Nothing About Us Without Us

17. December, 2003


Andris Grafs

Actually, it is very easy to write a policy document about almost anything. The hardest political challenge for any country is to put the structures in place to make this policy work. Youth policy must be a framework that combines everything about the development of initiatives for young people.

Howard Williamson, professor, youth policy researcher and adviser to the Council of Europe, in an interview with Andris Grafs

In the past 15 years, Mr. Williamson has been involved in forming youth policy in several different countries. He took part in the creation of the EU White Paper on Youth[1], he has worked as a consultant with the Council of Europe since 1986 and has helped formulate youth policy indicators[2] and guidelines for national youth policies.

How would you define the term ‘youth policy’? In Latvia, there is the opinion that it is not necessary to develop policy for just one demographic group.

There are reasonable arguments for this. There is the argument that, if you have a policy for youth, then you should have a policy for middle-age people, for elderly people, and for other groups as well. This argument has not been won. People still have doubts about whether we need a youth policy.

My opinion is that you need a youth policy for 2 reasons. For one, the old cliché, “young people are the future,” is more than a cliché. It is a fact that young people are the future of democracy, civil society, human rights, citizenship and those sorts of things. We know that the transition young people experience, their transition into adult life, is becoming much more difficult than that experienced by previous generations. Things are much less certain, less secure. There are no guarantees about the level of qualification necessary or guarantees about future employment. Young people have to shape their own future and the society they live in on an increasingly individual basis.

The example of Europe is that, generally, divisions within society are increasing in all countries. About 60-70% of young people have good self-motivation, go to good schools, have good qualifications and are likely to find their future by themselves. The issue is those young people who will form a part of society and who have nothing, little chance for a future. We have to create the conditions through a comprehensive, integrated, cross-sector youth policy to give all young people a better chance to make decisions about their own lives. If we don’t do that, then it should be no surprise to us that more and more young people get involved in the negative aspects of this transition. If we do not invest in young people positively, it will be worse in future generations.

You are a youth policy expert and researcher. You have completed several research projects in the field of youth policy in Europe. What are the most important problems related to drafting and developing youth policy?

I already explained the theoretical reasons for having a youth policy – why it is important. The next step is to consider what youth policy looks like.

Youth policy has 3 components – principles, values and aspirations – which are about equal opportunity, participation, learning and inclusion, citizenship, and, I think, increasingly about safety – personal and community safety. Youth policy is about youth work and non-formal education, youth organizations, and interacting with young people. Considered broadly, youth policy is like a framework that ensures that things that have been done in one area are consistent and positive with things that have been done in another area; that all things are working in one direction.

A very important principle in youth policy is the structures that draft and implement this policy every day. Structures need to exist between government and youth NGOs or NGOs that work with young people, and between national government, regions and municipalities.

Actually, it is easy to write a policy document about almost anything. The hardest political challenge for any country is to set up the structures that make this policy work. Latvia, for example, can draw on good examples from other countries for drafting youth policy. Of course, the practice in the Netherlands won’t fit perfectly in Latvia’s situation, but some elements can be useful in some form or in an adapted form. Thus, Latvia can take some models to strengthen weak points in its youth policy and develop it.

Could you tell me more about your observations on youth policy in Latvia from these 2 days?

It seems that, in this country, there has not been sufficient integration between different political departments and different ministries on the national level and their relation to the local level and, horizontally, between the public administration and the NGO sector and, in particular, youth NGOs. What I see today[3] is a lot of energy, a lot of commitment by your organization. But I do think, as I said to you personally, that for developing youth policy it is important to have open doors for a lot of debate and dialogue as well as a willingness to talk. LJP has this willingness.

How would you describe the impact and power youth organizations have on framing youth policy? Is participation enough? What indicators influence the possibilities for participation at all levels of the decision-making process?

There are 3 critical things about young people being involved in decision-making processes and contributing to public debate. First, there is the United Nations convention on the rights of children up to the age of 18. There is an established principle: individuals should have a voice and should have that voice heard and should be listened to.

Second, politicians are interested in continuous democracy to detract from any democratic deficit. Involving young people through participatory structures, youth organizations, is a means and opportunity for young people to practise active citizenship.

