Remarks by Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State, Washington, D.C., December 8, 2021
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good morning, everyone, and thanks to each of our leaders for being here today. To those joining us from around the world, welcome. I hope to spend as much of this time in discussion with you, so let me be brief at the start. But I want to say why meeting with young leaders at the Summit for Democracy is so important to us and to me.
One of President Biden’s top priorities is ensuring that the voices of young people are heard on the major issues and challenges before us, and that their perspectives are reflected in our policies and how we engage with the world. In my own travels as Secretary of State, I’ve had the opportunity to meet with young people and young leaders across the world. And one of the common topics that they’ve raised are the challenges to democracy that they’re seeing in their own lives and their own countries. I’ve listened to their concerns about growing threats to journalists and human rights advocates. I’ve heard their impatience at the persistent bias and discrimination that corrodes our societies, and their frustration about insufficient action to address the existential climate crisis. And I’ve heard their ideas on how we can use cultural diplomacy to bridge gaps in society, how we can create new spaces for young voices, and so much more.
Thankfully, young people are channeling their ideas into action and making their voices heard. Last year, tens of thousands of young people led marches against systemic racism around the world. Last month, over 100,000 young people took to the streets of Glasgow and demanded climate action. Others are leading by – their communities by welcoming refugees, monitoring electoral processes, shining a light on corruption. Along the way and across movements, they’re building solidarity and learning lessons from each other – lessons that will be crucial for the work ahead.
The strength of our democracies depends on their success, and it depends on getting more young people to join them – voting, running for office, getting involved in civic life, in making our democracies better. The United States is committed to a future where all young people can participate and be represented in their country’s decision making. We’re advancing initiatives like USAID’s Global Elections and Political Transitions project, where we connect young people with the mentorship and support they need to run for office. And we’re helping young people and young leaders develop the skills and connections to serve their communities through programs like the Young African Leaders Initiative and the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. Several of our panelists are engaged with these networks.
Each of today’s panelists embodies the immense potential that the younger generation has. As a group, you’re organizing democracy and human rights advocates in your countries and across borders. You’re leading efforts to shape your countries’ laws and societies in the direction of greater inclusivity. You’re running for office. You’re bringing attention to the issues that matter to you.
So I want to thank each of you for joining the discussion today, and more important, for the work you’re doing every day to advance democracy. And I’m looking forward to hearing about your experiences, as well as your ideas on how we as democracies can better empower young people to participate in the democratic process.
Now, I’ve got some questions for you all, but first let me hand the mic to Daria to introduce our panel. Daria, over to you.
MS ONYSHKO: Thank you, Secretary Blinken. I am truly excited to be part of this conversation with you today. I am Daria Onyshko from Ukraine. I’m the program officer at the Community of Democracies, where I coordinate efforts of COD youth leads, a group of young democracy advocates and activists from all over the world. I volunteer at the European Democracy Youth Network also, and serve as its ambassador. I’m also a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis at the James Denton Transatlantic Program.
And using this opportunity right away in the beginning, I wanted to share with you a few messages voiced at the COD Youth Assembly for the Summit for Democracy that took place just two days ago. So these are the messages by the Community of Democracies youth leads, and also members of the European Democracy Youth Network. The first one is for gutting corruption. It was by Lu Argueta from El Salvador: “Young people continue to name corruption as one of the biggest challenges the country faces. The current generation of young people are finding creative ways and collective ways to push back against the damages given by corruption and the lack of transparency.”
The second one is regarding authoritarianism, by Vika Andrukovich from Belarus: “Historically, youth have been the most active in resistance to authoritarian regimes, standing up for freedom of opinion, expression, human rights, and also justice. Similarly, Belarusian youth and students are not afraid to fight for their rights despite the repression of the regime. Currently there are no mass protests in Belarus, but it does not mean that the people have surrendered.”
And the third one, regarding human rights, from Aleksandar Savić from Serbia: “In the past 10 years, young people have been part of the crucial changes for the LGBT+ movement in the Western Balkans, advancing human rights, and they will continue to do so.”
So these three messages really come to one: that young people are already making the difference in the three main areas of the Summit for Democracy, and beyond. And governments need to recognize it and also include youth better in decision making and democratic processes.
So on this note, I am delighted to introduce my fellow panelists for today’s session.
Lynrose Jane Genon, from the Philippines. Lynrose is a member of the executive committee of Young Women (inaudible) Leaders for Peace, Philippines, a network of young women and young LGBT leaders from the Philippines who are agents of peace and advocates for greater human rights, women’s rights, gender equality, peace, and security. She is also a participant of UNDP’s 16×16 initiative that supports activists from all over the world in advancing SDG16. Lynrose is a Community of Democracies youth lead, and alumna of the Philippine Youth Leadership Program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She is also currently a faculty member at the Department of English of Mindanao State University, Iligan Institute of Technology.
