Challenges and Opportunities for Youth Civic Engagement

S. M. Rayhanul Islam
Thursday, November 17th, 2016


(World Youth Report on Youth Civic Engagement, Published by the United Nations, 2016, Pages: 164)


There is a saying that ‘History is written by the old, but made by the young’. Young people are the most strong, self-confident, creative and productive guiding force of any nation. Given an enabling environment, young women and men are both willing and able to take responsibility for their lives and contribute positively to the society in which they live. However, the socioeconomic and political environment in which young people live can have a serious impact on their ability to engage. Over the past two decades, youth civic engagement has acquired some prominence in research, policy and practice in many parts of the world. Interest in civic engagement has been spurred by a range of factors, including concerns about the perceived decline in the levels of civic and political engagement among young people worldwide and about the potential negative impact of this decline on the governance of society. The focus on youth civic engagement is driven in part by the assumption that young people who are more involved in and connected to society are less likely to engage in risky behaviour and violence—and are likely to stay engaged as they grow older.


The UN publication “World Youth Report on Youth Civic Engagement” examines the positive and negative aspects of both traditional and emerging forms of civic engagement in the economic, political and community life of youth. It is intended to contribute to the dialogue on how youth civic engagement can serve as an enabling force for young women and men in the development and formulation of youth-related policies. The Report is divided into five chapters; an introduction and overview is followed by three chapters respectively focusing on the economic, political and community-based engagement of youth, and a final chapter offers key conclusions and recommendations. Each chapter provides a thematic overview followed by expert opinion pieces on the highlighted topic. The contributing authors, who include esteemed youth researchers, activists and academics, attempt to address specific aspects of youth-driven forms of civic engagement.


The introductory chapter, contributed by Pat Dolan (Director of the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre and a faculty at the National University of Ireland) and Dr. Mark Brennan (UNESCO Chair for Rural Community, Leadership, and Youth Development and Professor of Leadership and Community Development at Pennsylvania State University), provides a broad overview of the topic of youth civic engagement. Civic engagement is not a neutral concept, but rather encompasses a variety of forms and perspectives surrounding relationships between the individual, the community and broader society. To fully understand the significance of civic engagement to youth and society, it is necessary to examine how particular forms of civic engagement relate to the experiences and social positioning of young people and what the objectives are. The authors explore five key discourses to youth civic engagement such as engaged citizenship, positive youth development, belonging, care and social justice. The second chapter examines changing trends in economic participation among youth and the relevant policy context, focusing primarily on the period since the global economic crisis. The chapter addresses the impact of the crisis on the economic life of young people and explores the normative shift from stable and permanent employment to flexible and part-time work. The authors describe how young people are responding to this changing context through engagement in internships, entrepreneurship, and trade unions.


Chapter three focuses on changing trends, policies and patterns relating to young people’s political participation. It addresses the reasons for declining levels of youth involvement in institutional politics (including voting and participating in party politics) and examines alternative approaches to political participation that have emerged among youth—exploring how traditional forms of political expression such protests and demonstrations have merged with ICT and social media to create a new form of political engagement. The authors analyze how emerging forms of youth political engagement are shaping the political landscape, focusing on topics ranging from their involvement in legitimate governance structures to their participation in extremist activities. The opinion pieces in this chapter highlight youth electoral participation, transitions in power, negative engagement, and digital activism. The next chapter explores the various ways young people can participate in and engage with their communities, specifically through voluntary activities, peace-building initiatives, and participation in sports for development. This chapter also explores the evolution of community engagement among youth, highlighting both the increased recognition of the value and skills young people contribute to community development and the benefits accruing to youth themselves from strengthened community connections.


Chapter five offers a synthesis of the recommendations presented throughout the Report which are intended to be used by young people and policymakers to engage in dialogue aimed at finding ways to better support and enhance youth  civic engagement. The following recommendations should be considered in the development, design, and follow-up of all youth civic engagement related initiatives and programmes: i) Successful civic engagement programs include youth involvement in design planning, development, execution, and in monitoring and evaluation. This should be included as a norm in all youth engagement efforts. ii) The knowledge youth possess must be valued, and young people need an enabling environment that allows them to develop a certain level of expertise on the issues that influence their lives. iii) Organizations and agencies working with youth on civic engagement initiatives should clearly specify the civic goals they wish to achieve and provide real opportunities for young people to engage in action directed towards meeting those objectives. They must also ensure that youth engagement is real, substantial, and significant. iv) While action is essential in developing civic skills and experience, there is great importance in reflecting on civic activity. For example, young people may be trained and engaged in designing, implementing and evaluating research, conducting surveys and interviews of their peers, and presenting findings and solutions in public forums. v) Youth leadership emerges out of a complex set of skills, behaviours, actions and attitudes that are best developed through apprenticeships and other experiential processes requiring close partnerships between youth and adults. While young people need to play a central role in addressing issues that affect them, they cannot tackle the multitude of challenges alone. It is only through active partnership, inclusive policies and decision making processes, and meaningful involvement that solutions to some of the key problems experienced by young people can be developed.


The writer is an independent researcher. E-mail:

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