Give Young People Real Responsibility!

Date: 29 September 2011

YMCA Delegates at United Nations DPI Conference 2011

As we approached the hotel, we spotted blue coated fences around the conference building. From the perspective of international law there is UN territory behind the fence, a piece of Germany had been turned into neutral ground for the 64th UN DPI/NGO Conference taking place in Bonn from 3.-5. of September. The five of us, Bettina, Katja, Eva, Jason and me attended this conference on behalf of the YMCA. Like some other large NGOs the YMCA has a special consultative status with the UN and this is the annual meeting for networking among the NGOs and with the UN Department of Public Information (DPI). We passed security and found ourselves among 1400 committed and inspired NGO people from all over the world.

‘Taking part at the conference to represent the YMCA was an honourable task for me as the youngest member of our delegation. I recognized how many people all over the world in different NGOs already know the YMCA and think positive of our work with the youth.’ (Eva Herrmann, YMCA Germany)

The conference theme was ‘Sustainable Societies – Responsive Citizens’, with a strong accent on the environmental aspects of sustainability. Many conference participants felt that all solutions had been on the table for a long time, just that no one was taking any action. Yet at the same time a lot of large and small projects gave a reason to hope that change is already happening. Eco villages explore carbon free lifestyles, communities decide to become ‘Fair Trade Towns’ and more and more young people take responsibility and found successful projects for sustainability. There is a strange paradoxon in youth participation.

Everybody acknowledges the need of young people in the decising making process when it comes to sustainable politics, the conference roundtable protagonists being no exception. Yet the idea of youth participation often seems to be limited to dance, song and other kind of creative protest, but real responsibility is rarely shared. Politicians may be experts on matters, but young people are experts for change. They are the ones affected the most by the decisions (not) taken at global conferences on sustainable development such as the upcoming RIO+20 in 2012. Konrad Otto-Zimmermann from Local Governments for Sustainability had a clear advice to young people if they should not feel represented by their governments anymore when he stated provocatively: ‘If the structures do not respond there needs to be an uprise.’

Making young voices heard is as well the mission of the Rio+twenties initiative, who strive to create a platform for active youth participation in RIO+20. They argued that young people where not only badly represented in governments, but as well in the NGOs. By coordinating our actions with other youth organisations, we can increase our impact and the Rio+twenties offered support and a lot of up-to-date information on the process. It is important to know that the decisions to be taken at RIO+20 will be prepared starting from october 2011, so time to act is now.

‘What struck me was there was a lot of talk about young people in the programme, yet in reality this did not come through in many of the workshops. It was a great step that UN DIP/NGO Conference invited the YMCA delegation this year and hope this will continue in the years to come to ensure more young people are able to attend and participate.”
(Jason Stacey, YMCA England)

It appeared to us during the conference that youth empowerment was a key driver to change. Nejeed Kassam, a canadian student who has already founded a number of successful NGOs at an age of 25, made an important point here on giving young people real responsibility. Volunteers are often seen as cheap workforce and too often NGOs do not care for the individual growth of each and every member. Nejeed argued for a combination of real, maybe challenging tasks and good mentorship by more experienced volunteers. Young volunteers were longing ‘to get their hands dirty’ in order to feel they really make a difference. Of course, for the YMCA the mental, physical and spiritual development of each member is paramount. Yet even we should ask ourselves if we emphasize the responsibility our volunteers take on all levels and programme areas. Whether you lead a weekly children’s group or are the president of your national movement, all is of equally high value. At the same time, NGOs have to be careful not to wear out their volunteers. The World Scout Bureau pointed this out in their workshop, showing how important it was to offer interesting perspectives to grow in your engagement within the organisation. They mentioned as well the recent phenomenon of the ‘shared volunteer’, meaning that young people are often engaged in more than one organisation and face conflicts and subsequent social pressure. This would sometimes lead to them leaving behind volunteering at all. Especially large movements such as the YMCA and the Scouts, who rather offer a complete way of life than a topic-focused engagement should look for fruitful collaboration instead of accidentally starving small initiatives of volunteer resources.

We spent some very intense days at Bonn and especially the youth events were an opportunity for great discussions and networking. And you would not believe how cool it feels to introduce yourself representing the YMCA World Alliance and getting a ‘wow, I have great respect for the work you do’ in return. In retrospective the only thing we were missing at the conference was a wider focus on sustainable communities beyond environmental issues. There is a lot we can do as YMCAs , so let us join in working for real, sustainable change.

Björn Stockleben, YMCA Germany