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Global Knowledge Network On Voter Education - learning from each other

Youth Civic Education is Crucial to a Country’s Democratic Health


Recent large-scale youth survey findings suggest that today’s youth – the largest young generation ever – are less engaged in political processes than previous generations and are beginning to “opt-out” of democratic systems.1,2, Unresponsive institutions and other barriers to youth participation and influence in public life are often cited as major contributors to this decline. In response, election management bodies and international organizations have noted the importance of effective civic education, and have offered recommendations to mitigate or remove institutional barriers, such as the adoption of legal and policy mechanisms – legislative quotas, youth parliaments, lowered voting age, among others – as a means to increase youth engagement in political processes and public life.3,4,5 During its 30-year history, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has found that a culture of democracy flourishes only when citizens are informed about democratic principles, and translate that knowledge into action by: engaging with institutions and other public structures; performing community service; and, exercising leadership. Through its global portfolio, IFES advances good governance, and empowers underrepresented populations to participate in the political process; youth civic education is an integral part of this work. The term “youth” typically refers to the transitional period from childhood to adulthood during which individuals’ relationships with government change from passive to active; reaching the age of enfranchisement is a milestone that enables young people to formally participate in public structures. Investment in young people offers communities and societies a tangible demographic dividend as research suggests that early civic education and engagement establishes life-long patterns of participation in community and public affairs. Educating young people on the values, culture, and practice of democracy through effective youth civic education before they reach voting age is crucial to a country’s future democratic health, and ultimately, peace and stability. IFES designs and implements youth programs that foster an understanding of citizens’ rights and responsibilities in a pluralistic society and creates a culture of engagement for those who have not yet reached the voting age in their communities. IFES also provides training, incentives, tools and opportunities for new voters to participate in elections and advocate for positive change within their communities. With IFES support, in countries around the world, young people have built networks and other public fora to discuss and debate issues of importance; trained for and served as poll workers and election observers in their communities in order to uphold principles of free, fair, and transparent elections; and ensured themselves a seat at the table during peaceful democratic transitions by drafting codes of conduct applied during high intensity pre- and post-election periods.

Measures for Effective Youth Engagement
Formal School-based Civic Education
Occasionally schools and other youth-serving institutions in a country lack curriculum, qualified teachers and/or other resources dedicated to youth civic development. Yet in countries where traditions of civic education and democratic society are nascent, these resources are vital in fomenting democratic values, attitudes, and habits in young people. To address this need, IFES developed a fully-accredited university-level civics course titled Democracy & Citizenship, and piloted the course in six higher-learning institutions in the Republic of Georgia. Today, the course is offered in 27 universities across the country in collaboration with the Georgian Civic Education Lecturers Association, and seeks to strengthen students’ understanding of governance; civic responsibility and civil society; enhance their critical thinking skills; and encourage active participation in public life. There are more than 7,000 alumni throughout Georgia who have taken this course, many of whom have undertaken a variety of civic activities since their studies. For example, one group of students created an audio version of the Democracy & Citizenship course book after learning that the text book was only available in print format; another group of students created an Accessibility Corner in the library of Tbilisi State University – the largest university in Georgia – outfitted with a braille printer and other accessible technology; and many others have gone on to found NGOs, serve as domestic election observers, or volunteer as Election Day poll workers. Similarly, in Kenya IFES works with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and the Kenya Institute of curriculum Development (KICD) to develop curricular materials for primary- and secondary- level schools. These materials seek to demystify the election process, and ensure that young voters will exercise their constitutional right to register and vote when they reach voting age.

Non-formal Civic Education
Outside of the classroom, young people often have the opportunity to engage in creative or experiential learning which is an instructional method that emphasizes learning from experience, and can include internships, volunteerism, field studies, or simulations. IFES supports this type of learning through a variety of activities including multi-day residential “Democracy Camp” featuring a program of lectures, small group exercises, competitions, theater and sports, where students hone problem-solving skills and explore values such as leadership, responsibility, and civic participation. Additionally, other activities such as debate and after-school clubs, street theater, and peer-to-peer communication and mentorship programs help ensure knowledge of civic and voter information.