The second one is Mwila Chriseddy Bwanga, from Zambia. Mwila is currently the founder and executive director of an African youth leadership initiative, BeRelevant; a national youth delegate at the Commonwealth Youth Council; and a USAID YouthLead alumni. Mwila ran as an independent candidate in Zambia’s historic 2021 general elections, and has been listed as one of Zambia’s best government’s minds below the age of 35 and awarded a government’s accomplishment awards during the 2020 National Youth Awards by the Ministry of Youth, Sport, and Child Development, and the National Youth Development Council.
And finally, Margarita Maira from Chile. Margarita is currently advocacy coordinator at It’s Our Turn to Participate, a platform that promotes participation in the rewriting of the constitution of Chile. She has led campaigns to engage youth and vulnerable groups in decision-making processes and has trained emerging leaders in several Latin American countries. She is a former Hurford Youth Fellow and former project coordinator at Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente, a civil society organization that seeks to strengthen democracy in Latin America. She was also a content coordinator for the Chilean Government’s communications secretariat.
Secretary Blinken, back to you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Daria, thank you so much. Thanks for the great introductions. It’s wonderful to be with all four of you. And what I’d like to do is just ask a few sort of broad questions and turn to each of you for your thoughts and responses.
Let me just say though at the outset, Daria, I thought the three points that you made were very important and really do get to the heart of some of the challenges we face. The corruption piece is very powerful. I think one of the interesting things we’ve seen over the last 10 or 15 years when we’ve seen movements, popular movements around the world in different places, everywhere from Tunisia to Egypt to Ukraine, et cetera, we have seen that one of the big drivers, sometimes the main driver, has been a revulsion at corruption. And I think people across the board, and especially young people, know that it saps resources from governments that could be used for better things. It also feeds cynicism and mistrust in institutions, and it has an incredibly corrosive effect. And I could go down the list, but I think you make some very important points in drawing out what people are particularly preoccupied with.
But let me ask this for a start. As representatives of a younger generation, how do other members of your cohort, of your generation, how do they see democracy? What does it mean to them and to you? We hear that people are more cynical about democracy, they don’t see it necessarily delivering on their needs and aspirations. How do you see it? What does it mean to you? And how do you see young people actually engaging in the democratic process, which is necessary if democracy is going to continue to thrive and to grow?
So Lynrose, why don’t we start with you?
MS GENON: Thank you, Secretary Blinken. And to start, for me democracy is the bedrock of a just, peaceful, and sustainable society. Stability, security, and human rights are conditions for growth and economic prosperity, and strong democracy provides them.
Coming from a country where those seeking a strongman and those fighting for democracy are still at odds, this conversation is confronting the issue of how durable our democracy is to backsliding and continued adaptations in the face of development and governance challenges.
Working with young people in local communities in Mindanao, including conflict-affected youth and young women in transitory sites through our network, has taught me that democracy is about agency and voice. It’s about giving everyone agency and a say in in decision making as well as meaningful and not tokenistic opportunity to have a direct and practical say in issues affecting their lives.
In the Philippines we have currently – we have 52 percent registered voters under the age of 30, indicating that the country has a strong youth vote. Within the ages of 18 and 40, 31.41 million votes making up the youth – make up the youth vote, I mean. So by 2022 in the national and local elections, 31.41 million young people will have a direct voice in who leads our country, and that is a demographic advantage.
And on the question in how young people are already engaged and championing democracy in our local communities, through our network our young people are already engaged in different capacities. For example, in 2018 during the midterms elections we implemented a nonpartisan voters education program entitled, “Will Youth Say Yes?” with the support from the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders. With a low turnout of young voters, the program aims to encourage young people to cast their votes and be critical of the candidates that they are voting for.
Also, during the Bangsamoro Organic Law plebiscite we help raise awareness through our #LetsVote and social media campaign. We also hold community discussions with young people on the importance of the plebiscite and the crucial role it plays in the Mindanao peace process. This initiative was recognized and highlighted in the United Nation’s secretary general’s report to the Security Council on the progress made in the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2250. At present, our network is also implementing a series of online and offline nonpartisan issue-centered and outcomes-oriented perspectives in voting in preparation for the 2022 elections, one of which is the My Peace of Vote program, which is in partnership with YouthLed program of the Asia Foundation and USAID since two of our network members are part of the cohort.
So the leadership of young people in the context of the Philippines as exhibited in youth-led initiatives that I’ve mentioned needs to be recognized, invested in, and amplified. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks. That’s really terrific to hear and very impressive across the board.
Mwila, how about you? What’s your take on this?
