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Third Summit for Democracy: a future without youth representation?

With the theme of Democracy for Future Generations, the third Summit for Democracy promised to place a strong emphasis on the place of youth in our political systems. There were strong signs from this year’s organisers, the Republic of Korea, that this year’s event could breach the intergenerational divide within global democracy. 

Yet, this third gathering on democracy fell short on inclusivity. With no networking spaces and an emphasis on technology over youth, the Summit gave young people little opportunity to contribute to an event that was supposed to focus on the future.

Despite the drawbacks, young people were present and enthusiastic. Throughout the event, the Youth Democracy Cohort had a strong presence, with 14 ambassadors and three sessions highlighting the role that young people can play in strengthening democracies. The Cohort highlighted that bridging the gap between institutions and young people is crucial for the future of democracy.

Nevertheless, the Summit holds potential to channel civil society recommendations to governments, with the YDC maintaining its commitment and engagement in the process.

Review of the Summit

From a youth and civil society perspective, the Summit was ultimately disappointing. The three-day format (Day 1 for the ministerial conference, Day 2 for civil society, Day 3 for world leaders) demonstrated a gap between public authorities and non-state actors that has plagued many other events, such as the United Nations Climate Change Conferences. 

The participation in sessions remained uncertain until the last minute, keeping civil society participants, including the Cohorts, in the dark about the Day 1 agenda. The first day, which included around 30 speeches from Ministers and three high-level panels, lacked audience interaction and engagement. Thematically, ministers showed more interest in deliberating the danger and potential of technological developments, namely AI, than discussing the role of young people in democracies. The theme of future generations was practically forgotten, both in content and in representation. 

The Chair’s Summary, serving as a primary document of the event, was underwhelming in terms of content on youth and vague in terms of general recommendations. Moreover, unlike the previous Summit, no commitments were made by the governments to strengthen their democratic processes. The YDC Joint Statement for the Summit collected 130 signatories from CSOs, local governments, and political parties. In spite of its backing and active lobbying efforts from the YDC, the recommendations from the statement were not featured in the Chair’s Summary. 

The organisation of the civil society day was completely disconnected from the ministerial one. The Cohorts and civil society had little input into the format of their day, beyond proposing and organising sessions. As a result, young activists and participants had few opportunities to interact with government officials. Inputs from future generations were absent in the organisation of an event that pledged to put them at the centre of the discussions.

From success to inspiration

Despite these shortcomings, young people were present in Seoul, thanks to the support of the Youth Democracy Cohort, and our partners from the European Partnership for Democracy, the International Republican Institute (through their GenDem initiative) , and the Communities of Democracies, among others. The Summit also proved to be an interesting gathering of civil society and activists working in different fields of democracy support

In Seoul, our panel “From Success to Inspiration” featured success stories and testimonies from Malaysia, Thailand and Liberia. Qyira Yusri, co-founder of UNDI18 in Malaysia, shared her reflections on how her student-led movement succeeded in amending the country’s constitution to enfranchise 5.8 million voters between 18 and 21 years of age. Ruchapong Chamjirachaikul, Advocacy Officer at iLaw, explained how their campaign mobilised young people around the 2023 general elections in Thailand to deliver a landmark win for the pro-democratic forces. Finally, Banica Elliott, the President of the Federation of Liberian Youth, spoke about the significant cross-party agreement of youth wings to commit to peace during the 2023 elections in Liberia. 

In times of democratic backsliding, our panel showed it’s still possible for young people to be at the forefront of change that strengthens the inclusivity and resilience of our political systems. At the same time, countering the narrative of youth disengagement in democracy. Our speakers were clear on the need to address the trust gap between youth and institutions to re-engage them in participatory processes.

The future of the Summit and the YDC

At the time of writing, no formal announcement has been made about the organisation of a fourth Summit. The lack of visibility in the future of the Summit process is a clear challenge that should be addressed if we want this event to be relevant. In YDC’s view, it has once again become clear that a sustainable framework and strategy for the Cohort are needed beyond the Summit. Bringing together more than 300 members, from government ministries to grassroots organisations, the Cohort has serious potential to shape local and global policy and institutional reforms. Over the next few weeks and months, we encourage our members and partners to share their own ideas to maximise the full potential of the YDC, as we continue our mission to include young people in conversations about the future.

The summit in pictures: