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Involving Youth in Politics

October 22, 2010

Education. Employment. Health. The environment. These are the issues often identified by young people, no matter where they live, as key issues of today, according to two national dialogues held in Brazil and Canada.

The dialogues also seem to state that governments do a poor job of responding to the needs of their young citizens amidst inevitable results: growing disaffection with the political process among young people and low voter turnout among youth at election time.

In an effort to better understand young people’s motivations and engage them in public life, some 40 people gathered at the end of March to share and discuss the results of two national youth dialogues, one in Brazil and the other in Canada, carried out in 2005.

Organized by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Canadian Policy Research Networks (CPRN), the seminar – held at IDRC headquarters in Ottawa, Canada – drew Canadian and Brazilian government officials, policy researchers, academics, and voluntary sector leaders.

Two of the youth dialogue participants – Verena Conceiçao Da Costa of Brazil and Christian Béland of Canada – recounted their experience at their respective dialogues and the lessons they learned from sharing their hopes, expectations, and values with their peers and with decision-makers.

The seminar addressed the impact of pursuing policies that ignore or neglect youth.

“Recent events in France remind us how important it is to engage our youth in policy decisions; how their views must be considered before governments announce and implement new policies that concern their livelihood,” said IDRC President, Maureen O’Neil.

“Governments should use youth’s sense of solidarity to their advantage by consulting and engaging them in policy decisions. With support from IDRC, that is exactly what the Government of Brazil did last year.“

The Brazil initiative contributed to the Brazilian government’s national plan for public policy on youth. A series of dialogues was undertaken in seven metropolitan regions of Brazil and the Federal District of Brasilia. The Brazilian Youth Dialogue surveyed 8 000 young Brazilians about their views on democracy and youth’s role in society.

Inspired by the success of the Brazilian dialogues, CPRN held its first National Dialogue and Summit in Ottawa in November 2005, attended by 144 young Canadians from every region of the country and of diverse cultural backgrounds. Brazil and Canada employ different electoral systems and methods. While Canadians cast their vote using paper ballots to elect their representatives in a plurality (or first past the post) electoral system, Brazil’s officials are elected through proportional representation, and votes are now cast using electronic voting machines.

What is common to the two countries is the low youth voter turnout  – this despite mandatory voting in Brazil (those who opt not to vote can face penalties), and back-to-back fiercely contested elections in Canada.

In Canada, people aged from 15 to 30 years old account for 20% of the population, compared to approximately 30% in Brazil. According to Elections Canada, in 2004, the voting rate for first-time voters aged 18 to 21 was at 38.7% compared to 60.9% for the general turnout.

“We all have a lot to gain by engaging young Canadian voters. These people are fully committed to democracy and they have a lot to say,” said Mary Pat MacKinnon, Director, Public Involvement Network, CPRN.

“Political parties and electoral candidates need to engage with young adults by creating spaces for conversation about ‘stuff that matters’ – learning, work, health, environment.”

IDRC provided funding for the Brazilian Youth Dialogue where  CPRN provided technical assistance on its deliberative dialogue methodology and research to the Brazilian project.

The Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE), who coordinated the Brazilian dialogue along with the Pólis Institute, released its final report in November 2005.

The final report from the Canadian dialogue, "Towards an Action Plan for Canada – Our Vision, Values and Actions" was released at the end of March 2006.  It presents the dialogue participants' collective vision for Canada, and the recommended actions and responsibilities assigned for these actions.

CPRN will continue to share the results of the Canadian dialogue with Canadians and policymakers through its Web site, speaking engagements, and the media and will integrate the findings of the dialogue and summit into its policy research agenda.

Nadine Robitaille is a writer with IDRC's Communications Division