MR BWANGA: Thank you so much, Secretary Blinken, for this opportunity. How do I define democracy and how do young people within my sect regard democracy as well? First and foremost, allow me to state that nations in themselves are at liberty to conceptualize democracy as they see fit; however, one of the things that we have to take into consideration is that in our quest to conceptualize democracy we should never do away with the very foundation upon which democracy has been built.
These foundations such as respect for human rights, free and fair election, the role of law and socioeconomic development, peace, as well as strong institutions, with that fundamental background provided. From my own point of view, I regard democracy as a political embodiment of patriotic governance and service and to the nation with humanity as its foundation. I say humanity as its foundation because I believe that we cannot conceptualize the aspect of democracy when we completely remove humanity from that particular political equation.
And with that said, Secretary Blinken, allow me to state that in order to protect the very fabric of our nations’ democracies, the extent to which we involve young people is cardinal. Young people in themselves are not feeling engaged as partners when it comes to sort of guarding the very fabric of our democratic brand in various countries. Even in my own country, Zambia, right now, we see young people for what they can be and not for what they could be. Having participated in the historic election that we recently had, I ran for office as a member of parliament, as an independent member of parliament. I envision to become president for my country one day, so I know that there has to be a place where I start from.
When I ran for office as a member of parliament, I came out third in a race of five candidates. (Inaudible) that particular process, I came face to face as regards how the political system has created an environment that is not conducive for young people to be regarded as partners in championing a development agenda. And when I ran for office, one of the things that I came to understand is that there’s a lot that has to be done if we have to create a safe and intergenerational environment for youth to be regarded as key partners in championing the democratic brand.
The other thing I would like to say is that political parties have a serious role to play when it comes to inculcating a democratic culture in the young people that are in their various political parties. Political parties in Africa and across the region and across the globe should not only see young people as cattles whose fundamental objective is to sound the trumpet of the political elite in order to usher them into office, but political parties should begin seeing young people as the instrument and the valuable tool that they have when it comes to their succession plans. And that is why, day by day, under my organization, BeRelevant, we are consistently advocating that political parties begin to establish what we love to call political party leadership academies. These in themselves will be academies that seek to support young people when it comes to matters of leadership in civic engagement as well as positive youth development, as it were.
The other thing I would like to state is that heads of state in my country and across the region, I would really advise that heads of state begin to appoint what I would like to call special youth advisors, whose fundamental objective is to represent the youth voices and action at cabinet level. Because the very moment you bring young people to the table of decision making, we are also safeguarding ourselves for the future. A nation that fails to prepare its youth for the future is a nation that is preparing to fail.
And lastly, Secretary Blinken, governments in themselves have to see how best they can begin to strengthen national youth councils, because the moment we do this, we create an environment where we have grassroots governance initiatives that seeks to champion the cause of democracy at the grassroots level. Thank you so much.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Let me ask you, Mwila, while you have the microphone: Were there particular barriers you faced in running for office as a younger generation person that you would point to?
MR BWANGA: Yes, I faced quite a number of barriers, and barrier number one that I faced is the narrative that young people don’t have the capacity to lead. And the way in which I was able to face that barrier head on was how I was able to represent myself to the community and how I was able to craft my – and brand my message. Because the problem we have as young people is that we think people should vote for us basically because we are youth, but we should champion the cause of running for office because we have what it takes as young leaders to champion the various conflicting realities that our communities are actually facing.
Barrier number one was the narrative of young people can’t lead. Barrier number two was resource mobilization. But above and beyond, because I was – as regards of how I was able to brand myself and package my message, I believe that is why I was able to even pull the number of votes that I pulled and come out third, beating two big political parties. So I feel the future looks bright for young people in the sector of government.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great. I hope you keep at it.
Daria, what are your thoughts on this?
MS ONYSHKO: Thank you. So for me as a young person coming from Europe, and specifically Ukraine, a country that in its recent history experienced totalitarianism, democracy provides a breath of fresh air – fresh air of freedom, freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, freedom even to have a dream and a possibility to create and shape our own country’s future. And in Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union, we even created some funny proverbs as, for example, that every bird can sing any song it wants these days.
But while the support for democracy is really high among young people in Eastern Europe, we should not take democracy for granted. The dissatisfaction with democracy and institutions is growing among youth and students in developed democracies in Europe, and some are looking at authoritarian regimes with curiosity. Young people are losing interest in institutional politics as they’ve faced unprecedented economic inequality and also witnessed policy stagnation on some critical and long-term issues, like climate change. So governments and leaders in Europe but also beyond cannot look away and ignore this concerning situation, and they need to continue making the case that democracy delivers a bright future for youth that includes opportunities, education, employment, and most importantly, inclusion in decision making.
So this lack of trust in institutional politics should not be mistaken for apathy or a lack of political interest altogether. As you mentioned in the beginning, the climate change movement that began in Europe in 2018 spilled over all continents and currently counts more than 14 million mostly young people participating. So young people are not the leaders of tomorrow, but of today, and in Ukraine, youth have shown on multiple occasions that they are willing to take responsibility for their future, as during the 2004 and 2014 pro-democracy movements.
