population as a whole, with the ICT age gap more pronounced in least developed countries where young people are often three times more likely to be online than the general population.

The combination of the “youth bulge” and “mobile miracle” has great potential to enable new responses to the longstanding challenge of youth engagement in governance across the developing world. Young citizens are utilizing simple mobile technology to innovate new platforms, tools and mechanisms aiming to amplify their voices and influence government. Youth are being proactive to play a greater role in governance through mobile-based communication avenues, user-generated information, tools tracking government accountability, anti-corruption platforms, crowd-sourcing and more. This is a dramatic shift from the days when the only way to gain the attention of a government official was through slow and cumbersome bureaucratic processes and official meetings in government offices.

A Growing Youth-Local Government Disconnect

Ironically, the impact of these efforts appears to be more pronounced at the national level than at the local level of government. Indeed, ICTs seem to be strengthening communications between youth and central government instead of enhancing connections with the closest level of governance where young citizens can be resources for community development. Applications and innovations in cooperation with government that address local issues have largely been the product of national government bodies. Most youth-led initiatives have not been successful in securing local government partnership, limiting impact. A communications gap has widened between young citizens and their local governments, which are often staffed by individuals with far less digital experience than their youthful constituents. As a result, youth and their local leaders often seem to be speaking in different languages through different media.  Local government deficits in capacity and resources continue to exist as barriers, as well as the need for sensitization to youth engagement as a priority outcome of adopting and shaping ICT-enabled practices.

Most young people using technology as a way to influence governance will tell you a similar story. When expressing themselves through social media outlets and ICT-enabled mechanisms, it is usually the national political figures that are more attuned and responsive. Local leaders are far behind their national counterparts in ICT capacity and usage. National ministers and officials often use Twitter accounts, blogs, SMS and websites to engage with their citizens, who by default are largely young. While this is a positive development, it also elicits frustration from young people who feel that their voices are ignored or unheard by elder leaders at the local level where chances are greatest for tangible impact in their day-to-day lives.

President Kagame of Rwanda is a stark example.  Youth have described how the president directly interacted with young citizens via Twitter and addressed concerns relating to many issues, from police violence towards youth to business ideas for urban tourism.  No such possibilities existed for these same youth to approach the local authority with these locally-based needs.  Even more significant, Kagame merged the national ministries of Youth and ICT in 2012 and appointed a Minister of Youth and ICT.  This is a groundbreaking move both in terms of ICT and youth, with youth ministries commonly grouped with sports or culture. However, these extraordinary national developments are not reflected in the policy and practice of local government in Rwanda.

Digital mapping initiatives have been in the spotlight as a new youth-driven tool drawing attention to local issues often overlooked by government officials.  While communities are benefitting from these processes, youth leaders report that these maps often do not gain the attention of city hall. For example, Kenyan NGO Map Kibera has seen its maps utilized by national ministry committees, better equipped with the capacity and mindset to absorb digital data, while city council has not been responsive to ICT-based approaches. Young leaders in Kandy City, Sri Lanka are working to bridge the “youth-local government ICT gap” which they have identified as a major barrier in engaging youth in local development. These young leaders are training municipal officials in computer skills and creating new ICT platforms for citizen-local government interaction as part of a UN-HABITAT supported youth-led training and education program run by YES – City of Youth.

Building Local Government Capacity for ICT & Youth Engagement

Partnership with local government is viewed by stakeholders as a key missing ingredient in enabling governance technology applications to have tangible results at the community level. The importance of “closing the engagement loop” and early local government buy-in is emphasized time and again by stakeholders in the field as a vital lesson learned through pilot programs. Youth organizations like Youth Agenda and Sisi ni Amani have achieved successful governance results by engaging local leaders as partners from the preliminary stages, highlighting the benefits they can gain through mobile solutions that increase civic engagement, enhance service delivery, fight corruption and bridge between local government and citizens.

Bridging the youth-local government gap will require sensitizing local officials and encouraging them to see the advantages of “listening” to youth ICT platforms, to bring them to where the majority of youth are voicing their opinions, and enable them to take responsive actions. National governments should be encouraged to help local governments be better equipped to address youthful concerns at the local level through capacity building for both youth engagement and ICT4G.  This can be supported by integrating local ICT components in national ICT plans, or increased “decentralization” and integration of both youth and ICT strategies, bolstered by budgetary allocations and devolution of authority. When seeking to utilize ICT to deliver positive governance outcomes for young people, “local gov” must be part of the “ICT4Gov” equation.

This blog post draws on findings from a UN-HABITAT Report entitled “ICT, Urban Governance and Youth” co-authored by Daniella Ben-Attar and Tim Campbell.

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