Youth participation, such as the active youth involvement in the Arab Spring or Malala Yousafzai’s fight for women’s rights, is currently shaping the global order. This type of participation; inspired by social change, human rights, innovation, peace and prosperity; is critical for global development in today’s world. Although perspectives from individuals of all ages are important, those of youth are even more so as they have a vision for a sustainable future and the energy to create the necessary changes to make the world a better place for themselves and their children.
However, effective youth participation is marred by several challenges, including unemployment, drug abuse, crime, violence and HIV/AIDS. The international community is trying to address these challenges by engaging with youth. For instance, the Youth Initiative by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) facilitates active youth involvement to promote positive drug awareness and healthy lifestyles in their schools and communities.
One such organisation uniquely placed to address these challenges is Commonwealth. Approximately, 87% of the world's young population lives in developing countries. The Commonwealth predominantly consists of developing countries—in fact, it is home to nearly a third of the world’s population, of which more than 60% are under 30 years of age.
Recently the Commonwealth’s relevance is on the decline. The attendance at both the official and unofficial CHOGM events is dwindling, and the division between its members is becoming visible. According to a poll conducted by the Royal Commonwealth Society in 2009, most of the people in the Commonwealth countries are ignorant of the Commonwealth’s activities except for its Games. People see the Commonwealth as a colonial relic that no longer does anything for them, and its existing mechanism of youth engagement only reaffirms this perception.
Over the years, the Commonwealth has established a multilateral approach for youth development. Internationally it works closely with different organisations to develop a rights-based approach for youth empowerment. For example, the Commonwealth Youth Programme division in collaboration with the International Labour Organization and the Youth Employment Network holds regional consultations with member states to formulate and execute youth employment policies.
Among its various youth development programmes, the Commonwealth launched the Youth Development Index (YDI), Plan of Action (CPA), and Diploma in Youth Development Work. The CPA and YDI are complementary in nature, as the former measures the present situation of youth in 170 countries, while the latter identifies priority areas of focus and investment based on the results of the YDI. The YCI addresses the issue of youth un-employment through training, consistent mentoring and credit support. Alternatively, the Diploma’s aim is to develop youth work into a skilled and vital profession.
At the state level, the Commonwealth works with governments to develop policies and share best practices for youth engagement through the following organised meetings: the Commonwealth Youth Ministers Meeting, the Regional Youth Ministers Meetings and the Commonwealth Sports Ministers Meeting (CSMM).
The condition of youth in many countries of the Commonwealth is dire despite these countries’ established institutional frameworks for youth engagement. Nearly 70% of countries in the Commonwealth rank medium or low in the Youth Development Index, with their youth development scores ranging from 0 to 0.75 on a 0 to 1 scale (with 0 as the lowest youth development and 1 as the highest). Their youth mortality rate stands at 3.5 deaths per 1,000 compared to the global average of 2.9 deaths per 1,000. On average, the prevalence of HIV among youth in the Commonwealth countries is 2.1%, or two and a half times the global average. This shows that the Commonwealth has established formal institutions of youth participation, but there is a missing link in the form of meaningful participation.
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The Indian Youth Conference protests against rising youth unemployment.
Given the challenges the Commonwealth countries face, they are particularly in need of strong youth engagement. The Commonwealth organization can improve this situation by working to establish:
A Commonwealth of the Youth: In 2009, the Commonwealth re-established the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to explore its reform options. In its recommendations, the EPG insisted “silence” in the face of serious or persistent breaches of human rights “is not an option,” yet this is precisely what the Commonwealth has been doing with timid responses to cases such as the kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram in Nigeria or the immigration crisis in Europe and South East Asia. Youth involvement in the Commonwealth can be realised not only through establishing institutions, but also by connecting with the youth, fighting for youth’s rights, standing in solidarity and proactively responding to challenges facing youth.
A Commonwealth by the Youth: The scope of the Commonwealth’s existing engagement with youth is restricted to meetings and discussions rather than on catalysing change. The Commonwealth Youth Forum (CYF), which precedes the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, is purely deliberative and exclusive in nature. The CYF 2015 has launched the social media campaign #whatnext to give young people a say in what issues the Commonwealth should address during the biennial summit. However, a drawback of the campaign is that this opportunity is restricted to an elite group of youth who have access to the internet and computers, excluding marginalized youth with little institutional support.
A Commonwealth for the Youth: The Commonwealth’s youth policies should address challenges facing youth such as unemployment, education disparity, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, crime and violence. Youth unemployment stands at 22.9% compared to the global average of 19.2%. To address the disparity, the EPG recommended establishing the Commonwealth Youth Development Fund (CYDF), which will allow youth from across the Commonwealth to apply for funding to deliver innovative, entrepreneurial solutions to youth employment challenges in their communities. Moreover, states and other funds could advance solutions resulting from CYDF. It is high time for the Commonwealth to implement such recommendations rather than dismissing them.
- Today, the Commonwealth is struggling to maintain its relevance. In its attempt to re-brand, itself as an organisation based on common values, its best hope remains firmly footed with youth. As affirmed by the Charter, youth of the Commonwealth can be a powerful ally if given their proper place. The Commonwealth needs to strike a balance between the institutional and substantive elements of youth development. It needs to be of the youth and by the youth when necessary, and for the youth when required.