And they really continue to do so today. They took – have taken urgent and real actions by opposing corrupt practices, challenging the influence of oligarchs, promoting civic engagement and education, also on social media. Youth organizes itself to participate in countries’ key events and gatherings, like Lublin Triangle, a platform of cooperation between Lithuania, Poland, and Ukraine that helps Ukraine to – with integration to the EU.
But I want to underline that the strength of democracy – youth should be recognized as equal partners in society, and they are knowledge holders and innovators – politics, technology, and health. And they should not be seen only as beneficiaries, but actors and partners. And how we can help strengthen democracy and engage young people better is that – I have one recommendation: that governments need to explore and seriously consider and engage with youth people through informal channels where they participate the most – digital spaces – as currently young people use these spaces to develop their civic identities and also express political stances in creative ways, claiming the agency that may not be afforded to them in traditional civic spaces. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much. And a number of important things that you said – one I just want to point to and underscore before moving to Margarita, which is that we do see, in this contest between autocracies and democracies, the argument being made by autocratic leaders that their systems deliver more effectively for people; that, as you said, policy paralysis, the polarization and political divides in our countries, sometimes the slowness to act of democracies means that they’re less adept at dealing with the problems that people face today than an autocracy.
Now I think that’s exactly the opposite of the truth, but it does suggest to all of us that we have a profound stake in demonstrating that democracies can actually deliver concrete results for people in real time, whether it’s for young people or anyone else, for that matter. And making the machinery work is more important than ever, so I’m glad that you mentioned that and highlighted that.
Margarita, tell us your thoughts on this.
MS MAIRA: Yes, thank you. So democracy is a system where we all have a role to play in defending it, in making it come to life. Without each one of us, there is no real democracy. That is why I dedicate my time to advocate for participation and inclusion and, in turn, to participate here in Chile. The richness of democracy is that we are all worth the same, even if sometimes this is not so easy in actual reality.
But we can’t lower the standard. We need to keep fighting for our political systems to hear all voices, and that is something that young people in Chile have fully understood. We have younger generations to thank for this new constitution we are drafting in Chile. First, they were the spark that lit the flame for 2019 social revolt, which became a nationwide uprising that resulted in the party’s agreement for a constitutional process. After raising the subway fare, secondary students jumped turnstiles – it was a mass fare evasion – to protest in the name of their parents and their grandparents who could not afford any more expenses.
As you probably know, Chile is a country where wealth is unevenly distributed. Only 1 percent of my country’s population earns about one-third of the nation’s wealth. We are the most unequal country in the OECD. And here, costs of living increase constantly, but wages don’t, and this fare raise was the straw that broke the camel’s back. So students raised their voices when adults didn’t dare do it. They were very brave in speaking out, and they didn’t even do it for their personal gain, but in the name of other affected groups. Young people here have been key.
A year later, in October 2020, for the plebiscite where we voted if you wanted a new constitution, voters between 18 and 29 were the group that most grew in voter turnout with a 56 percent increase. It was historical. And the approval for going forward with a new constitution was won with a landslide 78 percent victory. They are very much aware of the fact that they are the ones who will be most affected by the changes in this new constitution.
Youth has made their way through without any help here in Chile. Civil society organizations like mine encourage them to continue down this path so they remain protagonists in this historical moment. And we could achieve so much more if this were a government-driven effort. Fortunately, the constitutional convention is opening up spaces for children and teenagers to have a say in how we want our society to be, so that gives me hope.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Margarita, thank you very much, and again, that’s also an encouraging and inspiring story to hear.
Now let me ask this – and we’ve heard a little bit from Mwila about the barriers he faced as a candidate for office – but talk to us about: As more people are engaging in activism, what are actually the barriers to doing that more broadly, as well the opportunities? And in particular, as you’re thinking about it, how do you see more broadly the barriers and opportunities for advancing, for strengthening, for deepening democracies?
And actually, Margarita, why don’t we start back with you since you have the microphone?
MS MAIRA: Mm-hmm, sure. So our adult-centric worldview is constantly putting up barriers for young people who want to get involved in public life. It’s common for institutions to place young people in a different category – less important, less influential, with less rights even sometimes. Here in Chile, there are many who think that before 18, people should not have – should not be active in politics, in public life, that young people shouldn’t have a mind of their own.
