Our Time is Now

September, 2010
By Ambika Vishwanath

In December of 2009, the United Nations passed a resolution to declare 2010-2011 as the International Year of the Youth, starting on August 12, 2010 and ending August 11, 2011. The focus is on three main areas – increasing investment in today’s young population, mobilizing and engaging the youth, and increasing intercultural understanding among youth. In a time when the headlines are full of “bad news” and we see the mistakes of the older generation, it is important to highlight the difference made by thousands of young people around the world, and to provide them with the space to do more.  

The general apathy that plagued young people for years is finally abating and they have begun affecting change in a number of ways, using the tools and means available to them. Their involvement ranges from politics to development, and the burgeoning concept of social media has become a powerful tool in their hands. Their voices now demand to be heard on issues ranging from the climate to health and the inclusion of marginalised sections of society in decision-making processes, forcing world leaders to sit up and listen.  

While under-developed nations in Africa and conflict ridden countries are no strangers to their youth revolting, apathy has always been more widespread in large democracies, such as India, America and the United Kingdom. For the most part, this was due to their disillusionment with politics and their leaders. This has slowly begun to change, with various forms of youth movements around the world gathering steam and ensuring that there is a very real change on the ground.  

The US Presidential election of 2008 is an example of a youth movement that created change in the game of politics, where almost 24 million young Americans voted in the elections. This was the second largest youth voter turnout in American history, with 66% of them voting for Barack Obama. What is perhaps more important and lasting, is that according to several different surveys taken after the elections, over 90% of these young voters stated that they will remain active and involved in the political debate, at least to the same extent, if not more. 

In 2009, in another part of the world, during another election in an extremely closed society, the tech savvy younger generation collectively ensured that their voice was heard throughout the world. Dissatisfied and angered by the Iranian election results of 2009 and by the repressive actions of their government, the Iranian youth used tools such as Facebook and Twitter to get their message past the government and out into the world. Several international media agencies have claimed that over 80% of their sources were young Iranians sharing their stories on Twitter. Social media websites, in the hands of the youth became the frontline to Iran’s revolution. While the election results did not change, and politics has largely remained the same in Iran, the coming together of the youth has sparked a movement that is unlikely to die out, and could potentially create a much large impact in the future. 

In other countries, smaller, quieter revolutions have been started by ordinary young men and women who have chosen to take a stand. In the Middle East, a small wind energy company in Israel, and another in the West Bank, both run by enthusiastic young men, have decided to collaborate to collectively provide for the use of clean energy to their respective countries, as well as attempt to use this as a medium to build bridges. In Tanzania, a group of young women started a social initiative, ‘Femina HIP’ to spread awareness on issues of health and reproductive rights especially among adolescent men and women. The immensely popular “FEMA” magazine now has a readership of almost 200,000 and is growing, and along with other similar initiatives, ‘Femina HIP’ is estimated to engage almost 10 million people in the country. 

In Albania, MJAFT! (‘Enough’) is a campaign which started in 2002 by three youngsters in their 20s. Employing a variety of creative strategies, the campaign has been credited with the ouster of unpopular public figures, as well as increases to the national education budget, among other accomplishments. This approach of promoting democratic reform through young audiences has been deemed extremely successful, and youth activists in Zimbabwe, Iraq, and other fledgling democracies have sought to learn from its approach. The forces of globalization and the IT revolution have made young people more aware of urgent issues shared around the world. At the same time, they have also made it possible for them to access valuable information and resources, publicize their projects, network with one another, and connect to other organizations that can help strengthen their work. It is vital that these efforts are supported and allowed to grow.

By 2050, the number of youth in the world will have risen from just under a half billion in 1950 to 1.2 billion. At that point, 9 in 10 youths will live in developing countries. Most countries in the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia are experiencing a youth bulge. If young people are not brought into the mainstream, and included in the development process, it can have devastating consequences. It is important, not only for governmental institutions to create a space for them, but also for other institutions to step up where governments fail. 

If harnessed, this will not only lead to growing economic productivity, but also ensure that these young people are able to mobilize and engage each other, and collectively address the issues that they will face. Experiences bear testimony to the fact that the simple ideas of young men and women around the world have the power to create a difference. As the UN mandates, it is important that there is greater investment in young people in the areas of education, employment and other fundamentals. However, most importantly, the responsibility also lies with the youth of today, to ensure that the space provided is not wasted.