Empowering youth and students to lead societal transformation in the Western Balkans
It is a common belief that the state of the youth determines the future of the state. This is particularly true for the Western Balkan region. A guiding concern and passion that brings us together here is the empowerment of young people to be a positive force that leads societal transformation in the Western Balkans.
With the war in the Ukraine also present, we need to ask ourselves how we can ensure that young people take an active role in strengthening our democratic institutions and safeguarding peace on all levels.
The defenses of peace must be built in our schools and universities, public spaces and square, on social media, in bars and cultural centres, in churches, mosques and synagogues, wherever young people meet:
- engage with each other
- share their hopes and dreams,
- express their fears,
- exchange their opinions
- make plans for their own future.
So, how do we ensure that youth and students can play a leading role in positive change in the Western Balkans?
I would like us to approach this question in three steps:
First, positive societal change or transformation needs to be sketched out. What sort of societies do we want to work towards? And what are the key challenges our societies face, globally?
Next, we will focus on the state of the youth in Europe and the Balkans. What is it like to be young in Europe and the Balkans today?
And finally, a call to action.
1. Three key areas for societal transformation
At the International Association of Youth and Students for Peace we work to empower youth and students to become peace heroes - these are young people who against all odds make an impact in their community and contribute to realizing the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.
One of our signature programmes is the PEACE DESIGNER TRAINING. This is a course in which young people uncover the social issues they are passionate about, learn to empathize with a target group, analyze a situation and plan and manage a project.
Working across Europe, we experience that the concerns of youth are fundamentally human concerns.
In my understanding the “youth” is (paradoxically) the oldest part of us. The inner child that lives within us is much older than the “adult” version of ourselves. And I do believe that there is profound wisdom in the opinions, expressions and concerns of young people. No organization or country for that matter can do without the sometimes raw and unpolished energy that comes from young people.
Three Great Divides
Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at MIT, did extensive research on organizational and societal change and transformation processes. He suggests that there are “three systemic disconnects” that challenge our societies globally.
- The Ecological Divide, the disconnect between self and nature
- The Social Divide: Disconnect between self and other
- Personal (or spiritual) Divide: Disconnect between self and self
This sort of analysis strikes a chord with the young people I work with. Once they engage with issues, most 14-18 year olds are not interested in quick fixes, but seek deeper transformation.
The following issues regularly come up in our discussion: (refer to slide)
Three levels of peace
Each of these disconnects is one area in which we are called to create peace.
And each of these areas corresponds to a fundamental need that young people share and youth policy needs to address.
Three levels of peace
Needs of young people
Sense of purpose & Self-efficacy
Opportunities to develop skills and leave a mark
Civic engagement and political participation
Economic participation and opportunities
2. State of the Youth in Europe and the Balkans
These three areas need to be addressed comprehensively, if we are serious about empowering youth and the future of the Balkans.
- Promoting a healthy and active lifestyle among youth
- Fostering youth’s civic engagement and political participation
- Increasing opportunities and the economic participation of young people
The region of the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, The Republic of North Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia) is younger than the EU. This is a significant demographic advantage that the Western Balkans have over other parts of Europe.,
Unfortunately, there is a serious problem with regards to the availability of demographic and other key data in Western Balkan countries.
Healthy and active lifestyle among youth
UNICEF identifies alcohol, tobacco and insufficient physical activity as risk factors for adolescent health. The 11-to-17-year-olds in the Western Balkans score better than the European average with all three risk factors.
Globally the conversation about adolescent health is moving away from mentioned risk factors to issues of mental health. As almost everywhere we do not know enough about the state of our youth’s mental health.
The physical and mental health of a countries’ youth population are an important indicator for what to expect from the future of a country. An unhealthy and inactive youth population implies considerable human, social and economic strain and costs. The economic costs of bad mental health amounted in 2017 to 3.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) of the 36 OECD members.
It is undisputed that the COVID-19 pandemic and associated measures such as lookdowns and school closings had further detrimental effects on the mental health of youth and students.
An Austrian study in October and November 2021 brought the following results:
The frequency of depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms but also sleep disorders have increased five to tenfold in comparison to before the pandemic. Around 20% of the girls and 14% of the boys suffer from recurrent suicidal thoughts, i.e. they think about suicide more than half of the days.
In 2018, the WHO found that in Europe:
- Half of all mental health problems in adulthood have their onset during or before adolescence.
- Depression and anxiety disorders are among the top five causes of the overall disease burden
The minds and lives of young people conflict zones, with real victims at a real cost. Building and strengthening peace on the personal level, especially among our youth is a key responsibility of us all.
Civic Engagement and Political Participation
Youth political disengagement continues to be a major issue facing contemporary democracies that needs to be better understood. Participation in political activities is in crisis, especially when it comes to young people, and this is a major issue facing contemporary democracies.
There is reason for concern. One report from 2017 titled “Young people in Montenegro – social ornament or social capital?” concludes in a tone of resignation:
Though they hope for a better tomorrow, a very small number of them is actually willing to make the effort - either through social engagement, or through youth activism, volunteering or similar activities - to contribute to changes for the better. (…) they spend 4.2 hours a day on average on the Internet. The majority of them (…) for passive use of their leisure time in the virtual space.
