In September 2018, in the context of the 73rd United Nations (UN) General Assembly’s (UNGA) high-level General Debate, the UN Secretary-General unveiled Youth 2030, a strategy reflecting the UN’s new commitment to working with and for young people. The strategy will act as an umbrella framework to guide the UN across the strategy’s three pillars (peace and security, human rights and sustainable development). The Youth 2030 strategy has prioritized five goals: 1) amplify youth voices for the promotion of a peaceful, just and sustainable world (engagement, participation and advocacy); 2) support young people’s greater access to quality education and health services; 3) support young people’s greater access to decent work and productive employment; 4) protect and promote the rights of young people and support their civic and political engagement; and 5) support young people as catalysts for peace and security and humanitarian action.
The Youth 2030 strategy also highlights the importance of accountability and transparency, as is aligned with a priority of the international development agenda, which is to establish accountable institutions reflected in #SDG16 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Through its Youth Strategy, the UN seeks to become among others, an “Accountability Leader” for youth policy issues. This involves the UN entities successfully addressing youth issues through their programming; effectively and meaningfully engage young people in their work; and track budget allocations and expenditures. While this is a step in the right direction, key to ensure the five priorities of the youth strategy mentioned above is promoting policy accountability and transparency in countries where young people live. Then, how to localize accountability and integrity strengthening strategies with and for youth, is key.
Youth and Democratic Governance
Evidence shows that youth play a key role in building and strengthening democratic governance. As a group they have a unique transformative potential to change and reform politics and democratic governance to make it more inclusive, representative and accountable. On the other hand, one of the pillars of democratic governance is accountability, as is both an end and means to hold elected leaders to account. Democratically elected governments can be held accountable by systematically and continuously monitoring their policy and ethical performance. Citizens can complement internal controls and other institutional mechanisms (horizontal accountability) that are established to promote oversight of public and elected officials, and through their demand and oversight (vertical accountability) promote and demand accountability of actions, decisions and policies.
When the realms of youth and accountability are brought together there is in theory a perfect harmony and natural synergy in favor of democratic governance. No question that youth can help to build a better tomorrow, and that they have the potential to be the shapers and leaders of that better future. The 1.8 billion young people in the world today is the largest youth population in history and 90% of youth live in young democracies or countries that are still trying to consolidate democratic governance practices. In many cases, these young people are the first generation in their respective countries to have lived most of their lives, if not all, under a democratic form of government. Moreover, a majority of these newly democratic and/or transition countries, have made significant progress in human development. For young people, this has been crucial to their outlook and aspirations. However, the youth continue to bear the brunt of high unemployment rates, limited educational opportunities, low skills development and other challenges (see #YouthStats). So clearly, a number of questions remain unanswered: To what extent are youth benefiting from progress in human development? What challenges are they facing? What policies are in place at the national and local levels to address these challenges? What can be done to include youth in the countries’ vision, planning and decision-making processes? How to promote youth participation in accountability and integrity activities?
Democratic governance is premised on inclusiveness. However, representation does not necessarily guarantee inclusiveness, particularly as youth are largely excluded from representative institutions. Moreover, findings of the World Value Survey research conducted between 2010 and 2014 show significant differences in voter turnout between people aged 25 or under and those aged 26 or over. According to World Values Survey data from 2010–14, only 43.6% of those aged 18–29 reported that they “always” vote (versus 59.1% of the total population), and only 4.1% were active members of a political party (5% total average). Furthermore, young people tend to distrust politics in general, and political parties. The World Values Survey data also revealed that youth party membership was particularly low in Europe and South America (1.8% and 1.5% were active members, respectively). Figures 1-3 below, show some of these tendencies.
The loss of trust in politicians among youth is particularly harmful to democratic governance, as it shapes attitudes and perceptions towards democratic institutions. Evidence from around the world shows that youth increasingly believe elected officials do not have their interests in mind, and therefore their own belief that they do not have the ability to demand change is reinforced. Youth are not a homogeneous group, but in general evidence shows they are more vulnerable to exclusion and inequality than other groups. In turn, exclusion and inequality undermine young people’s opportunities to engage economically, socially and politically.
In spite of enormous potential and expanding opportunities, youth face numerous challenges. However, with the support of appropriate policies and interventions and through their own efforts, youth can overcome these challenges. The population age distribution in many countries around the world shows a bulge representing youth cohorts. Not capitalizing on the potential of this significant youth population segment would mean forgoing substantial opportunities for enhancing not only development, but also democratic governance and accountability.
While evidence shows that young people do not generally vote in large numbers in national and local elections, they have been an important means of political expression. Young people have been at the forefront of many emerging political movements demanding accountability, many of which have focused on issues related to inequality and inclusion. Advances in technology and social media have facilitated mobilization among young people, however they have not substituted for the institutionalized and active participation that are vital to democratic resilience and renovation. Civic and social engagement is a key component of youth participation, as it empowers young people and allows them to exercise citizenship, develop life skills, network, and enhance their knowledge and experience to navigate in a complex and multi-dimensional democratic governance processes. Youth are actively involved in social life across many areas through civil society organizations, universities, youth programs, youth-led initiatives and volunteering individually and collectively.
Accountability as an Ends and Means
One means to procure answers, identify challenges and create sustainable solutions for youth is precisely accountability, which can be thought as both a means and ends to improve institutional democratic performance. In practice, accountability depends on both citizen engagement and government responsiveness. The most typical accountability mechanism is an election, whereby citizens can continue to vote for those who adequately represent and respond to their needs and/or punish those who do not. But elections are often an extremely indirect and less effective accountability mechanism, as they do not allow citizens to evaluate government performance on a more regular basis. While the vote might punish public officials by throwing them out of office, it is less effective in transforming a governance. Elections are neither an accountability mechanism sufficient to hold service providers, public and private, accountable and cannot serve as a feedback mechanism on a regular basis. Moreover, in recent decades, there is a growing concern about declining levels of youth participation in electoral politics, and thus elections might not be the best way to hold policymakers and elected officials accountable.