We need to take measures now to create awareness in the people of Chile, and probably in all of your countries here on the panel, of the importance of younger generations, of their worth. Because of my work promoting participation in the constitutional process, I’ve had the opportunity to work with young people, teenagers specifically. It’s impressive to hear them speak of all that is happening. They have a clarity I wish I had had in high school of what needs to be done, of this adult-centric culture where they don’t get enough space, of the contribution they could make with their younger, fresher ideas. Our campaign to promote participation in the plebiscite last year featured these teenagers asking adults to go and vote because they weren’t old enough to do it. It was their idea because they were dying to participate.
Young people are in themselves an opportunity. If we only give them a chance to speak, to carry out the ideas for a better country, they will shine without anyone’s help.
In Chile, they have proven us all that they can achieve change. After 2019, many people changed the way they say younger generations. It became clear that they are capable, powerful, tireless, mature, intelligent, and generous. We owe them so much that the constitutional convention has even proposed to lower the voting age for the plebiscite and will ratify the new constitution next year, because they recognize that this constitution belongs to younger generations too, not only to adults old enough to vote.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: There are studies that have shown that as a general rule, each generation tends to be more talented, more full of ideas and knowledge than the previous ones, that there actually is an accumulation over time from generation to generation – of skills, of knowledge, of ideas. And so I think you’re exactly right to say that that has to – we have to find ways to include that more effectively. We’re penalizing ourselves, we’re penalizing our societies if we’re not taking advantage of not just that energy, but actually the ideas and the ways of looking at the world that, as you say, can be fresh and new.
And especially for those of us who are a little bit older and get set in our ways, even if you try to keep a very open mind, it’s hard to do that, and it’s incredibly important to constantly be challenged, to constantly be exposed to new ideas, to new ways of looking at things, and part of that really is generational. So I’m glad you underscored that.
Mwila, back to you. What are you thinking about this?
MR BWANGA: I think – to give my view on this, Secretary Blinken, I think the first thing that I’d love to say is that I see a lack of tolerance from our national leaders when it comes to youth activism. And tolerance then is an important embodiment of good governance in itself. We cannot build a generation of young leaders ready to take on the world and safeguard the prosperity of democracy if we limit the extents to which they can express themselves. This in itself stands as a big barrier when it comes to advancing the cause of democracy.
As young people, on the other hand, one thing I would love to say is that we are – in most cases we can quickly blame the system, but we never take time to have some introspection as regards to what is it are we doing wrong as young people in this particular sector as well. One thing I’d love to say is that as young people, we should not reach a point where we become advocates that advocate in a vacuum, because activism in itself does not exist in a vacuum. We cannot champion the cause of activism if we do not have an alternative to it. We should be able to organize, to coordinate, and to have decisive solutions to the challenges that we observe in our societies.
One of the things that I say consistently is that the problems of the world are inevitable, but we as a people, we have to be the inevitable solution to all those inevitable problems. So when we witness that democracy is under threat, as young people we have to organize and we see how best we can fight any kind of authoritarian system that wishes to extend itself that particular agenda.
I think in the 2021 elections, Zambia, we were able to lead by example across the African continent, that young people can organize and defend their vote and defend the democracy that they so desire.
One thing I’d love to say is that as young people, when we wait for the environment to be conducive, we’ll be – we’ll forever be waiting. If Nelson Mandela waited for the environment to be conducive, we’d still have apartheid in South Africa. If Kenneth Kaunda waited for the environment to be conducive, we’d still have colonialism in Zambia. If Martin Luther King Jr. waited for the environment to be conducive, we’d not have a – we’d not be discussing matters of civil rights today.
So I believe as young people, we have to reach a point where we see that which is threatening the very fabric of our countries’ democracies, and we see how best we organize.
The other issue I’d also love to state is that certain stringent laws that have also been established in most countries intend to limit the extents to which young people advance the cause of democracy. This is because such laws, they infringe on young people’s freedom of expression, freedom to assemble, as well as the ability to express their own opinion and freedom of association.
The last thing that I would love to say – and I think this is something that we have seen quite common across the African region – is the aspect of shutting down the internet during an electoral process. And I think this in itself is really limiting the access to which we are advancing democracy in Africa and across the global region. So building trust and social cohesion, and the unification of voices and action, a global transformation is the greatest opportunity that presents itself. So I think what this viewpoint has highlighted Secretary Blinken, I think that’s what I would love to say on the question on hand.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Great, thank you. And I – again, I think your observation and your message that you create the environment for change, you don’t wait for it to erupt spontaneously – because as you say, it’s probably not going to happen.
Lynrose, what do you think?
MS GENON: Thank you, Secretary Blinken. And I think for me I’ll start with systemic marginalization of young people. In the Philippines, as I mentioned early on, young people has power. According to national data more than 42 percent of Filipinos are under 18 years old, and they are poised to become influential participants in the Philippine democracy. However, young people’s enthusiasm is frequently met with barriers, as young people are marginalized from political processes and largely excluded from elected political seats, with political dynasties still dominating in the 2022 elections.
