14 April 2011

Africa: 'Sustainable Development' And 'Youth Empowerment' in an African Context


The theme of the next African Union general assembly, scheduled for June 2011, is 'Accelerating Youth Empowerment for a Sustainable Development'. But how far do existing development policies and programmes at national and continental level take into account the 'multiple realities that African youth are living in?' asks Eyob Balcha.

The next African Union general assembly theme is 'Accelerating Youth Empowerment for a Sustainable Development' and the summit scheduled to happen in the last week of June 2011, in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea. The purpose of this reflection is to maintain the sharing of ideas and concerns among interested actors on the topic of the summit and initiating further dialogue and discussion. The core focus will be on the two main and somehow 'fancy' concepts of the theme, namely 'youth empowerment' and 'sustainable development'. There will be an attempt of briefly reviewing what has been done in the past with regard to the two issues and how can we ensure their combination both at conceptual and practical level. An attempt will be made to give enough emphasis on some notions that are sometimes taken for granted and used to make high level policy decisions. For instance, the concept of 'development' itself needs a thorough reflection and critical analysis before being attached with another concept of 'sustainability'. Hence, this short piece will follow a simple structure of dwelling on these issues both separately and jointly before making additional reflection in the current context across the continent.

To start with, the concept of 'development' still remains the most controversial and easily manipulated term both in the academia and political arena. It is not uncommon to see that people take the idea of 'development' for granted and as something that can be realized so long as there is a good will and a capacity to do so. What is not usual, most of the time, is to consider the fact that it is also a political and ideologically driven concept and practice since its inception as a catchy concept in the discourse of practitioners and intellectuals in the 'post World War II period'. From the attempt of crafting a stage-by-stage process of achieving it [development] in the works of Rostow, to the ambition and supposedly 'philanthropic' mission as asserted by Harry Truman in the 1960s; from the establishment of the Breton Woods Institutions (WB, IMF) to the execution of the structural adjustment programs; from the Needs Based Approach to the Rights Based Approach, from the attempt of crafting a 'different path' in the African Alternative Framework to the structural adjustment programs (AAF-SAP) to the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD); and finally to the Millennium Development Goals of the UN, one can witness that the context in which 'development' is idealized, operationalized and practiced is not on a neutral ground rather within the realm of highly political, ideological, hierarchical, deterministic and institutionally structured system.

It is political simply because it is one of the main criterions against which most governments are evaluated and try to win the heart of citizens. It has also been used as an excuse and 'legitimate' entry point in influencing and thwarting political decisions to meet diversified interests. It is ideological and hierarchical because of the supposedly 'natural' assertion and essentialism on societies and countries across a universalistic category and uni-linear continuum where 'underdeveloped', 'less-developed', 'developing' and 'developed' are the scales of measurement. It is also equally deterministic in exclusively adhering (at least in the mainstream discourse of development) to economic aspects and the associated numerical manifestations (free market, liberalization...) as the only means of achieving and measuring development. The increasing institutional and structural establishments that claim to contribute to the process of realizing 'development' including; bilateral relations, regional and sub-regional groupings, continental organizations, international and global institutions, private foundations, civil society organizations and NGOs that are running multi-trillion dollar business under the pretext of achieving 'development' makes it even more complicated and uneasy to grasp. These multiple actors including the media and the academia that also have a significant impact in producing and maintaining the image of the 'less developed', shaping and reshaping the discourse of development, the existing power relation and contestation for dominance among them makes the concept of 'development' hardly easy to grip and conceptualize. In addition to the inherent complexities that we have with the concept of 'development', making a better sense out of it in terms of its 'sustainability' will certainly need another serious examination.

Historically speaking, the concept of 'Sustainable Development' first appeared into the mainstream discourse strongly after the launching of the report by the Brundtland Commission under the title: Our Common Future in 1987. The commission defined and introduced the concept as '...development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'. This definition has been used as a benchmark in efforts to make it more comprehensive and accommodative of the changing discourses that emerged into the agenda of development from the socio-economic, political and environmental perspectives. With this regard, one can mention the attempt of the International Law Association (ILA) which came up with a broad conceptualization of sustainable development. In the 2002 New Delhi Declaration, the ILA defines the objective of sustainable development as '...a comprehensive and integrated approach to economic, social and political processes, which aims at the sustainable use of natural resources of the Earth and the protection of the environment on which nature and human life as well as social and economic development depend and which seeks to realize the right of all human beings to an adequate living standard on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom, with due regard to the needs and interests of future generations'. This definition gives more room to manoeuvre and to link the concept with other pressing issues. The previous definition somehow overlooks the political and economic aspect of the subject matter or at least did not include these issues in an explicit manner. I can't argue that this is a 'perfect' definition rather a better conceptualization within which core spheres of society: the social, political, economy and environment are addressed in a fair manner in relation to nature, equality, civic participation, human rights and, of course, the 'future' generations.

