12. “What’s it like being a youth activist in your country?”

To celebrate International Youth Day on August 12, CIVICUS asked six young campaigners around the world about their experiences, and what civil society and “reimagining democracy” means to them. 

Jubilanté Cutting, 22, founder of Guyana Animation Network (GAN) Inc, Guyana

Being a youth activist in Guyana, I have seen both positive and negative responses from people about the work I’ve done, and still aspire to do. Digital media, animation and technology innovation is not my specialist area, but it’s a field I’m very passionate about. I believe that you don’t need to be a specialist in a field or you don’t need to be of the male sex to support a cause that is traditionally male-oriented. If you feel that there is a need in society and it can be filled, at all costs support it. That’s the reason why I’ve put in my best efforts working as an activist in this field. But I have received a lot of negative responses from people who are local professionals in this field who would have a lot more to offer technically. There have also been many times where people have supported me – my family and friends, local businesses, parents and children, students and youth leaders, colleagues in the Caribbean region, and the international community. I’m grateful for all those experiences. I have learnt a lot. And, I know that the time will come when I will get the necessary support that’s needed.

When I think of “civil society”, I think of people. I think of the strength of people in numbers when they stand up for justice, peace, order, love and mercy. Civil society represents the collective voices of people and bodies with different interests and needs that the government has failed to meet. I am part of civil society, even if I do not always support everything championed by civil society, things contrary to my beliefs.

In Guyana, civil society is somewhat diverse. Our country is a society made up of different people and religions which all co-exist in harmony and in respect of each other’s faith and ideological beliefs. Because of this, we have learnt to appreciate each other and work together in spite of our differences.

When we talk about “reimagining democracy”, we should be talking about empowering a nation’s ability to listen to the collective views of everyone in society, being mindful of the views of both the least and most favoured.

Jubilanté Cutting was the Youth Activist category winner of the 2017 Nelson Mandela-Graca Machel Innovation Awards, led by CIVICUS through the CIVIC Space Initiative together with CIVICUS’ SPEAK! campaign.  Follow her on Twitter @j_jo_c21

Emmanuel Agunze, 28, founder of The Makoko Dream Project, Nigeria

We aim to provide children in Makoko in Lagos, one of Africa’s major urban slums in Nigeria, access to education and skills to address child labour, prevalent across the country. The Makoko Dream includes the first ever “school bus on water”, a customised canoe created and designed by me to take the Makoko children to and from school for free. We also help youth, particularly teenage girls, and mothers.

We began fully running in 2016. I got the money to start the project from personal savings earned while working as a real estate consultant in a private firm. Later, families and friends supported me. At first, finding partners was not easy, but became simpler using social media. Many partners came onboard after seeing our work on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. The Makoko Dream is fast becoming a household name in Nigeria.

It’s not easy to be a youth activist in Nigeria. Most people will prefer not to be activists, as most of them may be threatened. Youth activists are usually not celebrated here, they are sidelined. Also, being an activist does not put food on the table. Countless activists are emerging, but they are operating in isolation. Being a youth activist in Nigeria is not even seen as a profession.

The biggest challenges we have faced are related to funding finances, and the constant uncertainty of demolition of the Makoko waterfront by the Lagos State government. Makoko is a slum in Lagos that the state government has been seeking to destroy for years. This will reduce the chances of investment in that area. Even though settlers won a case against them, there is still injustice concerning people’s rights. Makoko is a no-go area. So, supporting the sort of work we do is both brave and philanthropic.

When I think about “civil society”, I think about those who are standing up for the plight of the downtrodden. Civil society is strong in Nigeria, but not on issues relating to education, governance, child development or girls’ rights.

What I think about “reimagining democracy” in a Nigerian context, I think of a situation where the electoral process will be simplified, allowing more people to be included in the process and allowing for freedom of speech without censoring people. Up until recently, “democracy” in Nigeria has just been a word. But at the last election, although 80 million eligible voters were still prevented from casting votes, it was much more than a word, as we experienced one of the fairest elections ever in the country’s history.

Emmanuel Agunze was a nominee in the youth activist section of the 2017 Nelson Mandela-Graca Michel Innovation Awards. Follow him on Twitter @AGUNZEEMMANUEL

Elijah Amoo Addo, 28, founder and chief executive of Food For All Africa, Ghana

I’m “Chef Elijah Amoo Addo”, but also known as the “doctor in the kitchen”. Food For All Africa is a company that runs West Africa’s first community food service through food recovery, redistribution, farming, and a forum for stakeholders within the food supply chain. We are mainly funded through donations, corporate sponsorship, grants and investment returns.

Being a youth activist in Ghana can be a very lonely ride, especially if you are advocating for behaviour change. However, if you are able to build a community-focused on activism, the community will push your agenda and then you can get the media to carry it. Once the media carries your agenda, you have to capitalise on it to build traction with stakeholders both public, private and civil society groups to drive change.

Civil society is a group of people with a common interest on a particular agenda that comes together to form an organisation in order to have a stronger voice in achieving an agenda.

Civil society in Ghana has over the years undergone a lot of transformation in the areas of policy formation. With the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), civil societies in Ghana have now been pushed to structure and focus more on the goals.

Food For All Africa are part of civil society. Our collective contributions in Ghana play a critical role for the government to formulate policies and programs. Our focus is one, and that is to become the voice of a section of our society who are mostly left out of the food supply chain basically because they are low-income.

“Reimagining democracy” is an opportunity for us humans to revisit the tenets of our democracy in order to use resources of our time to forge development and progress. Democracy means governing by the people, for the people and to the people.