And these barriers pose a challenge to the country’s democracy as youth become discontent with incremental advances and difficulties in influencing government decisions. Young people in the Philippines are active in informal forms of political participation – maybe street activism, volunteerism and social media campaigns. And we also have opportunities to engage in formal political participation. However, young – youth meaningful participation in formal governance structures has remained low or weak, while platforms for youth political accounts – political engagement exists, including somebody on Kabataan, as we call it in the Philippines, or the youth council.
But the lack of civic education for youth to prepare them for effective participation in these platforms is largely nonexistent or ineffective. Also in highly patriarchal communities, stereotypes not just around age because you’re young, but also around gender. When these two – the categories intersect, they can cause young women leaders to be excluded and their contribution to strengthening democracy become untapped and – or in some cases, in some communities, invisible. And also to mention, youth in Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and in the southern part of the country are particularly vulnerable because they are frequently excluded from political processes, and there are reports of high levels of disenfranchisement and feeling of being marginalized due to faith, economic class, and lack of access to social services.
And also, youth are vulnerable to wrongful red tagging in the country, and red tagging constricts further the increasingly democratic space – diminishing, I mean, increasingly diminishing democratic space in the Philippines where activists, human rights lawyers, journalists, and even ordinary Filipinos on social media are under threat. And continuing on that note, like, adding the influence of digital media in promoting free and fair elections, for instance, young people in the Philippines create and consume a lot of content in social media – it may be Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok. The internet is a double-edged sword. It can help in making a more informed vote, I mean, and encourage young people’s participation, that is, if young people know how to sort information, because there is also prevalent information pollution online and digital repression in the country to advance political objectives.
And this diminishes the quality of democracy. It saps trust in democratic institutions, it distorts electoral processes, and fosters instability and polarization online. So in the country as well, to mention, troll forums are also used to drown out dissenting voices, accusing them of spreading fake news or being enemies of the people, which is another type of censorship through noise. So I think those are some of the barriers that confront young people in our country.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, we could spend the entire hour on digital media and on the double-edged-sword aspect that you just referred to. It’s something – and I’m sure we’ll come back to it in the days ahead as we get into the summit, but thank you for flagging that. And also, to the very important point you made at the outset, you may have an age barrier, but you also – if you add to that a gender barrier, it makes it even more challenging.
MS ONYSHKO: Yes, thank you, Secretary Blinken. I think my fellow panelists answered this question very well, but I would just focus briefly on one more point, specifically regarding youth activism and democracy movements. Young people do participate in engaging in activism and movements all over the world right now – in Hong Kong, in Belarus, also Cuba – and their contribution to changing the societies is really invaluable. But this is really an opportunity, because they inspire hope for positive change, but what I really see as a barrier is that it’s quite rare, this youth activist bridge to decision-making tables, run for offices, and take parliament seats.
And as my fellow panelist mentioned before, that this is also because of a lack of trust in youth abilities to meaningfully participate in public life and decision-making processes. Despite young people’s abilities and their knowledge, they are still being discriminated against based on their age in political settings. So I think that there is no other choice but for political parties and governments to change this and make progress, and with this advance democracy.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think it’s usually important for the younger generation to actually, as Mwila did, run for office, be engaged in that fashion, and to keep making that effort. At the same time, in parallel, collective action, civic participation more broadly, is absolutely vital to helping democracies develop, deliver, and remain resilient, especially when we encounter challenges, downturns, or for that matter, what we would call authoritarian encroachment, efforts by authoritarian elements to capture a society. We have, I think as some of you know, programs that continue to work with young people around the world on the issue of collective action, on civic participation.
We have something called the Community Engagement Exchange Program at the State Department, where we’re working with young civil leaders right now in more than 100 countries to try to bring together the power of networks which are so important, relationships, information to strengthen collective action, to actually build civic dialogues, to work on peacebuilding, sustainable development.
But here we really want to welcome and encourage thoughts on how we can make that program and others like it do even better in supporting civic and political participation in different forms and how we can increase the practice of democracy across the globe. So one of the things that I hope comes out of the next few days – out of today in particular and as we head into the summit, out of the summit – is how we can actually make some of these programs better, more effective. And those of you who have experience working with them are the best place to tell us what’s working, what’s not working, and where we should focus our time and attention.
I know we’re going to run down on time soon, so I want to get to a third and final question for the group, and it’s basically this: If there was anything that you could ask of the participating countries and governments at the Summit for Democracy in order to build greater youth participation and representation in civic and political life and make it even more effective, what would that be? I think we’ve heard some of it already, and there were some good ideas – for example, the idea of having someone in a government who is responsible at a senior level for representing and engaging with younger generations, youth councils of one kind or another.
