Youth and politics

In October 2016, the Commonwealth Secretariat released its second Global Youth Development Index, mere days after the Guyana Government passed its National Youth Policy in Parliament, a policy which was said to, inter alia, “[encourage] leadership, participation and representation.” Considering that the youth development index (YDI) placed Guyana among the lowest ranked countries (125th out of 183 countries) in the “political participation” domain for youth aged 15 to 29 years, it becomes immediately apparent that the government has a lot of ground to cover in “encouraging leadership, participation and representation” among this country’s youth.

Countries were ranked in five domains: education, health and wellbeing, employment and opportunity, civic participation, and political participation.

Overall, Guyana was ranked 116 out of the 183 countries included in the YDI. Guyana also scored favourably in the civic participation domain, and to a lesser extent in the education and employment opportunity domains. Unfavourable scores were received in health and wellbeing and as mentioned above, in political participation.

In Guyana, the low level of youth participation in political affairs has been bemoaned over the years, not least by the youths themselves. This begs the question as to whether young people are being deliberately denied roles within the political stratosphere, or whether there is little practical appetite among them for the level of responsibility that comes with political office or its fickleness of tenure.

Despite the origin of the dearth of youth representation in national and regional politics, both major political parties have functioning youth affiliates actively working on advocacy campaigns and community mobilization, especially during the election seasons, so we can conclude that young people are not totally marginalized from the political sphere.

When Bharrat Jagdeo ascended to the highest office in the land at the tender age of 35 years, it had seemed that the time for youth to carry the torch of leadership had certainly arrived. Indeed, for a while, the PPP/C did have several young ministers with large portfolios over the years like Robert Persaud, Priya Manickchand and Irfaan Ali. Nevertheless, the level of youth representation at the higher levels of government has always been relatively low and this trend has continued with the current administration and is mirrored by the current opposition.

For example, youth representation in the National Assembly is about 12 per cent if youth is defined as individuals under age 45. If this classification is adjusted to under age 40, this percentage drops below eight per cent, and when the Commonwealth range of 15-29 years is applied, the representation of youth in the Guyana Parliament dips to zero.

It’s important to note, however, that youth representation in Parliament is not the same as full participation, since many of the speeches are given by the senior ministers and the responsibility to lay motions also rests with them. On the coalition benches in Parliament not a single senior minister is under age 40, and an assessment of the parliamentary record of their members of parliament (MPs) under age 45 would show very little activity, if any at all, in some cases. The PPP/Cs record in this area is similarly unimpressive as time has moved some of its formerly young ministers into the ranks of the mature.

While the political participation of youth remains low, the level of political mobilisation of youth via social media is very high in Guyana and around the world. Young people tend to be very vocal and even militant on social media, and political parties have sought to tap into this energy for their own benefit. The run up to the 2015 general elections was played out as much on social media as it was in the mainstream media, and young people were the most vocal and proved that there is no deficit in Guyana of young people capable of measured discourse, reasoned analysis, and of making valuable contributions to the national conversation.

A case in point is the single-handed disassembling of a former minister and the unrelenting criticism of the previous party in government by way of social media by writer Ruel Johnson.

Today, Johnson has joined the ranks of government and his advocacy seems to have been muted both within government and on social media. The lack of a few representative voices of youth within the government is contributing to the public perception that capable and competent young people are being deliberately sidelined for older more experienced persons. This in turn is causing young people to lose interest in political life, and therefore the opportunity to play an important part in the development of the country and the crafting of a future for themselves.

Young deputy mayor Sherod Duncan must also feel he is up against the proverbial “old boys club” as he has felt the power of ostracism as he steadfastly tries to break the “glass ceiling” that seems to be affecting young politicians 17 years after Bharrat Jagdeo’s record breaking ascent to the highest office of the land.

In the end, whether young politicians will survive in Guyana’s political arena and build up enough credentials and support among the people, youth particularly, to have a real voice and to have a real say in the development of this country, will depend on their character, political savvy, and persistence in the harsh environment that is politics.

Social media activism has tremendous visibility but lacks depth and progression. It is time young political participants challenge the mainstream media to listen to their voices, but first they must have something to say. Something of value.

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