How to build and animate youth networks

Perception of youth in development

The perception of the role of youth in the development has changed over the decades where they have moved from the passenger to driver seat. They are seen in international conferences negotiating as equal partners with the world leaders, while still they are working diligently at the grassroots level with local communities to help improve their livelihoods with their new innovations. In each continent, the youth voice has been rising year after year in different capacities. Some countries have developed structures to engage youth in the state decision making and implementation processes, while in others have been resolute to involve them, and thus youth have been part of the civil society organizations. Most UN agencies have provided a platform for the youth to speak up their voices and work with their leaders. In IUCN, the youth have been acknowledged through the Barcelona Resolution 4.098 on Intergenerational partnerships: fostering ethical leadership for a just and sustainable world, which emphasizes the Young Professional Programme, initiated under the Resolution 3.029 Capacity Building of Young Professionals adopted at the World Conservation Congress of 2004, in Bangkok, Thailand.

The world population is young

Almost half of the world population is below 25 years of age. In Africa alone, 60% of the population is below 25 years of age, ideally these are children and youth, they also form the largest proportion of the working population. Regardless, the highest percentage of the unemployed is among the youth, who are rendered handicap by lack of professional skills and working space. This handicap, if not addressed will continuously destabilize civilization and sustainable development, as the unemployed seek to make the ends meet through unsustainable use of natural resources, robbery, drug trafficking, among evils.

As this population increases is expected to double in the next decade, the demands and pressure on the finite natural resources is greater than ever. The lack of alternate livelihood sources, lack of adequate knowledge of sustainable natural resource use, and lack of support from the system, has led loss of biodiversity due to degradation. Young people, the most active age group, are trying to sustain their lives through deforestation for farming, settlement, timber and non timber products, poaching wildlife for their products, unsuitable fishing practices, harvesting of sea animals, inappropriate farming methods, among many others.

Youth are ambassadors of their own future

Conversely, youth are a source of living changing in the society. With their strength, talent, desire for change, leadership and looking into the future, they have been steering youth related projects to earn a livelihood, but also conserve nature. In almost every community, youth innovations will meet your eyes either trying to run small scale entrepreneurships, provide sanitation services for the community, providing clean water for the mothers and children, providing alternate energy sources, better farming and water management methods, sharing information with the community through community radios, organizing community events like road shows, artisans’ jobs among others.

Youth are the voices of the community

Youth are the voices for the community through advocacy activities, while at the same time, providing the community with up to date information around the region. Young professionals have designed educational and conservation projects for their communities. In regions where infrastructure is still a challenge, it’s the youth who have devised new ways of transport, repair the roads, put up bridges, and even provide mobile health and communication service. Billions of trees have been planted and nurtured by the young people all over the world. In Kenya alone, the government has set aside funds to support tree planting initiatives in all regions of the country, under the Ministry of Youth Affairs. The trees have been planted in primary and secondary schools, and used as a living learning resource by the learners who participate in nurturing the trees. Small actions but great impact and investment into a sustainable future.

Youth networks- the support system

The success of the youth in serving the community and contributing to nature conservation is directly attributed to working in youth networks. The youth, have a huge resource base of Energy, Knowledge and Time that the world needs to achieve sustainable development. However, there is need to positively direct their resources to ensure all aspects of sustainable development are achieved. To do so, they require education, resources, and skills and hope that will promote a transition to this sustainability. The youth are looking forward to put into use their resources of in three main areas: Improve their lives; improve the lives of their communities; and Influence other young people elsewhere to take action (or play the celebrity status). Youth networks are one such avenue where we can support the youth through resources, political support, and hope for their present and future. They are a place where young people help each other grow their careers, their social lives, build confidence, share experiences, and most importantly have a platform to share and discuss their future as part of the global network. As the leaders, they develop their leadership characters in these networks. Most importantly they become a community of like minded persons growing in character and skills.

Why a youth network?

A youth network, apart from the three main needs of every young person, will be established with an aim to address a specific need that a group of young people have realized in the society. They seek to answer the questions of the government, the community, or their peers through this network. This need may also be an opportunity for them to seize and create jobs for themselves. Whatever it is, it must be a need that requires them to work together.

For a network to exist it must have a Strategy and an Action plan. The action plan is preceded by a network profile which details the name of the network (at times the network may be nameless), vision, mission and aims, members, target group, and partners. A network profile should clearly outline the principles and values that the members must observe while in the network and expected inputs and benefits for the members.

An Action plan is meant to actualize the vision, mission and the strategy of the network both in the short and long term. Most critical in drawing up an action plan for a network is the recognition of the roles of each member based on their strengths and weaknesses. Youth are the best examples of communities of practice, they strive to specialize in their career while at the same time are open to learn and share with their peers new skills to ensure they achieve their targets.