Third, politicians and civil servants can design policy – it is very easy to design policy – but you actually need to figure out whether it has had the intended effect, any policy impact. It is important for young people to be able to communicate, feedback and use the designed policy. It is necessary that young people understand the policy that is made for them.

What obstacles effect participation?

There are also some obstacles, of course, to the participation of young people. One is that young people always think that their point of view is best and correct for designing policy. Young people think that their view should always carry the most weight. When young people don’t win an argument, they feel that nobody listened to them, that their participation is just a simulation.

The fact is that the policy-making process is a complicated process. People who are involved in the policy-making process must understand that we are not politicians, but that they are. They must listen to several opinions from several groups, but they have to make the decision. This decision will not always meet the standards you are offered. If we want to make the final decision, then we should become politicians. If not, we have to accept that they make the decisions and go away. We need to have concrete arguments, ideas and energy and have to wait for the next generation of politicians. Sometimes our ideas are good ones, but they don’t fit in that particular moment in time. Sometimes you have to wait for 10 years.

What is the most efficient financing system for youth initiatives and working with youth in Europe?

Youth issues and youth policy have tended to be viewed as the clear responsibility of nation states. There are many different models. There are also a lot of paradoxes surrounding this. It depends on the challenges facing a concrete municipality. The financing system must be flexible. But just how much flexibility is one big question. The second big question is the mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of youth policy. If the objective of youth policy is to promote non-formal education, then you must do the research to see whether your ideas and extra money actually have any impact at all.

Do governments support youth organizations and youth councils and how?

If we are talking about youth organizations and youth councils, there are also many models of financing. One model is to say that youth organizations and youth councils are good things – give us the money and let us do what we want to do! In some countries, youth organizations get money and they can do what they want. The other reason governments give money to youth organizations and youth councils are for priorities on the political agenda. Youth organizations can get money for activities that are government priorities. Every model has some weaknesses. Another fact is that governments don’t want to pay youth organizations if these organizations criticise the government.

Hobby education is quite developed in Latvia. Young people under 18 are able to participate in dancing, singing, fine arts, and rhythmic hobby groups. How would you describe such elements in youth policy and how hobby education is diffuse in Europe?

Hobbies have a place in the youth policy framework. Of course, there are benefits to this, but this is not a dominant focus. As I told you in my speech, there are 10 areas of youth policy. Hobby education is one little part of any such policy. There are more important parts – education and training, employment. I think that it is a mistake that youth policy in Latvia is not based on needs and wants.

The National Youth Council of Latvia has taken the initiative to draft a “Youth Law” that develops the practise of youth advocacy. How would you evaluate this initiative and its importance for Latvian society? What are your practical suggestions for efficient youth policy framing in Latvia?

I am in Latvia for the first time and I have observed a lot. I was very impressed that there is a document, this position document on youth law developed by LJP member organizations. It is good that the LJP is trying to design and develop youth policy and that the LJP is also looking for good examples from other countries where youth policy has been working for years.

I see that the LJP knows what the LJP wants. But, the most important thing is how the LJP will achieve this. The LJP must look at what its priorities are. You must write up something like a shopping list. If you have 5 Lats in your pocket, you must prioritise the things you want to buy. You won’t buy ice cream. You will buy bread to eat and milk to drink. There is no sense in participation if organizations that want to eat and want to be healthy are only thinking about surviving and not about participation at the national level.

Second is the will to have a dialogue. Political discussion is important. Politicians are not always interested in open discussions, but it is a way to solve problems.

The third thing is developing a strategy, a system of how the policy will work. This is not only about money; it is about people, about competence, resources, understanding, networks and things like that. Youth policy must be a framework that covers everything about the development of initiatives for young people and youth work. Youth policy effects all young people in some way. There is still much to do to achieve such a policy in Latvia. Youth councils have the right to express concerned criticism if you see that things are not going well.

That means “Nothing about us without us”.

[1] White Paper. A New Impetus for European Youth – White Book

[2] 11 Indicators for National Youth Policy

[3] 14 November 2003 – Conference on “Youth NGO Advocacy in Latvia and Europe,” organized by the National Youth Council of Latvia (LJP). raksts

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