But thinking about that, you have an opportunity to say here’s what would be most effective, here’s what would really be most helpful in engaging young people in the political life of our democracies and the civic life of our democracies. So if you had a wish list, what would it be? And I’ll share that with some of the other countries that are coming to the summit.
Mwila, why don’t we start with you?
MR BWANGA: Thank you so much, Secretary Blinken. I think it’s an opportunity for all of us as young people on this panel to share some of our wish list as regards with what we’d like to see.
From my end, Secretary Blinken, I would like to see governments revisit any laws that infringe on young people’s ability to participate freely in their nation’s democratic process. I would like to see governments formulate intergenerational political structures that include young people as key partners in driving the nation’s development and political agenda. I would like to see political parties begin to formulate strong succession systems that seeks to tap into the resource of young people as the great cream of leaders in order to achieve sustainable leadership that transcends generations. I would like to see governments becoming more tolerant of divergent views coming from the youth, for such is important for democracy.
Lastly, Secretary Blinken, I would like to see governments supporting civil society organizations that are championing democracy to engage in programs that seek to bridge the democratic knowledge gap at the grassroot level all the way up into the urban territories, because just as President John F. Kennedy put it, the ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all. The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.
Are we hoping for quality education? Democracy is the answer. Are we hoping for peace, justice, and strong institutions? Democracy is the answer. Are we hoping for us to achieve unified action towards climate change? Democracy is the answer. Are we hoping for us to have unified action towards curbing the global pandemic of COVID-19? Democracy is the answer.
Thank you so much, Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you, greatly appreciated. Daria, what would you like to see?
MS ONYSHKO: Thank you, Secretary Blinken. I think it’s a great question as we move to the year of action after the first Summit for Democracy.
So on my side, really recognizing young people as partners is my main recommendation, and it can be used as a guide for any commitment that will be made regarding youth at the Summit for Democracy. And sometimes we know that when you see this engagement with youth, it’s treated as a box ticking, that another group that governments have to involve to ensure diversity. But youth is not just a group and youth don’t want to be treated that way. Young people have tremendous potential and skill to offer. So with this, governments need to invest in, support, and finance, when it is possible, youth-led organizations at national and local levels, as well as think more about youth in rural areas and provide capacity building, offer educational and employment opportunities.
Governments also need to take into account young people when creating their foreign policies, focusing more on enhancing youth rights, representation, and resources of youth globally and also developing youth empowerment incentive programs.
Another important point is addressing negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth, and really, the pandemic threatened young people’s educational attainment, also future prosperity, liberties, and disproportionately affected their mental and economic well-being.
And finally, promoting civic education among the youth in light of dissatisfaction and growing satisfaction with – sorry, declining satisfaction with democracy. And this can mean, for example, including a democracy component in schools’ curricula at a quite early age.
Thank you for this opportunity, Secretary Blinken.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks very much to you.
MS GENON: I think, Secretary, I’ll start with investing and empowering and educating young people and give more opportunities to scale up youth-led initiatives in promoting democracy. And we don’t need to reinvent the welder – wheel, I mean. There are a lot of young people already engaged in the community, but they need help and support and sustained mentorship in scaling up their initiatives. And to do this, there should be accessible, relevant, dedicated, and agile funding and resources that overcome challenges with legal registration. And usually funding only reaches the center; it should reach the grassroots level, especially informal networks.
And second, governments need to partner and support economic empowerment initiatives led by young people and support youth innovation. And when I talk about partnership, I am referring to inclusive, intentional, mutually respectful partnership between youth and adults where power is shared. And as we move our initiatives in the online space as well, we need to address the digital divide and recognize that access to digital tools is gendered and safe accessibility to the internet is gendered. Both women and girls are being put in a place of danger in trying to find internet connection, for example, in the Philippines, and they become – they become more susceptible to input, like, in – vulnerable to the sexual violence in some cases.
Another is need to enhance the protection of young activists both online and offline. In the face of COVID-19 crisis, we have seen that democracies are under attack. In my home country, for instance, young people organizing and addressing the lack of response and inefficiency of the government are being harassed both online and offline by state forces, and we need to hold our governments accountable.
And last is address political inequality and how it disproportionately affects young people, especially young women, and we need to put more diverse – and I would highlight diverse young people in leadership roles – and government needs to support and create an enabling environment for young people to take on leadership roles, not just young people belonging to political dynasties, because I think it is crucial that governments make sustained commitments to rebuild young people’s trust and confidence in governments.
And I would like to stress, like, enabling meaningful young – youth political participation will contribute to more inclusive and representative governance structures that build the basis for more peaceful societies.
Again, thank you so much for this space.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much and thanks for sharing that. Margarita.
MS MAIRA: Thank you, Secretary Blinken. I think my fellow panelists have already said all the important things. They’re amazing, so thank you so much. But I would like to tackle this question on several levels. I’ll keep it short, but you asked for a wish list, and the wish list is very long.