The other strong point that the latest conceptualization of sustainable development offers is the focus on the human-to-human relations at the present time rather than the human-to-nature or the relation with the 'future' generations in hypothetical level. If it is a process in the social, economic and political process of a given society, the issues of power, participation, rights, equality, conflict of interest, domination, and activism etc... are always there in the real context. Hence, the intensity of the interaction at the human (society) level, who has the power in deciding the process and the approach, whose ideas are prioritized and taken into consideration at the expense of others (and why), who is benefiting from such decisions ... are the likely questions that should to be asked. Given the problematic nature of the mainstream discourse of 'development' as a path of ensuring economic growth which is supposed to be 'trickled down' to the mass, and the unbalanced focus given to the replication of the western model of 'development' into the African context is a vital question to raise with regard to its reliability and sustainability.

Coming to the issues of 'youth empowerment', as I have always been arguing everything starts from the way we conceptualize youth. Indeed, it seems easy and manageable to take the age-based category as a framework for analysing youth issues with regard to development policies and programs. This statistical categorization can help us in witnessing how significant is the young population in African context in demographic terms and also in economic terms as having a wider group of productive population. But in addressing the broader issues of 'empowerment' and 'development', in grasping the complicated challenges and opportunities that African youth have, the actual and potential qualities they acquire and contribute needs a broader conceptualization beyond the age group. Youth is not a homogenous group of people between the age of 15 -35 (as per the definition of the African Youth Charter). An 18 year old Ethiopian farmer has a different challenges and opportunities than an 18 year old Somalian. The means of livelihood, the socio-cultural setting, the political and economic system, gender, as the assumed and given role within family and society are immensely different for people of the same age (be it 18 or 24) irrespective of their categorization under the same concept of youth.

Youth is more of a social position whose roles and responsibilities are always negotiated and influenced within the broader framework of society. The relational and generational features of being youth are vital also elements in commanding power and exercising their agency to influence the course of the social, economic and political process to their advantage. Unless there is a broader conceptualization of youth which accommodates the various realities they are living in like; a situation in which they are leading players of societal transformation, a system in which they are co-opted to sustain dictatorship and clientalist political system, a condition in which they are depoliticized and marginalized from meaningful decision making spheres, a context in which they are merely recognized as economic assets of society ..., all the attempts of realizing youth empowerment '...will remain in but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained', to use the words of His Majesty.

Hence, the nexus of sustainable development and youth empowerment is not something we can simply play with because it is about two catchy concepts but rather an assignment for us to deal with it carefully. First of all, how empowering, responsive and flexible are the state structures that we have with regard to youth? How legitimate are most of African governments which are led by dictators and their fellows clinging to power for more than a decade? Do they have the moral ground to talk about youth empowerment where the majority of their population (young people) never saw a different face till they turn 20 even more? How considerate are development policies and programs at national and continental level to the multiple realities that African youth are living in? How open is the system at the national and continental level to accommodate the various issues of youth rather than to narrowly defining them just as objects of 'development' to be acted on? Very often youth are considered as people in the becoming by calling them 'tomorrow's leaders' or 'tomorrow's hope'. What is bizarre about it is the fact that in most African countries context, the youth are denied of their 'being' of the present through the marginalization in the economic and political sphere, depoliticized and co-opted to be part of a system for their numerical value not for their youthful contribution, and manipulated into the struggle and lust for power; and at the same time they are equally denied of their 'future' by the development model that most African states follow which prioritizes economic growth by opening their doors for neo-colonialists that are scavenging and extracting resources with little or no benefit for citizens. The Land grabbing cases of Ethiopia can be considered with this regard.

To conclude, the AU Summit is just an event and I don't expect a miracle to happen at the summit or afterwards. But the issues that will be discussed need to be considered with serious reflections from all sides. For that matter, I honestly don't think that the African heads of states that may head to the summit will have the time to discuss the issue in their agenda. In the context of what has been happening between the last session in January and the up-coming one; the elimination of their fellow dictators (in Tunisia and Egypt), the case of Libya and Ivory Cost and who knows another African country in the meantime, will definitely be the major issues of discussion. I certainly believe that what they have as a theme for the summit can be accommodated within the urgent issues of these countries but I don't think that they will dare to approach the issues of youth empowerment or sustainable development in the context of Egypt or Ivory Cost. For them, existing in office and deliberating on the threats and the lessons to learn from the failure of their beloved fellows is too important to be side-lined and talk about untouchable and unrealizable issues of sustainable development and youth empowerment. What a pity!

Eyob Balcha blogs at Reflect, Share and Re-reflect!!.

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