Thursday March 3 2016

Uganda’s youth have questions but are we listening to them?

By Kristian Schmidt

Many of us have children - and we have all been children – but it can be easy to forget the challenges of youth and in doing so overlook the unique perspective they can bring. Youth’s eagerness to question and explore is a vital part of growth, and a driver of development for any young country – but many face huge barriers in doing so. Uganda’s youth is no exception, and they are right to question. The question for us is: are we listening?

In January, the Delegation of the European Union to Uganda held a Structured Dialogue meeting with over 40 civil society organisations (CSOs) to discuss youth and the challenges they face in Uganda. It is a truism to say that young people are the future. With nearly four out of five Ugandans under the age of 30, you could say that Uganda has more ‘future’ than almost any other country in the world. But what about right now?

Are civil society, development partners and government listening to the voices of the youth? Or are we just talking about them? And how can youth better perform the civic duties set out in Uganda’s Constitution?
Our dialogue allowed CSOs to voice their concerns about the youth landscape in Uganda. With one of the youngest populations in the world, critically high levels of youth unemployment, low skills and low wages, there are no easy answers. It may be helpful to start by considering the responsibilities of Uganda’s youth – their ‘civic duty’ – as well as their rights.

The Ugandan Constitution stipulates a number of duties for every Ugandan citizen – youth included: To exercise public power in accordance with the constitution; to participate in regular, free and fair elections; to defend the Constitution; and to contribute to Uganda’s political, economic and social independence
It is worth noting that failure to perform such duties is a criminal offence punishable by law. Well, what is the reality in Uganda today?
Youth are called upon to exercise their rights. But many are not even aware what they are. Notwithstanding all the hype about social media, the reality is that most of Uganda’s youth live in rural areas, out of reach, technically and economically, from smartphones, Internet, twitter and Facebook. What chances do they have of getting involved and informed, to exercise their ‘civic duties’?

What about the education system? Are schools serving the interest of youth? Does the budget give youth a fair deal? What future is there for those who annually fail the national exams (for example the 82,000 students failing the 2015 PLE exams)? Is the curriculum preparing students for a very limited formal job market, despite the urgent need for entrepreneurial skills?
“Youth” is not a homogenous mass, and some fare worse than others. Youth is often given a male face, but the special challenges facing young girls in Uganda must be acknowledged: early marriage, access to family planning and health services, school drop-out rates, etc. Pregnant teenage girls are particularly vulnerable, ‘promoted’ from youth to womanhood, but with the rights and protection of neither. What about disabled youth and the special needs they have.

Where do we see progress on these issues?
Youth is often instrumentalised, including for electoral purposes. How do we protect young, unemployed and vulnerable individuals from this ‘political exploitation’? From co-option into groups that serve partisan political interests, rather than the real needs of youth? Are our youth networks and support bodies working for youth, or for other interests?
Youth is mobile, and without opportunity for expression and employment, will sometimes vote with their feet. Every year, over 20,000 young people leave the country for the Middle East and Europe seeking ‘greener pastures’. How can this ‘brain drain’ be turned around?

Development partners are increasingly attentive to youth matters in Africa. Failing to address the youth bulge, causes instability, migration and a fertile recruiting ground for radicalisation. But are these the right or the only reasons? And are we doing so in a well-coordinated manner, in full co-operation with the youth, and in effective partnership with the responsible government departments? Or do we settle for token efforts with a few favourite NGOs?
In September 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals were endorsed. How can the youth and their national level agenda be positioned and prioritised? How can we ensure the youth themselves are positioned as torch bearers of these goals in linking the international to the national agenda?

In short, we ask a lot of our youth, but in whose interest do we ask, and what are they getting in return? Ugandan youth are expected to mobilise in the interests of their country, but face huge political, economic and socio-cultural barriers in doing so. Are we only asking them to follow but not to lead, to obey but not to challenge? Patriarchal societies will often undervalue and even exploit the young and powerless, particularly young women. How ready is Uganda to see its youth as actors rather than recipients, even if these actions challenge accepted norms?
As parents, we should never stop asking ourselves: “Have we done enough?” Try asking your child (and the young people around you) – And please remember to listen to the answer.

Ambassador Schmidt is the Head of Delegation of the European Union. Mr Richard Ssewakiryanga, executive director of the Uganda National NGO Forum, co-authored this article.