Published on April 14, 2011

Young voices shaping society in Guyana

By Thea Shahrokh

Thea has worked for Involve since January 2009, she is on unpaid leave until the end of 2011. During this period she will be working as a Volunteering Advocacy Adviser with the VSO National Volunteering Programme and the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport in Guyana. Thea will be posting a monthly blog on the Involve website to share her experiences, and what she has learnt about civic engagement and participation while in Guyana.

Naoimi Hall, Volunteer Youth corps Guyana presenting from lecternMy recent experiences in ‘the land of many waters’ have taken me on a fascinating journey; from the first ever involvement of civil society organisations in Guyana’s Republic Day celebrations, to researching community participation within the highest village of the least accessible region of Guyana. During this period of discovery, my eyes have been opened to an increasingly significant form of participation; participation led by young voices.

It is 40 years since the Declaration on the Promotion among Youth of the Ideals of Peace, Mutual Respect and Understanding between People. The merits of youth participation have been increasingly recognised by many different people in Guyana in the intervening years. In parallel, at the national level in Guyana, there has been an increase in civil society organisations, including Community Based Organisations (CBOs), which have provided opportunities for youth to organise themselves and have their voices heard. However, despite these efforts, youth participation in Guyana is low. There seems to be a lack of understanding by decision-makers, at the local, regional and national level, of the assets of young people in particular regarding their involvement in decisions and policies that affect them.

In my last article, I spoke of the natural prevalence of community participation in Guyana. This remains true for social participation by young people. However, public participation (See definition on page 4) for young people in Guyana is a struggle. Engagement in the various institutions and structures for democracy at both the local and national level is as a result of young people themselves pursuing development opportunities; there are few models outside of special interest civil society groups that directly encourage the process. For example, at the national level, a National Commission on Youth is presently being proposed by a group of active young people who have observed a gap in the representation of young people in policy decisions, particularly in reference to the development of National Youth Policy.

Over the next six months, I will be developing ideas with a colleague from UN Volunteers around holding a National Conference on Participation and Development, with a particular focus on the role of young people. In doing this we hope to support a deliberative process looking at proposals for youth participation to be included in a revised National Youth Policy. The aim being to support, and advocate for, policy decisions around youth involvement in civil society that are shaped by young people and that will result in greater public trust and ownership in the end result.

Examples do exist where youth participation works, and has become a permanent model for the involvement of young people. From what I have experienced, this is particularly prevalent at the local level where negotiation with decision-makers is much more accessible and strong foundations of social participation are prevalent.

For example, in Paramakatoi, the administrative centre for its catchment area in the Potaro-Siparuni region, approximately 280km South West of Georgetown, students sit on the Secondary School’s ‘School Improvement Advisory Committee’. The role of these young people is to encourage the consideration of their peer’s views and ideas within the decision-making process. There are also opportunities for young people to participate directly in the governance of their communities through involvement in the Village Council. Being in positions such as these devolves a certain level of responsibility to young people for key planning decisions and implementation of projects within local government. This is extremely positive for helping young people to participate in their own development, and the long-term development of communities. With young people in Guyana making up 27% of the total population they are a significant demographic whose involvement, or lack of it, will impact on national development in the years to come (VSO Guyana situational young people analysis, In press).

A part of what got me thinking about youth participation in Guyana is the huge emphasis that is placed on the younger generation in the development of the UK’s Big Society and how youth involvement in and commitment to their communities – in particular through volunteering – is an essential component of the longer term objective of communities with more control, more choice and more internal capacity to achieve their goals.

Things may be getting more difficult for young people in Britain; youth unemployment has risen to 17% double the national rate, and many are concerned about the impact that rising tuition fees will have on enrollment onto university courses. In this context it may seem a difficult time to be devolving such greater responsibility onto Britain’s youth, without their meaningful involvement in the development of key policies that affect them within the Big Society. For example the Big Society’s Free Schools, and the National Citizen Service are both initiatives where investment in youth participation should be, or should have been a priority.

It is a truism that the youth of today will become the electorate, and even the decision-makers of tomorrow. For me the barriers to, and achievements of, youth participation in Guyana are a reminder of its importance as well as its longer-term influence on the sustainability of community and national development. There are organisations working hard to ensure that youth voices are heard more clearly in the Big Society debate. I just wanted to add to this from an outside perspective.

Please do get in touch if you are interested in the work that I am delivering on volunteerism in Guyana, or any wider interest in Involve’s or VSO projects and programmes in this area.

Thea Shahrokh – theavsoguyana@gmail.com

The views expressed on this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Involve, VSO or the government of Guyana.

Photo credit: Thea Shahrokh

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