Youth will continuously build the network membership by inviting more young people and sharing with them their vision. It is a characteristic of young people to dream and build castles while in their social events, but these are now being achieved through the networks. Social events have proofed very key in growing the membership of the youth networks. Well directed social events have worked wonders in growing the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change in Kenya. This is an organic network of youth organizations working on climate change sustainable development in Kenya. In the first months of the year, we spend time in social events with new members who join the caucus and participate in our mind mapping sessions for the year. With time, they fall in love with the spirit of the network and eventually, they are also part of the dedicated membership.

Visionary leadership and direction is critical; same to the organizational structure and governance model of the network. This includes electing or nominating the leaders of the network. Where a network is registered, such structures are established at the initial stages mainly by the vision bearers who assist in the registration of the network. However an organic youth movement takes time to have an organizational and leadership structures. Under such circumstances, they may have focal point persons or coordinators/volunteers for different activities in the network. A constitution is also important for the registered network, while a Charter or Standard Operating Procedures works well for the organic movements.

“Leading youth networks is the most fulfilling experience. I enjoy the late night work, the wee hours work, travelling, planning, reporting, and corresponding with young people from all over the world who need my attention. I have come to believe that i am in this world, and at this position, at such a time like this, to help the youth realize their potential in sustaining this planet.”

The activities under each network are the reason for its presence. They are the tools that will retain youth, attract others and even encourage other partners to join them. Some networks are formed mainly to provide a platform for young people to meet and share their experiences; such have main activities being meetings, workshops, seminars, travelling, expeditions among others, while others are research oriented. A big proportion of the professional youth networks are focused on development initiatives including providing infrastructural, educational, health, communication, business, and other social services. One such, are the Young professionals under the Commission of Education and Communication in IUCN.

While I worked with youth networks in Africa, i was interested in youth networks involved in environmental conservation, education and development initiatives. Their activities ranged from advocacy activities at grassroots, national and international levels, public awareness and education projects, rehabilitation projects, waste management, energy projects (solar, wind, biogas), small income generating initiatives (eco businesses) wildlife conservation (desnaring, birds monitoring, animal census), ecotourism, filmmaking, mapping, sustainable agriculture, ICT innovations among many others. In this decade, more advocacy youth networks have arose, ranging from social political and environmental advocacy, who are involved in policy processes, right from the grassroots to the international level.

One such example is the largest most dynamic organic movement of young people involved in international climate change negotiations at the international level since 2004. In small dynamic, well directed strategies, the youth have outreached each continent and state involved in the climate negotiations, mobilized the youth and provided them with a platform to take part in the climate change policy dialogues. Having started as a small group in 2004, this organic movement has over 2,000 members who are in daily communication of their climate change activities. In 2009, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat granted them a Constituency, meaning that they could participate in the negotiations are equal players in the world most important debate of the year. Amazing is how this youth network is organized. With two Focal points to the UNFCCC Secretariat, all the network activities are carried out by committed youth on voluntary basis. They commit months and years to work for the movement in whatever capacity they can. This voluntary commitment includes dedicated policy makers, fundraising committees, capacity building coordinators, website managers, bloggers, activists, Action groups, bottom liners, planners, community builders, minute takers, host organizations, email list moderators among others. There is always a task for each and every other youth. In the same movement, similar movements have been born in each continent and nation and young people have committed themselves to build these networks and customize them to meet the needs of their nations and youth community in the light of climate change and sustainable development. This spirit that has led to the growth of the Indian Youth Climate Network, African Youth Initiative on Climate Change, Australian Youth on Climate Change, Malaysian youth on Climate Change, Nepalese Youth on Climate, European Youth Forum, SustainUS, Energy Crossroads, among many others. The network has partnerships with governments in the North and South, UN agencies, NGOS and community groups in the rural areas of any continent you may think of. They are educated and are continually informing themselves through their Capacity Building Working Groups.

Communication in any network is essential. A network needs to communicate to its members, its partners, and supporters of their activities any new information and new projects upcoming or new findings to share with the community. The most effective way for each group is required. While i worked for the African youth, i realized getting the information to the youth, and ensuring that they understand it to an extent of taking action was a huge impediment to achieving our objectives in the network. While in developed countries, access and use of internet to build networks has eased their work. In Africa, like any other developing continent, the use of internet and ICT tools to grow the youth networks is still a challenge. Not only is access to a computer is a challenge for the local youth groups, but the effective use of the computer, internet and other Web 2.0 tools is still a challenge for most youth. While i have the dispensation to use ICT to support my youth work, i admit and appreciate the fact that only a quarter of my colleagues’ access these services. Of these, only a half can effectively make use of the services to further enhance the work of our networks. We therefore spend more time serving the network not only in project implementation, but also building their capacity in Communication strategies. This is the reason; i have sought to explore various ways that networks can use in their project implementation: Blogging, Wikis, Social Networks, Film making, photography, mailing lists, SMS alerts, Radio talks and Road shows among others.

