Two men wear "Keep Calm and Fight Corruption" t-shirts. Photo: Andrey Krepkikh / UNDP Ukraine

Originally published in Kyiv Post on 4 February 2019.

Imagine a Ukraine where over half of its young people take part in community life and participate in decision-making! This is not just a dream — a significant youth presence in civic life can become a reality.

According to a 2017 Ministry of Youth and Sports survey, about 52 percent of the country’s young people are ready to take part in civic engagement, stopped only by a lack of confidence and a dearth of opportunity. The survey found that young people felt that they were isolated, ignored and unable to contribute to the country’s development. These sentiments are among the main reasons behind the massive emigration of talented young people.

Young people face exceptional challenges in the 21st century, such as the effects of globalization, displacement, increasing populism, growing intolerance, changing labour markets and climate change impacts. Despite over 20 percent of young people being unemployed and without access to education or training — and 25 percent having been affected by violence or conflict — they remain largely excluded from the development agenda, ignored in peace negotiations and denied a voice in decision-making.

Sidelining young people means that their passion for justice and human rights is not given space to flourish. These strong feelings were reflected in the findings of a 2018 UNDP survey, which revealed that 84 percent of young Ukrainians call freedom the most important value and that 81 percent prioritize the right to life, 61 percent prioritize the right to education, 51 percent prioritize the right to decide their own fate and 45 percent prioritize freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Untapped resource

Unsurprisingly, young people have led many revolutions, protest movements and political upheavals over the past 25 years, especially in the post-Soviet countries. Time and again, the world is reminded that young people are a vast, untapped resource that adamantly pushes for change and new ideas. They are the ones who wholeheartedly believe in the positive capabilities and outcomes of technology, climate action, inclusivity and societal justice.

Those with less inspiration slow down young people’s pursuit of happiness and development. In 2018, 73 percent of youth did not even try to protect their violated rights due to an environment that seldom fosters youth engagement.

Working with the young

However, the future of youth civic participation looks optimistic: government institutions, civil society and others no longer debate whether or not to work with young people, but how to work with them.

The Ministry of Youth and Sports is taking an active leadership role in order to ensure that young people are part of key development efforts in Ukraine. For example, the ministry and several United Nations agencies, including the United Nations Development Program, started the Youth Worker Program. The program has equipped over 2,000 public officials and civic activists across Ukraine with the knowledge and skills needed to implement innovative forms of youth engagement and participation. Further, it has led to the roll-out of specialized courses on civic education, youth policy for decentralization, inclusivity in youth centers and youth volunteer management. Graduates of the civic education course have used their knowledge to work with young people on promoting social cohesion, protecting the rights of national minorities and on establishing youth advisory bodies with the authorities.

In addition to the Ministry of Youth and Sports, many ministries, agencies and organizations are prioritizing the participation of young people in decision-making at all levels of civic life and promoting a plethora of concrete mechanisms. To date, about 50 youth councils exist, with five UNDP-supported councils being created in Chernihiv Oblast in 2018.

There are also Youth Banks, which provide small grants to young people who design and run community projects that address their and their neighbours’ most relevant concerns. Currently, ten pilot Youth Banks across Ukraine contribute to the goal of involving youth in sustained and effective civic life.

Fighting corruption

“Anti-corruption Day” and connected anti-corruption school lessons complement these efforts, as corruption diverts resources away from citizens, including young people. Engaging young people in fighting corruption is a way of returning resources to the hands of those to whom they belong; Ukrainian youth’s passion and drive will not allow for anything less than transparency and integrity.

Additionally, national contests were held by the Ministry of Youth and Sports and UNDP with support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark in 2017 and 2018 to source the best practices in youth work. The contests collected 273 best practices, clearly demonstrating how young people can contribute towards changing their communities. Examples include youth councils in the village of Dunayivtsi to help authorities address youth issues in their development strategies; civic education initiatives for young people to raise awareness about democratic reform agendas and human rights (such as live libraries in Kharkiv, an inclusive social theater in Poltava and a project in Kyiv called Books that Speak for young people with visual impairments); and the creation of creative spaces by young people, such as the Ternopil Science Centre or co-working space in the village of Domanivka, for informal education where community members can spend free time, learn new skills and come together for decision-making.

Finally, Ukraine’s booming information technology industry, start-ups and innovative solutions, many of which are developed by young people, are well-known around the world. Examples include Prometheus, an online learning platform that is revolutionizing education by providing access to free, high-quality knowledge to more than 500,000 users, and Grammarly, a web-based grammar checker that uses AI for personalized writing correction and improvement. Significantly, Grammarly has succeeded in mobilizing over $110 million worth of investment.

Strengthening democracy

UNDP in Ukraine channeled the innovative spirit of young people for social good by initiating the Youth Innovation Challenge U-Inn, which collected and supported the best innovative ideas on strengthening democracy and promoting human rights in local communities. Over 540 young women and men participated; their enthusiasm was contagious and a wave of civic youth activism began across Ukraine, resulting in the development of a mobile app for civic monitoring of integrity within city councils and a web-checker for making e-democracy websites inclusive and suitable for people with visual impairments and other disabilities. Some 78 percent of U-Inn’s participants proudly say that they use the principles of tolerance and non-discrimination in their daily work, and 44 percent of them say they are already influencing policy-making at the local level with the tools they have gained.

Young people are realizing that they have it within them to become real change-makers; they are not letting occasions to do so pass them by.

Guiding and helping young people realize their potential and create a favorable environment for civic engagement will quickly usher in a new concept of democracy. The 21st century’s young people should have the chance to drive and inspire social and political change everywhere across Ukraine and throughout the world.

Blerta Cela is the United Nations Development Program’s deputy country director.

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