So the first statement I’d like to see governments make is – and they mentioned this already – is to make civic education a priority. And I want to put it in the context here of my country. Here in Chile, the dictatorship eliminated civic education from the school curriculums precisely to discourage political participation. And it’s been 30 years since we’re a democracy again, but it was only a few years ago that a law included civic education back, but still it hasn’t come to life.
We need to prepare our children to be engaged citizens when they’re older. This is the only way that we can ensure that everyone will play the role when they grow up, because today here in Chile, only private schools with the best teachers and resources have access to high-quality education. This is the reason why we had a worldwide known student movement back in 2011.
It is the most privileged students in the country who are conscious of the importance of their participation, and this becomes evident during the elections when voter turnout is higher in wealthier neighborhoods. With proper civic education for everyone, this will help change the culture in the long run. Before last year’s plebiscite, this is what – this is what we had in mind when it’s our turn to participate when we held dozens of workshops to help people understand what a constitution is and why it was important for them to decide whether or not they wanted a new one. People had many doubts, and they were also eager to learn, because in most cases no one had explained or even considered them important for our country’s democratic life before.
Then, and very brief, I’d like to say that governments should promote the empowerment of youth, creating programs and providing funds for their development and their projects. Great ideas coming from youth rarely see the light. Imagine what that would look like – full of innovation, I am sure. All of this will allow a more engaged youth.
Third – and I’m wrapping up with this – to consolidate them as agents of change in politics, governments should open up spaces for their participation, as someone else was mentioning. I invite leaders to (inaudible) involve youth in decision making. You will be surprised at the perspectives and insights that young people can provide, and not only on issues concerning youth. I’m labeled as a youth activist and I’m usually invited to discussions on youth, but I have a lot to say about many other things too.
Finally, governments should hold a youth summit to – so young people from around the world can exchange ideas, and also making sure that young people attending this and other international platforms are diverse so that we are really opening up spaces for all. Thank you very much.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Great. Well, thanks to all of you for sharing those insights, for sharing your experiences, and for giving us some good ideas to work on and to carry through.
And Margarita, I take your last point very seriously, which is not only giving space for young people to participate in governance and in policy confined just to youth issues, but your voices, your insights, your different way just generationally of looking at things, I think is vitally important across the board on virtually everything that governments do. So I think that’s an important point to underscore.
So a lot of really good ideas there. I’ve taken note on the wish list from all four of you. We’ll share that with some of our colleagues in the next couple of days. So I think as we’ve heard today, democracy has its share of challenges, especially right now. But what I’ve heard is that there are abundant opportunities as well, and also just among the four of you – and you’re representative of so many young people across the world – a tremendous amount of energy, determination, and also vision for what our democracies can be if we actually work at it, invest in them, and create the space for participation.
For all the challenges that are facing democracies, I think we still have reason to be optimistic. And my optimism comes from listening to people, especially young people, which is really at the end of the day the demos at the heart of democracy.
So if you look at the march forward of any of our countries, any of democracies, any of our systems, wherever they are on the spectrum, I think one of the things we see is that time and again change has been driven not by governments, but by young people, by rising generations. That’s certainly true in my own country in the United States. The Civil Rights Movement – we were talking about that a little bit before – it was young people, and often those with the most to lose, who believed that all people really are created equal, and they fought to make that a reality reflected in law. These are the people who have consistently worked to close the gap between what democracies promise and what they actually deliver.
So for my part and on behalf of the United States, we will continue to support young leaders through some of the programs we’ve already discussed. We’ll continuously look for ways to make them better, to bring in more people, to make them more inclusive, to make sure that they’re as effective as they can be at bringing people together and sharing some of the skills that can make your engagement even more effective.
And as a couple of you noted, this democracy summit is just step one. It’s not the closing chapter; it’s the opening chapter. We have a Year of Action that will follow from the democracy summit, a time to make real the commitments that we’re going to hear over the course of the summit and to continue taking action on your own. So we really look forward to working with everyone on that.
So to all of you who were on the panel and to all of those listening in, thanks for a really good discussion. Thanks for putting a lot of good ideas on the table. And especially, especially thank you for your commitment to strengthening democracy around the world. At the end of the day, to me at least, this comes down as much as anything else to this basic idea which is human dignity, and I think the shared conviction that we have that democracy for all of its challenges is the best way to defend, support, and advance human dignity, which is something that drives all of us no matter where we’re from, no matter who we are, no matter what our backgrounds.
So we have a real stake in making sure that this system works, works effectively, delivers for people, shows results. And I’m convinced, and maybe even more convinced hearing from the four of you, that especially young people, rising generations have a critical role to play in that effort. So thanks again for sharing the time today. I look forward to seeing what all four of you are going to be doing in the months and years ahead. Thanks very much.