Traditionally, efforts to address issues of accountability have focused on improving and/or strengthening the “supply-side” of democratic governance. As such, the different branches and levels of government play a role in ensuring political checks and balances. Similarly, administrative procedures and internal controls, auditing requirements (both internal and external), and law enforcement (through comptrollers, courts and the police) have been used as top-down means and approaches to improve accountability. The emphasis under this approach is in State institutions and their interaction within and between them (horizontal accountability). More recently, increased attention has been paid to improving the “demand side” of democratic governance. That is, strengthening the voice and capacity of citizens to directly demand greater accountability from public officials and service providers. The emphasis in this approach is in actors outside the State, comprising checks and balances on governmental actors within all three branches of government and at national, regional, and local levels (vertical accountability). It involves civil society and non-governmental organizations, as well as an independent media, watchdog organizations, and influential think-tanks and/or research organizations. As such, initiatives to enhance the ability of citizens and stakeholders to engage with public officials and policymakers in a more informed, direct and constructive manner have been getting more attention and support. This is where accountability intersects youth.
However, there is not sufficient evidence yet to assure automatic causality between better and sustained outcomes resulting from youth and accountability efforts. From what limited evidence is available, at best we can say that while there is broad support from donors and governments alike, development outcomes for young people in terms of improved government accountability are still limited, mixed, context specific and subject to interpretation. Case studies suggest that youth participation in accountability activities can lead to better informed and more effective policy and planning, budgeting and program. Outcomes can also be negatively affected if support is not inclusive, and/or the enabling environment remains limited in promoting accountability mechanisms. This includes both formal and informal interventions to facilitate engagement with young people and to encourage greater receptiveness within government.
Capacity Development for Youth in Accountability and Integrity
While various strategies have been adopted to promote accountability and integrity, the involvement of youth can make a huge difference. Many young people have the desire and capacity to transform the world and they have a potential to positively affect future anticorruption efforts. As the new generation of politicians, entrepreneurs and civil society actors, they have an important role to play in bringing a new culture of accountability and integrity to all levels of the society. As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and others argued, building a culture of integrity in society necessarily begins with the education of young people. The knowledge, skills and behaviors they acquire now will shape their country’s future, and will help them uphold public integrity and accountability, which are essential for preventing corruption. Therefore, investing in youth leadership to build their capacities to effectively detect, prevent and fight corruption is crucial.
I have been working for more than a decade with colleagues and organizations to design and implement appropriate empowerment strategies for youth leaders and entrepreneurs to raise their awareness and understanding about corruption and the way it undermines democratic societies, and at the same time build their capacity to stand up against corruption and promote integrity and accountability as a deterrence to corruption. As such, I have come to value such capacity activities as an investment. Building youth capacities in understanding what constitutes ethical behavior, how to recognize corruption, how to personally live a model integrity life, how to make ethical decisions, and how to engage with others to fight corruption all have to be part of a comprehensive and integrated capacity strategy for youth.
What I learned is that a culture rooted in the rule of law is best fostered during the formative years when values are still being shaped. Capacity building efforts provide a platform for intergenerational reflections on the scourge of corruption and its various manifestations pointing to a democratic governance deficit. In addition, evidence suggests that there are three reasons why it is critical that young people build their capacities in accountability and integrity:
- Intrinsic value in raising awareness about young people’s rights to participate in decisions that affect them, and upholding those rights;
- Instrumental value in encouraging young people’s engagement in democratic governance processes due to the value they provide in improving policy and program outcomes and accountability; and
- Civic value in developing young active citizens to play a role in improving community livelihoods and to participate in decision-making processes and in demanding accountability.
Moreover, youth are a key ingredient in strengthening accountability and integrity as their involvement adds value to anticorruption efforts. For example, their involvement can promote change, including behavioral change; can lead to the development of social capital, through the acquisition of enhanced skills, confidence and self-esteem and greater awareness of their rights; and can lead to better informed and more effective policy and planning, budgeting and program knowledge and management in relation to young people’s needs, capacities and aspirations.
However, capacity development for youth in accountability and integrity issues is not a magic formula. It depends on context, how inclusive capacity building processes are (to include for example girls and young women, ethnic minorities, young people with disabilities, youth affected by HIV/AIDS), and an enabling environment. In a forthcoming journal article on social audit and youth my colleague Terri-Ann Gilbert-Roberts and I argue that a main challenge of youth participation in favor of accountability is not one of apathy but one of capacity – including knowledge of specific approaches that can be applied to policy-making at different levels of the policy cycle and at different levels of governance.
Not only is there an intrinsic, instrumental and civic value in young people’s engagement in democratic governance and accountable processes as their own aspirations and hopes for a better future can provide the impetus to improve policy and outcomes, but also because involving young people in democratic policy making results in developing active democratic citizens who can play a role in securing a better future for themselves. Most importantly building the capacities of youth in accountability and integrity is a long-term investment, because when they age as adults they can continue to support and encourage young people’s involvement in accountable democratic governance and policy making. Youth can bring optimism, energy, vigor, diversity and fresh ideas to policy deliberations, but through accountability they can also be the strategic link in the value chain of accountable democratic governance and in generating a virtuous cycle for a culture of integrity and resilience and sustainability of democratic governance.