Generation Y seems to have lower levels of political engagement when it comes to participating in traditional forms of politics such as voting and being a member of a political party, compared to older generations. Only 46% of young people in the EU have voted in the last local, national or European election.
Yet there are also recent studies that argue that young people are not apathetic and disengaged, and that they have instead turned to alternative forms of political engagement such as protesting, demonstrating, being part of organizations, signing petitions, volunteering, and engaging online.
According to the Eurobarometer Youth Survey (2021) – which is based on 18000+ interviews – the political issues youth cares most about are
- tackling poverty and social inequality
- combating climate change and protecting the environment
- and combating unemployment or a lack of jobs
Opportunities and Economic Participation
The Western Balkans are confronted with a serious regional "brain drain", caused by a lack of opportunities for and economic participation of young people.
The primary reason is the lack of investment and economic opportunities in the Balkans. Much of the foreign direct investment (FDI) into the Western Balkans is focused on low-cost labor in low-productivity sectors.
About half of Montenegro’s young people want to leave the country. The tendency is present throughout the Western Balkans as 47 percent of Bosnians and 45 percent of Montenegrins live abroad, followed by 41 percent of Albanians, 30 percent each of Kosovars and Macedonians, and 18 percent of Serbians, according to the World Bank's latest figures. The average for all of the countries in the European Union, by comparison, is around 11 percent.
3. A call to action: Recommendations, actions and priorities in 2022 and beyond
1 - Invest in Education for Scientific and Digital Creativity
Education for scientific and digital creativity is key to ensure co-prosperity in this age. The digital age has the potential to become an equalizer if good policy is implemented. This age, however, is also characterized by climate change and worrying tendencies of big tech companies, which some call “Surveillance Capitalism”.
Scientific creativity and digital skills are key to turning these ecological and digital challenges.
It requires young people of both skill and character to ensure that science and technology contribute to mutual prosperity. I see no reason why the Western Balkans could not play a leading role in this area.
2 - Make it easy and hip for young people in the Balkans to travel and meet each other
Funds for youth exchanges, such as the EU’s Erasmus+ programme that includes neighboring partnership are important, but not sufficient.
It is a great opportunity not only for Albania, but the whole Western Balkan that Tirana is Youth Capital 2022. It can play a key role in overcoming the COVID19 inertia. Personally, I am really inspired by the plans of the National Youth Congress and the City of Tirana.
Arts, culture, the media and social media have the potential to drive organic exchanges across the Western Balkans. Youth mobility can be revitalized as a key ingredient to tackle negative nationalistic trends.
3 – Invest in Public Spaces for young people
Public spaces are crucial for young people to develop and thrive.
Young people develop by leaving marks in their surroundings. However, it is often the case that young people feel excluded from public spaces. The inclusivity of public squares, parks and other public spaces is crucial for the development of citizen consciousness and the democratic involvement of young people. Youth leaders have an important role in making young voices heard and their needs visible.
Places of learning such as schools and libraries are usually designed by adults for students, but seldomly by young students themselves. Young people need well defined bright and warm spaces to learn and grow as persons. Unfortunately, schools often fail to involve young people themselves to co-design, co-develop and co-own these learning environments. Youth leaders can play a key role in demanding and developing frameworks to co-develop places of learning together with educators and authorities.
For this reason, we plan a Youth Peace Seminar in the context of the Tirana Youth Capital 2022. We want to bring together youth leaders from across Europe to explore what can be done to engage and empower young people as co-designers of these spaces.
4 - Foster Education for Character Development and Relationships Education
One’s character and personal skills as well as the quality of one’s relationships are key to physical and mental health and wellbeing. Families and schools (in this order) have been proven to be the very places where interventions that improve emotional and social skills have the highest impact in preventing harm and improving mental health. This is supported by robust international evidence, including the WHO Report on adolescent mental health.
The nations in the Western Balkans will surely be able to capitalize on its demographic advantages, if they take these findings seriously by
- investing ideationally, culturally and financially in healthy relationships between parents and children, as well as good marriages
- promoting a wholesome approach where education about knowledge and skills stands on the foundation of character development and relationships education
* The next generation will certainly surprise us
It is important to improve policies in the youth area, but ultimately the next generation and the future will certainly surprise us. So, as individuals and as institutions we need to listen to the wisdom of the old and young.
I am deeply grateful that I can work with incredibly talented and good-hearted young people. In my heart, I am convinced that the next generation will be better than my own.
With this genuinely optimistic outlook and two quotations that motivate me personally to work for young people across Europe and the Middle East, I would like to conclude my remarks:
“The years of our youth are the best time to dedicate ourselves to exciting goals that make our hearts beat faster… The passion of youth breaks down walls. Young people of true passion have the spirit to challenge themselves and the world around them... Turn passion into purpose and purpose into principles." – Hak Ja Han
“When young people dedicate themselves to sacrifice and service with God’s true love, they will find the key to solving world poverty and hunger. They will be able to heal the feelings of animosity and hatred caused by differences between rich and poor and by different historical backgrounds and experiences. Only based on love that loves the unlovable, can we find a clear direction to overcome the intractable conflicts that plague our age.” – Sun Myung Moon
Thank you for your kind attention.