Elijah Amoo Addo was a nominee in the youth activist section of the 2017 Nelson Mandela-Graca Michel Innovation Awards. Follow him on Twitter @professoraddo

Monique Ntumngia, 28, founder of the Green Girls Organisation, Cameroon

As the founder of Green Girls, I’m advocating for the implementation of the SDGs and I’m a fervent advocate for gender equality, especially in the area of technology. There are numerous youth activists in Cameroon, despite the challenges faced daily in terms of lack of funding opportunities to carry out activities and advocacy work. People want to get into youth activism despite the challenges that are encountered on the ground, like these. Christian Achaleke is a fellow Cameroonian youth activist who I look up to. His organisation, Local Youth Corner, advocates against violent extremism.

When I think of “civil society”, I think of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that is apolitical and advocates for an idea or a right against a societal will. There are civil society organisations in Cameroon that advocate for various rights to be implemented and make their voices heard in their respective areas of focus. To me, “reimagining democracy” means a type of democracy put into practice to solve societal problems.

Monique Ntumngia was a nominee in the youth activist section of the 2017 Nelson Mandela-Graca Michel Innovation Awards. Follow her on Twitter @MoniqueNtumngia

Cay-Low Mbedzi, 22, leader of The Youth Voice of South Africa, South Africa

I became an activist in 2016 when I realised that I needed to start stepping up. If I don’t start who will? I am campaigning a lot around youth unemployment. At first, I thought it was just an issue on its own and drug abuse was an issue on its own and so was crime. But I’ve realised that youth unemployment is at the core of all these issues. It also leads to domestic violence, and prostitution.

Youth activism in South Africa is really difficult to execute. But South Africa belongs to young people, as the South African population makes up 60 per cent of young people. This means that young people should be running South Africa. Our government is not taking our people seriously. There’s no young people in senior leadership positions, where it’s crucial they have a voice.

There’s a sense that adults can be privileged but youth must be poor. I always hear the terms adult privilege and youth poverty. I saw an article recently about Trudi Makhaya, South Africa’s youngest ever presidential economic advisor. As I was reading the piece, I thought she was about 25. But do you know how hold she was? Forty.  

Despite your political affiliation, despite your organisation, you are the youth voice of South Africa and we at the Youth Voice of South Africa believe that we can actually have a voice and say that enough is enough.

When I think of civil society, I think of having the rights to be who you want to be, to actually get support which will benefit everyone, not only certain individuals. It’s possible. 

When I think of “reimagining democracy” I think about a democracy that says despite your differences you can still make a few things happen. 

The turnout for a recent planned march on youth unemployment to coincide with national Youth Day in June was different from the support we received via social media. It was the same with the #FeesMustFall campaign, where there were a lot of young people on social media talking about it, but not as many attended the march. This is a clear indication that the youth don’t understand their importance in society and that change is only possible if we stand together, united.

But the Youth Voice of South Africa is not backing down on tackling issues facing young people. Because what affects us is what affects everyone in South Africa.

Cay-Low Mbedzi was shortlisted for the 2018 South African Youth Day Symposium in the Visual Arts Category. Follow him on Twitter @caylow_SA

Milica Skiljevic, 29, project coordinator at the Belgrade Open School and youth representative of the Republic of Serbia in the Regional Youth Cooperation Office of the Western Balkans.

Being a youth activist in general is challenging in so many ways for youngsters around the world. In Serbia, not all people have equal opportunities to practice activism. There is lack of time for young people in high schools or universities to be involved in certain initiatives. This also contributes to a situation where young people are simply not encouraged to be active and involved in different initiatives. Lack of time represents a serious obstacle. Volunteering can be perceived as one form of activism. However, there are numerous reported cases where volunteers have been exploited and not paid. This undermines the true values of activism and community engagement.

To me, the most striking challenge is the problem of the urban-rural divide. Opportunities for community engagement vary, according to this. If you are coming from Belgrade, then the chances to approach existing organisations or initiatives is easier. However, if you want to do the same thing in some smaller communities, the situation changes drastically. Lack of local civil society organisations, the disapproval of the local community, and lack of understanding for new forms of participation in public life influences and discourages youngsters from becoming engaged in youth activism.

I strongly believe that young people have the drive for activism and have many ideas and initiatives, but there is lack of support in their surroundings and environments. Young people in Serbia are not supported enough by their families and schools to join or participate in any form of activism and engagement in public life. The societal mindset is not supportive enough.

Youth activists in Serbia are courageous and many of them are not afraid to ask the hard questions and demand discussions and change on topics difficult for Serbian society. The biggest challenge they face is the lack of protection and support. Institutions need to secure mechanisms which allow youth activists to advocate their opinions freely without fear and threats. Furthermore, citizens need to learn to respect the rights of young people and learn to listen and respect their demands.

When I think of civil society, I think of engagement, expertise, and activism.

An empowered civil society provides solid ground for functioning democracy and giving people a voice while ensuring accountability of decision-makers. Civil society organisations are an unavoidable actor in ensuring participatory policy and decision-making processes on both national and local level.

Nevertheless, civil society in Serbia is faced with various challenges related to their development and recognition and support. Citizens yet do not have a true understanding on the actual contribution of civil society in achieving socio-economic and political benefits.

When I hear of the term “reimagining democracy” what first comes to mind is finding  ways to engage citizens in decision-making. We are in need of better democratic societies where participatory political culture is nurtured and promoted while the democratic processes are reliable.

This article is part of a series to celebrate CIVICUS’ 25th anniversary and provide perspectives and insights on citizen action around the world.

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