What actions should donors and governments take to support youth civil society organisations?
1. Investing in and learning from youth civil society can scale up the resilience of communities to crises.
In many contexts, the response of governments to the COVID-19 crisis fell short and international action came to a halt: the resilience and readiness of young people to organise at the grassroots level was often the single driver keeping communities afloat. This shows once again – and more so in moments of deep crisis – that young people are able to generate agile and effective strategies to manage and alleviate the effects of instability. We are more than implementers, we are creators, we are leaders. In our rapidly changing world where environmental, economic and health crises are likely to hit with little forewarning, it is worth learning from and investing in the resilience of grassroots and youth organisations.
2. Young people have been at the frontline of the COVID-19 response: it’s time to make room for them at the policy-making table.
It is clear from this research that youth civil society has been among those at the frontline of the COVID-19 response. Youth civil society provided much needed relief and creative solutions to the challenges the pandemic presented. But, despite the agency young people have shown to drive change, civic space continues to shrink around us.
Researching in the Latín America region, Jimena shares this reflection in one of her blog entries:
Who is in control of the decision making that is affecting society as a whole? Are we being heard in those formal and legislative spaces of power which have a wide impact on the use of our resources? In my opinion, such spaces are still reserved to the elite and remain inaccessible to our participation. As youth organisations, we have been knitting community bonds and germinating seeds and ideas that offer creative responses. But our limited impact in more formal spheres of participation was made evident in this quarantine”.
It’s crucial to sustain and support our involvement in public debate to ensure that our voices and those of our communities are at the heart of policy-making. We want to be actively involved in informing COVID recovery strategies at the local and global level.
3. Engage with new approaches to leadership, modelled by young people, as a pathway to rebuilding and renewing our societies.
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted how vital community support and solidarity initiatives are for the very survival of our world. This raises the question of what leadership styles are better suited to face the challenges ahead of us. The leadership models that have been utilised by youth civil society make room for introspection, inclusion, vulnerability and care. Those in positions of power should identify strategies to harness and build on these new styles of leadership.
In the words of Daniel from the Latin America research team:
“Leadership for them [community leaders] now means being able to listen to people, understand problems, and create collaborative solutions. Power is measured by the ability to mobilise peoples and resources, and no longer for titles or brutal force. We want new realities in which human relationships and solidarity will be valued more than relationships built out of fear, dependence, or exclusion”.
4. Work with us, young people, to build partnerships across regions, movements and issues.
The COVID-19 crisis has created more awareness of the interconnectedness between different people, causes, perspectives and groups, as well as the need for coordinated social responses. Youth initiatives often connect issues across contexts, such as in the case of global solidarity movements like #BlackLivesMatter, and the pandemic opened new horizons to expand and learn about cross-movement collaboration. Now is the moment to invest in testing and scaling collaborative initiatives across different youth movements, groups, and organisations to drive social change.
5.Ensure that recovery from the pandemic works for all “segments of society”: taking a radical approach to leaving no-one behind.
Five years ago, governments signed up to Agenda 2030, committing to leave no-one behind and ensure that the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their 169 Targets would be met for “all nations and peoples and for all segments of society”. In many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has made visible the discriminatory and unequal structures that continue to be well rooted in our societies despite these commitments and the annual accountability processes that governments engage with. Issues such as discrimination against women, racism, oppression and inequality can no longer be ignored.
To fully understand the devastating and diverse effects of this crisis, we must ask: whose voices are we still not hearing in our communities? How do we connect with and amplify these voices? In many cases, technology has provided platforms to mobilise and exchange even in times of social distance. However, many people are still lacking access and risk being excluded. We need to reimagine more critical approaches to how and who is involved in decision-making so as to create more open and equal spaces (including virtual ones). Young people are already utilising transparent, accountable approaches to tackling the challenges they face; harnessing this expertise is crucial to the ongoing response to COVID-19 and must inform the eventual process of recovery.