Applying Theoretical Knowledge to Public Life
The development of practical skills associated with active civic engagement is best achieved when students apply theoretical concepts explored inside the classroom to daily life outside of school. An outgrowth of the Democracy & Citizenship course is a micro-grant program where youth-led organizations compete for funding in order to conduct projects of their own design. Putting theory into practice helps young people cement the link between conceptual notions of what citizenship is, and the look and feel of active citizenship in practice. During the summer of 2016, IFES provided grants to 11 youth-led organizations in Georgia working to address voter and social issues throughout the country. These dedicated young people seek to make the lives of others better through their work. Meri Namgaladze, founder of Youth for Public Interests in Batumi, Georgia, noted, “my experience with [IFES’] civic education courses and action project encouraged me to establish my NGO, Youth for Public Interests, together with my course mates, who are fellow D&C course alumni.”6 These dedicated young people reached thousands of their peers and other Georgian citizens through their work, which has an important impact on their communities.

Youth & Peaceful Societies
In the current climate of globally targeted terrorist attacks and civil wars that are increasingly likely to export catastrophe beyond their borders, identifying the causes of youth radicalization and mitigating violent extremism have captured the world’s attention. As such, international bodies have recognized that it is more important than ever to ensure that young people have meaningful opportunities to engage in mainstream civic and political processes, as well as provide economic opportunity. The U.N. Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 2250 in December 2015, which urged member states to actively include youth in political dialogue, with a focus on the 18-29 age range. IFES believes that including youth as active participants in their societies decreases the likelihood that they become involved in violent conflict and civic unrest because it provides them with greater awareness of the rights of others and the various legitimate means of resolving grievances peacefully. In particular, this can help to stabilize high intensity pre- and post-election periods. By engaging youth in the aftermath of violent revolution and ethnic conflict, IFES has found these efforts ultimately contribute to peaceful elections. In support of youth’s role in peaceful elections IFES helped students in Burundi address electoral violence and conflict in their communities by supporting the drafting of a Code of Conduct that was disseminated throughout the country; additionally, in consultation with the electoral commission, IFES organized a series of workshops that brought together nearly 23,000 young people to discuss elections and promote non-violence. These workshops helped participants understand what is at stake during elections and equip them with tools to mitigate potential election-related conflicts. In Syria, IFES organized the Musharaka Youth Forum, which is focused on providing a safe space for displaced Syrian youth living in Turkey to share their experiences, engage with others in their communities and begin taking steps toward creating the stable and secure community environment that is a necessary foundation for meaningful civic participation. 

Bill Sweeney
President/ CEO, IFES

IFES established the first ever university debate program in Afghanistan in June 2010. The debate club program served as a unique building block for enhancing students’ public speaking and communication skills, research and critical thinking skills, and self-confidence. To accommodate growing interest in debate among Afghan students, the 2012 debate club program expanded to include eight universities.
1.Afrobarometer; International Youth Day: Despite interest, African youth are not connecting with political processes; No. 41; August 2015.
2.Arab Youth Survey 2015; Asda’s Burson-Marsteller; 2015.
3.Enhancing Youth Political Participation throughout the Electoral Cycle; United Nations Development Programme; 2012.
4.Youth Participation in National Parliaments; Inter-Parliamentary Union; 2014.
5.Nearly every country has some type written policy, action plan, or strategy focused on youth. YouthPolicy.org offers a list of countries with links to their respective youth documents: http://www.youthpolicy.org/nationalyouthpolicies/
6.International Foundation for Electoral Systems Dialogues on Democracy featuring Meri Namgaladze; http://www.ifes.org/multimedia/podcast-dialogues-democracy-featuring-gvantsa-tughushi