Early in December, Cumberland Lodge – in partnership with the Association of Commonwealth Universities, the British Council and the Commonwealth Secretariat –gathered around 60 young people from across the Commonwealth to feed into plans and preparations for the 2020 Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Rwanda.
The gathering’s strength lay firmly in the immensely impressive group of young people assembled. Nafula Wafula, for example, is a woman from Kenya who runs a social enterprise that teaches young women how to fix mobile phones. Ahmed Ali is completing his PhD in Canada in public health, looking at how politics affects the implementation of policy on the ground. Others I met at the symposium worked within government, civil society, science, arts and the law.
Following four useful talks from academics and specialists, covering the two main themes of the gathering – the rule of law, and ICT innovation – delegates were split into smaller working groups to discuss a draft policy document prepared by the Commonwealth’s Youth-led Taskforce, for the 2020 Commonwealth Youth Forum, part of the CHOGM event. These groups were tasked with offering feedback on the document, coming up with practical ideas for how those policies could be implemented, and developing a presentation which outlined new ideas. In the space of perhaps six hours, it is testament to the calibre of the young people that the presentations delivered on the final afternoon were thought-provoking and original.
My PhD research looks at creative and political participation, particularly in terms of their intersection in the UK right now. In my professional life I work with young people, and in my job I have placed particular emphasis on involving the young people I work with in decision-making. What I am learning is that developing meaningful participatory opportunities is immensely difficult, for a wide variety of reasons. These encompass the structural (what is the broader context and how much agency does this specific opportunity have within that?), to the pragmatic (how much time and resource do you have?), to the individual (for example, how similar are the participants ways of communicating?).
Thinking about my research in the context of this symposium, I would question if its structural positioning gave it enough room for manoeuvre. A question was asked as to whether we could hear from those more experienced in the types of interventions proposed by the Commonwealth Youth Forum that have been most successful in the past, but unfortunately no substantive examples were outlined. Somewhat relatedly, one participant I spoke to pointed out that the Commonwealth is, of course, a remnant of Britain’s imperial past and present, but that this history and the ongoing power structures involved were missing from the debates. I hope that there would be more room for these issues to be explored in future gatherings.
The presentations were, as noted, exceptional – ranging from proposals for a youth catalyst fund, to a leadership academy, to one striking presentation that turned the tables on those tasked with giving feedback and asked them to outline how the Commonwealth would improve the precarious lives of migrant labourers. Whether or not any of these creative policy solutions will become reality is yet to be seen.
I left with an impression of an incredibly impressive group of young people, and a growing sense of awe at how dedicated they are to various causes within their home countries. For me, the biggest achievement was the networks that were developed, and the exposure to a series of interesting examples of projects being led by young people who are proactively generating change across the globe.