The Future is YOUth: Discussing the role of youth in international cooperation

GIZ Summer Reception in Brussels

On 6 July the GIZ Representation in Brussels invited high ranking guests from the Brussels international development landscape for its first-ever Summer Reception and first major in- person event since the start of the pandemic to discuss the role of youth in international cooperation. Roughly 135 representatives of European Institutions, EU Member States, civil society, think tanks, partner organisations and youth representatives met on the rooftop of the colourful, hip venue “Comet Louise” to exchange with others on the topic and engage in some classic pre-COVID Brussels networking. The evening began with a touching musical performance by young Ukrainian artists and allowed for expressions of solidarity with everyone currently affected by war and crises.

Diversity & the role of youth in international cooperation: two sides of the same coin?

Children and young people are particularly affected by the consequences of the current geopolitical situation and global challenges surrounding the climate, employment prospects and a safe and peaceful future. In this respect, the proclaimed European Year of Youth 2022 creates a momentum for intensified discussions that are timelier and more important than ever. Vince Chadwick, Brussels Correspondent at the global development media platform Devex, moderated a stimulating panel with representatives of youth and international cooperation:

  • Agnieszka Skuratowicz, Head of Unit, Youth, Education and Culture, Directorate- General for International Partnerships, European Commission
  • Serap Altinisik, Head of EU Office & EU Representative, Plan International
  • Dr. Elsa G. Zekeng, former European Development Days Young Leader, Scientist, Entrepreneur & Advocate

“There is no such thing as the youth”, emphasised Tanja Gönner, Chair of the Management Board of GIZ in her keynote speech, opening the panel on ‘The Future is Youth: The Role of Youth in International Cooperation’.

Indeed, Ms Gönner’s words struck a chord with the other panellists, who agreed that youth not only diverged in backgrounds, but young people also naturally have different opinions, and different demands, which development actors need to pay attention to and incorporate into the planning of their programmes.

The topic is of fundamental importance as the number of young people in Africa is set to increase another 42% from 2022 to 2030, according to UNESCO.

A rocky path to involving youth in development

The panellists found that involving youth has certainly not always been at the top of the agenda for policymakers and implementing organisations such as GIZ. As a former European Development Days young leader advocating for universal healthcare, Dr. Elsa  Zekeng recalled her frustration at being in a room full of high-level decision makers raising her hopes for inclusion and change, to then have a “what now?” moment of soul-searching afterwards. This led to a realisation that change also depends on the framework in which policymakers and young people co-create. For example, factors such as how much is budgeted for consultations with youth and whether provocative ideas are “censored” if they are too “outside of the box” influence the ability of the youth to actively participate. Serap Altinisik recognised that one profound change in her organisation was moving from projecting expectations onto the youth to actually bringing in the experiences of young people directly. The Q&A session also raised the additional problem of ‘elitism’ in consulting only a privileged, highly educated segment of the global youth.

The Commission’s Youth Action Plan: looking to mainstream youth across all policy issues

How this can be addressed in the future was the key question panellists tried to answer. For Agnieszka Skuratowicz, of the European Commission, a first step was the creation of the Youth Sounding Board, a space for young people of all backgrounds to have an influence on the EU’s external action through its international partnerships. Now, a bigger challenge is ahead – the adoption of the Commission’s Youth Action Plan this autumn – which not only looks at empowering and engaging youth through the EU’s Delegations across the world but to expand it across the organisational structure of the Commission. This would allow youth to contribute in areas like climate action, digital policy & cybersecurity, human rights and combating radicalisation. The goal of the action plan is nothing less than “(…) allowing the youth to teach us on these issues”, commented Ms Skuratowicz. Now it is time to turn youth participation into a core instrument for all, rather than a luxury for the few.

The panel encouraged the audience to actively participate and provided a good basis for the subsequent discussions and networking. Another highlight of the evening was the rooftop terrace, which invited all guests to catch up, reconnect, make new contacts and enjoy great view of Brussels on a mild summer evening.