Diversity in Networks?

Yes. The beauty of diversity in any youth network is the liveliest phenomenon to observe. The growth of any youth network is solely dependent of the ability of its members to engage in diverse activities, while addressing their core vision and mission. Diversity provides each member of the network with a chance to take part in the running of the network activities. For instance, the saving of the dolphins, would take a myriad of activities; educating school children and communities, working with artists to create awareness, advocacy work, policy work with governments, among other activities. Youth should never limit their opportunities to achieve their dreams, they should always innovate new ways to deal with their challenges.

Where do we get resources?

The major challenge for the young people in meeting their needs, is finding the resources. The resources could be skills, educational materials, communication facilities, offices, finances, land and many others. The most important source of resources to a youth network is their contribution. Youth contribute either by paying membership to the network, contributing their time, skills, assets, to facilitate the achievement of the objectives they have set out. Young people have successfully run network projects with their own contribution. Another source of resources is the community where the youth belong; these can be government agencies, NGOS, universities, community members among others. Youth networks have also moved to another level of fundraising for their projects which includes developing project proposals and fundraising from larger corporations, governments and other funding agencies. This has been in some measure successful, given the limited funding allocated to youth programmes. Governments, NGOs and funding agencies are now allocating a percentage of their annual budgets to youth programmes which is accessible to youth networks. In 2009, eight African governments supported young people from Kenya, Zambia, Namibia, Swaziland, Malawi, Botswana, Nigeria, and South Africa to participate in COP 15 of the UNFCCC. This was a historic year for the youth movement to work with their governments in achieving their dreams. In 2010, the African Ministerial Conference on Environment, are in discussion with the youth to ensure that they are officially recognized with the AMCEN, and take part in the decision making processes. This is a huge resource to youth networks around Africa.

Whom should i work with?

Partnerships? We must seek to work with all people and in different ways. Every time i meet a network of young people, the second question i ask them is; whom are you working with? It’s vital for networks to identify and forge partnerships, friendships and other networks with relevant groups working in the same area as they. These partners are means of knowledge sharing, capacity building, information dissemination, support, among other areas of partnership. The partnership is either organized or informal, long term or short term, even project based. The partners still support the sustainability generation participants in their projects through knowledge sharing, internship programme, and mentorship. While i worked with the InterVarsity Environment Network, we were in partnership with UNEP, UNICEF, universities, UN Habitat, Consultancy firms, and journalists, to ensure the success of a sustainability workshop for the university students. Without them this project would not have been a success.

The bottom line for any youth network is leadership, integrity, transparency and responsibility. In leadership, a transition and mentorship policy needs to be in place either on paper or existing as a standard operating procedure. Dynamic youth networks needs to have dynamic leaders who not only buy the vision of the network and run with it, but also those that are willing to delegate duties, work with all members and mentor others to take up their positions once their term is over. In AYICC, which I have served for five years, i have always been amazed by the leadership characteristic that most members have observed. Having only started as a volunteer in events planning, I ended up being moulded into a leader and now have the role to mould others who are taking up the leadership position from me.

Intergenerational partnerships in youth networks

When i joined clubs and societies in my high school we always had a patron who would guide the activities of the group. In running youth networks, i have realized that you need more than just a patron for the network. You need a board of advisors, a board of directors, and most important, as an individual, you need a mentor who guides your leadership journey and provides checks and balances. You need to learn under someone senior who has probably been in the same position as you, someone with years of experiences, who can correct you when you are in the wrong. The old and the young need to share their experiences, the knowledge and dreams. While you have a mentor, you need to mentor someone else in the network that’s the only way an intergenerational partnership can be fully realized.

What is your role in a youth network?

Every person, youth or not, has a role to play in animating the youth network. Support the youth in your community to work together, share with them opportunities that exist, hold dialogues with them, listen to their way of thinking about the future, and advice them. You can support their vision, by developing programmes in your organization that will address their needs.

Young people are unwilling to accept failure, guide them in accepting mistakes as the way to achievements. Demonstrate to them, how to gather strength in the midst of failures.

Education is a right, not a luxury, so spend time educating the youth with your experiences.

About the writer:
Based on experiences of Grace Muthoni Mwaura, an IUCN Council member, who was appointed to represent the youth perspectives in the Council in the lead up to the next World Conservation Congress. Grace has worked with youth networks from a local level, university, African wide and internationally on various aspects of environmental conservation, education and sustainable development. She has also been involved in founding and leading some of these youth networks. She is passionate about growing animated children and youth networks, especially education, communications and environmental sustainability. She is currently working on Education for Sustainability Healthy learning programme with ICRAF, the World Agroforestry Centre, and VVOB, the Flemish Association for Development Cooperation and Technical Assistance. This is besides her advisory role in the aforementioned youth networks