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Lesson 1: Youth Ecosystems

In the exploration of youth participation in democratic processes, a recurring theme has emerged: the vital importance of creating an enabling environment for youth to engage and thrive in civic life. As the YDC unfolds ten case studies from Latin America to East Asia, it becomes clear that policymakers must strive to create inclusive systems empowering all youth to contribute. The authors found that, despite the unique contexts of each country, there are important policy lessons to be learned. In light of the findings of the study, five recommendations have been made. For this edition, the YDC presents a key policy lesson on youth ecosystems:

Youth Ecosystems

One of the key takeaways from the scoping study is the significance of developing a collaborative and interconnected youth system, rather than relying solely on isolated youth initiatives. Successful countries recognised that addressing the challenges faced by young people requires an integrated approach that involves various stakeholders from different sectors working harmoniously towards a shared goal. This approach involves partnerships among various government structures and levels, youth groups, civil society organisations, educational institutions, and businesses. In an ideal scenario, the youth ecosystem should include elements such as a holistic perspective, shared resources and expertise, policy coherence, and long-term sustainability. 

The holistic perspective recognises that young people’s lives are shaped by a multitude of factors such as education, employment, health, social inclusion, and political and civic engagement. This approach enables the design and implementation of comprehensive solutions that consider the multifaceted needs of youth. By bringing together various stakeholders from different sectors, a collaborative youth system can leverage the diverse resources, skills, and expertise that each partner brings to the table. All youth sector actors have unique insights and capacities that, when combined, can lead to more comprehensive solutions. When various stakeholders work together, it becomes easier to align policies across different sectors. This coherence is crucial to ensure that policies related to political and civic life, education, employment, healthcare, and social services are not contradictory but rather complement and reinforce each other to create a supportive environment for young people. Building a collaborative youth ecosystem fosters long-term sustainability rather than relying on short-term projects that might lack continuity. A system that involves multiple stakeholders can create an enduring framework for addressing youth issues and adapting to changing circumstances, including responding to evolving youth priorities. The combination of these elements enables governments to address obstacles to youth participation. The involvement of diverse stakeholder groups allows for more transparency in the youth sector, minimising the risk of political influence and manipulation. The constant flow of ideas and exchange of experiences facilitates the development of more youth-friendly and youth-centric institutions, helping to address some of the organisational and institutional limitations.

Examples of successful coordination can be observed in countries such as Costa Rica, Australia, and Liberia, where well-structured ‘youth ecosystems’ have been established. These ecosystems are designed to ensure that various youth bodies are not only independent and autonomous but also interconnected in their efforts. In Costa Rica, the National Youth Advisory Network Assembly, of which the Cantonal Youth Committees’ delegates are part, selects youth representatives to the National Youth Council. The National Youth Council, in turn, approves projects submitted by the Cantonal Youth Committees. By creating channels for continuous communication and cooperation, this model not only enhances the effectiveness of youth initiatives but also promotes accountability and transparency within the system. The Australian Youth Affairs Coalition (AYAC) brings together youth organisations to form a powerful movement that advocates for all young people and advances transformational change in the country. As a powerful voice of the Australian youth, the AYAC proposes youth-focused policy reforms and supports the Youth Advisory Groups. In the Solomon Islands, the strong emphasis on multi-stakeholder cooperation in the national youth policy is a significant building block for establishing a fully operational youth ecosystem.

While the ‘youth ecosystem’ approach has proven effective, it also highlights the significant challenge of ensuring the meaningful participation of historically excluded population groups in public affairs. While the establishment of interconnected mechanisms is a step towards increased youth participation, it can inadvertently reproduce systemic and institutional inequalities if not intentionally designed to be inclusive. The lack of inclusivity within youth spaces was consistently raised in the interviews. Homogeneous youth participation not only undermines the relevance of solutions and decisions but also sidelines the perspectives of underrepresented groups. This inadvertently sustains systemic inequalities, stripping decision-making processes of a more diverse range of experiences and insights. By failing to intentionally design youth spaces to reflect the actual level of social diversity, there is a risk of alienating those who can benefit the most from inclusive participation.

Policy Recommendations

Governments should prioritise the establishment of a comprehensive ‘youth ecosystem’ that brings together actors from diverse backgrounds and sectors. This can be achieved through the following:

  1. Clear roles and responsibilities: Define specific roles and responsibilities for each stakeholder within the youth ecosystem to ensure a clear understanding of the scope of their contributions. The efforts of all actors should be oriented towards the achievement of specific youth objectives identified in consultative processes. Assigning roles based on strengths and expertise allows resources to be allocated more effectively, minimising duplication and confusion. The definitions of roles and responsibilities should be easily accessible to all key stakeholders. Online platforms, progress meetings, or a regularly updated youth development strategy are examples of tools that improve clarity and understanding of respective roles. 
  2. Coordination mechanisms: Create well-resourced coordination mechanisms that facilitate communication, collaboration, and the sharing of materials among stakeholders. Examples of coordination mechanisms include youth advisory boards, inter-ministerial task forces with youth representatives, and regular cross-sector meetings. The coordination mechanisms should be adequately financed and institutionally supported in order to effectively perform their functions. 
  3. Inclusive engagement: Recognise that social inequalities can persist if not addressed intentionally. Governments should actively work to create an inclusive environment where young people in all their diversity can participate and contribute. To address this challenge, governments should fund targeted strategies to engage historically marginalised youth populations. This could involve tailored outreach efforts, capacity-building programmes, and well-constructed affirmative action measures to ensure that the voices of underrepresented groups are heard, and their priorities are addressed within the youth ecosystem. Any opportunities requiring significant time or resource commitment should be remunerated to give youth from low socio-economic backgrounds the opportunity to participate. Thus, governments can ensure that the benefits of youth initiatives are accessible to all segments of the youth population.